Estampe XII: activity at the edge of an emptiness


On November 16, 1919, someone named George B. Parks notified what was then called The New York Times Review of Books that a book purporting to be a war memoir was so factually inaccurate that it couldn’t be non-fiction.

George B. Parks was undoubtedly correct. The book he was examining is only 84 pages long, and in that tiny intimate volume the facts stand out only because they are so few and so vaguely described. On the other hand, an extratextual fact, this one startling, is that as of November 1919 this book had already been in print for a full year. Just days after the end of the war, the Times had announced its publication this way.


The book was so well received that its author eventually came forward and identified herself as the journalist and writer of children’s books Grace Duffie Boylan. The facsimile published by Forgotten Books bears a title page date of 1919, and the digitized copy at bears a title page date of 1920.

But why? The book itself is not just vapid but almost totally empty. In heaven, wirelesses the dead soldier to his mother, the souls in khaki do, you know, stuff. They have dogs and cats and horses to keep them company, and the dogs travel busily back and forth between the astral plane and the terrestrial but the cats are looked on with suspicion. No reason for this is given. However, we do specifically learn that everybody spends time discussing the text “They shall be one flesh.” What the doughboys in the clouds wonder is: if a woman has been married more than once, with which one of her husbands will she be reunited in Paradise?

(Grace Duffie Boylan herself was married four times.)

Well, the answer to the question “Why?” is in the history books. It isn’t surprising: in the horrible stillness after the guns of the Great War went silent, millions of readers went gleaning for grains of comfort in bookstores, where businesspeople were waiting to accommodate them.

New York Sun 9.21.1919Click to enlarge.

The same thing had happened after the Civil War, when Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s consoling theological fiction The Gates Ajar provoked Mark Twain into a full-length parody, Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.

But you wouldn’t read The Gates Ajar or Thy Son Liveth the way you’ve read my paragraph of literary history about them. The consolations of Thy Son Liveth were made available in 1918 and 1919 and 1920 by the respectable Boston firm of Little, Brown, and Company for the reasonable price of 75¢, and of course it was a large predicted multiple of 75¢ that motivated the literary labor of Mrs. Boylan, Mr. Little, and Mr. Brown. The old-fashionedness of that symbol ¢ is the kind of topic that literary history is loquacious about, but emptiness in the heart of a grieving mother is mute. Around the wordless emptiness there bustle George B. Parks and the journalists of the New York Times and Sun and assorted Little, Brown businesspeople, but by contrast with their cheerful realism (“Another foot of books for the spiritualism shelf” [laughs]) the emptiness is only darker, more unimaginable, and more mute, if there could be degrees of muteness.

Ten years earlier, a vast excavation was being hollowed out under New York for the new Grand Central Station. As fast as it was created, however, it was filled again. In this hole, life was ongoing. As of 1908, someone looking at it through a fence might have felt exhilarated on behalf of the excavation’s embodiment of life growing up toward the light from deep in the earth. But ten years afterward, Grand Central was complete and its newsstands were selling fictions purporting to speak in a language from beyond the grave. The excavation had been completed by then, and light no longer shone into it.

Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress,
Photoshopped. Click to enlarge.

Political fiction: an addendum to the bibliography

In the February 22 New York Times Book Review, p. 35, Mohsin Hamid and Francine Prose discuss the question, “Does fiction have the power to sway politics?” Ms. Prose mentions political fictions published as fictions, such as The Jungle, while Mr. Hamid calls our attention to fictions that are ostensibly non-fictional, such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the media releases about weapons of mass destruction that were published in the runup to the Iraq War. Both essayists also mention Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and either of them could have mentioned that Mark Twain blamed Sir Walter Scott for convincing a bunch of slave-rapists that they were lairds possessed of an honor worth dying for. And I wonder, too:

Wouldn’t San Francisco in particular, wouldn’t the United States in general, be healthier and happier if its oligarchs hadn’t been taught by the didactic fictions of Ayn Rand that they really, non-fictionally, are Nietzschean supermen, jenseits von Gut und Böse and as sound as a dollar?

A fact no bigger than a grain of rice

Craig Field of Austin, Texas, was concerned enough by his ethical dilemma to rehearse it before the eyes of the world. In the New York Times Magazine’s column “The Ethicist” for December 16, 2012, Mr. Field asked: when a runaway cat returns home after several years, what obligation does the cat’s owner have to whoever it was that cared for her during her occultation?

Chuck Klosterman, the Ethicist, worked through the problem, but he was reluctant to grant Mr. Field’s factual premise. “First,” he asked, “are you certain this is the same cat? The idea of a prodigal kitty (returning home after ‘several years’) strikes me as implausible.”

It is implausible, no doubt, in what’s called the temperate zone. But in the warm climate of Hawaii, where I live, cats go feral and live on and on. In Roughing It, Mark Twain devotes a long, cheerful description to the contented cats of Honolulu. But the little cat who showed up on our doorstep some time around 2007 wasn’t contented. She was starving. I opened the door, she walked right in and made herself at home, and that was that. A few nights later I was startled awake by a thump on my chest and looked up to see a pair of big yellow eyes staring intently into mine. “Whither thou goest, I will go,” was the line that awoke with me, and from then on we called our new little cat Ruth.

But she grew ill in 2012, and her veterinarian discovered that she had been fitted with an identifying microchip and was much older than we’d realized: seventeen years. After she died, the attendants in charge of animal disposal for the Hawaiian Humane Society took one more reading of her microchip, and that’s when I discovered her previous name and the name of the previous owner who had had her neutered and microchipped in 1995.

Her previous name had been given to her by my daughter. Her previous owner was me. Her mother had been a feral cat who moved under our house and had two litters of kittens there. And Ruth, after a short time with her mother and us, had taken up her mother’s way of life and run away. She was gone from about 1995 to about 2007 – so many years that it didn’t occur to any of us that she and that little runaway kitten were the same cat.

The name-bearing magnetic microchip that’s injected under the skin of a cat’s neck is only about the size of a grain of rice. On behalf of folklore and against all plausibility, this one went to its end in the Humane Society’s crematorium as the testimony of a hard little fact.