29 February 2016

Familiarity Breeds Content

The Measure of a Man: A Tale of the Big Woods
Norman Duncan
New York: Revell, 1911

The Measure of a Man is a novel I thought I'd never read. Here's why:

You understand, I'm sure.

But looking at the book again last week – it is quite attractive – I happened upon this second note to the reader:

Oh, I do like a roman à clef. In fact, I once wrote an entire book about them. And in that book I made sport of Duncan's protests against those who saw something of Doctor Grenfell in Doctor Luke. A touchy sort,
so irritated was the novelist that he had a note appended to future editions of Dr Luke of the Labrador warning the reader against "this growing misconception." Duncan's Dr. Grenfell's Parish (1905), published the following year, features yet another note to the reader: "Dr. Grenfell is not the hero of a certain work of fiction dealing with life on the Labrador coast. Some unhappy misunderstanding has arisen on this point. The author wishes to make it plain that 'Doctor Luke' was not drawn from Dr. Grenfell."

Got that? Mission doctor Luke is in no way modelled on Duncan's friend Grenfell, a man who for four decades travelled the Labrador coast bringing medical care and the word of God to deep sea fishermen.

Duncan is more forthright when it comes to Rev Frances E. Higgins and The Measure of a Man, allowing that "some of the incidents in this story are taken directly from his experience, and many others are founded upon certain passages in his missionary career".

There really was no way around it. Not two years earlier, Duncan had published Higgins: A Man's Christian. A slim biography of the preacher, then in the fifteenth year of his mission, it begins with hungry lumberjack "Jimmie the Beast" emerging from a saloon and robbing a bulldog of its bone. Duncan recreates the scene in The Measure of a Man to introduce hero John Fairmeadow:
A worthy dog fight. Pale Peter's bulldog was concerned, being the aggrieved party to the dispute; and the other dog, the aggressor, was Billy the Beast from the Cant-hook cutting, a surly lumber-jack, who, being at the same time drunk, savage and hungry, had seized upon the bulldog's bone, in expectation of gnawing it himself. It was a fight to be remembered, too: the growls of man and beast, the dusty, yelping scramble in the street, the howls of the spectators, the blood and snapping, and the indecent issue, wherein Billy the Beast from the Cant-hook cutting sent the bulldog yelping to cover with a broken rib, and himself, staggering out of sight, with lacerated hands, gnawed at the bone as he went.
     When the joyous excitement had somewhat subsided, John Fairmeadow, now returned from the Big Rapids trail, laid off his pack.
     "Boys," said he, "I'm looking for the worst town this side of hell. Have I got there?"
     "You're what?" Gingerbread Jenkins ejaculated.
     "I'm looking," John Fairmeadow drawled, "for the worst town this side of hell. Is this it?"
     "Swamp's End, my friend," said Gingerbread Jenkins, gravely, " is your station."
And so, Fairmeadow adopts Swamp's End as the home base from which he ventures out preaching to lumber camps.

Who can fault Duncan? That story of the drunken, hungry lumberjack fighting a dog for a bone is a good one. There are plenty of others in Higgins: A Man's Christian, like when the preacher punched out a bartender and the time he took on a man who insisted on drowning out his sermon by grinding an axe:
"Keep back, boys!" an old Irishman yelled, catching up a peavy-pole. Give the Pilot a show! Keep out o' this or I'll brain ye!"
     The Sky Pilot caught the Frenchman about the waist – flung him against a door – caught him again on the rebound – put him head foremost in a barrel of water – and absent-mindedly held him there until the old Irishman asked, softly, "Say, Pilot, ye ain't goin' t' drown him, are ye?"
Here it is again in The Measure of a Man:
"Keep back, boys!" an old Irishman screamed, catching up a peavy-pole. "Give the parson a show! Keep out o' this or I'll brain ye!"
     Fairmeadow caught his big opponent about the waist – flung him against the door (the preacher was wisely no man for half measures) – caught him on the rebound – put him head fore-most in a barrel of water and absent-mindedly held him there until the old Irishman asked, softly, "Say, parson, ye ain't goin' t' drown him, are ye?"
It's not all fisticuffs, mind. I admit to being moved by the death of young consumptive prostitute Liz:
     "Am I dyin'. Pilot?" she asked.
     "Yes, my girl," he answered.
     "Dyin' – now?"
     Higgins said again that she was dying; and little Liz was dreadfully frightened then – and began to sob for her mother with all her heart.
– Higgins: A Man's Christian 
    "Am I dyin', parson?" little Liz asked.
    "Yes, my girl."
    " Yes, my girl."
    "Now?" little Liz exclaimed. "Dyin' – now?"
    " Mother!" little Liz moaned. "Oh, mother!"
The Measure of a Man
Gets me every time.

It's right to criticize Duncan's recycling, as Elizabeth Miller has, but I'm prepared to give him a pass. The incidents aren't nearly so numerous as I think I've implied – and the axe-grinding incident is the only one that didn't go through a significant rewrite.

I think Duncan is correct: it must not be inferred that Higgins "bears any invidious resemblance to John Fairmeadow." The character might share Higgins' faith, brawn and fighting skills, but his backstory is markedly different. Higgins was an uneducated Ontario farm boy who one day decided that he wanted to become a preacher; Fairmeadow is a college-graduate who found salvation after descending into drink. It's not until the mid-point of The Measure of a Man that we learn anything of our hero's life before reaching Swamp's End. The tale is told in the sixteenth chapter – "Theological Training" – which finds a younger, bleary-eyed John Fairmeadow stumbling about Manhattan's Five Points in stupid thirst:
Dim, stifling lodging-houses, ill-lit cellar drinking-places, thieves' resorts, wet saloon-bars, back alleys, garbage pails, slop-shops, pawn-brokers' wickets, the shadowy arches of the Bridge, deserted stable yards, a multitude of wrecked men, dirt, rags, blasphemy, darkness: John Fairmeadow's world had been a fantastic and ghastly confusion of these things. The world was without love: it was besotted. Faces vanished: ragged forms shuffled out of sight for the last time.
Fairmeadow has been thrown out of aptly-named Solomon's Cellar – as low as you can go – and looks about to die when he is saved by Jerry McAulay's Water Street Mission.

Lasting just twelve pages, never to be mentioned again, Fairmeadow's battle with the bottle is the most memorable thing in the novel... next to Billy the Beast's fight for the bulldog's bone, anyway. Incongruity has something to do with it, I suppose – everything else takes place in the "Big Woods" – but in these pages I couldn't help but see something of the author in Fairmeadow. An alcoholic and a Christian, Duncan casts drink as the scourge of Manhattan and Swamp's End. Barroom owners prey. A hungry man who has spent all his money on drink fights for a bone that has been gnawed by a dog.

Drink killed Duncan. In October 1916, he dropped dead on the steps of a golf course clubhouse in Fredonia, New York. The writer was forty-five. His last book, the boys' adventure Billy Topsail, M.D., sees the return of Dr Luke, complete with requisite note to the reader:
Doctor Luke has often been mistaken for Doctor Wilfred Grenfell of the Deep Sea Mission. That should not be. No incident in this book is a transcript from Doctor Grenfell's long and heroic service.
Duncan had written those words seven months earlier. With the author dead and buried, and the Christmas season approaching, publisher Revell abandoned the script:

Boys' Life, December 1916

Trivia: In 1915, several chapters were gathered, bowdlerized and published under the title Christmas Eve at Swamp's End. Illustrator unknown.

Object: An attractive hardcover in brown boards, its 356 pages are enlivened further with three plates by illustrator George Harding. I purchased my copy four years ago at Attic Books in London, Ontario. Price: $5.00. I'm not entirely certain, but I think the jacket is the oldest I own.

I've seen a variant in green boards. The design will be familiar to Duncan fans.

Access: "HARD TO FIND ORIGINAL 1911 EDITION", trumpets a Michigan bookseller. Don't you believe it; as befits the work of a popular author, The Measure of a Man had a generous print-run. Decent copies –sans jacket – are listed for as little as US$8.00 online. At US$25, the one to buy is inscribed by the author.

Found in thirty-one of our universities and the Kingston-Frontenac Public Library. It can also be downloaded and read online here, but really, don't you want that inscribed copy?

17 February 2016

The Strange Satanic Canada of a Future Past

For My Country [Pour la patrie: roman du XXe siecle]
Jules-Paul Tardivel [Sheila Fischman, trans]
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975
250 pages

This review now appears, revised and rewritten, in my new book:
The Dusty Bookcase:
A Journey Through Canada's
Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing
Available at the very best bookstores and through

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08 February 2016

A Sunny Metropolis for Misogynists

Dirty City
Michael Young
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1949
If you cannot find the name of Dirty City on the map of the United States it's because you haven't looked hard enough. Look again and you're sure to find it. It's there all right, only the inhabitants don't call it by its right name.
Miami? Fort Lauderdale? All I can say for sure is that it's most definitely in Florida. Maybe you know it. Dirty City is a place of lush hotels by the beach, expensive dress shops, fur stores and call houses. Hayseed suckers will save, stay long enough to get a tan, and then return home to brag. In Dirty City an assemblyman once proposed making it illegal for the poor to be seen in rich neighbourhoods. His fellows though it might bring bad publicity.

As News Stand Library novels go, Dirty City isn't all that bad. While it stumbles stylistically, the dialogue is strong and the plot is interesting. In the right hands it might have made for a solid B-movie, though casting would have been a challenge.

There are thirteen characters in Dirty City; these are just three:
  • Pepe Gonazales, a champion jai-alai player who lost his title after breaking his arm. He's in love with Rosalinda, owner of a successful hash joint.
  • Simco Sorensen, a loveable giant who owes a little something to Steinbeck's Lennie Small. He's in love with his greyhound bitch Gypsy.
  • Mickey Warren, a handsome, lazy war vet. He's in love with himself.
There's not much to Mickey; he'd have been the hardest to cast. Whatever he's got in life, which isn't much, is owed to good looks. Former live-in girlfriend Carolina, a manicurist at the swanky Gondola Hotel, is always good for a touch. Mickey's the sort of guy who is always cooking up get-rich-quick schemes. His latest involves a cabin in a remote swamp, the site of violent orgies hosted by multi-millionaire Harold Johnson and his sadistic valet Melville. Mickey's idea, bankrolled by Pepe and Simco, is to buy the place and then rent it to the wealthy pervert at an inflated price.

Consider it an investment. Pepe is looking to make a comeback. Simco is somehow convinced that Gypsy would be a champion racer if only he could afford a trainer. Mickey sees the dough as providing seed money for future schemes.

This particular scheme is brought down by the arrival of New York chorus girl Milly White. Her appearance in Dirty City is the doing of boyfriend Jimmie Henderson, a Broadway producer who has fallen on hard times. Jimmie has his own scheme, which involves trading his unsuspecting girl for Johnson's investment in a new show. If this seems a long shot, it's only because you haven't seen Milly:
Milly looked like you'd imagine a girl might look like if Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable were one. Add a touch of what Ava Gardner has, and you're jet about describing Milly White.
Jimmie's gamble pays off. Johnson gives him $50,000 to abandon Milly and return to New York, where a further $200,000 awaits. Mickey is thwarted by the producer's success. Johnson has no use for the cabin, choosing to forgo his usual season of orgies and focus on one woman:
His feeling for her was a mixture of admiration and intense hatred. He wanted to desecrate her, use her, whip her, destroy her morally, and then, when she looked old and finished throw her out.
Finding himself saddled with a useless piece of real estate, a desperate Mickey sets out to replicate Jimmie's success by presenting himself as a good samaritan, gaining Milly's trust, have her fall in love with him, and then sell her off to Johnson. Seems another long shot, I know, but he very nearly pulls it off.

If Mickey's near-success seems improbable, it's only because of a sudden change of pace. I sense an editor at work, slashing to bring the book in at the publisher's usual 158 page count. Events in the final quarter come fast and furious. The barrage doesn't let up until the end, which features an unusually long monologue in which Mickey attempts to explain himself. Nothing will be spoiled by including a snippet or two here:
I hated the idea of people making millions during the war on the blood and horror of the guys who fought and died. I figured I wouldn't be a sucker, that I'd make my pile. 
Now they're drumming up another little war for us. But they don't get me this time. I was right about some things and wrong about others. Just because they were bastards profiting by the war didn't mean I had to become one.

A novel about the corrupting influence of money and those who have it, in an odd way Dirty City isn't at all dated.

Depressing, I know.

Take heart, it's also a novel about the redemptive power of love and how it triumphs over money. Author Michael Young's message – for this is a message novel – is that money can't buy love.

But then we've known that since 1964.

About the author: I know nothing. This novel is the last in an  effort to read titles and authors by published only by News Stand Library. My thinking was that maybe, just maybe, I might come across something familiar that would lead to the discovery of another Love is a Long Shot or Waste No Tears. Wish I could report that the investment paid off.

Object and Access: One of News Stand Library's poorer productions, this one was a particularly challenging read. I'm certain there were more typos than usual. This is one of the more interesting:
This time she split. It hit him across the cheek and the saliva oozed down his chin. He wiped it off in disgust.
Dirty City isn't so much as listed on WordCat, and yet isn't so rare that it can't be found for sale online. Prices begin at three Yankee dollars. Go get 'em!

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02 February 2016

Of War, Peace and Montreal's Writers' Chapel

It seems 2016 has barely begun and yet the year's first issue of Canadian Notes & Queries has already landed. The ninety-fourth, it's the first under the editorship of Emily Donaldson.

My fellow contributors will understand, I hope, when I write that my favourite piece is "My Heart is Broken", a talk delivered by John Metcalf at the unveiling of a memorial plaque to Mavis Gallant at Montreal's Writer's Chapel this past autumn. Ian McGillis provides a companion piece on the venue, its history and the group behind the whole thing.*

Others featured in the issue include:
André Alexis
Heather Birrell
Michael Cho
Jason Dickson
Beth Follett
Douglas Glover
David Godkin
Anita Lahey
David Mason
Michael Prior
Bruce Whiteman
In my own contribution – another Dusty Bookcase on paper – I make the case for There Are Victories (New York: Covici Friede, 1933), an ambitious, unconventional and next to unobtainable novel by Charles Yale Harrison. Sharp students of Canadian literature will make a link with his Generals Die in Bed (New York: Morrow, 1930), Harrison's first work of fiction, inspired by his experiences in the Great War.

There Are Victories is not a war novel, though I've seen it described as such. The conflict figures only in that a third of the way in the protagonist, Montrealer Ruth Courtney, marries a man who disappears for a time to fight in Europe. He returns damaged, violent, prone to rape, and drawn more than ever to prostitutes. Ruth escapes to Manhattan, where she finds comfort in the arms of another man. He's better only in comparison.

As I write in the piece, There Are Victories is the sort glorious failure that is worthy of attention.

May you be so blessed as to come across a copy.
* Full disclosure: I'm a member of that self-same group.
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01 February 2016

McGee's Lines on a Once Famous Festival Day

Verse written by son of Erin and Father of Confederation Thomas D'Arcy McGee in celebration of Saint Bridget of Kildare (a/k/a Saint Brigid, Saint Brigit), patron of poets, printing presses and scholars.

The Poems of Thomas D'Arcy McGee
Montreal: D & J Sadlier, 1870
Good Catholics and Anglicans will recognize the first of February as St Brigid's Feast Day; bad Anglicans like myself will not, which is why I reach for Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers' Saints Preserve Us! First published in 1993 and in print to this day, it has long served as a spiritual guide.

The story of this chaste result of unholy union between a pagan chieftain and a slave girl shows itself to be both fantastical and a touch titillating:
She hated her own beauty, for it attracted numerous lusty suitors, despite her well-known vow of perpetual chastity. Finally, her constant prayers to become ugly were answered – miraculously, one of her eyes became grotesquely huge, while the other disappeared – so her father consented to her becoming a nun. It is said that, during the ceremony, Angels shoved aside the attending priest and presented her with the veil, the wooden steps of the altar burst into leaf, and her good looks were instantly restored.
You can't make that stuff up. Not always, anyway. Later in the entry, Kelly and Rogers inform:
Since she was born sixty-six years after the death of Saint Patrick, reports of their intimate friendship are doubtless exaggerated. Nor is it necessarily true that the holy but drunken Saint Mel consecrated her a full-fledged bishop. Some facts we may be sure of, though. Her bath water was sometimes transformed into beer for the sake of thirsty clerics…
There's much more, but the image of a naked virgin turning bathwater into beer should be inspiration enough for today's poets.

Need more?

She also taught a fox to dance.

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