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Keeler & Carroll

by Gavin L. O’Keefe

In these chapters by Harry Stephen Keeler excerpted from The Vanishing Gold Truck (1940) and The Barking Clock (1946), the pivotal connection with characters and scenes in the novels occur via the wall calendar found in the bookshop. In each case the calendar depicts persons appearing elsewhere in the story: the calendar in The Vanishing Gold Truck shows Jim Craney telephoning a country vet whilst being eavesdropped on by the old woman in Elum’s Store; the “character Dickensian” in The Barking Clock is none other than a portrait of Tuddleton T. Trotter, the central figure of the story.

These two extracts are different in many other ways, but are basically the same tale: a delightful lesson in the benefits of knowledge and the downfalls of ignorance. In The Vanishing Gold Truck the bookseller is one Bill Targ of Chicago, Keeler’s “London of the West”; in The Barking Clock the bookshop is transplanted to London and is run by Will Smithwick. Keeler’s recycling of this piece in The Barking Clock six years after he wrote it for The Vanishing Gold Truck is not surprising given the author’s predilection for themes and variations in his novels.

In Keeler’s vivid bookshop scenario, the initial confusion surrounding the identity of the author of the book in the customer’s possession, soon to be exchanged for the aforementioned calendar, is amusing in its alliteration: John. L. Lewis, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London and finally Lewis Carroll (and, if we count the author of “Lady Chitterling’s Sweetie” as alluded to in The Vanishing Gold Truck version, we can also include D. H. Lawrence!). The customer is clearly under the impression that he has a copy of Jack London’s The Cruise of the Snark (1908), a factual account of a voyage London made with his wife in their boat ‘The Snark’. We can therefore understand the customer’s consternation that the book he has sheds no light on London’s ocean experience.

The real treat for connoisseurs and collectors of Charles L. Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) comes with the bookseller’s description of this extremely rare first edition of The Hunting of the Snark. Keeler’s detailed and imaginative description of this book is a bibliophilic wonder and a bibliographic fantasy, and proves that Keeler had some knowledge of the first edition of the book. The particular edition that is described never in fact existed, though elements of Keeler’s description touch on reality and give a verisimilitude to the book.

First published in 1876 by Macmillan of London, Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark: an Agony, in Eight Fits is today a prized collector’s item. Ironically, Charles L. Dodgson may have inscribed as many as eighty copies of the book, though not all of these have been traced.

The acrostic poem as printed in the front of the original book was actually dedicated to Gertrude Chataway, one of Dodgson’s child friends. However, at least one copy of the first edition was inscribed to Adelaide Pain (another child friend, whose name appears in Keeler’s description), and Keeler had actually written an acrostic poem dedicated to Pain, with reference to The Snark, in 1876.

The illustrator of the first edition of The Hunting of the Snark was London artist Henry Holiday. Holiday actually did devise an illustration for the book portraying the monstrous form of the Boojum / Snark, but this was suppressed by Dodgson on the grounds that the beast was “unimaginable”. Certainly the power behind the Snark’s mystery and fearfulness is sustained by the use of Carroll’s words alone without visual accompaniment.

Keeler’s additional descriptions of the book, with its misprints and missing folios, are colourful embroideries, as is his reference to the book being one of two such defective copies.

The nonsense world of Lewis Carroll seems to have been one which appealed to Keeler, and one finds in his novels occasional passing references to Alice. There is one tantalizing possibility as to why Keeler included this more expanded Snarkian interlude in The Vanishing Gold Truck. The eighth chapter, or ‘fit’, of The Hunting of the Snark, in which the Baker is abducted by the Boojum, is entitled ‘The Vanishing’. The gold truck, like the Baker, once gone, is gone for good.

* * * * *

The Vanishing Gold Truck was first published in the US in 1941 and in the UK in 1942.

The Barking Clock was published in the US as The Case of the Barking Clock (1947) and as The Barking Clock in the UK (1951), the UK edition being substantially longer than the US edition.

Both books are available from Ramble House.


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