Arts Beat

Only F.W. Thomas, and Nothing More

Adam Mazmanian at one his F.W. Thomas Performances, a series of literary readings immortalizing one of Edgar Allan Poe's lesser correspondents.
Adam Mazmanian at one his F.W. Thomas Performances, a series of literary readings immortalizing one of Edgar Allan Poe's lesser correspondents. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006

When Adam Mazmanian was looking for a namesake for his new reading series, he had a few restrictions: He didn't want anyone famous, honorable or talented. He found all the mediocrity he needed in F.W. Thomas.

"Thomas was a person of limited importance, and I identify with that," said Mazmanian, a 36-year-old District resident. "The main thing to remember with him is he was not a good writer. He was a very bad writer."

Thomas was an attorney, writer and Department of the Treasury employee who lived in Washington in the mid-1800s. He was a close friend of Edgar Allan Poe and once tried to get him a government job. Were it not for Thomas's correspondence with Poe, he would probably be lost to history.

The F.W. Thomas Performances are literary variety shows that started in April at the Warehouse Theater. The third installment on Monday drew about 50 attendees and the five scheduled performers -- a cartoonist, a musician and three writers, including Mazmanian, who also served as the evening's host.

Mazmanian is part library nerd and part sarcastic, deadpan hipster. He speaks fast while talking about his trips to the Library of Congress to research Thomas, even whipping out his library identification card to show off his photo. But he is also resurrecting Thomas as a way to be purposefully obtuse -- think the snarky journal McSweeney's.

Mazmanian said Thomas embodies his impression of what he thinks it would be like to work as a public servant: "He had a seven-hour workday with about an hour of work," said Mazmanian, whose day job is compiling e-mail digests for a trade organization. "He was able to write long letters to Poe at his desk. He sort of luxuriated in his laziness."

"I like the idea that I'm the only person who remembers him," he said. He even signs press releases, "Yours sincerely, Adam Mazmanian (on behalf of Mr. F.W. Thomas, deceased)."

Some in the crowd didn't identify with Mazmanian's fascination with Thomas.

"I didn't get that at all," said Abby Lavin, 21. "I was like, Who is this guy? I figured he was the headliner."

Lavin, who wore a dainty polka-dot dress and combined it with high-top sneakers and aquamarine eyeliner, epitomized many in the audience with her hipster style and literary aspirations -- she just graduated from Georgetown University and starts her first job at the Weekly Standard next week.

Mazmanian's show was inspired by his childhood friend John Hodgman, who has been running the Little Gray Book Lecture Series in Brooklyn since 2001. Hodgman is the Charlie Brown-looking contributor to TV's "The Daily Show" and the author of the literary parody book "The Areas of My Expertise." Before Little Gray Book started, Hodgman hosted something similar for McSweeney's.

"In hosting these, I tried to liven up literary readings, which I had enjoyed attending . . . but which I felt lacked the smashing of guitars," Hodgman deadpanned, in the style of his "Daily Show" persona. Hodgman's series, which is on hiatus, has featured the smashing of guitars, overhead visual aids and men dressed in sea gull costumes.


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