This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,521) on Friday, September 25, 2020.
The year continues to bring its oddities. Major League Baseball is finishing its shortened season this week and will begin playoffs next week. The configuration is like no other, and I won’t try to explain it. I’m not sure I could. The World Series will be held in Globe Field, the home of the Texas Rangers, and this will be the first time since 1944 that all of the Series games will take place in one ballpark.
In 1944 the St. Louis Browns met the St. Louis Cardinals in an all-St. Louis contest that saw the Cardinals winning four games to two. The Browns fielded generally woeful teams throughout their history, and this was the only year they won the American League championship. One of the prominent players who participated in the series was Stan Musial. One other odd fact about that Series: It was the only Series in which there were no stolen bases.
If you don’t know anything about baseball — or don’t care — maybe you have observed some oddities of your own. If so, enjoy them, and have a great weekend.
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The writing and publication of Hans Brinker (Mary Mapes Dodge, part 3)
There were many reasons for the enchantment with the Netherlands. New York City had been settled by Dutch immigrants, and its original name had been New Amsterdam. Descendants of those immigrants populated the streets and farms of New York and New England.
Feelings toward the British were not nearly as kind. The Dutch, after all, had never been to war with America, and their history of seeking their independence battles seemed to mirror our own. The popularity of Washington Irving, who used the Dutch heritage in many of his writings, was another contributing factor.
Most importantly, building on all of these factors was John Lothrop Motley, a historian and diplomat who wrote a highly popular history The Rise of the Dutch Republic, a three-volume work which was published in 1856 after some 10 years of research. In his books, Motley celebrated a Dutch idea — independence but with a value on community. The Dutch were people like us Americans, Motley argued, hardworking, industrious, innovative, and courageous. The Dutch, like Americans, had shown in their history that they could come together to throw off the chains of tyrants.
Motley might have been a less than precise researcher and interpreter of historical data, but he was a superb storyteller, and the story that he told about the Dutch fit exactly with the image that many Americans had cultivated about themselves. Still, Motley wasn’t sure that his work would be accepted by the public, and he had to publish his volumes at his own expense.
He need not have worried. His history was an immediate best-seller, one of 1856’s great publishing events. It sold 30,000 copies in the first year alone and continued to be a strong seller for the next half-century.
One of the many of Motley’s readers was Mary Mapes Dodge. As a New Yorker and one with a Dutch lineage, she found the Dutch to be highly interesting and wanted young people to experience those same feelings. The two young people closest to her were her young sons, and she sent her fertile imagination into Holland to develop stories that she could tell them about this wonderful land.
Dodge was a storyteller herself, and in 1857 when her husband went missing and two weeks later was found dead by drowning — a possible suicide — Dodge turned this talent into a way to provide for herself and her sons. She began writing stories and selling them to magazines, and she wrote a set of children’s stories titled The Irvington Stories, which, when published in 1864, was modestly successful — successful enough for the publisher to ask for another volume.
Dodge had another idea, however. She had begun telling her sons a bedtime story about a young boy named Hans and his sister Gretel who lived in Holland. Hans and Gretel were members of an impoverished family; their father had been hurt in an accident and could not work. Hans got the idea of competing in a skating race for which the grand prize was a set of silver skates. Night after night, she would add to the story without knowing exactly where it was going.
Dodge had begun with Motley’s histories, but she expanded her search for information about Holland to libraries, magazines, and even people who had lived or visited there. She worked obsessively on the manuscript, stealing minutes and hours throughout her day to write, add, and revise. She had others read the manuscript as she wrote, consumed with the idea that it should present the land of Hans and Gretel accurately.
When the manuscript of Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates was presented to her publisher in 1865, he was disappointed. He had counted on another set of short stories, which he viewed as a sure seller. But this book was all he could get out of Dodge at the moment, so he decided to go with it. Its publication, in modern terms, was a publishing phenomenon. The book quickly sold out of its first printing, and the demand for the book exploded. It was soon translated into French, German, Dutch, Russian, and Italian.
What few realized at that time was that Dodge had broken new ground in the area of children’s literature. She had created a dramatic, realistic novel that eschewed much of the preachy didacticism that could bore kids to tears. In this book, the children were in charge. They succeeded because of their pluck, their cleverness, and their efforts. Both parents and children loved it, and the book — now considered a classic and a must-read by all children — has been in print for more than 150 years.
A chance to read a Walter Mosley short story from Literary Hub
Winner of too many awards to list, author Walter Mosley has just published a book of his short stories. The title is The Awkward Black Man, and LiteraryHub.com has excerpted one of the stories, “Haunted.”
If you have never read Mosley, this would be a good place to start.
Here’s how the story begins:
I was sitting at the dining room table surrounded by stacks of books and old newspapers, dirty dishes, bills, and first, second, and third drafts of handwritten letters to editors of various literary reviews. My laptop computer screen was open to a staff-page photograph from the Black Rook Review’s website. The BRR was a small literary quarterly out of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I was looking at the picture of young, milk-soppy Clark Heinemann, holding in my hand his rejection of my one-thousandth story, “Shootout on the Wild Westside.” Mira, my girlfriend of the last sixteen years, was leaving to sleep at her mother’s house in Hoboken because, she said, and I quote, “your continual vituperation is too much for me to bear.” Source: “Haunted” | Literary Hub
In last week’s newsletter we noted that Mosley had just been named winner of the 2020 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Gayle Lynds: What she had to overcome to get to her first thriller
Gayle Lynds, author of Masquerade, now considered a classic in the thriller genré, grew up in the middle of nowhere: Council Bluffs, Iowa. She had few friends and little to do.
It was a lonely upbringing in a small Iowa town. So she buried her head in books. She read so much to fill her time that by age ten her mother had no choice but to give the local librarian permission to allow Gayle to read adult books. Source: Gayle Lynds: My First Thriller | CrimeReads
Boredom was only the first of many hurdles that she had to overcome to be the novelist she wanted to be: the one with her name on the book.
The biggest hurdle was gender. No one would buy or read a thriller written by a woman, she was told. And she was told that more than once.
But there was also the hurdle of her own self-concept, a lack of believing that she could actually write a novel.
She had wanted to write since she was a teenager but believed authorship was for other people, not her. “I didn’t think I could write novels,” she says. “That was the purview of gods and goddesses.”
There were also the hurdles of family (two children and a divorce and a second marriage), the need for a steady income, the lack of understanding about how to construct a novel, and — more than once — just plain bad luck.
Still, she persisted, gathering ideas and support from wherever she could and taking advantage of writing opportunities when they were presented to her. She wrote genré novels under pseudonyms, and she co-authored novels. She read anything and everything, particularly newspapers which gave her plenty of ideas. She took classes and made contacts.
Finally, Masquerade was published in 1996, and it became a phenomenal best-selling. Publisher’s Weekly has since named it to the top-ten best spy novels of all time.
The Pullen explains in much more detail how Lynds got there.
From the archives: H.L. Mencken and The American Language: the writer defends his native tongue
H.L. Mencken, writer and journalist, comes to mind when the American public or American culture needs criticism and a bit of biting satire. He knew how to do that and did it better during this 40-plus-year as a newspaper columnist and magazine editor than anyone else.
He did it so well that we forget that there was more to the man than his cigar-chomping, beer-drinking, fiery typewriter wit. Much more.
Mencken took a scholar’s and a collector’s interest in the English language, especially as it was used by Americans. He was fascinated by the language, beginning with the way Americans differed from the English. He began to take note of these differences early in his writing and editing career, and this notice morphed into a study of the language itself — the American language.
Mencken wrote several newspaper columns about his interest in the language and the items he had noticed in his wide reading and in his discussions with people in Baltimore — a hotbed of innovative language use. In the second decade of the 20th century, Mencken decided it was time for someone to become a modern-day Noah Webster. That someone would be him.
The American Language was published in 1919 by Alfred A. Knopf, one of its earliest titles.
It sold well and received excellent reviews. It was revised three times during Mencken’s lifetime and has been revised since his death.
Unlike Mencken’s acerbic views of American politics and the collective ignorance of the American electorate, Mencken celebrated the American language and came to its defense when it was attacked, particularly by English critics. Here’s an excerpt from the section on the Characters of American:
The Characters of American
American thus shows its character in a constant experimentation, a wide hospitality to novelty, a steady reaching out for new and vivid forms. No other tongue of modern times admits foreign words and phrases more readily; none is more careless of precedents; none shows a greater fecundity and originality of fancy. It is producing new words every day, by trope, by agglutination, by the shedding of inflections, by the merging of parts of speech, and by sheer brilliance of imagination. It is full of what Bret Harte called the “sabre-cuts of Saxon”; it meets Montaigne’s ideal of “a succulent and nervous speech, short and compact, not as much delicated and combed out as vehement and brusque, rather arbitrary than monotonous, not pedantic but soldierly, as Suetonius called Caesar’s Latin.” One pictures the common materials of English dumped into a pot, exotic flavorings added, and the bubblings assiduously and expectantly skimmed.
What is old and respected is already in decay the moment it comes into contact with what is new and vivid. Let American confront a novel problem alongside [Pg027] English, and immediately its superior imaginativeness and resourcefulness become obvious. Movie is better than cinema; it is not only better American, it is better English. Bill-board is better than hoarding. Office-holder is more honest, more picturesque, more thoroughly Anglo-Saxon that public-servant. Stem-winder somehow has more life in it, more fancy and vividness, than the literal keyless-watch. Turn to the terminology of railroading (itself, by the way, an Americanism): its creation fell upon the two peoples equally, but they tackled the job independently. The English, seeking a figure to denominate the wedge-shaped fender in front of a locomotive, called it a plough; the Americans, characteristically, gave it the far more pungent name of cow-catcher. So with the casting where two rails join. The English called it a crossing-plate. The Americans, more responsive to the suggestion in its shape, called it a frog.
The American Language is pure Mencken and a delight to read. While you can purchase a copy from Amazon, it is available free through Project Gutenberg.
Dan C.: Four quick things.
Glynn and Suzie W.: Excellent article on RLS (Robert Louis Stevenson). Treasure Island was my favorite of all the books my mother passed on while I was being homeschooled on our farm in LA.
Finally . . .
Best quote of the week:
Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket, and do not pull it out and strike it merely to show you have one. If you are asked what o’clock it is, tell it, but do not proclaim it hourly and unasked, like the watchman. Lord Chesterfield, statesman and writer (1694-1773)
Helping those in need
Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — 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 (UMCOR.org) 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.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: More on Mary Mapes Dodge, Josephine Tey and paranoia, and a couple of podcast recommendations: newsletter, September 18, 2020
Maryville 1920: exceptional local history
Every Sunday in 1920 and for decades previously, Second Presbyterian Church in Maryville, Tennessee, gathered together African-American citizens from businessmen to laborers, housewives to teachers. It was one of two Black congregations in this small East Tennessee community, and its basement housed something commonly known as the city’s “colored library.”
Today there is almost no trace of Second Presbyterian Church. The building is gone, as are most of its records. But my friend Brennan LeQuire has dug deep and come up with information about this long-lost part of the community. What she found — and much more — is in Maryville 1920: From Pistol Creek to the Palace Theater, which was published on Amazon this past weekend.
I helped edit the book and contributed several original pen and ink drawings, including the one above: “Sunday at Second Presbyterian.” Her book is a sterling piece of local history and a model of good research and interesting stories. I urge you to take a look.