Back on the road, in a literary sort of way; libraries; and writing advice from Elmore Leonard: newsletter, Dec. 21, 2018

December 24, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: American Road, books, journalism, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to all of the subscribers on Jim’s list (2,962) on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.



The Christmas holiday season, Hannukah, the winter solstice, the beginning of the college football bowl season — they all collide for the next couple of weeks, provoking an increase in shopping, singing, television watching, and other unusual human activity. A lot of it involves seeing and hearing from people you aren’t in daily contact with, and that’s one of the fun parts. I hope everything is fun for you these days.

Holidays or not, I always enjoy hearing from you, and this week was particularly delightful. Any thoughts at all from you are welcome.

I’m still doing some sleuthing on literary deceptions — the major theme of last week’s newsletter — and I should have more about that next week. Meanwhile, enjoy your weekend and your holiday festivities, whatever it is that you are celebrating.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,968 subscribers and had a 26.8 percent open rate; 4 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Sinclair Lewis and the freedom of movement in Ameria

Few novelists have explored the American mind and character as deeply and perceptively as Sinclair Lewis, who in 1930 became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The freedom of movement — the ability for Americans to travel — is, according to Lewis, one of the most important parts of the American psyche.

So says Professor  in a perceptive and entertaining essay on Lewis on the Public Domain Review website: American Freedom: Sinclair Lewis and the Open Road – The Public Domain Review

Lewis’ most affirmative vision of what he means by freedom is found in his novel Free Air, which was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in the spring of 1919, the year before Main Street and Babbitt made him a household name. Free Air is the story of two young people, Milt and Claire. Milt is a small-town mechanic and garage owner, and Claire is from Long Island and in the middle of a coast-to-coast trip to Seattle with her father. . .

The travelers look for something new and different from what they have known and are ultimately disappointed in what they find. Small towns, big cities, and rural areas all seem the same as the places they had left.

Michels goes on to say

This is not just about travel; for Lewis, it is about positive freedom and control. He never presents train travel as especially desirable, constrained as it is to tracks, and his early love of planes is directed at those who can fly them. Americans are rightful captains and pilots, not passengers or spectators. He would have agreed with Thomas Wolfe, who, in You Can’t Go Home Again, posited: “Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America — that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement.” It is only when Wolfe’s protagonist George Webber arrives at a destination, that he feels a sense of homelessness. The expansive country and its prairie makes motion the most natural and comfortable condition.

Lewis wrote at a time when the automobile was expanding the meaning of travel for Americans and giving them more options and more control. The automobile did not invent the concept of “freedom of travel,” but it certainly enhanced the idea. It is now more than ever a part of the American mind.

Illustration: Sinclair Lewis and the American Road (copyright © 2018 by Jim Stovall)


12 authors write about the libraries they love

The New York Times asked a dozen authors to write about their experiences with libraries. What they say is fabulous.

Here’s part of what Barbara Kingsolver wrote:

Everywhere I’ve gone since (childhood), I’ve found libraries. Those of us launched from bare-bones schools in uncelebrated places will always find particular grace in a library, where the temple doors are thrown wide to all believers, regardless of pedigree. Nowadays I have the normal professional reliance on internet research, but my heart still belongs to the church of the original source. Every book I’ve written has some magic in it I found in physical stacks or archives. Source: 12 Authors Write About the Libraries They Love – The New York Times

If you love libraries, if you think they’re valuable, if you want to see them help other people as they have helped you, read this and enjoy.

Then go check out a book.


Bret Harte’s big journalistic scoop

Before he became famous for his wild tales of the then New West, Bret Harte was a journalist and had broken one of the biggest stories of the era in pre-Civil War California.

Born in 1836 in Albany, New York, Harte moved to California with his family when he was a teenager. He worked at a variety of jobs, including being a guard for a Wells-Fargo stagecoach and a school teacher. In 1860, he found himself employed by a weekly newspaper, the Northern Californian, in Uniontown.

He had been left in charge of the paper during the owner’s absence when, on February 26, 1860,  white settlers attacked the nearby Wiyot Native American village of Tuluwat on Indian Island and killed most of the people, including women and children, they found there. No one knows exactly how many people were murdered because the incident was never adequately investigated. Estimate of the dead range from 60 to 250.

The following Sunday with Harte in charge of the paper (the owner was out of town), Harte published an article describing the massacre scene and an editorial condemning it.

We can conceive of no palliation for woman and child slaughter. We can conceive of no wrong that a babe’s blood can atone for. (p. 55)

These were strong words, and they were not well received by a vocal and violent minority in Uniontown. Harte followed up with another article the next which further ruffled the local feathers.

Within a month, Harte had left Uniontown for San Francisco with a good notice from his editor:

In addition to being a printer, Mr. Harte is a good writer. He has often contributed to the columns of this paper, and at different times when we have been absent, has performed the editorial labors. He is a warm-hearted genial companion, and a gentleman in every sense of the word. (p.56)

No one was ever prosecuted for the killings even though those responsible for them was commonly known. In San Francisco, Harte encountered a new set of difficulties and opportunities. Those would vault him to fame as a literary man.

Source: Axel Nissen, Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper.

Previously on Bret Harte: Object of Mark Twain’s praise and derision

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”


Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, with explanations

Nearly two decades ago, the New York Times asked some prominent writers to write about writing. One of those was Elmore Leonard, the novelist, and screenwriter who died in 2013, and he famously set forth his “10 rules of writing,” which he introduced with this paragraph:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over. Source: WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle – The New York Times

These rules are well worth reading (1. Never start with the weather. 2. Avoid prologues., etc.), as are the explanations Leonard gives for each in the Times article.

If you can’t get to the Times article, the rules are located elsewhere on the web. You can find them with a simple search.


The lists: espionage and New York in the fifties

Tis the season for lists. And I’ve got a couple for you.

Usually, this time of year, the list involves something having to do with the years that is ending — 10 best, 10 worst, that sort of thing. And that is indeed what one of the lists is about.

But first, something completely different.

If you are caught up in the Netflix series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,”  (here is a review from  The Times ), you know that it’s set in New York City sometime in the 1950s. The sets and the clothes are marvelous, as well as the story and the acting, and the Times gives you this list of books that will tell you more about the city during that decade: If You Love ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,’ You’ll Love These Books – The New York Times

You likely have read some of the books on the list, but it’s a fun list to go over. I may try one or two of them myself.

The second list is more “traditional,” as they say. It’s CrimeReads’ list of the best espionage fiction published in 2018: The Best Espionage Fiction of 2018 | CrimeReads

I will confess that I have not read any of these books, but several of them sound intriguing. The one that caught my eye was Trinity by Louisa Hall. Here is CrimeReads’ description:

Louisa Hall’s new novel of Cold War fears takes us into the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer as he’s tailed by a secret service agent while waffling on the implications of his work on the nuclear bomb. Beginning with a visually intricate tailing sequence, and zooming out to examine Oppenheimer and his internal conflicts from a variety of perspectives, Trinity is essential reading for fans of le Carré and his classics of Cold War espionage fiction.


Recently on



Penny S.: Please keep sending your newsletters to me. I enjoy reading them although I don’t always link in things. Even if I don’t have time to read the new ones right away, I have a separate file just for your newsletters so I can read when I have leisure time (LOL) which can be rare at this time of year especially. 

Jim D.: I love your theme this week and particularly your focus on The Education of Little Tree. I’ve always loved that book. At the same time, I’ve always been mystified by its author. I knew the story of Forrest “Asa” Carter. I did not know it in the fullness with which it is illuminated through your “This American Life” link, however.

While the TAL piece sheds much light, I remain in the dark as to the real Carter. Did the bigoted Asa have a Damascus Road experience and become the gentle and wise Forrest, or are the segregationist speechwriter and the author of the Cherokee boy parable simply two aspects of a complex, multifaceted man? My guess is we’ll never know. And, for that matter, does it really matter?

The more fundamental question is: does art stand alone? That is to say, should the hand behind a work matter in judging the work itself? Is a symphony written by a rapist any less melodic? Is a sculpture crafted by a murderer any less majestic? Is a poem written by a thief any less beautiful? I think not.

Gary P.: I thoroughly enjoy your newsletter and have read several books based on the content.  Thank you for thinking of me and keeping me on the list.

Joyce L.: Wow, Jim, you’re really looking under the rocks and finding fascinating truths!  Kudos.  I never knew or even imagined that Louisa May Alcott wrote “blood and thunder,” novels.  But why not?

And I read The Education of Little Tree as a real autobiography, not as some political claptrap deception.  Oh, how naïve of me!

In this time of extreme “faux news” and “phony baloney” on all fronts, I’m glad you’re poking around and exposing the truth!

Glynn W.: I especially liked the Alcott piece, and I’d not known about her dreadfuls. As my mother’s boy, I was handed LITTLE WOMEN when I was five or so (home-schooled in today’s jargon), and it remains one of my favorite novels. Her other choices included TREASURE ISLAND and ROBINSON CRUSOE). It is a bit strange that Louisa May thought that her New England crowd wasn’t up to the things that Jo would write.

From your humble newsletter author: Thank you and God bless you — each and every one — for writing to me. Your emails are a joy beyond measure.


Finally . . .

This week’s drawing (pen and ink):  Sinclair Lewis (caricature)

Special Christmas bonus watercolor: Charles Dickens (caricature)

Best quote of the week:

Art should be like a holiday: something to give a man the opportunity to see things differently and to change his point of view. Paul Klee, painter (1879-1940) 

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter:  Literary deceptions, caricature, and a writer vs. an empire: newsletter, Dec. 14, 2018



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