THESE BOOKS are early Christmas for folks interested in writers and writing, smiles saying yes. They begin by shaking hands with you and end by convulsing you in laughter.
Though prepared as an American companies volume to James Sutherland's Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (1975), poet Donald Hall's book is quite different. Sutherland selected stories that directly bore on a writer's literary life, whereas Hall has included stories alien to it, and others pivoting on wisecracks and epigrams. Though he's composed a delight, he has an inclination for badsiding, which can be seen by comparing the number of anecdotes on certain topics with Sutherland (in parentheses): sex -- 26 (3), drinking -- 34 (15), fights -- 12 (4), and suicides -- 7 (2). Some selections are all warts. Sure, Edna Millay burned her candle at both ends while writing some of our loveliest lyrics and sonnets, but Hall represents her only in bed and at the bottle. Ditto Dorothy Parker dirty mouthing everyone and everything. Surely there was much more to these writers than this?
Especially since many of these anecdotes turn on what Churchill called "terminological inexactitudes" (lies). Sutherland shied from such inventions unless accepted as part of tradition. Hall is not so inhibited: he admits to being unscrupulous as to accuracy -- "if a story achieves print it is grist for this mill." Two stories have Hemingway taking on boxer Gene Tunney. Both couldn't have happened (they're obviously the same story told differently), one certainly didn't happen (Papa cutting Tunney's lip -- Hemingway was a bully and a braggart, but he wasn't stupid) and even the tamest one probably didn't happen. Worse, in another tale, Hemingway breaks John O'Hara's blackthorn walking stick over his own head to prove his prowess. Despite the fact, mind you, that Papa claimed to have a plate in his head from World War I and that the blackthorn is the strongest fighting stick in existence. Such invention detracts from Hall's really excellent selections on Thoreau (who refused to take his degree after he'd graduated from Harvard: "It isn't worth five dollars"), Whittier, Dickinson, Frank Harris, and others, in which he writes as a first-class literary historian rather than a gossip-monger.
Where Hall delivers less than expected, Randy F. Nelson's The Almanac of American Letters delivers more. Fascinating, frivolous, and funny by turn, sometimes simultaneously, he views the history of American letters as not so much flowing as lurching, and he records it in a scrapbook of juxtapositions, bedding down the momentous and the trivial, covering pretty much the whole of bookery.
On the assumption that Americans can't frame a sentence without a statistic, Nelson starts with "Facts and Figures," first books, presses, prizes, and so on. On "Trivia but True," did you know (or care) that J. R. Lowell introduced Alfred, Lord Tennyson to Bull Durham tobacco, or that William Burroughs in 1951 killed his wife while trying to shoot a glass off her head? Under "Names" we learn that the author of Mark Twain's first article in Harper's was printed as "Mark Swain."
In a fine chapter on collectors' items, Nelson tells of rarities like Poe's Tamerlane, Robert Frost's first book, Twilight, printed in only two copies in 1894, and Philip Wylie's The Paradise Crater (1945), about an enriched uranium bomb at a time when only a few scientists knew of such a bomb, causing the FBI to put Wylie under house arrest for four months. Breezing along, from an article in Horizon (1974) by Peter Andrews, we are told not to read: any book that promises to raise your consciousness or lower your weight; any book by an author over 30 who has his picture taken wearing jeans; or any searing novel that finally brings homosexuality out of the closet, plus 21 other gems to help you select from the 40,000 new books published in America each year.
On writers on writing, Robert Frost's "Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat" is flushed down the definitional drain by Carl Sandburg's "Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits." And on last words, we have O. Henry's poignant "Turn up the lights. I don't want to go home in the dark." (For wit in this category, no American approached Oscar Wilde's dying utterance, in a room in Paris, "Either this wallpaper goes or I do.")
Bookery has its share of crookery. Nelson has a catalog of various swindles, including Clifford Irving's "biography" of Howard Hughes as well as Witter Bynner's "Spectra" sally against the Imagists and modernists, and he, in turn, being hoaxed by Malcolm Cowley boosting his ploughboy poet, Earl Roppel.
Nelson stumbles a bit, though, by including the story of tongue-tied Tom Heggen (Mr. Roberts ), responding at a banquet to the question of how he came to write his best seller, "Well, s , it was just that I was on this boat . . ." echoing Hall's equally suspect tale of Amy Lowell reading in public a poem that elicited titters. The third time it occurred, she banged the book shut, said "You unregenerate sons of bitches!" and stalked from the platform. They're funny, sure, but they taste of invention.
Steven Gilbar's The Book Book, is a smaller matter, a sprightly but lightweight blend of literary lists, trivia, and quizzes. It has copious sins of omission and commission, but it's all good fun and games for bibliophagists (book devourers) and browsers alike.
Wilson Mizner, the celebrated wit, once said, "I know of no sentence that can induce such immediate and brazen lying as the one which begins, 'Have you read . . .?' "These books will abet such lying by providing an anecdotal arsenal lending verisimilitude to the liar who can learn about writers and books and still not read them. Happily though, things balance out: many habitual non-readers, tasting these appetizers, will be stimulated to forsake Starsky and Hutch for life's second greatest delight.