Monday, September 30, 2013

When Brontë Met Thackeray: The Puncturing Of Inflated Expectations

by Stephen J. Gertz

This is what introduced Charlotte Bronte to William Makepeace Thackeray:

This is what introduced William Makepeace Thackeray to Charlotte Brontë aka Currer Bell:
 "There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital - a mien as dauntless and as daring. Is the satirist of 'Vanity Fair' admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst who he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time - they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Ramoth-Gilead.

"Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognized; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day - as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterize his talent. They say he's like Fielding: they talk of his wit, humor, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture: Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humor attractive, but both bear the same relation, to his serious genius that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud, does to the electric death-spark his in its womb. Finally: I have alluded to Mr. Thackeray, because to him - if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger - I have dedicated this second edition of Jane Eyre. Currer Bell Dec. 21st, 1847."
This is what Thackeray thought of Brontë's tribute:
"January 1848

My dear Mr.
[William Smith] Williams,

I am quite vexed that by some blundering of mine I should have delayed answering Currer Bell's enormous compliment so long. I didn't know what to say in reply; it quite flustered and upset me. Is it true, I wonder? I'm - But a truce to egoism. Thank you for your kindness in sending me the volumes, and (indirectly) for the greatest compliment I have ever received in my life.

Faithfully yours,

W.M. Thackeray"

What happened when the two finally met face to face was a textbook case of romanticized notions of an author's greatness deflated upon meeting the superman; he was merely human and nothing at all  like Brontë had built up in her imagination. Her hero was just a guy; the glorious prophet in print was pedestrian in person, a holy man defrocked by reality and stripped of his sanctity. Lewis Melville, in his biography of Thackeray, tells the story.

"It has already been mentioned that 'Currer Bell' dedicated the second edition of 'Jane Eyre' to Thackeray, and Thackeray later acknowledged the compliment, before even he knew her name or sex, by sending her a copy of 'Vanity Fair' [first edition in book form, 1848] inscribed with his 'grateful regards.' Charlotte Bronte had been much disturbed by the widespread rumour that she had drawn Thackeray and his wife [who was mentally ill and institutionalized] as Mr. and Mrs. Rochester, though she was indifferent to those other lying reports that said she had been a governess in his family and subsequently his mistress; and when she came to London in December 1849, she eagerly accepted the offer of George Smith [1824-1901, partner in Smith, Elder & Co., publisher of Jane Eyre, The Cornhill Magazine, and Thackeray's friend], to introduce Thackeray to her.

Thackeray's inscription on his presentation copy to Brontë of Vanity Fair.

"When they did meet, she was much astonished. As the dedication to the second edition of 'Jane Eyre' shows, she had expected to find a fervent prophet, and Thackeray was simply a quiet, well-bred gentleman, with nothing in appearance to distinguish him from hosts of other men. A delightful story has been related of their meeting. It is worthy of being repeated, for, though probably apocryphal, it is amusingly true of the lady's attitude to her hero.

"'Behold, a lion Cometh up out of the North!' she quoted under her breath, as Thackeray entered the drawing-room. Thackeray, being informed of this, remarked: 'Oh, Lord ! and I'm nothing but a poor devil of an Englishman, ravenous for my dinner.' 

"At dinner. Miss Bronte was placed opposite him. 'And,' said Thackeray, 'I had the miserable humiliation of seeing her ideal of me disappearing, as everything went into my mouth, and nothing came out of it, until, at last, as I took my fifth potato, she leaned across, with clasped hands and tearful eyes, and breathed imploringly, 'Oh, Mr. Thackeray! Don't!'"

"Oh, Mr. Thackeray! Don't!"

"Thackeray was an enigma to Charlotte Bronte; she could not understand him; she was never certain whether he was speaking in jest or in earnest; but she was determined to take him seriously.

"'All you say of Mr. Thackeray is most graphic and characteristic,' she wrote to Ellen Nussey, on December 19 [1849]. 'He stirs in me both sorrow and anger. Why should he lead so harassing a life? Why should his mocking tongue so perversely deny the better feelings of his better moods?…Mr. Thackeray is a man of very quiet, simple demeanour; he is, however, looked up to with some awe and even distrust…Thackeray is a Titan of mind. His presence and powers impress one deeply in an intellectual sense; I do not know him or see him as a man. All the others are subordinate…I felt sufficiently at my ease with all but Thackeray; with him, I was fearfully stupid.'

"Charlotte Bronte came again to London in the following June [1850], and Thackeray called on her at George Smith's house, and the host, who was alone with them, afterwards described the interview as 'a queer scene.'

"'I suppose it was,' the lady wrote to Ellen Nussey. 'The giant sat before me: I was moved to speak of some of his shortcomings (literary, of course); one by one the faults came into my head, and one by one I brought them out, and sought some explanation or defence. He did defend himself, like a great Turk and heathen; that is to say, the excuses were often worse than the crime itself. The matter ended in decent amity; if all be well I am to dine at his house this evening (June 12).'

"The dinner, it must be confessed, was not a success. The party included Mrs. Crowe, the Brookfields, the Carlyles, Mrs. Procter and her daughter, and Mrs. Elliot and Miss Perry, and it should have been a bright gathering. Instead it was a gloomy and silent evening, conversation languished, the guest in whose honour all were assembled said nothing, and Thackeray, too much depressed by the failure of the entertainment, but little. Mrs. Brookfield made an effort.

"'Do you like London, Miss Bronte?' she asked; then, after a pause, the other said gravely, 'Yes — no.'

"Charlotte Bronte was the first to leave, and so soon as she had gone Thackeray slipped out of the drawing-room, and his eldest daughter was surprised to see him open the front door with his hat on.

"'He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him. When I went back to the drawing-room again, the ladies asked me where he was. I vaguely answered that I thought he was coming back,' Lady Ritchie [Thackeray's daughter] has written. 'Long years afterwards, Mrs. Procter, with a good deal of humour, described the situation — the ladies, who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and constraint, and how finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club. The ladies waited, wondered, and finally departed also; and as we were going up to bed with our candles, after everybody was gone, I remember two pretty Miss L 's, in shiny silk dresses, arriving full of expectation…We still said we thought our father would soon be back, but the Miss L's declined to wait upon the chance, laughed, and drove away again almost immediately.'

"Once more Charlotte Bronte and Thackeray met, and again a letter of the lady tells the tale.

"'I came here (London) on Wednesday, being summoned a day sooner than I expected, in order to be in time for Thackeray's second lecture, which was delivered on Thursday afternoon. This, as you may suppose, was a great treat, and I was glad not to miss it,' she wrote to Ellen Nussey, on June 2, 1851. 'As our party left the (lecture) Hall, he (Thackeray) stood at the entrance; he saw and knew me, and lifted his hat; he offered his hand in passing, and uttered the words, 'Qit'eii dttes-vous?' — a question eminently characteristic and reminding me, even in this his moment of triumph, of that inquisitive restlessness, that absence of what I considered desirable self-control, which were among his faults. He should not have cared just then to ask what I thought, or what anybody thought; but he did care, and he was too natural to conceal, too impulsive to repress, his wish. Well! if I blamed his over-eagerness, I liked his naivete. I would have praised him ; I had plenty of praise in my heart; but, alas! no words on my lips. Who has words at the right moment? I stammered lame expressions; but was truly glad when some other people, coming up with profuse congratulations, covered my deficiency by their redundancy.'

"Indeed, though intensely appreciative, Charlotte Bronte proved so severe a critic, both of himself and his works, that Thackeray was not quite pleased with the various letters (printed in Mrs. Gaskell's 'Life') in which she expressed her opinions, and he said so much in his 'Last Sketch,' prefixed to 'Emma,' when, under his editorship, that fragment appeared in the Cornhill Magazine.

"'I can only say of this lady, vidi tantiim. I saw her first just as I rose out of an illness from which I had never thought to recover. I remember the trembling little frame, the little hand, the great honest eyes. An impetuous honesty seemed to me to characterise the woman. Twice, I recollect, she took me to task for what she held to be errors in doctrine. Once about Fielding we had a disputation. She spoke her mind out. She jumped to conclusions (I have smiled at one or two passages in the 'Biography' in which my own disposition or behaviour form the subject of talk). She formed conclusions that might be wrong, and built up whole theories of character upon them. New to the London world, she entered it with an independent indomitable spirit of her own; and judged of contemporaries, and especially spied out arrogance or affectation, with extraordinary keenness of vision. She was angry with her favourites if their conduct or conversation fell below her ideal. Often she seemed to be judging the London folks prematurely; but perhaps the city is rather angry at being judged...

"An austere little Joan of Arc."
The ecdysiast edition for Kindle.

"'I fancied an austere little Joan of Arc marching in upon us, and rebutting our easy lives, our easy morals. She gave me the impression of being a very pure and lofty, and high-minded person. A great and holy reverence of right and truth seemed to be with her always. Such, in our brief interview, she appeared to me'" (Melville, The Life of William Makepeace Thackeray [1899], pp. 310-314).

• • •

While we know what Brontë and Thackeray thought when they met we have no idea what the designers of the above modern editions of their work were thinking when they met these two classics of English literature. We only know that when Brontë and Thackeray met modern packaging travesty ensued and bore two further examples of the death of civilization as we know it, whether through ignorance or a good case of bad taste while trying to breathe new life into old bones and resuscitate the once lively now near dead for 21st century readers.

But it appears to be fact of modern life that until a product of culture is sexualized it hasn't truly been integrated into the culture that produced it. In that regard, the sexualization of Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair for sales purposes may be, however dubious, the greatest compliment that can be paid to these old standards. 

"The moral world has no particular objection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hearing vice called by its proper name" (William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair). Thackeray, the great social observer, would have been, it seems, in Playland in the 21st century; so much to satirize. His challenge, of course, would be how to satirize a society that is already a parody of itself, the modern humorist's dilemma.

"To those who think with their heads, life is a comedy, to those who think with their hearts, life is a tragedy" (Henry Miller). That's the difference between Thackeray, the cool satirist, and his contemporaries, Dickens, the warm sentimentalist, and Brontë, the suffering gothic naturalist.

“If I am against the condition of the world it is not because I am a moralist, it is because I want to laugh more. I don't say that God is one grand laugh: I say that you've got to laugh hard before you can get anywhere near God" (Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn). And cry hard. While we shed tears over the perversion of culture we are amused by it. It is not unreasonable to suspect that Thackeray would have shared that view. Sorrow is the root of comedy and to be able to laugh in the midst of tears is the best defense against utter despair. 

And so, painful though the prospect is, I look forward to Jane Erred and Venery Fair, proof-positive that there's still life in these old cougars pathetically porned-up to attract younger partners. Brontë, the judgmental moralist, would be appalled. Thackeray would be appalled, too, but the temptation to slit his wrists would be tempered by wit, the folly of human behavior trumping stern righteousness.

That's the conversation I'd have enjoyed eavesdropping on when Brontë met Thackeray, if only Thackeray had stopped shoveling potatoes into his mouth long enough to participate. She was hungry for wisdom. He was just plain hungry.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Amazon Of The American Revolution

by Stephen J. Gertz

I "burst the tyrant bounds which held my sex in awe."

The Female Review: or, memoirs of an American young lady whose life and character are peculiarly distinguished - being a Continental soldier (for nearly three years) in the late American War, during which she performed the duties of every department into which she was called with punctual exactness, fidelity, and honor. By a citizen of Massachusetts. Portrait engraved by Graham. Dedham: Printed by Nathaniel and Benjamin Heaton, for the author, 1797.

"The subject of this memoir was born at Plympton, Mass. in 1760. Disguised as a man, she enlisted in the Revolutionary Army (Fourth Mass. Regiment) under the name Robert Shurtleff, and was wounded in a skirmish at Tarrytown, N.Y. She was also present at Yorktown" (From a Boston bookseller's catalog c. 1916).

"There are few cases known to history, of women serving as soldiers, without discovery of their sex, but all, save our heroine, were in foreign armies: she remains the only one known to our own army, until 1861-65, when according to Mrs. Livermore's My Story of the War [Hartford, Conn.: A.D. Worthington and Company. 1888], there were many in the Union Army, by one unnamed authority almost four hundred - though of course none were enlisted if their sex was known.

"It is admitted that there were two women in Washington's army who did soldier's work - Molly Pitcher of Monmouth, and Margaret Corbin of Fort Washington - But theirs was but a 'service of occasion,' and they were not regularly enlisted, as was Deborah Sampson" (Editor's note to 1916 edition).

Deborah Sampson (1760-1827) was born the daughter of impoverished farmers who claimed distinguished lineage from the early Pilgrims. Bound out as an indentured servant as a child, she became literate and taught school for six months after her indenture ended in 1779. She was five feet seven inches - tall for a girl of that era - and, according to observers, possessed a sturdy physique and was strong.

"A more headstrong and even reckless aspect to Sampson's nature appeared during the year 1782. Inspired by the events of the American Revolution, she dressed in men's clothing and enlisted in the Massachusetts militia forces under the assumed name of Timothy Thayer. Caught soon afterward and exposed as a woman masquerading in men's clothes, she was forced to yield the bounty money that was customarily paid to enlistees during that period of the revolutionary war. Unhindered by this initial setback, and rejecting a suitor who was favored by her mother, Sampson dressed in men's clothing once again and on 20 May 1782 enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, under the assumed name of Robert Shurtlieff (given variously in other sources as Shirtliff, Shurtleff, or Shirtlief). Mustered in Worcester, Massachusetts, on 23 May 1782, she marched southward to West Point, New York, as a member of the Continental army.

"Sampson saw considerable action during her year and a half in the American forces (20 May 1782-23 Oct. 1783). She took part in a battle against American Loyalists near Tarrytown, New York, where she was wounded in the thigh. Treated by a French surgeon in the American army, she extracted a musket ball from her thigh [with penknife and needle] rather than have her gender discovered. Around this same time she suffered the indignity of having the First Baptist Church of Middleborough, Massachusetts, sever its connections with her, citing her 'very loose and unchristian like' behavior" (American National Biography).

She continued her service in the Continental Army through war's end. For a brief period immediately afterward she continued to pose as a man, under the name Ephraim Sampson. But in 1784 she married Benjamin Gannett, settled down, and bore three children. Sampson suffered from the effects of her war wounds, and experienced financial difficulties.

She solicited assistance from her friend and neighbor in Canton, Massachusetts, Paul Revere, who wrote letters in her behalf, and may have provided direct financial support. Sampson was placed on the pension list of the United States in 1805 (retroactive to 1803) as the result of her petitions and the pleading of Revere.

Title page, 1916 reprint, Tarrytown, N.Y. : William Abbatt.

The diary she kept of her exploits as a soldier was lost when, returning to West Point, the boat she was in capsized. She told her wartime stories to Herman Mann, a printer, publisher, and editorial writer for the Dedham. Massachusetts Village Register.

"He interviewed her, and after much persuasion she agreed to let him write her story, with his promise that she would have the final say…but  there is reason to believe that Deborah never did get final review. Mann arranged for a list of subscribers to pay costs and promised Deborah a share of the profits, but it seems she did not receive much of these. He commissioned Joseph Stone of Framingham, Massachusetts, to paint Deborah's picture for a frontispiece for the book" (Bohrer, Glory, Passion, and Principle: The Story of Eight Remarkable Women at the Core of the American Revolution, p. 208).

Mann was loose with facts, added his own "moral reflections," and with his own vivid imagery and fanciful hyperbole related her experiences. As a result, the book is now considered to be more the product of his pen than Sampson's direct memories; his words, not hers. Mann even spelled her surname incorrectly: it is "Samson," no "p."

A more accurate recounting of Deborah Samson's exploits can be found in The Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth F. Ellet (NY, Baker and Scribner, 1848). In the Preface, Ellet notes, "I have been told that the Female Review about this heroine was not in any measure reliable and that Deborah Samson repeatedly expressed her displeasure at the representation of herself which she did not at all recognize. The following facts respecting her I received from a lady who knew her personally and has often listened with thrilling interest to the animated description given by herself of her exploits and adventures."

In 1802 Deborah Samson began public speaking to theater audiences in New England and New York; she was the first professional woman lecturer in the United States. Billed as "The American Heroine" and wearing a blue and white uniform and armed with a musket, she performed military manual exercises while relating how she had 'burst the tyrant bounds which held my sex in awe.' The remainder of her life was uneventful.

"Sampson's wartime service was both sensational and remarkable. The activities of this American 'Joan of Arc' were in many ways more extraordinary than the heroics of persons such as Betsy Ross and Molly Pitcher. First, Sampson's military service was reasonably well documented; second, she took obvious pride and pleasure in both her service and in the manner of her disguise; and third, she attracted the attention of a revolutionary notable, Revere. Even in her own day, a Massachusetts newspaper marveled at the story of a 'lively, comely young nymph, nineteen years of age, dressed in man's apparel,' serving in the armies of the revolutionary cause" (Davis, "A 'Gallantress' Gets Her Due: The Earliest Published Notice of Deborah Sampson," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 91, no. 2 (1981): p. 322). "As was the case with many heroes and heroines of the Revolution, Deborah Sampson Gannett's name faded from the public memory by the mid-nineteenth century" (American National Biography).

Lost in obscurity Deborah Samson was rediscovered by the feminist movement during the late 1960s. In 1983 Deborah Samson was formally proclaimed "Official Heroine of the State of Massachusetts."

The first edition of The Female Review is quite rare; according to ABPC only two copies have come to auction within the last thirty-seven years. Only one copy of the 1866 reprint has seen the auction rooms during the same period. There are no copies of the 1797, 1866, or 1916 (with biographical corrections) editions currently being offered by anyone, anywhere in the world; the book is as scarce as can be.

But for those interested in reading this tale of the American Revolution's amazon in male drag the full text is available online.

[SAMPSON, Deborah] [MANN, Herman]. The Female Review: or, memoirs of an American young lady whose life and character are peculiarly distinguished - being a Continental soldier (for nearly three years) in the late American War, during which she performed the duties of every department into which she was called with punctual exactness, fidelity, and honor. By a citizen of Massachusetts. Portrait engraved by Graham. Dedham: Printed by Nathaniel and Benjamin Heaton, for the author, 1797.

First edition. Twelvemo. xv, [16]-258, [8] pp. Frontispiece portrait by Stone, engraved by Graham.

Sabin 44314.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Poet & Literary Hoaxster John Glassco On Pornography, Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Etc.

by Stephen J. Gertz

Scraping the crumbling roadbed of this strife
With rotting fenceposts and old mortgages
(No way of living, but a mode of life),
How sift from death and waste three grains of duty,
O thoughts that start from scratch and end in a dream
Of graveyards minding their own business?

But the heart accepts it all, this honest air
Lapped in green valleys where accidents will happen!

— John Glassco, "The Rural Mail"

What distinguishes good porn from bad? Is there an aesthetic of pornography? Are porn novels an essentially romantic genre of literature? What are the true rewards of authorship? Is Margaret Atwood a sexual fetishist? And did Leonard Cohen really want to give up singing and join the Israeli army?

Last year, A Gentleman of Pleasure, literary historian Brian Busby's biography of the enigmatic Canadian poet, memoirist, acclaimed translator of French-Canadian poetry, novelist, pornographer, and literary hoaxster, John Glassco, the self-proclaimed "great practitioner of deceit," was published. Now, Mr. Busby presents The Heart Accepts It All, a selection of Glassco's letters.

Glassco's correspondents included novelist Kay Boyle; poet and novelist, Robert McAlmon; Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias; novelist, poet, and critic Malcolm Cowley; novelist Margaret Atwood; Henry James' biographer, Leon Edel; and many other literary notables, including novelist, literary and cultural critic, and professor, Geoffrey Wagner, who, under the pseudonym, P.N. Dedeaux, wrote a handful of erotic novels in the 1960s and early '70s that remain amongst the best written of the era.

DEDEAUX, P.N. [Geoffrey Wagner]. The Tutor.
Wilmington, Delaware: Taurus Publications, 1970.
Distributed by All America Distributors Corp.
True first edition, reprinted by Venus Library (Grove Press), 1971.
DEDEAUX, P.N. [Geoffrey Wagner]. Tender Buns.
North Hollywood: Essex House #0126, 1969.
First edition.

Glassco, whose Memoirs of Montparnasse (1970) is considered to be the best view of expatriate Paris in the 1920s, had a gift for stylistic imitation. He seamlessly completed Aubrey Beardsley's unfinished erotic novel, Under the Hill (aka Venus and Tannhauser) for Olympia Press in Paris (1959). He wrote the erotic poem, Squire Hardman, which he mischievously ascribed to George Colman the Younger, a once popular British dramatist and writer of the late eighteenth- early nineteenth centuries).

First edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1970.

He was the author of what is arguably the best-selling, most popular erotic novel in English of all time, The English Governess by Miles Underwood (Paris: Ophelia Press [Olympia Press], 1960) aka Harriet Marwood, Governess, The Authentic Confessions of Harriet Marwood, An English Governess; The Governess; Under the Birch, and who knows how many other reprint titles, a novel so often pirated that it may hold a record in that department, too. Glassco also wrote Fetish Girl by Sylvia Bayer, which he, with a gallant wink, dedicated, "To John Glassco."

He wrote the Introduction to The Temple of Pederasty by Ihara Saikaku, translated by Hideki Okada (Brandon House/Hanover House, 1970). He wrote more than the Introduction.  The book, purportedly based on one by the very real 17th century Japanese poet and novelist, Ihara Saikaku (1642-93), the volume is an grand exercise in literary deception. The translator, 'the late Dr. Hideki Okada,' is actually Glassco himself. Glassco's translation (in his word, "interpolation") is, for the most part, derived from Ken Sato's unintentionally hysterical and inept translation of Saikaku's Quaint Stories of the Samurais, a collection of homoerotic tales published by Robert McAlmon, Paris, 1928.

In Glassco's letters to Wagner he shares his thoughts on literary pornography.

"Ours are only more sophisticated, in better taste, more literate and civilized. In my 'Art of Pornography' I have hazarded a tentative definition of the genre, in so far as it can be considered a branch of literary art, as 'that kind of aphrodisiac writing which, no matter to what sexual disposition of vagary it is addressed, can command the interest of a judicious reader of dissimilar psychosexual disposition.' This rules out all kinds of trash but leans heavily on imponderables. I was simply trying to formulate some definition, to isolate what we know is good pornography (Cleland, Nerciat, Voisenon, Beardsley, Swinburne) from the mass of rubbish like Rosa Fielding, The Lustful Turk, etc. and such dead horses as poor Steven Marcus flogs so pointlessly [in The Other Victorians]. I was subjecting pornography to an aesthetic test: perhaps thereby imposing on it a dead critical hand. - the essential mystery of sadomasochism itself remains dark, and I for one shall never unravel it. All I know is that like all forms of psychosexuality it is auto-erotic, subjective, and the partner sought (and sometimes found, and isn't this a blessing) in real life is only a projection of one's own self. One does find one's alter-ego, as I know; and so does she, and then everything in the garden is lovely, even for years.  The real Luv arrives, and dulls the sharp end of sex, and both go wandering off on their endless quest for variety, separately alas, still seeking some new double version of the self..."

"Dear old Bizarre! It was an oasis back in the dreary fifties. Yes, I remember the wonderful photo of of Mlle Polaris, the Queen of the Wasp-waists, in her extraordinary corset, which John Willie unearthed and reprinted….He was a Pioneer. Though his pony-girl fantasy, in monthly episodes, did get rather tedious: the writing was so amateur…

"Thanks for your suggestion that I send the Governess to the Penthouse Book Society. Alas, I sold all British rights outright, in dear Harriet to one Aaron M. Shapiro of New York for $1,000 down and 50% of everything he can get over this. And notre cher Maurice G. owns the rights to the obscene version. He still owes me $500 (due last July) but what hope. So I am now only an onlooker of the progress of this absurd book. It gives me unexampled delight to see it on drugstore counters and being bought by liplicking trembly-handed gents on Montreal. These are the true rewards of authorship" (Sept 3, 1968).

North Hollywood: Hanover House (Brandon House), 1970.

On April 12, 1970, copies of Glassco's Temple of Pederasty sent to him by the publisher in California were intercepted at the Canadian border, examined in Ottawa, and determined to be "immoral or indecent." On April 24th, Glassco wrote Wagner:

"I just might make an issue of this. I am consulting our great F.R. Scott (Lady Chatterley's Lawyer) about this next week. After all, these 18 free copies are mine by right, aren't they? I'm mad as hell about this virtual confiscation of my proputty."

On June 16, 1971, Glassco wrote Wagner:

"Thank you so much for Gynecocracy [1893] and The Boudoir [1880s magazine]: they are both banned in this moral province [Quebec]. These Victorian things have always had a great appeal to me, largely as period pieces. In spite of or perhaps because of their awkwardness, bad grammar and super-abundance of cliché (descriptively, the girls simply don't exist!), they are still readable and often stimulating. What I find their greatest fault is their lack of verisimilitude, the demands they make on the reader for an utter suspension of common sense, and a certain monotony. But what is most interesting is that their very situations, action and preoccupations are still being reproduced in places like the correspondence column of Justice Weekly: in porno, there is almost nothing new under the sun! - Well, these old books were of course for the most part carelessly and hastily written: Gynecocracy begins rather well but falls down badly about half-way through, with absurdity piled on absurdity as the  author either became tired or lost all sense of proportion. I think you and I have done much better in the genre; the next generation will be reading us, rather than them, I'm sure…Even at that, however, I think we tend to bypass reality rather too much: it's such a temptation to let one's fancy lightly fly! And to pile things on. At least it is so in my case:I've forgotten Horace's ne nimium advice much too often.

"But this raises the whole question of an aesthetic of pornography, the matter of raising it to the plane of art, as Cleland and Nerciat somehow did. Perhaps we should try and forget the Victorians: they are, subtly, too much with us, too sweetly oppresive by reason of their décor, richness and nostalgia. But what milieu, what locus, can take their place? Our art is essentially romantic, and seeks a never-never climate; yet it must, I think, take more account of reality than it has in the past. This means, to begin with, it must have a strong story-line, a good skeleton as it were; it should also be psychologically viable; and should even have a certain moral truth such as it had in the 18th century. Perhaps this involves giving our work a wry, tragic, or unhappy ending. Quite a programme, indeed!"

For all his genius as an editor-publisher, Maurice Girodias was a poor businessman with a casual attitude about contracts and author payments. Everyone who wrote for Maurice Girodias had complaints and Glassco was no exception.

On September 26, 1966 Glassco sent Girodias a postal spear with firm point.

"It has…come to my notice that you have published a book called Under the Birch, using the text of The English Governess, and are apparently selling it in various countries. This is a breach on copyright, since under our agreement of 30 March 1960, you had only the right to reprint The English Governess on payment to me of NF 3000 for each reprint. The new title means a new publication, not a reprint…

"In view of the difficulties I have experienced in the past in ensuring performance of our agreement of 30 March 1960 I am sure you will understand my insistence on payment of the $1000 in Canadian funds within three months of the date of this letter…"

On May 11, 1967, Glassco wrote Girodias again, his spear inspired by Nabokov's Lolita.

"Dear Maurice (if I may):

"I have just been reading your 'Sad Ungraceful Tale of Lolita' in the reprinted Olympia Reader, and was struck by the undoubted fact that Lolita would not, as you point out, heve been published at all; but for you: at which point I realized that this also holds true for Under the Hill, and that my last letter to you was written in an unduly heated state of mind…

"…There is a chance I may be sent to Paris on a government cultural mission in a week or so…I hope then to have the pleasure of calling on you, and talking on all subjects except that of money.

"Yours with kindest regards, John G."

Later in that year, Glassco wrote again to Girodias in response to a request (and Girodias' plan to reprint The English Governess in the U.S. under his Olympia Press- NY imprint). The request remains intriguing:

"Some new Sade translations might be within my powers this winter. My versions would be quite unlike [Austryn] Wainhouse's as to constitute original translation…Sade has a good clear rhetorical style, a little turgid, but full of a life and vivacity which do redeem the dryness and tedium of his philosophical ideas…All the English versions of Sade I've ever seen are quite unworthy of this inspired madman who surpasses St. Francis of Assisi in the scope of his ideas. Sade is the moral Columbus of our epoch."

Margaret Atwood interested in fetishism? Leonard Cohen in the Israeli army?

"June 16, 1971

"Dear Peggy

Thank you so much for The Undergrowth of Literature [by Gillian Freeman, 1967, a survey of sexual fantasy in literature]. I was specially struck by the chapter on rubber fetishism, which I can see is rampant over there [in England]. As a latex fan since the age of 4 (my true Venus has always worn a frogman's suit), I enjoyed it enormously. Also, I had just finished a short novel [Fetish Girl] whose characters wallow delicate in this fetish, and it was encouraging to read about its popularity in the U.K…

"…Leonard Cohen tells me he is finished with Literature and chansonnerie and suggests we both join the Israeli army…"

NY: Venus Library, 1972. First edition.

In 1971 Glasco submitted the first chapter of Fetish Girl to Fraser Sutherland, publisher of Northern Journey, a Canadian literary journal, for publication.

"You may find FG disappointing. But don't forget that this is formula commercial pop-porno, beginning mildly because the action must always be a constant crescendo and all subsequent chapters depend closely on each other, and they can't be isolated. - By the way, FG is the first rubber-fetish novel ever written. [N.B. It was not. That honor lies with Rubber Goddess by Lana Preston (Paul Hugo Little, 1967).

"If you take this chapter - and please feel free to reject it in spite of your kind sight-uneen acceptance! - it must appear under the name of its true author Miss Sylvia Bayer, as the entire book will; nor should any reference be made to its publication this fall by Grove Press [under its Venus Library imprint], since this may invalidate her contract.

"I will send you a recent glossy of myself, and one of Miss Bayer, too…"

"To The Editors Of Northern Journey, July 15, 1971.

Dear Sirs: -

My good friend John Glassco has just told me you have accepted the first chapter of my latest novel Fetish Girl and I am delighted.

I understand you would like to use a photograph and to print some kind of introductory-biographical note.

I enclose the photograph. As for the note here also is a suggested first person text giving all relevant information and you can 3rd-person alter, cut, telescope or rearrange as you see fit. Only I must see the final text of whatever note you mean to use, I'm sorry to put you to this extra trouble, but I have to do it.

Yours sincerely,

Mrs. Sylvia Fenwick-Owen, 1224 Bishop St.,
Montreal 107

P.S. May I beg you to keep my home address quite confidential. Thank you."

Whose photograph did Glassco submit as that of "Sylvia Bayer?" His first wife, Elma. Fraser Sutherland had no idea. Glassco's friends did and were startled.

It remains a mystery just who John Glassco really was. For all the light Mr. Busby has diligently shone on the man, and no matter how revealing his letters, John Glassco remains, however open, charming and generous of spirit - his heart, indeed, accepted it all - something of a puzzle, he seemed to prefer it that way, and he's all the more fascinating because of it. He enjoyed pseudonymity and creating a tall-tale context for his erotica. His pleasure was writer as actor portraying his characters. He was one of Canada's gifts to literature, a gentleman litterateur in a smoking jacket with a talent for literary sex.

Full disclosure: Mr. Busby is a friend, and in the book generously acknowledges the meager assistance I provided by answering a few questions.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Kierkegaard's Silver Quill At Auction

by Stephen J. Gertz

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard's silver quill, finely wrought as an elegant feather, is being offered by Bruun Rasmussen Auctioneers of Copenhagen in its International Paintings, Antiquities and Modern Art sale on September 18, 2013. It is estimated to sell for €10,000-€13,000 ($13,295 - $17,282).

The quill, 16.3 cm long (just shy of 6 1/2 inches), has passed down through the Høyernielsen family, descendants of Kierkegaard's sister, Nicoline. According to family tradition, it is the only pen he is known to have meticulously and diligently used to set down his thoughts, which flooded out of his head, poured down his arm, ran into his fingers through to pen and burst onto paper.

In 1955, this pen was exhibited at the Royal Library's Memorial Exhibition on Kierkegaard, and it was also depicted in the exhibition's catalog.

Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the father of existentialism who considered himself a Christian poet, was a compulsive, profound and prolific writer with a chronic itch. In 1838, he wrote in his journal, "Ingen dag uden en streg" ("No day without a line"). Later, in 1847, he noted, "Only when I'm writing do I feel well. I forget all unpleasantness and sufferings, I am with my thoughts and happy. If I stop for only a few days I feel immediately sick, overwhelmed, labored, my head heavy and weighed down."

As a youth the prominent Danish literary and cultural critic, Georg Brandes (1842-1927), was witness to Kierkegaard's fervent urge to write. In his memoirs (1880) he recalled walking past Kierkegaard's apartment and catching sight of him through a window:

"The strange Thinker went back and forth during a silence that was only broken by pen scratching on paper [...] in all rooms lay pen, paper and ink [...] Never in all existence has ink played so great a role."

Note that the pen has no nib. By the 1830's, quill pens, which sucked up ink into their hollow via capillary action and required that the feather be often sliced at its point to maintain a sharp nib, had been replaced by dip pens with steel nibs (the pen itself) inserted into pen-holders, as here.  Steel nibs were sturdier, kept their sharpness, lasted longer, and had the added advantage of being a much neater implement, not spilling ink all over paper and fingers. The next step in the evolution of pens was the fountain pen. Had Kierkegaard lived long enough to enjoy their use, the fountain would have required the capacity of Niagara Falls to handle the rush of words that cascaded forth.

His pen in overdrive, Kierkegaard wrote seventy-three works during his lifetime, many under pseudonyms including Johannes Climacus, Nicolas Notabene, Vigilius Haufniensis, Frater Taciturnus, Johannes de Silentio, Constantin Constantius, Victor Eremita, and my personal favorite, Hilarius Bookbinder, who, I imagine, thinks that binding a book in infant-soiled publisher's diaper cloth glued with anti-bacterial zinc oxide paste and dusted with Johnson's Baby Powder is a laff-riot.

Philosophy being a notoriously low-paying gig, one wonders how Kierkegaard could afford such an  extravagant and expensive pen. He was, however, born into wealth and died in it, never held a job, and never, ever had to worry about paying bills, which tends to burn a lot of mental energy that Kierkegaard had the luxury to conserve for that other consuming preoccupation, the anxiety of existence.

Images courtesy of Bruun Rasmussen auctions, with our thanks.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Progress Is Chanel No. 5 On The Rocks, Wrote Captain Beefheart

by Stephen J. Gertz

An original poem in manuscript composed by musician, artist, and poet Don Van Vliet (1941-2010), aka Captain Beefheart, in 1975 with an accompanying drawing of a foot surrounded by musical notes (a Beefheart "footnote") has come to market. Manuscript material and original drawings by Vliet are highly desirable and extremely scarce. Offered by Royal Books the asking price is $9,500.

A letter of provenance from music writer, record producer, concert promoter, and deejay  Bill Bentley explains the circumstances of this poem's composition:

"In 1975 I interviewed Captain Beefheart at the Armadillo World Headquarters for the Austin Sun. Beefheart was appearing there with Frank Zappa's band, recording a live album [Bongo Fury]. After the interview I asked Captain Beefheart to draw me a picture, since he was doodling as we spoke...

Poster verso to poem, 11 1/2 x 17 1/2 inches.

"He got a poster from another Armadillo show and on the back quickly wrote out this poem. The words flowed out of him spontaneously. He signed it and handed it to me, and then took it back. He added at the end, 'Progress is Chanel No. 5 on the rocks,' and then drew a foot around those words with notes circling it. He called it his 'footnote.' As I got ready to leave, I started to fold the poster. He said very loudly, 'No!' He took it from me and rolled it up before handing it back, and said 'Some day you'll thank me.' He didn't want me to crease the poster, knowing it would adversely affect the value. We ran the poem along with the interview shortly after in the Austin Sun."

The poem reads:

train the
its not Zen
Zrite znow
when the ocean
is wounded it
takes the whole
world to heal.
Ah, Eden
[?] is
the thing that
runs down
the back of
your leg
that makes
your foot
it isn't worth
getting into the
bull's shit to find
Out what the bull ate.
ah joint is part of
today's anatomy
an artist is one
Who kids him
Self the most
A psychiatrist is
one who wishes to
die in your other

Don Van Vliet '75

Progress is
Chanel Number 5
on the rocks

Don Van Vliet began his career in high school in Lancaster, CA as vocalist in a band with Frank Zappa on drums. The journey of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band - whose third album, Trout Mask Replica (released by Zappa's Straight Records in 1969), is #60 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and, inspired, in part, by the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, redefined the boundaries of rock music and continues to influence - is too tortured to recount here. 

"On first listen, Trout Mask Replica sounds like a wild, incomprehensible rampage through the blues. Don Van Vliet growls, rants and recites poetry over chaotic guitar licks" (Rolling Stone).

"I thought [Trout Mask Replica] was the worst thing I'd ever heard. I said to myself, they're not even trying! It was just a sloppy cacophony. Then I listened to it a couple more times, because I couldn't believe Frank Zappa could do this to me – and because a double album cost a lot of money. About the third time, I realized they were doing it on purpose; they meant it to sound exactly this way. About the sixth or seventh time, it clicked in, and I thought it was the greatest album I'd ever heard" (Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons).

Unsurprisingly, it's reported to be director David Lynch's favorite album of all time.

Of Vliet's poetry, it began to pour forth early on, separately and through his lyrics. It was first collected in Skeleton Breath, Scorpion Blush (1991), followed by Riding Some Kind Of Unusual Skull Sleigh (2003) and Don Van Vliet Paintings and Poetry (2007). Each volume has become highly collectable with prices continuing to rise with his reputation in the midst of a limited number of copies.

In a nod to carping ichthyologists who've been aching for a correction, yes, the trout in the cover shot of Trout Mask Replica is a carp. The trout, apparently, weren't running on the day of the shoot which is why Beefheart wears a trout mask replica and not a carp mask original.

At age twenty in 1971, I lived on Clark Street, a short distance up the hill north of the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. (Remind me to tell you about the time I met Wild Man Fischer at Sun-Bee Market across the street). When multiple guests came by and overstayed their welcome, I'd play Trout Mask Replica (with Stockhausen's Gesang de Junglinge as back-up) to clear the room and two minutes later be alone to enjoy it myself. It was easy listening music to my ears, divinely savaged at age thirteen when I heard Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps for the first time and fell in love with dissonance and polyrhythms.  Discordant prose and poetry soon followed.

Click here for an index of Don Van Vliet's poetry. The poem under notice has, it seems, been forgotten; it is not included.

Poem and poster images courtesy of Royal Books, with our thanks.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Hey, Rare Book Guy! What Happened To Dickens & Thackeray In Parts After Publication?

by Stephen J. Gertz

Hey, Rare Book Guy:

You know how Dickens and Thackeray were originally published in installments? What happened after that - are surviving copies usually bound together into a complete book? Is it possible to buy a single installment sometimes (maybe even with the original wrapper?). I have tried a few search engines but couldn't get an answer - thanks!


Dear David:

It's Friday the 13th. This is your lucky day. 

I know about Dickens and Thackeray novels published in their original parts and first editions in book form. Correctly collating a complete set, checking if all advertisements (including slips) and first state engraving points are present, and checking all text points with a first book edition requires care. If you get things wrong you either leave money on the table or an unhappy client leaves you. A bookseller can always blame their cataloger. Booksellers who catalog on their own do not, alas, have this excuse to proffer; the client thinks they're an idiot and credibility goes out the window. We're supposed to know what we're talking about.

Simultaneous with issuing the last parts of each novel, Dickens' and Thackeray's publishers routinely removed the ads that appeared at the beginning and at the end of each part, removed the illustrated  plates found together after the ads and before the text, replaced them at intervals within the text, then bound-up the remaining, continuously paginated parts and published them in cloth-bound book editions. Collectors seek the book editions with stab-stitch holes deep in the gutter margin - evidence that the book is composed of the original parts, which were stab-stitch bound; stab-holes are absent in later printings of the book editions. Once that is established, then you have to check for the earliest issue points.  David Copperfield, for instance, has twenty text points to consider as well as points for each of the forty engravings that originally appeared in the serialization - etched twice for a total of eighty. You want to know what distinguishes each from its duplicate.

If you're looking to buy individual parts to complete a set it can be done but they are very difficult to come by and expensive. Depending upon the Dickens or Thackeray title you might have to pay upwards of $1,000+ if you can find one; you may have to wait. And wait. And wait. Individual installments to the first American edition of David Copperfield in parts (New York: John Wiley/G.P.Putnam, 1849-1850), however, are currently available online at $150 each. With twenty parts in nineteen volumes the price for a complete set would be $2,850. Compare that to a set of first U.K. edition Copperfield in parts in fine condition without repair currently online at $17,500. Even a set lacking a few advertisements and with repairs and foxing is being offered at $5,500.

I don't have quite as much experience with Thackeray in the original parts as I do with Dickens but his publisher followed the same plan.

If you're serious about collecting Dickens or Thackeray in original parts or first editions in book form I strongly suggest that you get a hold of the appropriate bibliographies so you are armed and prepared on the points to look for. For Dickens in the original parts that's Hatton and Cleaver's Bibliography of the Periodical Works of Charles Dickens. For the books, it's Walter E. Smith's Charles Dickens in the Original Cloth, which supercedes John C. Eckles' The First Editions of Charles Dickens. For Thackeray, it's Shepherd's bibliography.

A word about provenance. The most desirable sets of original parts are those that came from a single original owner with signatures to each part or proof of provenance. The majority of sets, however, do not have this identification (or not all parts signed) and many are likely composed of parts brought together from various sources to form a complete set. This is not a crime. The parts were never meant to last and booksellers and collectors who built complete sets in the past were doing collectors in the present a favor. Without positive markings to indicate otherwise there is little way to distinguish an original complete set with one put together at a later date, beyond obvious variances in color or condition of the wrappers, whether by seller or collector. It's not an issue to sweat; the parts were read to bits by the original owner and friends they passed the parts along to, and we're lucky that any have survived.

It was not unusual for booksellers to insert individual advertisements (in the form of variously colored slips) from parts beyond redemption and sale into a same, otherwise salable part lacking them. Performed correctly there is no way to tell if this has been done without tearing the installment apart and, using forensic science, determining if the glue used is period or modern. This matters only if you're an obsessive purist on the verge of a nervous breakdown with a lot of money in search of a perfect, untouched set, otherwise refer to last paragraph, final sentence.

Concerning condition, the flimsy wrappers to the original parts are commonly found with some sort of restoration, usually along the easily damaged spine and/or at the corners. If the job is done well it's very difficult for the untrained eye to discern the repair. Reputable booksellers will declare the extent of restoration. If you have concerns, you can view the parts under a black light and most repairs will be evident.

It can be very frustrating to collectors with an interest in Dickens and/or Thackeray to get into first editions in parts or cloth; they are expensive. To those aspiring collectors I suggest that you collect Dickens or Thackeray in their first American editions. It's an area of collection just beginning to emerge now that Walter E. Smith has published his bibliography of Dickens' American editions (2012) and bibliographical sense has been made of the heretofore chaotic subject. First American editions are available and reasonably priced.

To find original parts or book editions the best online resources are ViaLibri and AddAll, rare book search sites that aggregate results from all others worldwide; one-stop shopping.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

John Belushi Discovered In 1920 Bookplate

by Stephen J. Gertz

Toga! Toga! Toga! Toga!

My goodness, it's John Belushi as Bluto in National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), in 1920 masquerading as Dr. Ignatz Streber, Krankenhausarzt (hospitalist).

"Oh no! Seven years of college down the drain!"

Image courtesy of Thomas G. Boss Fine Books, with our thanks.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

You Are The Objects Of Your Trade: Personification Prints

by Stephen j. Gertz

George Spratt and George E. Madeley, China.

You are what you eat, you are what you do.

In 1830 - 1833, George Spratt, an English artist, and George E. Madeley, an English engraver and printmaker, produced a series of lithographed satiric designs of tradesmen composed of the objects of their profession. They were published by Charles Tilt, a London book and print seller.

"China," is found in Purcell's Lithographic Drawing Book, published by Tilt in 1831. It depicts a man smoking a pipe, his body a collection of plates, containers, dishes, bowls, cups, saucers, and vases, with his hand as a teapot.

Spratt and Madeley, Crockery.

"Crockery," which pictures a woman made up of jugs, ewers, plates, teapot, and sauce boats, is also from Purcell's Lithographic Drawing Book.

The "Fruiterer" appears in Spratt and Madeley's Figures of Fun (1833). Here, a woman is depicted as a collection of grapes, melons, lemon, plums, cherries and strawberries.

Spratt and Madeley, The Fruiterer.

Each print is extremely rare, taken from books that have become excessively scare in all likelihood because they were broken up early on to individually sell the plates. Not a trace of Purcell's Lithographic Drawing Book is to be found in any library worldwide, nor is it recorded in any of the standard or unusual references. The only evidence for its existence is publisher Charles Tilt's advertisement for the book at the rear of Landscape Illustrations of the Waverly Novels (London 1831).

Of Figures of Fun, only a handful of copies have been accounted for, nearly all incomplete. Gumulchain, in the only reference that we have found for the book, describes it as "so rare that this is the only complete copy... that has come to our notice. The work is inspired by 17th century French engravings done in the same spirit."

Arcimboldo, The Librarian.

Yet in the sixteenth century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) represented the human form with inanimate objects, some of which included tradesmen.

L'Armessin, Habit de Paticier (Dress of the confectioner).

In 1695, designer and engraver Nicolas de L'Armessin II's (1638-1694) Costumes Grotesques was published. A series of fantastic plates in which workers and professionals were depicted with the tools and objects of their trade as body parts, it is the work that Gumulchain refers to.

Martin Englebrecht, Un Chapetier (A Hatter).

In 1730 Martin Engelbrecht published Assemblage nouveau des manouvries habilles, a series of dessins humoristiques prints inspired by l'Armessin's.

And so with Spratt and Madeley we have England's answer to those earlier examples, all collectively known as "personification prints": the objects of trade assembled to create a personification of the trade. George Spratt and George E. Madeley had, earlier, in 1830, produced  prints in this genre, i.e. The Itinerant Apothecary

Spratt and Madeley, The Itinerant Apothecary.

 Medeley was a British artist and lithographer active 1826-1854.  Spratt was a British illustrator and surgeon-accoucheur (male midwife), active as an artist 1830-1833, whose Obstetrical Tables (1830) was noteworthy for his use of multiple super-imposed sheets of paper to create a anatomical pop-up effect not unlike that used by Vesalius in 1538.

Publisher Charles Tilt (1797-1861), active 1826-1840, was an English bookseller who appears to have specialized in publishing satiric and humorous prints. He issued the satiric caricatures of Henry Heath, and co-published Le Pointevin's classic, Les Diables de Lithographies (1832).

The Spratt and Madeley prints are not unusual to find as modern glicé prints. They are quite scarce, however, in their original lithographic form.

[SPRATT. G, artist]. Three Hand-Colored Personification Plates. From Purcell's Lithographic Drawing Book: "Crockery," and "China;" and from Figures of Fun: "Fruiterer." London: Charles Tilt, 1831 / 1833. Designed by George Spratt and printed by George E. Madeley.

Spratt images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Grushenka: The Story Behind A Rare Classic Erotic Book

by Stephen J. Gertz

It is an anonymously written erotic novel privately printed in 1933 in Dijon, France but it's not Fifty Shades of Grey Poupon.

It is “the story of a Russian serf girl compiled from contemporary documents in the Russian Police files and private archives of Russian Libraries” (title page) translated from the original Russian but it's not Serfer Girl by The Boyar Boys.

It is Grushenka - Three Times A Woman.

A promotional insert teasing the book is sometimes found in copies of this scarce volume in its first edition. It tells quite a story. It's a doozy:

"'A Russian Woman is Three Times A Woman' - Old Russian Proverb

   Announcing the arrival from Paris of the
                                     Second and Final Shipment of 150 Copies

                                           Three Times A Woman -


Publication: Published in Paris in January 1933. Printed in Dijon, France. Discovered in Russia and sponsored by a well-to-do American literary man residing in Paris.

Format: A beautiful example of modern European book making. A large book, 7x9 inches (more than 80,000 words). A type page of finest proportions and clarity. Cover completely decorated in bold modernistic mode.

Illustrations: Seven full page wash drawings in half-tone reproduction, which, in the modern manner, "bleed" off the page. The drawings are the work of a young Parisian Russian and no higher praise can be said of them than that they do justice to the text.

The Book: At last a book which answers the complaint that erotic books "are all alike." A unique contribution in that its literary qualities are of the first order, while its material and the stark truthfulness of its presentation, is beyond any book of its kind now available. (See excerpt from sponsor's foreword following).

Ordinary erotic literature, as we know it in Europe and America, finds no place in the Soviet scheme of things. Such pornographia as 'The Memoirs of Fanny Hill,' 'The Scented Garden,' 'The Autobiography of a Flea,' mere Sunday school tracts as compared with 'Grushenka,' are vigorously forbidden. Yet 'Grushenka,' than which I know nothing more pornographically obscene, while not officially sponsored by the Soviet authorities, is not seriously frowned upon. The reason for this, of course, is Grushenka's indubitable propaganda value. So authentic an exposé if the unspeakable abuses, the utter licentiousness of Czarist Russia cannot be ignored.

Nor can 'Grushenka' be ignored from a literary view point. Unlike any other book of its kind, we find here a genuine sense of character and its development. Not only is the serf girl Grushenka's mental-emotional growth recorded, but changes in her body from year to year are described with minute care. Sexual experiences and abuses are related as we know they must have happened, not as we might with they had happened, This astounding truthfulness, this sincerity, this non-romanticism is devastating. Add to it a narrative gift which never lets down and a rich background of the social mores of the time and we find ourselves face to face with literature.

'Grushenka' was called to my attention in Moscow among a small group of artist-intellectuals who took it upon themselves to provide me with those conveniences and convivialities which a man of my temperament finds necessary to matter what the political philosophy of the state in which he finds himself. My knowledge of Russian is rudimentary and it was not until I met Tania that I was able to get any real inking of the work. So intrigued was I by this taste that forthwith Tania and I joined in a labour of love to set 'Grushenka' into English. The experience was highly educational for both of us, I flatter myself. Six months later I returned to my Paris apartment with the English manuscript of 'Grushenka.'

My decision to publish 'Grushenka' was made when one of my old friends, a seafaring man of literary inclinations, undertook the delicate task of transporting the printed volumes into England and America. My professional publishing connections in both countries put me in contact with reliable sub-rosa channels of distribution.

What financial gain results from this venture I shall send on to Tania. Being who she is, an emancipated woman of Red Russia, she will give the money to a communal nursery or to a research worker in birth control. Both worthy causes.

Go forth then 'Grushenka' to your English speaking readers. May you be a brief for the U.S.S.R., an explanatory voice for Tania, in addition to literature. May your new audience find you as vivid and thrilling as I did in your translation.
Paris, January 2nd, 1933."

Grushenka wasn't printed in Dijon; the closest the printer got to Dijon was when he went to d'bathroom. It is certainly not based upon secret Russian police files, and it was definitely not translated from a 19th century Russian erotic novel.

Grushenka is, in fact, an American original-in-English pastishe published in New York City, and the anonymous writer and publisher are fascinating characters.

 According to the rumors, Grushenka was written by the famed B-movie producer-writer of the 1940’s classic films, Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, and The Body Snatcher.

An enormous amount has been written regarding the “Russian” origins of this erotic classic chock-a-block with prostitution, sadism and the knout, written, all agree, by someone  familiar with Russia but with with lapses in knowledge of Russian customs and folklore. The rumors are true; Val Lewton wrote it. How do we know for sure?

Lewton was born Vladimir Ivan Leventon in 1904 in the Russian port city of Yalta on the Crimea.  The family moved to Berlin to be close to his widowed mother’s sister, the silent screen actress, Alla Nazimova. To the U.S. in 1909. He spoke and wrote Russian. He began his career as writer of very low-paying detective, exotic adventure, sultry-woman-on-the-skids Depression pulp fiction, one of his eight books being The Sword of the Cossack (London: John Hamilton, 1932), a historical novel set in Russia. During this time he was desperate for money to support his wife and children, an ideal motivation to write quick-buck porn. He admits to writing anything that would exploit his writing talent. He knew Russia but left at an early age; the book is filled with utter nonsense regarding Russian mores and customs and many historical inaccuracies, much like The Sword of the Cossack, but possesses enough verisimilitude to suggest authenticity. Grushenka fits within Lewton's chosen theme for his novels; it's a sultry-serf-girl-on-the-skids tale. 

The circumstantial evidence for Lewton's authorship is very strong. The direct evidence nails it, a self-written list of credits compiled by Lewton in 1937 that appears at the end of Joel E. Siegal’s definitive biography, The Reality of Terror (NY: Viking, 1973). Under the subtitle, Pornographic Novels, he lists as his own one Yasmine (“this is said to be one of the most beautifully illustrated books ever published and retails for $75.”). There are, apparently, no copies of Yasmine extant; nobody seems to have ever seen one. All copies appear to have been destroyed by the police.

And there on Lewton's list, under Yasmine, is Grushenka.  Lewton wrote, “I edited the translation from the Russian. I have a beautiful picture of this book taken from the N.Y. Daily Mirror showing it being shoveled into the Police Department furnace.” Given Lewton's background and the fact that Grushenka is not a translation, this smacks of pride of authorship. There is no doubt. Lewton wrote it.

Who published it? According to sexual folklorist, G. Legman, who was intimately involved in the trade in clandestine erotica during the 1930s and 1940s, and the Kinsey Library, Percy Shostac was the publisher. Who he?

Percy Shostac (1892-1968) was a New York City actor, stage manager, poet, playwright, and novelist originally from the Mid-West.  "Percy Shostac could have lived in Chicago or San Francisco, and the content of his novel would have been much the same. But he lived in the vicinity of Tammany Hall and the benches of Union Square, New York, and therefore entitled his volume "14th Street." It is impossible to call it a novel and yet it is endowed with the imaginative richness associated with the novel form; neither is it completely an autobiography, except that the author has made unmistakable references to his own life. The conflict is represented by the clash between his Jewishness and his  outer  surroundings" (Review of 14th Street by Percy Shostac, Simon and Schuster, 1930, in the Jewish Criterion July 18, 1930).

"Poet Shostac has less to say about Manhattan's 14th St. than about himself. He writes this segment of autobiography in unrhymed, uneven lines that read well and easily. Not particularly quotable, never reaching a high poetic plane, never distinguishing between the vocabulary of poetry & prose, his novel in verse has considerable cumulative effect" (Time, July 7, 1930).

Shostac also wrote The World's Illusion, a dramatization of Jacob Wasserman's novel, a manuscript without date; Abelard and Heloise, a one-act play (1915), and The Strength of the Weak, a psychological melodrama in three acts (1919).

Active as a stage manager beginning in 1917, he managed The Captive (1926), a play that critics felt was a corrupting influence on feminine morals and thus won the attention of the authorities. Yet "by January 1927 The Captive was being praised for its enormous 'social value,' its effectiveness in 'educating' sexually impressionable young women. Far from glamorizing lesbian attachments, the play's defenders now argued, The Captive vividly warned against them… Stage manager Percy Shostac explained to the press that many girls in the audience has been sent in detachments from boarding schools and all-female colleges, and that Helen Menken [the star] had 'received several notes from women educators in the audience, deans of women's colleges and finishing schools, who said were already concerned with the necessity of impressing the girls in their charge with the dangers of a reprehensible attachment between two women.' The play, he argued, filled exactly that need" (Hamilton, When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment, p. 99).

Stage and screen actor Basil Rathbone was a friend of Shostac's. They performed together in the romantic comedy, Love Is Like That by S.N. Behrman and Kenyon Nicholson, which ran for twenty-seven performances on Broadway in 1927. Rathbone played Prince Vladimir Dubriski, and exiled Russian who is actually a valet with social ambitions. Shostac portrayed Grigori, who, it seems, was Prince Vladimir's valet.

Rathbone performed in the aforementioned The Captive, a drama in three acts adapted by Arthur Hornblow, Jr., from "La Prisonnière" by Edouard Bourdet which opened at the Empire Theatre, New York City, September 29, 1926, and ran for 160 performances. In his autobiography, In and Out of Character (1962), he wrote of The Captive and Shostac:

"And now to share with you the last act of this hideous betrayal, this most infamous example of the imposition of political censorship on a democratic society ever known in the history of responsible creative theater; this cold-blooded unscrupulous sabotage of an important contemporary work of art; this cheap political expedient to gain votes by humiliating and despoiling the right of public opinion to express and act upon its considered judgment as respected and respectable citizens.

"A few days after the closing of the play we were ordered to appear at a downtown court…Our predicament has now become a case célèbre. We were headline news in every newspaper…"

After recalling the heart-rending testimony of the play's ingenue, Ann Trevor, Rathbone continues:

"His honor was obviously touched by this genuine and most appealing outburst, which was followed immediately by a cold and most incisive statement of his case by our stage manager, Percy Shostac. 'Your honor,' he said, in effect, 'I will not betray the principles by which I endeavor ro live. This is not an evil play, it is not even a harmful play. It is a great play which is saying something extremely important to our present-day society.. Something they need to know about, recognize and act upon. I will under no circumstances desert this production of Monseiur Bourdet's The Captive, even if it should mean that I spend the rest of my life in prison!'

"Ann Trevor and Percy Shostac - two gallant 'little people' unafraid to stand up in defense of their considered judgments and convictions - worthy descendants of the forefathers of this great country."

(Rathbone, a fine actor, was strictly ham on paper, projecting to readers in the balcony).

Shostac had experience with sexually-themed drama and censorship. Why he began to clandestinely publish erotica is likely due to his sympathies and the same reason Lewton wrote Grushenka. It was the depths of the Depression and a man did what he had to do to earn a buck. If he seemed hypocritical, condemning a variety of female sexual behavior then later publishing illegal erotica celebrating female licentousness, he wasn't. He was merely offering an early version of "redeeming social value" to offset the titillation on stage. Sex sells, he knew how to spin, and, as the promo sheet for Grushenka proves, he was a gifted huckster and publicist.

Shostac drifted out of poetry, novels, the theater, and publishing. What next for the man who, after stage managing The Captive, in addition to Grushenka also clandestinely published the erotic novels The Abduction of Edith Martin (1930); The Imitation of Sappho (1930); Crimson Hairs (1934); The Prodigal Virgin (1935), and quite likely (but not certainly) any erotic novel in English from the 1930s with the false imprint, "Dijon, France"?

In 1939 Percy Shostac was a member of the WPA Federal Writer's Project. During the 1940s he was a consultant, publicist, and author for the American Social Hygiene Association of New York and Chicago, in 1944 writing Industry vs. VD.  His next appearance on the radar screen is in a story found in the Village Voice, Oct. 17, 1956. He has turned his hobby of fashioning "weird, gnarled tree roots" into lamp stands into a business with a shop on Grove Street in Greenwich Village.

The first edition of Grushenka was graced with seven illustrations by "Kyu," an artist who was not "a young Parisian Russian." The Kinsey Library surmises that "Kyu" was an alternate pseudonym for the better-known pseudonymous artist, Jacques Merde (!), né William Bernhardt, who illustrated some of Shostac's other sub-rosa publications. Stylistic comparison strongly suggests that Kyu and Jacques Merde/William Bernhardt were one and the same person.

Val Lewton, after his exploits into erotica, became David O. Selznick’s story editor in Hollywood.  In an interesting, little known aside, he wrote (uncredited) the renowned Richmond train station scene in Gone With The Wind where the extent of Confederate wounded and dead is dramatically revealed via an expensive crane-shot pull-back.

In a sequence in Vincent Minnelli’s film The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), the lead character, Jonathan, is depicted producing horror movies so low budget that suggestion, shadow, sound and suspense must be used in lieu of special make-up and film effects. That sequence in Jonathan's career is based upon Lewton’s experience and unlikely success at RKO from 1942-1946 with The Cat People, etc. The bad and the beautiful in bondage succinctly sums up Grushenka

"A Russian Woman is Three Times A Woman"  is a non-existent "Old Russian Proverb." However, "She's once, twice, three times a lady" is an old American proverb firmly attributed to Lionel Richie of The Commodores.
Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email