Category Archives: Signet Classics

March 5, 2019

6. Stevenson: Kidnapped

006 KIDNAPPED

CD6, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 239 pp.

This glorious passport to romance and high adventure has delighted generations of readers. It is the story of young David Balfour, an orphan, whose miserly uncle cheats him out of his inheritance and schemes to have him kidnapped, shanghaied, and sold into slavery. But justice triumphs — after a spirited odyssey which includes a shipwreck, a hazardous journey across Scotland with a daredevil companion, intrigues, narrow escapes and desperate fighting. Rich in action and characterization, this exhilarating novel was considered by Stevenson to be his finest work of fiction. Henry James called Kidnapped, “Stevenson’s best book.”

With an Afterword by Gerard Previn Meyer


Audiobooks of Kidnapped average around eight hours. It took me approximately ten months to read it. Not busy months, either.

Part of it is simply that my attention is currently very poor. A substantial portion of my brain is constantly flitting around like a moth. After picking up a book I often end up setting it back down after only a few sentences because the moth is spoiling the experience.

Another part of it is that I started Kidnapped three times: the first time getting about halfway, and the second time nearly finishing — maybe three feet! But each time my rhythm was interrupted by some event. This is the kind of book that wants to be read in one continuous burst of fantasy, so picking up in the middle after an extended absence seemed inappropriate. Whereas of course the prospect of having to begin again — and then yet again — was intrinsically untempting, and a certain amount of willpower needed to be accumulated first. Thus delay begat delay and here we are.

So it took me all year, but don’t let that dissuade you from reading it. It really will only take eight hours, and they’ll be eight hours spent in very fine company.


The first half of Treasure Island is my gold standard for prose storytelling. It’s like Mozart: so pure and perfect that children can take it for granted. Everything is simply the way it has to be — “and why wouldn’t it be?” Its naturalness is so complete that one forgets it’s an achievement. All seems equally innocuous, unlabored, unfussy, unremarkable — all the power flows back to the root, to storytelling itself, to the enchantment. It is ordinary and magical.

Kidnapped showed me that it wasn’t luck; it’s all craft. Stevenson writes like a master film editor. He has excellent intuition for the choreography of attention, its rhythms and patterns and tendencies. We never notice the ship being steered; we simply see next what we ought to see next. I made a point of visualizing a movie version as I went, directing each shot in my head, taking the text to be a continuous voiceover. The pacing of the prose allowed for this, where most wouldn’t — witness for example Signet’s next at bat, Thomas Hardy, who switches from 78 RPM to 33 RPM willy-nilly — and this speaks to exactly what I’m admiring: all Stevenson’s moves are the real moves of a living, active, youthful mind. Dipping from surface to depth and back again in graceful, unselfconscious motions, casting an eye around a room and then to the face of the person speaking and then inward and then out, etc. etc. He experiences the story in time and space, he breathes its air and sees what it sees.

Treasure Island is wonderful, but an adult reader with an overcomplicated adult brain may find the tempo too brisk to fully register. It’s been written for children, who experience weight and time in everything, no matter how fleeting. Kidnapped feels distinctly more grown-up; the style thinks a bit more, observes a bit more. Jim Hawkins is about 13 or 14 (isn’t he?) whereas David Balfour is 17, and the book is accordingly that much further toward maturity. But Stevenson has an idea of “maturity” that does not in any way repudiate or supersede youth and innocence. This is to be admired.

In the afterword by Gerard Previn Meyer, there’s a quote from Stevenson that I found inspiring:

The true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all. In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action. That is the explanation, that the excuse.

He expands on this in the full essay from which it comes (which I think is worth reading in its entirety): any notion of “realism” that opposes it to so-called distortions of Romantic emotionality is not just an aesthetic failure but a philosophical one. Emotion-infused experience is real and emotionless experience is not real. We should not call the elimination of emotion “clarity” when really it’s just a form of fear. This philosophy comes through in the writing. David Balfour’s naivete, and his experience of the world as sensation first and foremost, is depicted as putting him constantly at risk — but this risk is embraced, and celebrated. The risk is the joy, in the telling of a story like this! (Look at the title!)

This is an outlook I endorse and aspire to. An innocent stumbles out into the world and is horribly misused and endangered and beset by pain and suffering… and it’s all terrifically worthwhile because the world is splendid. Innocents are foolish but innocents are also right. That’s as worthy and evergreen a philosophy as can be put in a book, isn’t it? I think full and capable commitment to this principle qualifies Stevenson as a great artist. Again: there’s something of Mozart to it.


Kidnapped only strengthened my impression that Huckleberry Finn is deeply flawed. What was Twain trying to achieve with his characters if not this? What do Twain’s admirers want to claim for him if not this? But put these authors side by side and tell me which is the more true. Stevenson takes the open-eyed, sensation-hungry worldview of a boy and lets its gaze occasionally pass over glimpses of depth, until a full adult world can be sensed looming; whereas Twain takes the jaundiced worldview of a cynical adult and tries to leaven it with dollops of childlike sensation, retrieved from a jar.


Alan Breck, David’s companion through most of the book, very much stands out as a an author’s subject, a project, a portrait bust. Stevenson set himself the task of painting a man on the page, the way a “high” author like Henry James would — but James would use 10,000 brush strokes and make the reader wait. Stevenson’s technique for character is of a piece with his technique for story: convey whatever a boy would take in, and when he would take it in; no more and no less. The individual strokes may seem broad, theatrical, but the balance of their combined placement is a really fine achievement. Alan’s vanity and resourcefulness and pettiness and generosity, Alan as big brother and Alan as foreigner, etc. etc. Long John Silver is a similar achievement, because he’s a similarly mixed bag, but he’s ultimately a character for Jim to overcome, whereas Alan is a character for David to embrace (with reservations), so his dimensionality is that much more significant to the reader. Television writers ought to study him. They ought to study Stevenson in general. This was “real art in a commercial mode” exactly in the way that the best TV is.

I found the ending very strongly affecting in the emotional truth of its abruptness. No winding down for form’s sake! Stevenson’s sincere feeling for the characters has guided him this far, and as soon as the feeling has crested, the story stops itself because it knows as well as you that what’s done is done. We reach a long-foreseen wistful inevitability… “and so it came to pass, and to yammer on about lesser things now would be in poor taste, so let’s stop.” The final sentences are superb, a hand-closing-the-storybook-at-the-end-of-the-Disney-movie gesture done as well as I can imagine it being done.


I’m sure this all sounds highly enthusiastic, so I must now admit: I probably wouldn’t have had the patience for this book as a child, because of all the time and attention given to Scottish ways and Scottish sights and Scottish lore and Scottish history and Scottish politics and all manner of Scottish color, for which I would have had no framework of interest. And even now it seems to me somewhat to the side of the book’s real strengths.

Plus I continue to find written-out dialect to be an aesthetic error, almost a vice. It’s a trap for writers: when you’re trying to turn human observation into words, it might seem like the purest expression of your art would be accurate transcription of the quirks of how people talk. But, alas, that’s nae the way! Wheesht, man! I cannae tell ye it any clearer! The difference between the narrator’s idiom and the idiom of the characters becomes a conspicuous gap, implicitly skeptical; it can’t help but make the author seem more aloof and the dialogue less immediate, and who needs that?

At least Stevenson’s indulgence is far milder than Twain. And to be fair, given the setting, some dialect was obviously inevitable. My distaste is just for stuff that feels like it goes beyond the inevitable, that excitedly pursues dialect as an end in itself. It’s something for which the printed word is intrinsically ill-suited and so should be handled with appropriate delicacy.


David becomes very ill at least three times, and dangerously exhausted several times as well; there is a definite emphasis on depicting the experience of mentally and physically compromised states. That’s the sort of thing of which Pincher Martin was composed almost exclusively — and I note a striking resemblance, perhaps more than coincidental, between that book and the episode here in which David is stranded on a tiny island (so he believes), sleeping on a stone, battered by the rain, and eating nauseating shellfish to survive.

For our excerpt I’ve decided to go with one of these sorts of passages; it’s the sturdy, eager fascination with hardship that I think is so distinctively healthy about this book. Here’s David immediately after having been konked on the head and, spoiler alert, kidnapped:

I came to myself in darkness, in great pain, bound hand and foot, and deafened by many unfamiliar noises. There sounded in my ears a roaring of water as of a huge mill-dam; the thrashing of heavy sprays, the thundering of the sails, and the shrill cries of seamen. The whole world now heaved giddily up, and now rushed giddily downward; and so sick and hurt was I in body, and my mind so much confounded, that it took me a long while, chasing my thoughts up and down, and ever stunned again by a fresh stab of pain, to realize that I must be lying somewhere bound in the belly of that unlucky ship, and that the wind must have strengthened to a gale. With the clear perception of my plight, there fell upon me a blackness of despair, a horror of remorse at my own folly, and a passion of anger at my uncle, that once more bereft me of my senses.

When I returned again to life, the same uproar, the same confused and violent movements, shook and deafened me; and presently, to my other pains and distresses, there was added the sickness of an unused landsman on the sea. In that time of my adventurous youth, I suffered many hardships; but none that was so crushing to my mind and body, or lit by so few hopes, as these first hours on board the brig.

It’s about suffering and nausea and utter despair, but notice that it’s also about the neverending thrill of sensation. “The thundering of the sails!” In my imagined movie version such stuff was depicted as simply and accurately as possible; no Romantic exaggeration is necessary to find the power in it. Sails really do make that thundering sound, and you really could hear it even if you were lying in a state of pain and terror in the hold.

I take this as a kind of primer on how to experience suffering: with such clarity and vigor that a boy would enjoy reading about it.



All the covers.

CP553, 60¢, ~1971.

First price bump, design unchanged from the original seen above. Once again it seems like the layout had to be reconstructed after the first print run: in the first edition the fellow has more or less white teeth; in all subsequent appearances he has one obviously gold tooth (see below).

Hey, speaking of the fellow with the gold tooth: this is pretty clearly a cover illustration by someone who didn’t read the book. “It’s about pirates, right?” Unscrupulous sailors do appear in Kidnapped, but they’re only in a couple chapters and hardly represent the book as a whole. And they’re just described as run-of-the-mill workaday badmen; they don’t have bandannas or knives in their mouths or gold teeth. They’re not pirates. This cover is, frankly, wrong. Didn’t stop them from using it for 25 years.

Typeface is Century.

006-B
CT744, 75¢, 1974.
CQ881, 95¢, 1976.
CY1035, $1.25, 1978.
CW1194, $1.50, 1979.
??1602, $?.??, ????.

70s branding. Looks like Miss Cross’s copy is one of these.

006-C

CW1754, $1.50, 1982?

The “centered logo” phase.

006-D

CJ1972, $1.95, 1985?
CE2333, $?.??, 1987?
CE2504, $3.95, 1991?

The 80s cover: detail from a painting apparently called North Sea Passage, by one Henry Redmore, an unstoppable producer of this sort of thing. A dull choice but it cannot be denied that there is a ship in this book! To be fair: if you’re restricted to stock artwork, Kidnapped is a pretty tough assignment — there are plenty of enticing paintings of the Scottish highlands, but they’re generally serene and uninhabited, and of course the cover needs to suggest action. A ship on a choppy sea sort of solves the problem. It’s just awfully generic.

Typeface isn’t Ludovico or Zapf Chancery or Catull or El Greco; I can’t figure out what it is. The lowercase “p” is extremely distinctive. Let me know. (I suppose it’s possible that this isn’t from a published font, and is just assembled from a calligraphic alphabet found in some book. But more likely it’s a typeface that never made it to digital and is now effectively defunct. Damn you Macintosh!)

006-E

2768, $3.95, 2000.

With a new introduction by John Seelye

Here they bite the bullet and accept that no stock artwork can better the famous Wyeth illustrations, which entered the public domain in 1988. Certainly this is a wonderful illustration… but maybe not the best choice for a cover. “What’s going on here?” one might well ask. “What kind of character is that guy in the coat and how am I supposed to feel about him?”

Plus Signet has made sure to present it in the least flattering possible context: a yellow parchment texture that makes the painting look washed-out, and a distracting “angled rip” framing that spoils the composition. Presumably the intention is to suggest that an EXCITING PIRATE has whipped out his sword, avast ye!, and SLICED THRILLINGLY through the parchment to reveal this illustration beneath. All that and a little shell design because why not. No, that’s not a logo, it’s just a little shell design. To fill space. That’s all.

The Seelye intro is passably relevant but awfully academic in tone.

Typeface is Baskerville.

006-F

3143, $4.95, 2009.

With a New Afterword by Claire Harman

“Oh what’s that you say? You say we should give it a rest with the pirate stuff? Well just for that we’re gonna put goddamned BLACKBEARD on this cover! Yeah, you heard us! Kidnapped is about BLACKBEARD THE PIRATE now, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

It’s a near-certainty that they found this painting by typing “pirate” into an image service search engine. Oh well. At least it’s colorful.

Typeface is Windlass. You know, for pirates.

March 20, 2018

5. Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

005 HUCKLEBERRY FINN

CD5, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 288 pp.

He has no mother, his father is a brutal drunkard, and he sleeps in a hogshead. He’s Huck Finn, a homeless waif, a liar and thief on occasion and a casual rebel against respectability. But on the day that he encounters another fugitive from trouble, a runaway slave named Jim, he also finds for the first time in his life love, acceptance and a sense of responsibility. And it is in the exciting and moving story of these two outcasts fleeing down the Mississippi on a raft, that a wonderful metamorphosis occurs. The boy nobody wants becomes a human being with a sense of his own destiny and the courage to choose between violating the code of the conventional and betraying the person who needs him most. Rich in color, humor and the adventurous frontier experience of the Mississippi, this great novel vividly recreates the world, the people and the language that Mark Twain knew and loved from his own years on the riverboats. “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” — Ernest Hemingway

With an Afterword by George P. Elliott


Let me be clear at the outset: as someone who was assigned this book in high school and failed to read most of it, and has since felt a pang of shame whenever this book is mentioned — and, as books go, it’s mentioned pretty often — I am now pleased and relieved to be able to say truthfully: I, a literate American, have of course read and attended to every word in Huckleberry Finn. I live in virtue.

Okay. Sacrilege follows.


The standard take is that Tom Sawyer is a children’s book, but Huckleberry Finn is a masterful novel, a work on a whole other plane.

My counter-take: Huckleberry Finn is the sequel to Tom Sawyer.

In fact, it’s the second book in the Tom Sawyer YA series. In its final pages it sells its sequel, Hardy Boys-style, explicitly indicating that it will soon be followed by Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians. (… though after writing a few chapters of that work Twain abandoned it. Later he published Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective, and then worked for a while on Tom Sawyer’s Conspiracy but left it incomplete.) The final sentence, in which Huck says he soon intends to “light out for the Territory,” has become an idiom, lovingly invoked for its supposed resonance and depth (“ah, in a sense, don’t we all inwardly light out toward our own private frontiers,” that sort of thing) — when in fact it’s the equivalent of “but we’d soon find ourselves caught up in The Shore Road Mystery.” To me this is emblematic of the tradition of stubborn overreading that burdens this book.

Huckleberry Finn is indeed somewhat more philosophically expansive than Tom Sawyer, but that’s because it was written with even less of a plan and even less of a specific flavor or character. It’s not more ambitious, it’s just less narrow because it doesn’t have the focus that comes with being purposeful. It’s riff after riff, a totally inconsistent sequence of disorderly invention, some of which is trenchant and striking and memorable, and some of which is utterly tedious. It’s frankly a big mess. It’s untamed, and I would never deny that that can be a thrill — sometimes it feels like you’re getting a glimpse of stuff that doesn’t “belong” in a book, stuff that’s been smuggled in — but recklessness is different from bold vision. My impression with Tom Sawyer was that Twain was wandering aimlessly through his own dreamscape, on instinct, and that impression is only deepened here. It’s a thing, it’s an interesting thing, but it’s not what “great novel” means to me.


So: Jim. This is a great American character? For this Mark Twain is hailed as a profound humanist? I’m no minstrel show expert but surely the noble clown, the pitiable clown, the pathos of the clown, was a part of that tradition as it is of every clown tradition. Right? And this is surely a minstrel show. It boggles my mind that when Twain has Huck struggle briefly and ostentatiously with the fact that Jim’s a person after all, or has Jim, in the middle of his one-dimensional clowning, say a few “noble” things, the cultural establishment is eager to call out a unique literary moment of transcendent human insight. Yuck! Self-important minstrelsy is still minstrelsy. The question of slavery and indeed of racism itself ought not be one of whether we’re willing to shed tears for a poor, simple, noble-hearted slave — or more to the point, whether we’re willing to shed tears for a white boy coming to the realization that a black man is a human being. Tears too can be smug.

I’m not saying it isn’t done with panache. “All right I’ll go to hell” is indeed a striking moment — clearly calculated to have a big booming self-righteous impact — but let’s not miss the forest for the one tree, decorated with Christmas ornaments though it may be.

The infamous word that is on every page of this book is not there by coincidence, nor is it part of a unique authorial scheme of edgy boldness. It simply is because it was. This book is the kind of irredeemably 19th-century product that in EVERY OTHER INSTANCE has been relegated to controlled laboratory study and banished from the actual cultural sphere. Yet this one somehow got through. I’m hardly here to argue that it should have been more censored — if anything, I think we should be less censorious of old stuff in general, across the board — I’m just saying I question the rationale by which this exception has been made.

I’m inclined to attribute it in no small part to Ernest Hemingway’s “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” a load-bearing quotation if ever there was one. Does anyone really believe this is remotely true? It’s just an example of what we now call a “hot take.” Hot takes don’t have shelf lives; they’re supposed to die immediately after being uttered. And since when does anyone care what Ernest Hemingway said about anything? I defy the Huckleberry Finn establishment to break up with this quote. It’s a codependent relationship; it’s unhealthy. The time has come. Go ahead, sell a copy of the book without the quote on the back. I dare you. You’ll be better for it. You’ll see yourself more clearly.


Okay, next gripe: The dialect narration is an obnoxious and disingenuous ploy. It’s more minstrelsy, Huck being a kind of minstrel too. The whole enterprise is fundamentally exploitative condescension: “Listen to the way simple folk talk! Listen to the way simple folk think! Warms your heart and stirs your spirit, don’t it?” Plus I have no patience left for the “holy fool” conceit by which authors get to moralize by aw shucksing it all into the irrefutable mouths of babes. “If you don’t like my cranky opinions, just take it from this folksy puppet! Life is like a box of chocolates!”

Verisimilitude is a transparently weak excuse for writing an entire novel in ostentatious and labored dialect; he’s clearly unconcerned with verisimilitude in a thousand other ways. Only along certain axes. This dimension, this “ah lack the way you talk!“-speak is a fixture that appealed to him in the Sears catalog and he bought it. He saved his money elsewhere but this he went ahead and bought. I reckon it ain’t ’cause he was a stickler for accuracy, no sir. Why, I seen plenty o’ them book authors who’d sooner eat a live skunk than waste their time writin’ a heap of dialect. But this here Mister Mark Twain, well, somehow it sat right with him. If you ask me it ain’t but the sign of a bad upbringing, to go around imitatin’ and imposteratin’ every little syllabus a body’s likely to pronunciate, but all the time be fillin’ them characters’ mouths with a bunch of unnatural mistakes and malaporpoises that I reckon are sposed to be sweet and funny and make all the ladies coo and simper like, when any fool knows them characters would’ve never said nuthin’ of the kind! It’s a damned shame when a growed man like that don’t have the common decency to write his own words in his own pen, and admit what’s his and what’s real, and what he just made up to satisfy his own confounded fancy.

Furthermore the map, he’s all over it. He’ll do whatever gets him through each paragraph with a sense of pride. We’re told that Tom Sawyer “lifts his hat ever so gracious and dainty, like it was the lid of a box that had butterflies asleep in it and he didn’t want to disturb them.” Lovely, but, come on, is that really Huck talking? There is no Huck.


Over the course of several weeks of increasingly slow reading, I grew to feel that I was humoring an extremely self-involved acquaintance who wanted constantly to be showing off, doing voices, making fun of things he thought were dumb, making pronouncements, and generally holding court, and that I was going along mostly because I was afraid he’d unleash tetchy fire on me if I didn’t.

I’m glad to be done and out of his company. And I came away with more sympathy for my high school self than I expected.


Once again, illustrations are woven into the fabric of the original edition, Twain personally approved them (some of them enthusiastically), and their omission from future editions continues to seem to me extremely unfortunate. I read from a scan and am glad I did. (I suppose some might argue that I probably would have thought more highly of the book if I had read a “standard” non-illustrated edition. But that’s exactly because the “standard” reading is a wishful, revisionist one.)


All this said, I can’t deny that Twain can turn a sentence now and again. Here’s our rather famous excerpt, the showpiece passage from part of the book that everyone actually likes:

Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres — perfectly still — just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line — that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away — trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks — rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river, being a woodyard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it!

The tonal deadpan at “but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around” is humor somewhere midway in the process of transmutation into serious aesthetics. For me, a gesture like that is as stimulating as literature gets — bracing! — and when Twain’s at his very best, he’s there. Only some of this book is his very best, but indeed some of it is. I’ll try to be grateful for that.


CP597, 60¢, 1972.

One more with the original design. Remember how at one point in the 80s they tried to get away with dropping the The from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? It’s because of the mismatch in the two titles. Cover designers hate inconsistency. Here in their first round of covers they tried to resolve the problem the other way, by sticking a The on to Huck. Forgivable but wrong.

005 B
CT694, 75¢, 1974.
CQ953, 95¢, 1977.
CY1075, $1.25, 1979.
CW1317, $1.50, 1980.
CE1434, $1.75, 1981.

70s branding.

005 C

CW1673, $1.50, 1982. (price drop!)

The brief “centered logo” period ushers in this attractively dauby new painting. Huck seems a little young maybe, but what can I say, I like the textures. This seems to precede the Tom Sawyer illustration from the same artist, whose identity remains unclear. With no further information available, my wild guess of “Robert Lapsley” still stands.

(“The” disappears from both titles at once. Good try but now you’ve gone too far.)

005 D005 D2

CE1912, $1.75, 1983?
CJ2373, $1.95, 1987?
CE2373, $2.95, date unknown.

Second rebranding. The “100th anniversary” burst seems to have been applied to a couple years’ worth of printings there (later CE1912s and maybe all CJ2373s?) The first edition was published in 1884.

005 E
2650, $4.95, 1997.

With a New Introduction by Padgett Powell

Damn 90s. The painting is another Winslow Homer to match the Tom Sawyer cover of the same era. Period and spirit correct, but actual subject matter not really.

The Powell intro is one of those “I don’t really want to write this so I’ll make it about my personality instead” deals, but I respect where he ends up: that the best case for the book is in the flair and force of the prose itself. Agreed.

005 F
3094, $5.95, 2008.

With a New Afterword by Jayne Anne Phillips

Oh man, here we go again.

Isn’t “Huck” holding that apple rather oddly? Whatever could he be thinking? If you remember our investigations into the matching Tom Sawyer cover, you probably won’t be surprised to learn what’s really going on here. $34,375! That may seem steep, but then again, who can really put a price on beauty? On expression, spontaneity, mastery of the human form? Especially on that hand, good god.

Let’s be clear: this loathsome little newsie is not Huckleberry Finn. No way, nohow. And even a cover designer who had never read a word of the book should have been able to see that.


[The original and correct cover]

December 5, 2017

4. Conrad: Heart of Darkness & The Secret Sharer

004 HEART OF DARKNESS

CD4, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 160 pp.

(This cover, like Tom Sawyer’s, seems to have been painstakingly traced and redone at some point in its first couple of years. Compare. In this case the above is the first version; subsequent editions (see below) use the recreated illustration.)

The dark places of the human soul — this is the region that Joseph Conrad so brilliantly explores. In the steaming jungles of the Congo or the vast reaches of the sea, it is man’s capacity for good and for evil that is his enduring theme.

Heart of Darkness tells of a powerful European, Kurtz, who reverts to awful savagery in an isolated native trading post.

The Secret Sharer describes the terrible conflict of a young captain who is torn between his duty to his ship and his loyalty to a young officer with whom he identifies himself after the murder of a mutinous crew member.

Compelling, vivid, exotic, suspenseful, these are among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language. “To make you hear, to make you feel, above all to make you see” — this was first and last, the aim of Conrad.

With an Introduction by Albert J. Guerard


I was assigned both of these in or around 10th grade, and read them in my trademark style, bounding over the text like a stone over water. A lot of description? Skip it. Somehow I was never properly taught how to read descriptive passages. My instincts told me that attempting to achieve visual effects in prose was futile, and I wished authors would know better than to try.

Here’s your first excerpt, the opening paragraph of The Secret Sharer:

On my right hand there were lines of fishing stakes resembling a mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences, incomprehensible in its division of the domain of tropical fishes, and crazy of aspect as if abandoned forever by some nomad tribe of fishermen now gone to the other end of the ocean; for there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach. To the left a group of barren islets, suggesting ruins of stone walls, towers, and blockhouses, had its foundations set in a blue sea that itself looked solid, so still and stable did it lie below my feet; even the track of light from the westering sun shone smoothly, without that animated glitter which tells of an imperceptible ripple. And when I turned my head to take a parting glance at the tug which had just left us anchored outside the bar, I saw the straight line of the flat shore joined to the stable sea, edge to edge, with a perfect and unmarked closeness, in one leveled floor half brown, half blue under the enormous dome of the sky. Corresponding in their insignificance to the islets of the sea, two small clumps of trees, one on each side of the only fault in the impeccable joint, marked the mouth of the river Meinam we had just left on the first preparatory stage of our homeward journey; and, far back on the inland level, a larger and loftier mass, the grove surrounding the great Paknam pagoda, was the only thing on which the eye could rest from the vain task of exploring the monotonous sweep of the horizon. Here and there gleams as of a few scattered pieces of silver marked the windings of the great river; and on the nearest of them, just within the bar, the tug steaming right into the land became lost to my sight, hull and funnel and masts, as though the impassive earth had swallowed her up without an effort, without a tremor. My eye followed the light cloud of her smoke, now here, now there, above the plain, according to the devious curves of the stream, but always fainter and farther away, till I lost it at last behind the miter-shaped hill of the great pagoda. And then I was left alone with my ship, anchored at the head of the Gulf of Siam.

No way would I have read any of these words, as a 10th-grader. I would just let my eyes drift down it, waiting to be stopped by the subliminal sparkle of an active verb — like looking for Waldo. He’s not here! Onward. And I still feel that temptation sometimes, to rush past the painting and get to the acting. But it turns out that when I force myself to stop, move very slowly word by word, and paint, I enjoy the task.

I think what I was never given the opportunity to learn is just how slow that work can be, compared to other reading. It’s counter-intuitive, after all, since in reality, imagery is taken in very quickly whereas action is intrinsically time-consuming. In prose nearly the opposite. Elementary school students ought to be given the assignment of reading passages like this and then actually drawing everything that’s described. (For all I know, maybe I was given that task, and then later decided on my own that it would be preferable to outrun it. Oops.)

Conrad limits large-scale paintings like the above to a few choice spots, but he’s not shy about taking the brush in hand. In addition to the visual effect I think it also creates an important psychological impression: the overabundance of words demanded by each picture suggest a narrative anxiety. Conrad and his narrators are overthinkers, in environments that give them plenty of space to run. When I was a kid, excess of detail felt like a miscalculation, but now that I’m an anxious adult I recognize the mental mode from which it springs: overdescription is what it feels like when too much conscious thought crowds each moment. All that noticing is a burden, even as it notices well and with pleasure, and in a sense, the weight and quality of that burden is what Conrad’s work is really about. What’s it like to be a man of the world, a man at sea, but be thinking and feeling all the damn time? It’s hard.

I went in a bit wary that Conrad might be a zone of masculinity in some off-putting, puffed sense — and indeed there is a marked “manliness” of both style and substance, but it never grates because he comes by it honestly, and also clearly has profound reservations about the whole package. Running silently through both of these stories was the subliminal implication that being a man is more or less the same thing as being traumatized. That, I think, is how biography, subject matter, and style ultimately link up. Heart of Darkness ends on this note: women wrongly believe that life is good and meaningful, but the prospect of actually destroying that illusion is too much, too depressing, for a man to go through with. Of course the woman and the man are both in his head.

Heart of Darkness seems to be a rendering of the most traumatizing experience of Conrad’s life, and it is indeed a masterpiece. I’m with the consensus on this one. For the first half of my reading I felt prepared to call it an “absolute masterpiece”; in the second half I had the sensation of there being some lumps in the pudding, and some burned bits. But that’s really a quibble. The scope of what Conrad takes on, here, and the ability to construct the thing so that it does in fact take it on, is to marvel at: nothing less than the equation of politics with philosophy with psychology, made concrete and harrowing, fully modern in 1899. Its grip is very firm.

“The horror! The horror!” is generally interpreted as being Kurtz’s report on a cosmic vision, his judgment on the soul of man and the nature of existence and all that; it’s all “a horror.” Sure. But I propose that he might equally and equivalently be describing an actual emotion, particular to him. An underlying horror is the impulse that has driven him in all his amorality, now finally laid bare to his self-awareness. And the deep resonance of the story, for its mesmerized witness Marlow/Conrad, is his own persistent inner sense of horror. That is, I’m again saying: there’s a whiff of PTSD here. “I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting.” A wonderful phrase for a sad thing, from someone who knows.

The Secret Sharer pales in this company — it’s much smaller-scale, and simpler in technique and intent — but it’s still a forceful little story with a striking premise. It comes first and makes for a suitable opening act.

The two works are linked by psychological elements that I can’t help but note are also recurring themes in my Twilight Zone entries: the doppelgänger-projection of a detached inner self; the implicit menace of the world, of society, of one’s fellow man in all his unknowability. Rod Serling, as a soldier, had also been a bit traumatized. For what it’s worth.

Guerard’s introduction pushes a psychological interpretation, pretty similar to mine; it seems like the idea of pairing these two items into one volume might have been his. I felt his sale was maybe a little strong-armed for an introduction — hey, let us make up our own minds! — but it’s well-written enough.

Okay, since there were two works here, we’ll do a second excerpt too, from Heart of Darkness. Marlow has just arrived at a Belgian station in Congo and has found a chaotic scene of pointless activity, broken equipment, and brutality.

You know I am not particularly tender; I’ve had to strike and to fend off. I’ve had to resist and to attack sometimes — that’s only one way of resisting — without counting the exact cost, according to the demands of such sort of life as I had blundered into. I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men — men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther.

That nearly gave me chills, when I read it. These days I spend more than enough time contemplating the flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of rapacious and pitiless folly; I felt and knew exactly what he was talking about before he put the excellent words to it.


004 B
CP523, 60¢, 1972.
CT824, 75¢, 1975.
CQ1004, 95¢, 1977.
CY1221, $1.25, 1979.
CE1429, $1.75, 1980?

New branding and 70s typography to match.

004 C
CW1668, $1.50, 1982? (price drop!?)

Centered logo.

004 D
CW1668, $1.50, 1983?
CE1893, $1.75, 1983
CE2072, price unknown, 1986?
CE2321, $3.95, 1989?

Once again, a tasty 80s revamp. The terrifically atmospheric image (which wraps around, by the way) is credited in the book as “cover painting by Fritz Trupp,” but Fritz Trupp turns out to be not a painter but an anthropologist. I think there must have been some sort of miscommunication from the art department; surely what we’re looking at here is a photograph rather than a painting, presumably one extracted from Trupp’s book The Last Indians: South America’s Cultural Heritage, published in 1983, that same year.

In other words: it’s the wrong jungle. But that’s okay. It’s cinematic and it looks the part.

004 E
2657, $4.95, 1997

That was a great cover, but guys, we’ve got a problem: it’s too mysterious and engaging. How can we put a damper on that? I know, dump the palette, and blot out most of the visual interest with a big rectangle. There we go, now it looks dull as can be; in fact you can hardly even tell what you’re looking at anymore. Perfect.

Another late-90s downgrade. Joyce Carol Oates shows up to try to compensate, but to no avail: her comments are shallow and unenthusiastic; she doesn’t seem to like Conrad all that much. The only part where she perks up — distastefully so, to my mind — is when she goes through the motions of giving him a pointless drubbing for his supposed crimes against PC. She seems to really relish that. “I’m bringing all my scholarly skills to bear, here, so listen up: when you really break it down, this story is awfully Eurocentric in its worldview, tsk tsk tsk.” NO SHIT, CAROL! THAT’S THE STORY! I’m rolling my eyes just typing this.

004 F
3103, $4.95, 2008 (Now OOP)

This is simultaneously bland and garish, and is clearly just a tacky Photoshop manipulation of a bit of stock imagery, but let’s admit it: it could be worse. At least it’s trying to entice us. New piece by Vince Passaro is unpretentious and on point; as with Tom Sawyer, the most recent commission was the most rewarding to read. A pleasant surprise, that!

November 24, 2017

3. Orwell: Animal Farm

003 ANIMAL FARM

CD3, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 128 pp.

This remarkable book has been described in many ways — as a masterpiece… a fairy story… a brilliant satire… a frightening view of the future. A devastating attack on the pig-headed, gluttonous and avaricious rulers in an imaginary totalitarian state, it illuminates the range of human experience from love to hate, from comedy to tragedy. “A wise, compassionate and illuminating fable for our time… The steadiness and lucidity of Orwell’s wit are reminiscent of Anatole France and even of Swift.” — NEW YORK TIMES

With an Introduction by C.M. Woodhouse


Yeah! A classic that you can read in two hours! In and out!

This is a brilliant conception, cleanly executed. But it’s not half as timeless as people want to believe. The fabulist trappings seem to imply that a universal truth is being illustrated, but really it’s just a big political cartoon: the pigs could be wearing block-letter captions that say “Marx,” “Trotsky,” “Stalin.” So now that Stalin is long dead, what’s really the message for a modern reader? Does the book make the case that such pigs will always arise? Or just that one did, in that instance? We find in it what we want to find. One so wants it to be about the inevitable decay of revolution into tyranny… despite the fact that the way it’s constructed, it’s not about inevitabilities; it’s about personalities.

And even that only superficially. Why is Napoleon the Stalin-pig such a thoroughgoing tyrant? Why all the self-serving lies, the paranoia? What drives him? And what could have been done about it? The book doesn’t go there. Orwell’s intentions are more political than philosophical; he’s too furious about the state of affairs to really investigate the questions of porcine nature that ought to drive the thing. His purpose is just to call something out. “Hey, pay attention, everybody: this can happen, and in fact has happened.” Bigger claims aren’t made because it’s not at all clear that he would have wanted to make them. Everyone remembers that the book is anti-Stalinist but I think people tend to forget that it’s also more or less pro-socialist — as Orwell was. The whole thing hinges on a fundamentally Marxist metaphor, after all: that the working classes are to the bourgeoisie as farm animals are to farmers. Once you’ve nodded at that you’re already pinko.

I was very much with it, thrilling to the slow creep of tragedy, right up until the moment when Napoleon/Stalin emerged from the shadows, seized power and violently drove out Snowball/Trotsky. Suddenly the tragedy was no longer inevitable or cautionary: there was a shameless villain on the scene, on whom all future degradations could be blamed. I wanted to see ideals get eroded from within; I wanted to be shown that revolutions are psychologically insufficient, that the injustices of the social order cannot simply be opposed and conquered, because they continue to live deep inside the minds and expectations of the people. Instead I just got to see what happens when a bad guy takes over. I already knew what happens.

Not to say it wasn’t scary reading, at this particular historical moment. Oh, it’s scary, all right. I know I’m pretty resolutely anti-political on this blog, but let it not be thought that I’m so oblivious as to be able to read Animal Farm now without certain stuff coming to mind. People have been talking about 1984 seeming eerie and prescient and apropos, but this book seems to me even closer to what we’re watching on the news. The ruling monsters aren’t a massive techno-conspiracy; they’re sloppy and stupid and paranoid and shortsighted, a bunch of pigs driven by the pettiest vanities, playing with things they don’t understand, covering their asses in only the most absurd, infantile ways. And it seems to be working out for them.

I read this as a kid because the premise appealed so strongly. As did the tone of unrelenting deadpan. Charlotte’s Web as Lord of the Flies — of course I wanted to read that. But I remember the actual experience being frustrating. The book starts and ends as it should, I felt, but the stuff in between left me cold. Now I see that it’s because I didn’t know Russian history. I would have been incredibly dismayed to learn that it was a prerequisite. I guess I still find it disappointing. Couldn’t he have aimed higher and wider?

The book I imagined, the one I was hoping for — the one I think most people forcibly extract from this one and remember this one to be — is a better book. That book doesn’t quite exist. I can’t imagine that American public schools would be nearly so quick to assign this if they really thought it through and recognized it for what it is: a tract by and for Western socialists. But of course since it only takes two hours to read, it’s not too hard to hold on to the imaginary book you want it to be, as the real one zips by. Before you know it you’re alone with your imagined book again, undisturbed by Mr. Orwell. He mostly plays along, after all.


Excerpt:

Suddenly, early in the spring, an alarming thing was discovered. Snowball was secretly frequenting the farm by night! The animals were so disturbed that they could hardly sleep in their stalls. Every night, it was said, he came creeping in under cover of darkness and performed all kinds of mischief. He stole the corn, he upset the milk-pails, he broke the eggs, he trampled the seedbeds, he gnawed the bark off the fruit trees. Whenever anything went wrong it became usual to attribute it to Snowball. If a window was broken or a drain was blocked up, someone was certain to say that Snowball had come in the night and done it, and when the key of the store-shed was lost, the whole farm was convinced that Snowball had thrown it down the well. Curiously enough, they went on believing this even after the mislaid key was found under a sack of meal. The cows declared unanimously that Snowball crept into their stalls and milked them in their sleep. The rats, which had been troublesome that winter, were also said to be in league with Snowball.

Napoleon decreed that there should be a full investigation into Snowball’s activities. With his dogs in attendance he set out and made a careful tour of inspection of the farm buildings, the other animals following at a respectful distance. At every few steps Napoleon stopped and snuffed the ground for traces of Snowball’s footsteps, which, he said, he could detect by the smell. He snuffed in every corner, in the barn, in the cow-shed, in the henhouses, in the vegetable garden, and found traces of Snowball almost everywhere. He would put his snout to the ground, give several deep sniffs, and exclaim in a terrible voice, “Snowball! He has been here! I can smell him distinctly!” and at the word “Snowball” all the dogs let out blood-curdling growls and showed their side teeth.

The animals were thoroughly frightened. It seemed to them as though Snowball were some kind of invisible influence, pervading the air about them and menacing them with all kinds of dangers.

Yup!


Progression of the Signet edition. Note that this section is particularly long because this baby, along with 1984, was Signet’s bread and butter for decades. The book isn’t in the public domain, and the Signet edition is more or less the preferred edition, certainly for schools. Selling this thing in quantity was undoubtedly a vital part of the New American Library business model. Hence the careful attention to its pricing over the years, evidenced by these many many incrementally inflated new editions:

CP121, 60¢, 1962.
CT304, 75¢, 1965.

First a couple more prices still with the cover design as above.

003 B
CQ605, 95¢, 1972.
CY749, $1.25, 1974.
CW1028, $1.50, 1977.
CE1469, $1.75, 1980.
CJ1679, $1.95, 1982?

The same design with minor adjustments for the new branding.

003 C
CJ1801, $1.95, 1982?

In the early 80s all the covers get overhauls; this is one of the only instances where the new cover retains the illustration from the old cover. Good call! That illustration is iconic and, I think, pretty much unimprovable. And the new stencil type is inspired. This is what a tasteful update looks like.

003 D
CJ1801, $1.95, 1983?
CE1900, $2.25, 1983?
CE2087, $2.50, 1986?
CE2156, $2.95, 1988?
CE2230, $3.50, 1989?
CE2466, $4.95, 1990?
CE2536, price unknown. 1991?

Then soon afterward the series branding is redone, so the design is rejiggered into this version. This lasts most of the 80s and 90s and is probably the most abundant at used bookstores. The copy I read was a CE2156 that looked like this. I approve. This was and remains an excellent book cover, and it well deserves its ubiquity. (The fence looks better with wider boards, don’t you think?)

003 E1
2634, $5.95, 1996.

Uh-oh, it’s the 90s, mom, and as usual that’s bad news for book covers. The venerable 1959 illustration is being given a none-too-subtle hint that it’s kind of starting to feel “in the way,” if you know what I mean, no offense, and maybe might want to think about looking into one of those nice retirement homes, just a thought. But isn’t it so great that it’s still with us. Yes. Lifetime achievement awards all around.

Meanwhile it’s time to spice things up with a new piece of prefatory material (added to the old), this time by Russell Baker. It’s well done, though it dates itself by asserting as fact that the extreme pessimism of 40s-era literary prognostications about totalitarianism, like 1984, turned out to be “ludicrously wrong” — which he attributes to the authors having far overestimated the efficiency and intelligence of the regimes. How very 1996 of him! I mean, I’d still like to agree with “wrong,” but in this future year 2017, “ludicrously” is starting to sound a little overly brash. We’re still waiting and seeing, I think.

003 E2
2634, $6.95, ~2000?

50th Anniversary has come and gone.

003 F1
2634, $7.95, 2004.

Well, they had a nice run, but good old donkey and pig have finally been let go. Because it’s the 21st century and you know what that means: time to take the “classic” out of “Classics.” Now you’re waking up strapped to an operating table after a rough night at Fight Club, you can’t quite remember what happened, and a serial killer is holding a toy in your face. It’s millenial; it’s edgy; it’s raw. It’s Animal Farm, baby.

003 F2
2634, $9.99, recent.

Okay, we made your book a little taller, because that’s the style these days. That’ll be 2 dollars, ma’am.


[The original and correct cover]

November 21, 2017

2. Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

002 TOM SAWYER MERGED

CD2, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 224 pp.

[Compare the above to this. The design is exactly the same, but if you look closely you’ll see that it’s all been redone from scratch! Whatever screw-up necessitated the redo, it seems to have happened early on: the linked image is the only one I can find online of what I guess must be the original version.]

Here is a light-hearted excursion into boyhood, a nostalgic return to the simple, rural Missouri world of Tom Sawyer and his friends Huck Finn, Becky and Aunt Polly. It is a dreamlike world of summertime and hooky, pranks and punishments, villains and desperate adventure, seen through the eyes of a boy who might have been the young Mark Twain himself. There is sheer delight in Tom Sawyer — even at the darkest moments affection and wit permeate its pages. For adults it recreates the vanished dreams of youth. For younger readers it unveils the boundaries of tantalizing horizons to still to come. And for everyone, it reveals the mind and heart of one of America’s greatly loved writers.

With an Afterword by George P. Elliott


Sure sure, Tom Sawyer. But wait… what is that, exactly? It turns out to be a very odd thing: a memoir-fantasy. Apart from Wes Anderson, I’m not sure I can think of any other works in the genre. This is a book where the author’s memories of real life and of make-believe life are treated as equal. Tom and Huck quixotically get it in their heads that they should dig around town for buried treasure, “as boys will”… and then lo and behold they find buried treasure. It’s like the authorial hand of god keeps reaching in to give his younger self every crazy thing he ever dreamed of, curious to see how he’ll react. Autobiography as ant farm.

It’s common in therapy to ask the adult to comfort the child it remembers once having been: time-travel communion for healing long-ago wounds. Mark Twain is stumbling his way around something similar here, on instinct — but he doesn’t seem interested in healing. All wounds remain untouched. There are strange blurry omissions throughout this book and Twain is committed to keeping his gaze averted. (What, for example, happened to Tom’s parents?) His agenda is more like a benediction: I have decided that it is good that it was thus, and so I am bestowing upon my past the greatest gift I can think of, which is for it to be rendered in the register of a kitschy magazine story with wry observations sprinkled throughout. Amen.

Apparently he originally set out to write a kind of bitter Remembrance of Things Past, a “before and after” in which remorseless time would devour all the promise of youth… but then somewhere in the middle of the writing process decided that “before” might just as well stand alone. An absurd creative decision that I think qualifies as an emotional stroke of genius. Clearly all he ever really wanted to do was take a sentimental journey; he just felt the need to rationalize it as part of something angry and adult. Then once it was underway the rationalization fell away as inessential. A lesson there for all of us. Perhaps.

However: the other shoe, which never drops, is still implicit. The whole book has an evasive, unsettled quality; heartfelt reverie shades into pat sentimentalism, which shades into snark, and then back again. Plus occasional spurts of real horror. This is not a carefully composed work with a clear vision; rather it’s fairly direct access to the inner world of a complex personality, working it all out as he goes. It’s an improvisation at every level, a formless bedtime story he’s telling to hypnotize himself. It obviously all has intense personal significance; and that’s a kind of force. But the force isn’t contained or focused.

For these reasons and others, kids shouldn’t be assigned this book. This is one of the books that, in 5th or 6th grade, taught me to read badly. Rereading it now brought back a sense memory from those days: the words on the page felt slippery, refusing to hold my gaze. My eyes would involuntarily drift down the page looking for the meat, eliding entire paragraphs, pages. The memory came back because the sensation arose again: the author isn’t being quite straight with the reader or with himself; I want to get to the part where he really means what he says. The problem of it is that he doesn’t want to get there. He’s got other fish to fry: beautiful dream-fish fished out of the dream-river on a homemade pole, sitting shoeless side by side with his imaginary friends. That’s all well and good but it’s not a story. As with Adolphe, the intentions aren’t actually literary.

Really none of this book is a story: it’s a collection of dream-images. Teaching it to kids as though it constitutes a story is bad education. There’s a reason Aesop is about animals and not people: kids need to be clearly cued to distinguish between a tableau and a true event, because they’re going to read everything as event anyway.

Here are the sounds of other fish frying: Ain’t it just darling; ain’t it just so. Ain’t that just the way. Don’t it just go to show. And when you think about it ain’t we all a bit like that.

That’s the crackle of non-story.

Also I consider it to be a point of moral principle that children ought never be encouraged to fantasize about being splendidly childlike. Any reading experience is inevitably a fantasy; a book wherein young boys dream of being pirates and ho ho ho yum yum yum isn’t that just marvelous is a much less wholesome object of investment, for a child, than a book about actual pirates.

(And I’m not going to even attempt to address the many problems with assigning kids to read about Injun Joe — who, in addition to stabbing a man dead right in front of Tom’s eyes, and later dying an incredibly agonizing death of starvation, at one point announces his plans to mutilate the widow Douglas: “You slit her nostrils — you notch her ears like a sow!” Good god! Did I really read that in 5th grade? The answer, probably, is that my eyes drifted past it, always questing for something better, more real.)

Now, of course, I’m an adult and free of the tyranny of being instructed by every book I read. So how are these, as dream-images go? They’re not bad. They have some depth, some draw. I found the reading experience gradually became compelling, as I worked my way through the various disjointed episodes and came to develop an intuition for the weird, unsteady rhythm of the thing, for the man behind the curtain.

“The man behind the curtain” is a pretty good point of reference, actually. Professor Marvel is pulling these strings exactly because he’s afraid that his nostalgia is actually all humbug. Similarly it arrives only at a tentatively hopeful confusion: quintessentially American. “And if you ever go looking for your heart’s desire… something something… um… there’s no place like home. Right? Right?”

At the end, when Tom and Becky lose themselves in a fantastical maze of caves, first wandering deeper and deeper through caverns of undiscovered wonders, and then alone and starving for three days in absolute darkness… I was strangely moved. It was so tonally incongruous that it felt significant: like the dreamer had stumbled on something within himself, an unexpected pocket of fear and loneliness in the dreamlife of nostalgia. Maybe at its heart.

This is a weird and fascinating text. It has real aesthetic value; I got something out of it. It’s also misshapen, overwhelmingly personal, inescapably of its time, and not entirely sympathetic. It ought not to be a childhood classic, but what can you do.


Excerpt. Here’s Mark Twain closely resembling a thing that he will elsewhere mock and parody. But as long as the others are still asleep and can’t see him, his heart will sing, with all the woodland creatures. Like Snow White. I think this passage is sweet, because I can tell he means it and feels it. But would HE be able to tell? I think he’d be far more suspicious of such stuff. The book is an uneasy attempt to reckon with the memory of joy. Here’s some of the joy, expressed as best he could figure out how.

When Tom awoke in the morning, he wondered where he was. He sat up and rubbed his eyes and looked around. Then he comprehended. It was the cool gray dawn, and there was a delicious sense of repose and peace in the deep pervading calm and silence of the woods. Not a leaf stirred; not a sound obtruded upon great Nature’s meditation. Beaded dewdrops stood upon the leaves and grasses. A white layer of ashes covered the fire, and a thin blue breath of smoke rose straight into the air. Joe and Huck still slept.

Now, far away in the woods a bird called; another answered; presently the hammering of a woodpecker was heard. Gradually the cool dim gray of the morning whitened, and as gradually sounds multiplied and life manifested itself. The marvel of Nature shaking off sleep and going to work unfolded itself to the musing boy. A little green worm came crawling over a dewy leaf, lifting two-thirds of his body into the air from time to time and “sniffing around,” then proceeding again — for he was measuring, Tom said; and when the worm approached him, of its own accord, he sat as still as a stone, with his hopes rising and falling, by turns, as the creature still came toward him or seemed inclined to go elsewhere; and when at last it considered a painful moment with its curved body in the air and then came decisively down upon Tom’s leg and began a journey over him, his whole heart was glad — for that meant that he was going to have a new suit of clothes — without the shadow of a doubt a gaudy piratical uniform. Now a procession of ants appeared, from nowhere in particular, and went about their labors; one struggled manfully by with a dead spider five times as big as itself in its arms, and lugged it straight up a tree-trunk. A brown spotted lady-bug climbed the dizzy height of a grass blade, and Tom bent down close to it and said, “Lady-bug, lady-bug, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children’s alone,” and she took wing and went off to see about it — which did not surprise the boy, for he knew of old that this insect was credulous about conflagrations, and he had practised upon its simplicity more than once. A tumblebug came next, heaving sturdily at its ball, and Tom touched the creature, to see it shut its legs against its body and pretend to be dead. The birds were fairly rioting by this time. A catbird, the Northern mocker, lit in a tree over Tom’s head, and trilled out her imitations of her neighbors in a rapture of enjoyment; then a shrill jay swept down, a flash of blue flame, and stopped on a twig almost within the boy’s reach, cocked his head to one side and eyed the strangers with a consuming curiosity; a gray squirrel and a big fellow of the “fox” kind came skurrying along, sitting up at intervals to inspect and chatter at the boys, for the wild things had probably never seen a human being before and scarcely knew whether to be afraid or not. All Nature was wide awake and stirring, now; long lances of sunlight pierced down through the dense foliage far and near, and a few butterflies came fluttering upon the scene.


The old Signet afterword by George P. Elliott is chatty and shallow. Shallow in a ballsy sort of way; you can imagine him confidently cranking it out in an hour, off the top of his head, without bothering to do any research. Yeah, yeah, Tom Sawyer.

The 1876 first edition of this book was published with hundreds of lovely illustrations by True Williams, of which Mark Twain heartily approved. It’s frankly indefensible that they are not generally retained in reprints. (The Modern Library edition and the University of California edition are the only ones I found that currently offer the illustrations.) No offense to Signet, but this is really how this book ought to look. Since puzzling out the spirit of this performance is such an important part of the reading experience, the packaging matters.


Future of the Signet edition:

002 B
CD2, 50¢, ~1970.
CP747, 60¢, 1974.
CT845, 75¢, 1975.
CQ978, 95¢, 1978.
CY1165, $1.25, 1979.
CW1337, $1.50, 1981.

The original design is tweaked to accommodate the new series branding.

002 C
CW1337, $1.50, 1982?
CE1962, $1.75, 1985.
CE2355, $2.25, 1988.

Somewhere around 1982 the branding is redone again, and this new cover illustration is commissioned. I like it. (Huckleberry Finn got a matching one.)

It’s unsigned and no artist is credited. I tried hard to identify the painter. After a lot of digging, my best guess — ultimately based on the signature on Pudd’nhead Wilson cover from around the same time — is that I guess it’s maybe Robert Lapsley?

Should they be allowed to get away with dropping the word “The” from the title? I’m not sure. The important thing is that they did. They got away with it.

002 D
2653, $4.95, April 1997.

With a New Introduction by Robert Tilton (replacing the Elliott afterword).

Yikes, 1997, that’s a pretty hard drop down! From a lavish original illustration to a white cover with a cramped inset of an over-familiar painting. At least we got the “The” back, now gripped in place with little brackets, to make sure it doesn’t get lost again.

002 E
3093, $4.95, May 2008. Currently out of print.

With a New Afterword by Geoffrey Sanborn (and retaining the Tilton introduction. I read both of these, by the way. The Tilton is a bit stiff, but inoffensive. The Sanborn I thought was actually quite good; definitely the best of the three Signet-commissioned pieces.)

This cover is embarrassing too, for different reasons. First of all the DISTORTION VERY MUCH PLAYFUL TYPOGRAPHY SUCH AS IN STYLE OF CHILDLIKE HUMAN, ALSO PLEASE TO READ AUTHOR’S NAME AT BOTTOM. LOVE, PHOTOSHOP. Second of all “Tom” himself: what exactly is he doing? The answer may surprise you.

You can understand the designer’s excitement at stumbling across the work at of John George Brown. This has GOT to be the spot, right? It’s scamp city! It’s ragamuffin central! Surely, SURELY one of these hundreds of hateful little fuckers can be Tom Sawyer. Just can’t be too poor or too black or too urban or be, um, doing anything in particular. Or be with a goddamn doggie… Hm. Harder than you’d think. Okay, well, fine, this one, if we crop it down, he looks like maybe he’s… I dunno, about to grab a canary or something. He’s about to get up to mischief, right? And “mischief” is one of my keywords! Done. Print.


[The original and correct cover]

October 21, 2017

1. Constant: Adolphe & The Red Notebook

001 ADOLPHE MERGED DARKER

CD1, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 160 pp.

Back cover:

In these two remarkable works, a brilliant, vain, long-suffering Frenchman describes the first twenty years of his life and their culmination in a tortured love affair with an older, possessive woman of the world. Benjamin Constant attempted to conceal the fact that these two books were autobiographical. But to his familiars, it was clear that he himself was Adolphe. And in the intimate account of his strange liaison with Ellénore, he may well have been protesting against his inexorable bondage to his fiery, demanding mistress, Madame de Staël. Constant was an able parliamentarian, a champion of liberalism and the author of the History of Religion. But posterity remembers him as the man who bared the anatomy of a destructive passion in the story of Adolphe.

With an Introduction by Harold Nicolson

I was at The Strand and found a used copy (requiescat in pace Eve Auchincloss) of not the Signet itself but the 1948 edition which the Signet reprints in its entirety. Unlike nearly ever other title in the Signet Classics catalog, this one was never reissued as such, though it seems to have appeared briefly in 1986 as a “Meridian Classic” from the same publisher. (No cover available online.)


I like a little book that grabs one’s attention between its teeth, shakes it roughly a bit, very soon loses interest, puts it down and trots off. A book like an animal wrote it. Benjamin Constant is much too raw and needy to concern himself with any aspirational tedium that would waste my time. He’s got axes to grind; he’s writing as therapy, not for art. He can’t be bothered to pad this thing out. Good, say I.

This is a fine example of a familiar but unheralded genre: real-life confessional self-absorption shamelessly passed off as literary fiction. Examples are submitted daily as “my novel” to uneasy writing teachers the world over. I guess officially we’re supposed to shake our heads at such stuff, but maybe let’s all admit something: when you’re not stuck in a writing class with the author, and don’t have to give reader feedback — or even reader tact — navel-gazing myopia can actually be quite compelling. (“So, yeah, Marcel, I really liked it! Some of the dialogue was really funny! I just… I guess… I would have maybe liked to get a little more information about… the, um, narrator character?”)

Benjamin Constant isn’t really asking for affection, just attention. Fair. And it’s not a marathon, just a novella; it can afford to be one-note. It’s a very peculiar note, so it feels natural that it should get a whole volume to itself — a nicely slim volume. His anti-heroic self-obsession has its own distinctive flavor; it felt new to me, though I guess Knausgaard had a similar quality: he plumbs self-disgust with an ease and confidence that seem quietly to contradict it.

Lord Byron: “it leaves an unpleasant impression.” Indeed it does. In an engaging way. It’s like a piece of sour candy. My genuine thrills of “my god! Adolphe, c’est moi” alternated throughout with “oh for crying out loud.” That kind of alternation is queasy; the line it crosses is a sensitive one for anyone. And so it felt obscurely edifying, even if I have to admit that in retrospect I come away fairly unedified.

People out there will summarize Adolphe by saying that unlike the many books about being in love, this is one of the very few books about being not in love. That’s okay as far as it goes but it sort of misses the point: the book catalogs a series of emotional states in a way that is too agonizingly fine-grained to allow for comfortable application of the concept of “love,” one way or the other. It charts the psychological territory differently.

I’d be interested to read psychoanalyses of Constant. Seems like he would have been interested too. The book is more or less begging for it. And his vaguely Proustian psychological comments seem to me strikingly ahead of their time.

Reading Adolphe I honestly did think I had found something strangely c’est moi more than others. Then “The Red Notebook” — essentially an abandoned memoir draft — recasts the same foibles as a different kind of cringe comedy: an avalanche of absurd profligacy, which made me chuckle and squirm more confusedly. Is this in any way moi? Can I recognize myself in this mirror? Not as readily. God I hope not. “The Red Notebook” seems to be much less often reprinted than Adolphe — it’s really just a fragment — but I found it equally compelling.

Excerpt will be the one I’ve already typed up for several people. But now I type it up for me:

In my father’s house I had adopted, in regard to women, a rather immoral attitude. Although my father strictly observed the proprieties, he frequently indulged in frivolous remarks concerning affairs of the heart: he looked on them as excusable if not permissible amusements, and considered nothing in a serious light, save marriage. His one principle was that a young man must studiously avoid what is called an act of folly, that is to say, contracting a lasting engagement with a person who is not absolutely his equal in regard to fortune, birth and outward advantages; he saw no objection — provided there was no question of marriage — to taking any woman and then leaving her; and I have seen him smile with a sort of approbation at this parody of a well-known saying: It hurts them so little and gives us so much pleasure!

It is not sufficiently realized how deep an impression can be made in early youth by sayings of this sort, and to what extent, at an age when every opinion appears dubious and unsettled, children are amazed at finding the clear rules they have been taught contradicted by jokes which win general applause. In their eyes those rules cease to be anything but banal precepts which they parents have agreed upon and which they repeat to children out of a mere sense of duty, whilst the jokes appear to hold the real key to life.

I also want to bank this splendid phrase: “With the furious courage of a coward in revolt.”

Thumbs up.


PS. Laying this out now for future reference:

In 1948, the American office of Penguin Books separated from its British parent company and became an independent publisher called New American Library. They called their fiction imprint “Signet,” their non-fiction “Mentor” (corresponding to Penguin’s division between “Penguin” and “Pelican”).

The Signet Classics series wasn’t launched until 1959. It received an independent numbering system, beginning here with “CD1.” The C is of course for “Classics” — they’re all gonna start with that — and the “1” is the number of this issue within the Classics series.

The “D” refers to the pricing scheme: back when Signet started out, standard Signets were 25¢ and a few special double-width editions were twice that. Seems like the “D” for “Double” stuck around meaning 50¢ even after inflation had eliminated the 25¢ base price. We’ll also see T for 75¢ and Q for 95¢, which follow similar logic. But then over the years there will eventually also be P for 60¢, Y for $1.25, W for $1.50, J for $1.95, and finally E for all other prices. If anyone has good guesses for what those might stand for, bring ’em.

October 16, 2017

The list is dead long live the list!

Hello broomlet lovers and hate-readers alike.

I am proud to announce that after nearly 11 years in service (and, of late, more than two years of worrying silence), the “Western Canon” reading list project is being repealed and replaced.

Need I explain why? I think I needn’t. Quite simply: The American people deserve better.

For those of you who were curious: the final, incomplete assignment was Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. Which, from what I’ve read of it, isn’t bad. I need you to understand that this divorce is not your fault, Baudelaire. Let’s be very clear: it’s Harold Bloom’s fault. He betrayed our trust.

“But you knew I was a snake when you picked my lisssssst!” Well, it’s true, what the man says. I need to accept some blame here too. We all do, in a sense. But let’s move beyond that. Healing is more important right now.


That’s repeal. Replace is:

The Signet Classics!

If you can’t beat the mass market, join it. Take that, Harold.