This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,845) on Friday, February 10, 2023.
Sadly, attacks on libraries and librarians continue, and recently they have reached my own area. A group from a coalition of churches in my county showed up at a county school board meeting to offer some less-than-friendly instruction to trained librarians about what they should and should not include on the shelves they are paid to attend.
The librarians were ready for them with arguments and evidence, which meant little to these self-appointed keepers of the public morality.
As a group, I have found librarians to be a feisty bunch, quiet and pleasant overall but fiercely protective of the turf they consider their own. So it should be. Librarians are not clerks who simply keep track of the books that are checked out and checked back in. They are trained professionals and front-line soldiers against public narrow-mindedness. They deserve our support and gratitude.
Meanwhile, have a great and literate weekend, and a very Happy New Year.
Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,847 subscribers and had a 35.4 percent open rate; 14 persons unsubscribed.
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Carolyn Wells: the American who anticipated the rules of modern mystery writing
Before the Golden Age of detective stories, with all of its rules for detective story writing, and its famous authors, there was Carolyn Wells.
Largely forgotten today, Wells was one of the most popular and prolific authors in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her detective stories anticipated much of what would become the “rules” of the genre. In fact, one of Wells’ books was about how to write a detective story, possibly the first such full-length book on that topic.
But the novels, short stories, and poems that Wells wrote ranged far beyond mysteries and detective stories. She was also well known for her humorous poems and essays. Her ironic voice is something that her audiences loved.
Her longevity as a writer—she published for more than five decades—is another impressive aspect of her career.
Wells was born in 1862 in New Jersey. When she finished school, she began working as a librarian. Her first book The Sign of the Sphinx was published in 1896. It was a collection of literary charades. A literary charade is a word puzzle that is often written in a humorous, poetic form. The genre was practiced by many famous authors, including Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray.
Wells spent the first decade of her writing career concentrating on her poetry, comic verse, and children’s books. During that time she heard at a public reading That Affair Next Door, a mystery novel by Anna Katharine Green, and Wells found herself enraptured by the possibilities of the detective story.
From then on, she devoted much of her writing energy to producing mystery novels and short stories. One of her most famous characters was Fleming Stone, a detective who first appeared in The Clue, published in 1909. Stone would show up in more than 60 of her books.
Michael Grost, on his website A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection, writes that Wells’ 1917 novel Faulkner’s Folly is “startlingly close to the traditions of the Golden Age novel” in that its events and the actions of its characters are plausible. That is, the book does not rely on tricks of supernatural events to resolve the plot. Grost continues:
Faulkner’s Folly also anticipates the Golden Age in other ways. It takes place in an upper class country house, and draws on a closed circle of suspects of relatives, guests and employees of the murdered man. There is an atmosphere of culture to the novel, too; the murdered man was a great painter, and one of his guests is the widow of the architect who built his mansion. The whole novel is very close in tone to S.S. Van Dine; in fact it is one of the closest approximations in feel to his work among the mystery authors who preceded him.
During her writing career, Wells produced more than 170 novels. They were not all mysteries. One, Ptomaine Street, was a parody of Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. She also wrote many stories for newspapers and magazines, and those pieces were often illustrated by some of the best artists of the day.
She continued to write for children, and many of her stories were also illustrated by excellent artists. They featured unique and fantastic visions of both the human and animal world and delighted her young readers.
As a sideline to her writing, Wells put together an impressive collection of Walt Whitman’s writing and arcana. By the end of her life, this collection included many rare and one-of-a-kind items. Upon her death, she bequeathed that collection to the Library of Congress.
Wells achieved both fortune and fame with her writing. When she was 55, she married Hadwin Houghton, one of the heirs of the Houghton and Mifflin Publishing House fortune. Houghton died after only about a year of marriage. Wells continued to live in their Fifth Avenue house until her death at the age of 79 in 1942.
Unfortunately for modern readers, Wells came along too soon—and on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean—to be considered part of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and she has been largely forgotten. Her books are still available in a variety of places and are certainly worth a look.
First Amendment videos
About a decade ago, video cameras and video editing software were finally coming down close to my level of competence, and I began to try my hand at shooting and editing. One of my first projects was an interview with a good friend and faculty colleague at the University of Tennessee. He was Dwight Teeter (now, sadly, deceased), who was one of the leading First Amendment historians and scholars.
I am presenting several of these videos (all very short) to newsletter readers during the next few weeks. This fourth video is “The nationalization of the First Amendment”
During the 19th century, the First Amendment had not meant much to individual Americans. States still assumed enormous powers to restrict freedoms. But after World War I, a set of Supreme Court decisions—Gitlow v. New York and Near v. Minnesota—established the precedent that the First Amendment applied to states and to individuals. University of Tennessee professor Dwight Teeter discusses how these decisions came about.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Toni Stone, the woman who always wanted to play the men’s game
Toni Stone is a woman who is hard to classify in one phrase. She grew up first in West Virginia and later in St. Paul, Minnesota, living to play baseball. She was determined to play the game—not girl’s softball but real hardball—as long as she could. She lasted much longer than anyone of her generation might have expected.
Stone’s penchant for baseball, and particularly her wanting to play with the boys of the neighborhood, earned her the nickname “Tomboy.” That worried her mother enough so that she bought Toni a pair of ice skates, hoping that these would distract her from her love of the game. She liked the skates, but she liked baseball more.
She was by any measure an outstanding athlete. She showed her skills not only at ice-skating but also at swimming, track, basketball, and even football.
Despite her many athletic skills, she wanted to play baseball.
That determination stayed with her as she entered high school. She was smart enough, but she was an indifferent student, not particularly interested in what the school was trying to teach her. Instead, she was an active reader and an avid patron of the local library. She often skipped school, mostly to play baseball, and finally dropped out before graduating.
Despite her talent, few adults were interested in her and helping her develop her skills. So she read books—books about the rules of the game and how the game should be played. She even showed up for a baseball school run by the manager of the minor league St. Paul Saints, Gabby Street. She refused to be put off by him. In an interview with Ebony magazine, Street said, “Every time I chased her away, she would go around the corner and come back to bug me again.”
Stone replaced her “Tomboy” nickname with “Toni” and kept that for the rest of her life. She moved to the San Francisco area to live with her sister. There, she did odd jobs to support herself, she met her future husband, and, of course, she continued to play baseball. She played for teams in the area’s American Legion baseball league, and eventually talked her way onto the San Francisco Sea Lions, a team that was part of the aspiring West Coast Negro League.
The Sea Lions did a lot of barnstorming, and Toni traveled with them. She became dissatisfied with the team and its manager when she found out that she was making less money than her male teammates. In 1949 she joined the New Orleans Creoles. She played for the Creoles for part of the next four seasons, and got her big break when she was able to join the Indianapolis Clowns.
Much like their counterpart in the basketball world, the Harlem Globetrotters, the Indianapolis Clowns entertained their audiences with antics on the baseball diamond, but they also played seriously good baseball. The owners signed Toni because they believed having a woman on the team would generate more interest and more audience.
Interestingly, Stone replaced Hank Aaron, who had just signed a major-league baseball contract. Aaron had seen her play, and he pronounced her “a very good baseball player.” Another Hall of Famer, Ernie Banks, described her as “smooth.”
Stone was the first of three women signed by the Clowns, and they are the only three females who played on an otherwise all-male professional baseball team in the 20th century. For Stone, baseball life was not an easy one. She was constantly harassed by even her own teammates. Because she played second base, she was often spiked by sliding opponents. She met all of those challenges with a fierce determination, because she loved playing so much.
Her biggest thrill was the time she got a hit off of the unhittable Satchel Paige. “Right out over second base,” she said. “Happiest moment of my life.”
Stone retired after the 1954 season and moved back to the Oakland, California, area, where she worked as a nurse. She died at the age of 75 in 1996.
Robert Harris and the idea for a novel
When thriller writer and best-selling author Robert Harris was thinking about his next novel several years ago, he read a tweet that referred to “the greatest manhunt of the 17th century.”
Harris was intrigued. Many of his books, including Fatherland, Conclave, and Enigma, had been fiction based on events of the 20th century. He had written a trilogy that was set in ancient Rome. He had never dealt with the 17th century. But here might be a story that he could build into a novel that would take him, and eventually his readers, back nearly 350 years.
The result was Act of Oblivion, the story of two of the men who signed the death warrant for King Charles I in 1649 and the man who, after the king’s son was restored to the throne in 1660, tracked them to the American colonies to bring them to the new king’s justice. It was the first time for Harris not only to venture into that time period in one of his novels but also to set much of his story in America.
The New York Times put Act of Oblivion at the top of its best books of historical fiction list for 2022, saying that it is “a fast-paced, wonderfully detailed account of the hunt for the Parliamentarians who signed Charles I’s death warrant. Most of the characters have been resurrected from the history books, except for the avenger who pursues two of the regicides with the obsessive vigor only a personal vendetta can provide.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/04/books/review/the-best-historical-fiction-of-2022.html)
Harris’ first novel, Fatherland, was published in 1992 and stayed on the best-seller lists for weeks. Since then, 14 more novels and several works of non-fiction have appeared. Once Harris has a book idea firmly in mind, it takes about six months to get it put together. “My method is usually to start a book on 15 January and to finish it on 15 June,” he once told The Guardian.
After that, he waits for the next big idea—or the next interesting tweet.
Group giveaways for February
Each of these giveaways includes more than 20 books of various sub-genres. You can download any or all of them in exchange for your email address. The email address will be shared among all authors participating in the giveaway. The purpose of these giveaways is to get books into the hands of readers and to increase email lists for the authors.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Mountain trail – 1
Best quote of the week:
A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist. Louis Nizer, lawyer (6 Feb. 1902-1994)
If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.
If you are interested in reading scripture, either the Old Testament, the New Testament, or both, you might be interested in the videos, commentary, and podcast of the BibleProject.com. The people who work on this site have done some deep and thoughtful reading of the Bible, and the videos they have produced (generally shorter than 10 minutes) are both entertaining and enlightening. They view the Bible as a single entity with a single purpose, and their approach is both delightful and refreshing.
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, 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: The late editor of The Nation, the dangers of alcohol, the novel of a friend, and the improbable end of education as we know it: newsletter, February 3, 2023
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