SO DEVOTED am I to the work of Clyde Brion Davis that I even followed him into the Rivers of America series to acquire his history of the Arkansas River, a stream whose beginnings and endings I didn't then know, and don't now remember.
Only a few authors invoke in us the kind of fierce loyalty which makes us want everything, the poems of a novelist, the novels of a poet -- and histories of rivers. It is the kind of loyalty which makes devotees of George Eliot defiantly cherish the ridiculous Romola, and forces fanatical Trollopians to trudge through The Golden Lion of Grandpere.
At this point you may be saying that you know Eliot if only through unhappy high school hours with Silas Marner, and Anthony Trollope as the new hero of public TV, but who is this Davis?
Printer, painter, boxer, and newspaperman, Davis was the kind of unlucky novelist who made such a success of his first book that he gave up sensible things like printing and painting and gave his life to trying to do it again.
That first novel was The Anointed, and when I read it as a college freshman in 1937, I decided it was a book I was going to read many times again, a resolve I made about a lot of works and kept in only a few cases, one of them being The Anointed. This I last read in an edition which called it Adventure, the name of the very bad movie which MGM had made from it as a vehicle for Clark Gable and Greer Garson.
Adventure, according to the jacket blurb, is a story of "hazard and romance" and of "How Harry Patterson went on a journey across the Black Ocean which is beyond time and beyond death."
The text, pitted here and there with pictures from the film, is unchanged, that of the Davis Anointed, and reveals that Harry never gets to take the journey, that few of us do, that perhaps we shouldn't, that the dreams of youth are as fragile as the wings that carry them, and that the lead buckshot of common sense is ever aimed at those wings.
A critic characterized Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier as the best French novel in the English language, and although I try to stay away from words like best, The Anointed seems to me, as indeed, most of Davis' books do, to be a French novel in the American language.
This opinion would certainly come as a big surprise to Davis, who worked hard in his public persona at being a homespun hometown boy from mid-America, a smiling, self-deprecating philosopher with a bow tie and the kind of bristly little moustache that suggests genial moderation.
THE SURFACES of his books reflect the same tone. On the first page of The Anointed, Harry meets an old man on Boston Common who is wearing "celluloid buttons that said 'O, You Kid,' 'Keep Cool with Coolidge,' 'Cow Brand Soda,' 'The Jolly Chums Club' and things like that."
Coolidge and Cow Brand were American nostalgia even in 1937, and we are led on to the next page in the expectation of some humorous effects, only to find the old man saying, "I am laughing at you and Boston and the world. God and I are laughing."
Harry speculates on the old man's sanity and his own, and we begin to know that, whether the voyage over the Black Ocean occurs or not, this is not just a story of "hazard and romance." It is a story about the terrifying appeal of madness -- or is it really revelation?
It is a very sad story told largely in comic terms, and that is why I called it French. Old civilizations, much beaten about the eyebrows, tend to think of disaster as inevitable and try to be jaunty about it. Americans, on the whole, are more given to indignation. Thomas Wolfe made four big volumes out of his complaints, using material that a French dramatist might have spun out to a black comic pair of acts, or Montaigne have used for a thoughtful essay.
Kurt Vonnegut once ascribed his popularity to the creation of bitter-coated sugar pills, and it may be that Davis' books, jolly on top and gelid underneath, like some literary baked Alaska, failed of long range popularity simply because they are so curiously un- American.
The Great American Novel -- , Davis' second book, achieves the considerable technical feat of making a sympathetic and likeable hero out of a dead bore, a second-rate newspaperman named Homer Zigler. The book is Zigler's diary, and we are not far into it when we realize that the prose of the diary is not the medium of the novel of which Homer dreams. Still, the plodding diary has an eerie fascination, and James A. Michener has told me that he has offered several publishers an enthusiastic introduction if they will republish The Great American Novel -- . He has had no takers yet, but Michener is man who gets things done and he may be the man to start the Davis revival.
Certainly it will start from somewhere in the cellar. Despite a reprint industry which seems, in its vigor, to have republished much that we needed to have and then rushed on to much that we never needed in the first place, none of Clyde Brion Davis' lively and original books is available.
For a time I was a one-man distribution center for The Anointed, gathering up second-hand copies and apportioning them among the worthy, but my surplus has not recently been replaced. Only this book and the Zigler diary seem to have done at all well, if the used book shelves are a guide, and my 10 other Davis books were acquired only after years of search through moldering mounds of the good, the bad and, worst of all, the forgotten.
The last of them, The Big Pink Kite, published in 1960, is autographed, in Davis' small neat writing, to a couple he calls "Fine friends and nice people."
Whether he was a fine friend and a niceperson I cannot, of course, know, but I do know that I have enjoyed his literary acquaintance for almost 50 years, and I marvel that more readers have not shared the pleasures of his assured, civilized, and absorbing writing.