Monday, October 25, 2010

The Case For Nutcase Literature

by Stephen J. Gertz

TYSON, Vivian. The Space Reports.
New York: Express Press, 1970.
First (only) edition. (Thank you).

In the Spring of 1970 a book from another planet fell to Earth. No one noticed.

In early 2010, Kevin Johnson, proprietor of Royal Books, a rare book shop in Baltimore, turned over a rock and discovered - lo and behold! - the alien book in question, The Space Reports, a narrative purportedly written by researchers from beyond our galaxy; their official report to HQ on Earthlings. He offered the volume in one of his catalogs and thus became, as far as I've been able to determine, the first dealer in the history of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America to offer a book under the rubric "(Nutcase)."

Yet is it really a nutcase book? Close, very, very close. But books based upon alien- and/or UFO-weirdness are as plentiful as the Octomom's ova. No, what sets this book apart from the pack and casts it into the  sparkling firmament of nutcase lit. is the way it was printed. A laid-in slip from the publisher explains:

Some Kind of Nut

Like chillaxin’, the word nutcase has gotten a heavy  workout within the last few years, used so indiscriminately that its true meaning has become lost and the word worn thin. It is often confused with and substituted for wing-nut, a subspecies of Homo Politico, recently flourishing on the far Right of the political spectrum but not exclusive to it. As my old friend from Texas, the self-proclaimed and proud Librarian to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, relentlessly enjoys pointing out to me, it was the far Lefties of the 1960s and their antics that were the  real wing-nuts. There’s enough truth in her assertion that what remains are mirror images blind to recognizing their flip-side reflection.

What, then, constitutes a nutcase book?

Singularity and oddity. It can’t be the current flood of titles from Tea Partiers and Rightward media commentators. There are too many of them, too similar, and issued in huge print runs by mainstream publishers. By definition, a nutcase book cannot appeal to a large, popular audience. Possessing a strange title is not enough, nor, necessarily, a strange subject. The anonymously written How To Boil Water in a Paper Bag (1891) is out there but not so far that it is utterly implausible.

A nutcase book must be in a class by itself, possessing a certain  j'nais se WTF? quality that sets it apart and screams,  I am the power and the glory, I am truth, and I am so out there and outlandish that even Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner can nod their heads in agreement. In sum, a beyond the fringe book bouncing off the walls into a world of its own, whose very existence is just short of a miracle, issued in a small print run, and almost, if not completely, unnoticed by the population upon its publication by a publisher (often privately printed by the author) so small that they’re off the Publishers Weekly, or anyone else's, radar.

A New Genre of Collecting

Rare booksellers are often asked by budding collectors on a modest to moderate budget, What should I collect? The answer is, collect what interests you, preferably in an area that isn’t crowded; you are limited only by your imagination.

Sensing a latent collecting trend ripe for development, a few years ago I began to annoy my colleagues in the trade with the idea that we could add a lot of fun to book collecting if one of us assembled and offered for sale books reflecting the far, farther, and farthest shores of human thought, where, in the guise of rationality, lunacy took flight. Books with an essential loopy quality, relatively or completely unknown to the general public but that we, as old and rare booksellers, have had pass through our hands and consigned to the dead book pile, shelf-fillers with rigor-mortis, curiosities that no one is particularly curious about unless someone with a bent for the peculiar stumbles across them and  is tickled.

BURR, Timothy. BISBA.
Trenton, NJ: Hercules Publishing Company, 1965.

BISBA is certainly one such. The author. Timothy Burr, presents his unique and utterly bizarre method for pegging a woman’s character by the shape and size of her breasts, the Burr Identification System of Breast Analysis. By means of  his “gynecomammology” - breast science! - any woman’s true nature will be revealed and her behavior predicted by close examination and evaluation of her rack, a sort of mammarymancy of those out of the training-bra stage and into the full blossom of womanhood, however their blossoms have bloomed, for those stuck in adolescence, particularly Timothy Burr.

Recently, Garrett Scott, a rare book dealer in Ann Arbor, MI, independently in Jungian syncronicity with my own thoughts on the subject, rose to the challenge and issued a catalog chock full o’ nuts. Titled Printing and the Mind of Cranks in homage to the essential reference book based upon the celebrated 1963 exhibition, Printing and the Mind of Man (a survey of the most important and influential books of Western civilization), it features books that are the exact opposite, by authors who light up the word nutcase in flashing neon.

As Scott proclaims in his Introduction:

“To cleave fast to an opinion when it is neither popular nor profitable (nor even particularly plausible) should not doom an otherwise entertaining author to be forgotten, and one mission of this catalogue might be to give these few forgotten advocates of the hollow earth, or of novel schemes of perpetual motion, or of the historical evidence that the Garden of Eden was located in Michigan, or of the evident designs of the Illuminati upon our republic, or of the efficacy the Weltmer method of absent medical treatment, etc., etc., one more opportunity to make their cases before a sympathetic audience.”

Amen, brother.

The nutcase lit. of yesteryear remains as fresh and meshugah today as when originally foisted upon the public. A few highlights from Printing and the Mind of Cranks, with Scott’s notably  and thoroughly well-researched descriptions gently edited for reasons of space:

Brutus. [pseud. of Samuel F. B. Morse]. Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States. The Numbers of Brutus [pseud], Originally Published in the New-York Observer, Revised and Corrected with Notes, by the Author. New-York: Leavitt, Lord & Co. [et al.], 1835. First edition. “The writer entertaining these views has deemed it an imperative duty, at any sacrifice, to warn his countrymen, of a subtle enemy to the democracy of this country, and to conjure them as they value their civil and religious institutions, to watch the Protean shapes of Popery, to suspect and fear it most when it allies itself to our interests in the guise of a friend. Mistrust of all Catalogue Thirty that Popery does, or affects to do, whether as a friend or foe in any part of the country, is the only feeling that true charity, universal charity, allows us to indulge.”

The painter and inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F. B. Morse, was, in his youth, relatively neutral on the question of papists—at least until a visit to Rome in 1830 changed his views: During a papal procession a soldier struck Morse’s hat from his head and (as historian Ray Allen Billington notes) the “episode changed Morse’s point of view. Heretofore his artistic nature had led him to admire the beauty of Catholic ceremony; now he saw only the harshness of a despotic religious system. His trampled hat was to make him a life-long opponent of Rome.”

Vahey, J[ohn] W[illiam]. The Visible and Invisible Worlds. By Rev. J. W. Vahey, Ridgeway, Wis. Milwaukee, Wis.: Hoffmann Bros., 1890. First edition. “I was further induced to write [this book] from the force of negative judgments I more than once expressed in controversies against conclusions deduced from speculation, which affirmed that, not only the bodies which form our solar system, but those that compose star systems, are inhabited by human beings. I was still further induced to write it, in order to furnish some of my readers with philosophical arguments through which they could refute the silly systems of agnostics, evolutionists, positivists, atheists, pantheists, materialists, communists, socialists and anarchists, which deny the existence of God, the omnipotent fiat that created the universe, complex man, the animal and vegetable kingdoms. After writing a few pages, I determined to give up the undertaking, owing to the difficult nature of the subjects I had to treat, but through perseverance I succeeded in my project.”

(Nautical Safety). The World’s Greatest Safety Device. It May Save Your Life, or the Life of a Relative or Friend. It May Make You a Fortune. (Tacoma: The Pacific Printing Company), [ca. 1915-1920?]. First edition. The investment prospectus for a “dry swimming suit,” an elaborate rubber and canvas contraption intended as a personal floatation suit for victims of shipwreck; the enterprising (and unhappily for prospective investors, anonymous) inventor includes a table of the royalties one might have expected had the ill-fated Lusitania but carried this novel invention—some $30,000. With illustrations of the complicated suit and its features (condensed food packets, roman candles), as well as the dark admonition, “WE ALL REMEMBER THE TITANIC.”

Warner, Captain S[amuel] A[lfred], Fair Play’s a Jewel: A Narrative of Circumstances Connected with my Mode of National Defence Against the Whole World. London: J. & W. Robins, Printers, Tooley Street; Sold by John Ollivier, [1849]. First edition. “I now submit my Narrative to the candid perusal of my readers. In it I have not advanced one word which I cannot substantiate and prove, if necessary. I have deemed it right to lay before the world, that my country may not have to say they were unacquainted with the facts previous to whatever course I may now think proper to adopt, so as to realise that for my inventions which I think I am entitled to, and which I was offered years ago, could I then have brought my mind TO DESTROY MY COUNTRY. Ingratitude may, however, wean even Patience and Patriotism"... The captain long maintained that he had secretly developed a novel “invisible shell” capable of immense destruction, the formula for which he was willing to allow the War Department to have in exchange for a mere £200,000.

Campbell, George. A Revolution in the Science of Cosmology: The Keystone to the Arch of Science. Topeka: Crane & Company, 1902.  Second edition, preceded by Campbell’s 157-page privately printed Oswego, Kansas edition of 1900. A convoluted and somewhat muddled attempt to take what Campbell understands to be modern scientific thought and reconcile it to the Mosaic account of the creation. Campbell touches in part on the Symmes hollow-earth theory, evident Martian writing on a meteorite in Rochester, N.Y., electricity as the basis of all weight (supported by his experience of being borne aloft in a tornado), etc.

Goodwin, Rev. T[homas] A. The Duty of Literary Men. An Address Before the Indiana Branch of the Society of Alumni of the Indiana Asbury University [wrapper title]. New York: Burnz & Co., Publishers of Phonographic and Phonetic Books, 1878.  First edition. And what is the great duty of the literary men of the Mississippi Valley? Spelling reform—or as Goodwin would have it, “a more formidabl rong than African Slavery ever woz.” The publisher, Eliza Burnz, is an overlooked figure in American reform—an English-born American abolitionist, woman’s suffrage activist and pioneer stenographer, she was so wedded to the cause of spelling reform that she named her daughter Foneta.

[Carpenter, W[illiam]. One Hundred Proofs that the Earth is Not a Globe. Dedicated to R. A. Proctor, Esq.... “Upright, Downright, Straightforward.” Baltimore: Printed and Published by the Author, 1885.  “That the Earth is an extended plane, stretched out in all directions away from the central North, over which hangs, for ever, the North Star, is a fact which all falsehoods that can be brought to bear upon it with their dead weight will never overthrow: it is God’s Truth the face of which, however, man has the power to smirch all over with his unclean hands.”

Fitch, Theodore. Our Paradise Inside the Earth. [Council Bluffs, Iowa?: Theodore Fitch, ca. 1950]. First edition? An uncommon work from Brother Theodore Fitch (1893-1991) of Council Bluffs, a zealous gospel worker evidently allied with the Oneness Pentecostal movement... Fitch argues here—with much Biblical support—that the earth is hollow and open at the poles, and with a habitable interior peopled by a pre-Adamic fallen race of small brown men who pilot the flying saucers which were then plaguing the nation. “Before the flood these very angels and their offspring worshiped Satan and sex. They have never changed one bit. The things we hear about the little brown men and women are not fit to print.” Happily, the saints shall soon possess this interior Kingdom—to the obvious betterment of the human race: “Let us suppose that YOU will be preaching a revival in St. Louis... Nowadays, it usually takes 30 to 60 minutes to travel from home to our work. But, in a flying saucer you could travel to your home in the New Jerusalem in less than 30 minutes.”

Patterson, Rowley. Rowley Patterson’s Grand Theory of the Progression of Mankind, Animals & Planets. Dansville, N.Y.: Bunnell & Oberdorf, 1885.  First edition. An argument that man was first created on a lesser planet in the solar system and that progressive evolution will lead our species from planet to planet until the coming of the final judgment on Jupiter... “My firm belief is that the three rings of and eight moons of Saturn are Paradise, the place that Christ and the thief went after their crucifixion, and the place where the good folks stay till they are wanted on another planet.”

Ardetha, the Voice from Atlantis.

Fuller, G[eorge] W[ashington] and F. Corden White. Ardetha, the Teacher. A Series of Lessons Given through the Mediumship of F. Corden White to G. W. Fuller. Prescottville, Penn.: Published by G. W. Fuller, (1902). First edition. “The name of the Author is Ardetha. She was one of the inhabitants of the Continent of Atlantis, which was sunk beneath the Atlantic Ocean by some great cataclysm, many thousand years ago. I first met her in July 1898, when she materialized at a seance given by Mrs. Effie Moss, and said she was my guide.” 
Sanborn, Arthur. The Long Lost Land. Billerica Massachusetts. Private Copy. [Billerica, Mass.?: n. p., before 1939]. First edition. “If the question is put—‘Where, in all the world, is the spot most favorable to the existence and development of the human race?’ the answer must be, without a dissenting voice—‘The region of the Great Lakes of America.’” The four-part river of Eden is identified as the Great Lakes, Adam and Eve were residents on the shores of Lake Huron, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was the wild American grape, the flaming sword was a natural gas vent near Saginaw, the Deluge was caused by the gravitational influence of the planet Vulcan (now in the asteroid belt), etc.

Health Appliance Co. Health . . . A Treatise for Men Only. Showing How to Restore Complete Manhood, in all That Term Implies, by a Single Natural System of Home Treatment. San Francisco: Health Appliance Co., 1904. First edition. “It is a well established scientific fact that all our great statesmen, orators, ministers, musicians, financiers, pugilists, etc., are men of STRONG SEXUAL POWERS. Well developed sexual organs manifest themselves in the clear, ringing voice, the glossy hair, the sparkling eye, personal magnetism, and force of character.” An uncommon and extensive advertisement and trade catalog for penis enlargement, impotency treatment and prostate health, all easily obtained from the Health Appliance Co. with any of its various models of Dr. Lawrence’s Improved Vacuum Developers (now with the “Perfect Diaphragm”). Includes graphic illustrations on the proper use of the company’s products.

Weltmer, Prof. S[idney] A[bram]. The Weltmer Method of Absent Treatment. Parsons, Kansas: Foley R’y Printing Co., 1898.  First edition. “The only method on earth that will cure sexual decline is the Magnetic or Mental Method of treatment. I have cured thousands of cases of the worst character, and after the persons had taken barrels of medicine and thus broken down their entire nervous systems. There is no good reason why a man should suffer with this kind of weakness and if he but knew it, he could cure himself much quicker than I can. If every man knew what I know, he need not suffer with weakness 24 hours.” The terms for treatment here are $5 per month, payable in advance.

Richard Griffin, the Bug-House Poet.
Griffin, Richard. Bug House Poetry: The Complete Works of... New York: n. p.],(1919). Second edition, expanded, of the collected works of the eccentric Bug House poet (expanded over the 293-page edition of 1917). The latter-day discovery of Griffin as a sort of lunatic crusticidal Dadaist generally dates from the two brief appreciations published by Eric Korn in the Times Literary Supplement in 1986 (indeed, it is Korn to whom we are indebted for that characterization), though later appreciations in scattered literary journals would suggest a small coterie of enthusiasts has existed since at least the early 1970s.

Brief extracts do scant justice to this enigmatic poet who went forth with a facile pen and somewhat fevered imagination; his minor epic “The Lobster’s Gizzard” recounts the murky quest of one Mike O’Hara to scale the Hill of Tara at the behest of a wizard to consume the gizzard of a magical lobster, while other pieces touch (in Griffin’s strange way) on violence, political corruption, Mormons and fashion. Most, however, defy easy categorization—viz. “The Elm of Nax” (“The famous tree is spelled either Nax or Nacks. I use both ways,” notes Griffin) or “Notional Nimrod”  (“Under the sod / Notional Rod / Nimrod poor clod / In his green pod— / Say—does he fry? / I don’t know, why, / Do You?”). Evidence abounds that Griffin spent time in an institution; the lengthy poem “Water on the Brain” makes detailed reference to life in “the captivating nuttery.”

Page from Man v' Ape in the Play of Ear-Ce-Rammed.
 [Samuels, Philip]. Man v’ Ape in the Play of Ear-Ce-Rammed. (Boston): Samuels-Bacon, ‘sam ls-ot, (1933). First edition. A prime contender for the title of most eccentric entry in the annals of the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy, Man v’ Ape is Samuels’ heavily (even tortuously) annotated edition of Hamlet. Using a numeric cipher and a host of obscure symbolic, linguistic and Biblical interpretations, he here proves that Francis Bacon had prophesized the coming of Philip Samuels as the incarnation of Jehovah, and that Samuels is charged with leading the Jews to an independent state in Palestine. Among the many arguments: attacks on Darwin that give this volume its name (“The image of God did bury Malthus-Darwin under a heap of dust never to rise again”), allusions to Hamlet’s encoded attacks on the Roman Catholic Church (“Ham=21. Ham plus Pope=70,” etc.) and even perhaps the murky claim that Samuels is Bacon reborn.

Houser, J[ames] A[lfred], M.D. Sparking in the Dark. Arcadia, Ind.: n. p., 1878. First edition. The moderately slangy title of Houser’s work is perhaps best explained by his contention that “society would be far better, morally, if calls upon young ladies, by gentlemen, were made in daylight, or when in the evening would end at ordinary bed-time, there can be no doubt.”

A curious work of marriage reform, dress reform (he has sharp words on tight lacing) and divorce reform (“As long as persons are dissatisfied with their husbands or wives they will ask divorces and have them, and so they should”) from this phrenologist, lecturer and proto-eugenicist. While Houser seems resigned to the foibles of human sexuality (“There is nothing more reasonable than that every man and woman wants some person to love and caress, and if that person is not the husband or wife it will be another”) he certainly wastes no sympathy on those who are the ruin of young women:

“I once met a man that had slain the seducer of his innocent daughter, and as I shook his hand with the warmest grasp of friendship, I took off my hat to do him especial honor for his noble deed. The State should give that man a golden medal, with engraved upon it ‘Hero!’ and when he dies should build him a monument, and upon it place a majestic lion, by his side a torn and bleeding lamb, and near by a dead tiger.”

• • •

After the laughter subsides you will recognize certain patterns emerging from this group. Religio-political-conspiracy, sexual anxiety, anti-immigration, anti-science, the righteousness of the just, the out of this world (and inside of it) are themes as emotionally charged now as they were when these books were written by their crackpot authors. (Crackpot Lit. is a close cousin of Nutcase Lit., the terms often used interchangeably). Americans do not have the market cornered on nutcase thinking but our national ethos of rugged, if often stubbornly wacky, individualism, in concert with the First Amendment and Internet, has provided us with special license to spout whatever nutty theories are caroming around our craniums to an audience; our only fear is to be ignored.

Fringe thinking has always had a comfy home in the U.S. That it has mainstreamed into American culture is, however, a phenomenon new to us and worthy of study. The bar for true nutcase has risen. As Rare Book Special Collections librarians have acquired most if not all the standard and non-standard warhorses of fiction and non-fiction, they are beginning to creatively look beyond the traditional to form collections from disparate  books within their holdings and with new acquisitions that when gathered together reveal an overlooked yet compelling story. Nutcase literature is surely an area worthy of investigation, for collectors, scholars, and curators alike. It is at once an extremely humorous and deadly serious subject.

Yet it is a genre that will undoubtedly resist attempts to circumscribe  it; it is  too subjective. But that, in the end, is what will make it a rewarding area to take an interest in and collect. As always, the best collections reflect the collector as well as the books collected.

It is wise to remember that one's man's nutcase is another man's prophet. Just be wary of the  guy who thinks prophet, whatever the prophecy.

Booktryst invites readers to submit their own favorite nutcase books in the Comments section below. We can't get enough of this stuff; hoping you feel the same.

With thanks to Garrett Scott for images from Printing and the Mind of Cranks.


  1. Wonderful article, Stephen! It quite made my day. I love strange books by mad authors. Believe me, we have our own share of literary loons over here! Keep up the good work! Frank

  2. My favorite sub-genre of nutcase lit is the hypochodriac's manual. Currently, I am cataloguing a book titled The Art of Invigorating and Prolonging Life, by Food, Clothes, Air, Exercise, Wine, Sleep &c., Or, The Invalid's Oracle: Containing Peptic Precepts, Pointing Out Agreeable and Effectual Methods to Prevent and Relieve Indigestion, and to Regulate and Strengthen the Action of the Stomach and Bowels. To which is added, The Pleasure of Making a Will. Ever the optimist...


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