21 March 2017

An Award-Winning Novelist's Bowdlerized Debut

The Pillar of Fire
Gordon Green
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950

The Praying Mantis
H. Gordon Green
Fredericton: Brunswick, 1953

H. Gordon Green received an Avery Hopwood Award for The Praying Mantis. I wasn't much impressed because I'd never heard of the Avery Hopwood Awards. Now that I'm familiar, I'm still not much impressed. Open only to University of Michigan students, dozens are handed out each year. In 1948, Green was awarded $600 for his unpublished manuscript. A year or so later, he received a further $400 by selling the condensation rights to Export Publications for use in their News Stand Library.

"I was horrified when the paperback came out to see how the original had been murdered," he later wrote. "Only about half of the original was used [and] I look back on my dealings with them with no pleasant memories."

What did he expect? News Stand Library never published a book longer than 160 pages. The Pillar of Fire, the title slapped on the condensation, comes within two of that number (and its pages are very dense). It wasn't until 1953, with Brunswick's The Praying Mantis, that Green's novel was published unabridged. While I can't say it was worth the wait, I will allow that many of the best bits were lost in the cutting.

Have you read Erskine Caldwell? I haven't, but I once collected Signet paperback editions of his books because I liked the cover art. Judging those books by their covers has me thinking they're mildly risqué tales set amongst poor, uneducated folks in the rural American South.

I could be wrong.

In any case, I thought about Caldwell when reading The Pillar of Fire and again when tackling The Praying Mantis. Both versions of the novel were published when Caldwell was at the height of popularity, a time in which his books were selling in the hundreds of thousands per annum. Green didn't share that good fortune.

His novel takes place in rural Ontario. His heroine, Myra Leduc, is a swell-looking girl of nineteen. She lives with her French Canadian father, her English Canadian mother, and far too many siblings. Because the Leduc family is impoverished – again, too many siblings – Myra travels to take a job with Uncle Jurd, her mother's brother. Judd Galloway is an interesting character, though we have seen him before. A successful farmer, he holds great sway over his dry country as the fiery pastor of the Foursquare Gospel Hall. Jurd's Lord isn't merciful, nor is he:
Judd came slowly down the walk. Myra saw the little woman timidly draw him aside, heard her speak. "... I was thinking about Pat," the woman faltered, begging the fevered eyes that looked down at her now. "Pat used to play the fiddle you know. But is was only for the old-time squares and the likes of that. He couldn't play jazz.... And he was a very good man really.... Well, you remember how it happened. That time his car hit the bridge he was... he was coming home from playing that French wedding party... but he was a good man, really.... Don't you think?...."
     The old woman dared say no more. She didn't have to.
     Judd said, "Playing the fiddle for the lust of the flesh, Sister? And for a pagan wedding?" He shook his head slowly, with a terrible finality. "The wrath of ou God is an awful thing, Sister. An awful thing!"
As I say, we've seen characters like Jurd before in American literature. His kind may feature in Caldwell, but I haven't read Caldwell. While I haven't encountered anyone like him in any other Canadian novel, I'm sure they're there somewhere.

Judd is very tightly wound, and things are only getting worse. Myra has come to his farm because her Aunt Belle, Jurd's wife, is dying of cancer. And then there's simple son Matt. "He wouldn't hurt a fly... really," Aunt Belle tells Myra, but Jurd feels otherwise:
"When a lad is mature in his body and not in his mind, he's likely to get a lot of urge that could be mighty dangerous to an attractive girl like you. especially when he's strong."
Judd's warning appears in The Praying Mantis, but not in The Pillar of Fire. It wasn't until I read it that I realized Matt was an adult; the shorter version somehow had me thinking he was an adolescent. News Stand Library was never known for its editing – authors were lucky if their names were right – but I can't really blame the nameless for the
misconception. I come to praise, not bury. In order to make Green's manuscript fit the 158-page format, over half the novel had to be excised. The skill demonstrated is worthy of the surgeons who once worked on Reader's Digest Condensed Books. Green's plot is left virtually intact, which isn't to say that I don't prefer The Praying Mantis. The widow's hesitant query about fiddler Pat doesn't feature in The Pillar of Fire, nor do Jurd's sermons about "writing and jiggling and jitter-bugging and bunny-hugging and flat-foot-floogying" with "niggers". Pastor Jurd of The Praying Mantis is even more reprehensible.

In both books, Aunt Belle dies, and young Myra becomes the object of Jurd's desire. Recognizing as much, the firm-breasted niece flirts, poses and rubs against her uncle to curry favour, all the while enjoying a clandestine romance with a young McGill science student named Napoleon Cadotte. Skinny dipping is a nightly occurrence.

Does that sort of thing feature in Caldwell? I haven't read the man.

Does it feature in Green's other novels. I'm not sure I care enough to find out.

The critics rave:
It's a common lament that Hopwood winners don't keep on writing. The idea is that the novel, or play, or series of poems with which they won their awards somehow ended rather than began something. Their art was an attempt to impose order on hitherto clashing elements in their own experiences. It was, in short, autobiographical, autocathardic, and, alas, artistically suicidal.
– A.M. Eastman,  Quarterly Review,  August 7, 1954
Objects: One of News Stand Library's more competent productions, The Pillar of Fire enjoyed just one printing. I bought my copy in 2012 from bookseller and poet Nelson Ball. Price: C$25.00.

The Praying Mantis passes itself off as a first edition; no mention is made of it's previous incarnation.  With 309 pages of text and a good number of blanks, it's a fairly bulky thing. It was issued simultaneously in cloth and paper. There was no second printing. My paper copy was purchased five years ago at Attic Books. Price: $3.75. It seems to have once belonged to a woman named Eleanor Coulter, who blessed it twice with her signature, and took the time to transcribe Annie Charlotte Dalton's "The Praying Mantis" on one of the book's many blank pages.

Access: Two Very Good copies of The Pillar of Fire are currently listed online by American booksellers. Prices: US$20 and US$25. A third Yankee offers an incomplete copy in very rough condition at US$12 The University of Calgary appears to be the only library in the country with a copy. The Praying Mantis is not as common as one might expect; only fifteen of our academic libraries and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec have it in their collections. Five copies are listed for sale online, in both cloth and paper editions, at prices ranging from US$3.14 to US$40.00.  I recommend the copy pictured below, offered at US$30.00 by Scene of the Crime in St Catharines, Ontario.


  1. Have read Erskine Caldwell! Excellent author, underrated, sharp satirist, more serious than those paperback covers would make you believe. God's Little Acre is a great place to start; like all of Caldwell's work, it has affinities with Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

    1. I've meant to read God's Little Acre for ages. I once had a copy but made the mistake of lending it to a friend of a friend (whom I never saw again). As I recall, she needed it for a course that death with author's who perhaps weren't being given their due. James M. Cain, who I have read was also on the list. I think Cain is fantastic.

  2. Lovely inter-almost-textuality with Dalton. Can I repost the image of the poem on our blog, and send readers back here?

    1. Of course, Karyn, I'd be honoured. I'm now left wondering about Eleanor Coulter. Clearly, she was a woman who knew her Canadian poetry.

  3. Brian – Thanks for the post. And you guessed right – Erskine Caldwell’s work (at least GOD’S LITTLE ACRE, the only one I’ve read) is a risqué tale that is both funny and tough. It is hard to tell today how much he might have been exaggerating. When it came out, it must have been hot stuff.

    1. Elgin, I think the first I heard of God's Little Acre was through Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Early in the book, our hero thinks of his library, which contains Rosamond Marshall's Kitty and Tiffany Thayer's racy adaptation of The Three Musketeers. He then turns to another character and refers to God's Little Acre as "the horniest."

    2. Brian – DUDDY is on my TBR pile. I recently found a paperback copy with Richard Dreyfuss on the cover. I saw the movie years ago and then again on video last year. Looking forward to the book.