Sunday, July 29, 2012

Another Dunsany Spotting (and Cabell too)

So, continuing my slow slog through Edmund Wilson's fiction* I came across an unexpected mention of Dunsany and Cabell that I thought I'd share.

The passage in question comes in Edmund Wilson's 1929 novel I Thought of Daisy, a dismal roman a clef about life in Greenwich Village featuring characters based on EW's friend John Dos Passos, the love of his life Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wilson himself, and an idealized flapper who is the girl of his dreams. In one scene the point-of-view Wilsonian narrator finds himself in an unfamiliar flat and, characteristically, checks out the bookshelves:

". . . on the shallow mantlepiece, a plaster cast of the Winged Victory; and between two narrow windows, which looked down on the Thirty-fourth Street car tracks, a book case containing, I noted, volumes of D. H. Lawrence, Cabell, Dunsany, and Shaw; George Moore's Memoirs of My Dead Life; Freud's Interpretation of Dreams; Frank Harris's Oscar Wilde; several volumes of Levy's Nietzsche and a whole shelf's array of Dostoevsky."

[1995 paperback edition, page 103]

It's not entirely clear (to me, at any rate) what Wilson means by this assemblage, who seem merely to be popular authors of the time, representing what was fashionable to read in the previous decade. It may be intended as characterization of the apartment owners, the Micklers', but this seems somewhat unlikely: we never do meet Mrs. Mick, who's locked herself in the bathroom, while her husband Larry turns out to be drunken lout, given to waving a pistol around and taking pot-shots at things (like the aforesaid Winged Victory).

More likely, it's simply local color: these are the sort of books you'd find on the shelves of a typical apartment belonging to the sort of folks Wilson hung out with back in the day, a detail transcribed from his notebooks for verisimilitude (of which his 'novel' is full).

Of the nine authors mentioned, Lawrence, Shaw, and Wilde are now firmly ensconced in the canon --which was not necessarily the case when Wilson wrote this passage. Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Freud had already come into their own as major thinkers. George Moore is lesser know today but secure in the second tier (authors you hear about when studying for a degree but probably never actually read).

That just leaves Cabell, whose vogue peaked in 1917 with the banning of JURGEN but whose stock remained high throughout the twenties, and Dunsany, who became famous during the war years as a playwright and who reached the height of his renown around 1919-1920 at the time of his U. S. tour. Interestingly enough, a latter-day sign of their lingering cachet can be found in the fact that the volumes of Cabell and Dunsany in C. S. Lewis's library, the remnants of which are now at the Wade, are American editions formerly belonging to Joy Gresham, who was a native-born New Yorker of the next generation (she wd have been in her early teens about the time Wilson's book on Greenwich Village appeared).

Next up: Dunsany and Fitzgerald.

--John R.

*my advice to anyone thinking of reading I Thought of Daisy? Don't.


David Bratman said...

Dunsany's cachet may have lingered for a while longer still. My mother, who was born the year that Wilson's novel appeared (she has no shame over her age), had certainly heard of and was aware of him, though her reading tastes have rarely gone for popular fiction. I'm sure she was aware of Cabell in the same way. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I had at least heard of Cabell in connection with the Jurgen case before I came to know him as a fantasy author.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David.
Interesting observation. That wd tie in with Jared Lobdell's memories of growing up in a household given to quoting CYRANO, Dunsany, and Benet. Perhaps Dunsany didn't slip from the public eye as much as I'd thought -- as in people no longer seem to have been buying his newer books, but there's evidence that the early edition from Luce were still be reprinted years later.

And of course there was the younger generation of writers, like Bradbury and Carter, who knew v. well who Dunsany was and kept his memory green within their own community.

--John R., who finds the fall and rise of literary reputations* endlessly fascinating.

*esp. Tolkien's

JL said...

Makes me think of the bookshelves in Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" which are packed with all the beautiful forgotten or unwritten books of the past ...

For the record, AFAIK (and according to most sources on Cabell's biography) "Jurgen" was suppressed in 1920 by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (look them up on Wikipedia, their logo is pure gold!) and cleared in 1922 (the judge believed Cabell's argument that the novel was "based on the mediæval legends of Jurgen" ...) Just around the same time, 1921, the same people successfully banned James Joyce's "Ulysses".