Saturday, January 28, 2017

Friday, January 27, 2017

Rare Book Cafe's January 28 show will get to the heart of matters with LA rare book dealer John Howell.

Rare Book Cafe’s January 28 program will feature Los Angeles-based rare book dealer John Howell of John Howell for

No one can accuse Howell of being heartless. He not only has one, he will sell it to you in a fortnight:

Jack the ripper book.jpg

Jack the Ripper: A Bloody Alphabet. With Illustrations by Kristi Wyatt. Richards, Sean E. Norman, OK: Byzantium Studios Limited, 2014. Limited edition of 95 copies, this is one of 20, signed and numbered 14, and housed in a human-heart-shaped box, and includes a wooden anatomical specimen stand for display.

Rare Book Cafe airs Saturdays, 2:30-3:30 pm EST on the Rare Book Cafe’s Facebook page, as well as the blog and YouTube channel of the program’s sponsor, the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair.

“I have been specializing in miniature books, fine press books, especially those of California presses, and have a mix of Limited Editions Club titles, as well as scholarly books in all fields and most Western Languages.  I also carry material on California and the West.  My catalog Number 1 was published in May of 2011 and included 113 books issued by the Book Club of California.  Since then I have been issuing occasional lists on California History, early printing, and a few miscellanies,” Howell reports on his website.


The model of a modern rare book seller, Howell does business online and at California book fairs. Among them, you’ll be able to find him at this year’s 50th California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Oakland, February 10-12, 2017 at Booth 914, heart and all.

On Saturday, Howell will show Rare Book Cafe viewers a number of rare works he plans to offer at the book fair, as well as discussing the latest developments in the story of AB 1570, California’s ill-considered and controversial rare book regulator’s law.

Saturday will mark Howell’s first appearance at the Cafe since it launched its second series in December 2016. He’s a graduate of California State University, Fullerton (European and Church History), and a Ph.D aspirant in American Colonial and Early Republic History at UCLA. Of the latter, he jokes he holds an ABD- “All But Dissertation, the bookseller’s degree!” (which calls to mind another hoary academic wheeze: “How many doctoral candidates does it take to change a lightbulb?” “One, but it will take forever”).

Howell got his start in the book trade with a five-year stint at Barnes & Noble. He moved into rare books as an eight-year cataloguer for Jeff Weber Rare Books before hanging out his shingle online in 2004.

Rare Books Cafe is sponsored by the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair. It’s broadcast every Saturday from 2.30 to 3.30 pm EST and features interviews, panel discussion and stuff you can learn about book collecting whether you are a regular at Sotheby’s or just someone who likes books.

Hosted by Miami book dealer, appraiser and’s Bucks on the Bookshelf radio show creator Steven Eisenstein, the program features a revolving set of cohosts and regular guests including Thorne Donnelley of Liberty Book Store in West Palm Beach, Florida; Lindsay Thompson of Charlotte’s Henry Bemis Books; miniature books expert Edie Eisenstein; and program creator/producer T. Allan Smith.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Here's your link to January 21's Rare Book Cafe live program!

We're live here, on YouTube, and on the Cafe's Facebook page, today at 2:30 pm EST. An archive copy will appear as soon as the show ends. Join us!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

January 21 on Rare Book Cafe-

Tomorrow- Saturday the 30th of July- the Rare Book cafe team will have a chat with Gigi Best, owner of Best Books, Rich Treasures in Ybor City, Florida.

Doing business nearly twenty years, BBRT has a fascinating, roving past:

"Best Books Rich Treasures is an Independent, Veteran and Woman-owned family bookstore providing exceptional used, rare and new books, high quality gift items, and reliable service to our customers...We first opened Best Books & Rich Treasures in 1997 in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  Though we began as traveling vendors, we quickly opened a two-story storefront bookstore there.

"We then moved to the Virginia Beach Farmers Market and Antique Mall and since that time we have taken our store to four other cities and two different countries (Korea and Turkey) before re-opening in Tampa, FL.
"For many years we have brought our business to military and civilian communities as a military family ourselves.  We are currently close to MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, FL and are excited to, not only, serve the local military and civilian community, but also have our business on the web, where we are accessible to the world."

Ybor City flourished as the cigar capital of the world for half a century from the 1880s. A multicultural immigrant army settled in villages built around the cigar factories to make a community of storied vitality and diversity.

Production peaked at 500 million cigars in 1929; the arrival of the Depression that fall led to Americans' switching to cheaper cigarettes and mechanization of the cigar-making process over the next two decades, driving wages down and workers into other occupations.

After nearly being wiped out by depopulation and neglect, Ybor City revived in the 1990s and is now a celebrated jewel in the cultural and artistic life of greater Tampa, filled with entertainment venues, galleries, and artists: the perfect place for a bookstore!

Visiting the Tampa area? Here's BBRT's contact information:

1501-B Ninth Avenue, Tampa FL 33065
(Located in historic Ybor City)

Days/Hours: Tu/We/Th/Sa, 10 am- 5 pm
Fri, noon- 8 pm
Su/Mo closed

In addition to our visit with Gigi, co-host Thorne Donnelley will don his Book College mortarboard to talk about researching old books in, “Do I have to look at anything but”

Apparently there is more to it than finding one’s book on the giant aggregator site and then looking for the highest price demanded. Who knew?

Host Steven Eisenstein will celebrate the end of the eight-year meme-threat that has dominated social media, and will present a segment called “Guns & Shooting.” Having opened this series of the program in the middle of a Civil War re-enactment, it’s safe to assume you can open-carry in a virtual sense for the hour.

Special Contributor Edie Eisenstein, who-let’s face it, is the best thing about the show- will show us some presidential miniature books while our new President takes the weekend off!

As ever, the hot betting is on this burning question: will Lindsay Thompson’s segment get bumped?

Rare Books Cafe is a weekly Internet production sponsored by the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair. Programs are shown live and archived at the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair blog and YouTube channel, the Rare Book Cafe, Henry Bemis Books, and Bucks on the Bookshelf Facebook pages, Saturdays at 2:30 pm, EST.

The program encourages viewer participation via its interactive features and video: if you've got an interesting book, join the panel and show it to us! Questions? Pose them. Comments? Make them. You enliven our programs!

Regular co-hosts include Thorne Donnelly, owner of Liberty Book Store in West Palm Beach; Steven Eisenstein, longtime Miami-area dealer and appraiser and host of the weekly radio program Buck$ on the Bookshelf at; and Lindsay Thompson, owner of Henry Bemis Books in Charlotte, North Carolina. T. Allan Smith is the show’s creator and producer.

This week on Bucks on the Bookshelf, at noon!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

This Week on Rare Book Cafe: Book Fair world traveler Cynthia Gibson, tiny books, how to sell books, and a forgotten American author

It was said of Plato- and has since been applied to figures as varied as Samuel Johnson and Murray Kempton- that “In whatever direction we set out, we meet him on the way back.”

In the bookseller’s world, the epigram is equally fit for Rare Book Cafe’s January 14 guest, Cynthia Gibson.

cynthia gibson.jpgEditorial Director of the trade events site and resident of Charleston, South Carolina, Gibson has done it all. She’s an occasional columnist for The New Antiquarian, the blog of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. She’s an expert in bookbinding (ask about the Coptic and Japanese methods).

Gibson’s a graduate of New York University and the Colorado and University of Virginia Rare Book Schools. She’s worked extensively in corporate publishing both as  McGraw-Hill insider and a respected freelancer for Hearst and dozens of other publishing majors.

She launched her current ventures in 2014 after a decade as Director of Operations, Used Book Division and Manager, Rare Books Department for Barnes & Noble.

Rare Books Cafe is a weekly Internet television production sponsored by the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair. It’s broadcast every Saturday from 2.30 to 3.30 pm EST and features interviews, panel discussion and stuff you can learn about book collecting whether you are a regular at Sotheby’s or just someone who likes books.

Hosted by Miami book dealer, appraiser and’s Bucks on the Bookshelf radio show creator Steven Eisenstein, the program features a revolving set of cohosts and regular guests, including Thorne Donnelley of Liberty Book Store in West Palm Beach, Florida; Lindsay Thompson of Charlotte’s Henry Bemis Books; miniature books expert Edie Eisenstein; and program creator/producer T. Allan Smith.
AB Weekly.JPG

In addition to Gibson’s visit, the program will feature a segment on AB Bookman’s Weekly, a small trade publication that ran from 1948 to 1999. The New York Times wrote of it,

In the decades after World War II, the mail-order secondhand-book trade was a flourishing enterprise, and AB, founded in 1948, was its chief avenue of communication. Eagerly awaited, greedily pored over and tenderly dog-eared, the journal was almost certainly the only bound artifact that any of its 10,000 subscribers - rare-book dealers, librarians and private collectors - would have ever considered marking up.

For 19 years, the Malkins ran the magazine from an office in downtown Newark where every horizontal surface, and many not-quite-horizontal ones, boiled over with centuries of books, papers and pamphlets. Sol. Malkin, who with the typographic exactitude of a cataloguer always spelled his nickname with a period, was AB's owner, editor and publisher. Mrs. Malkin was the administrative assistant, copy editor, proofreader, book critic and maker of coffee, which, for Mr. Malkin, had to be several parts cognac.

Thick, digest-sized and printed on very cheap paper, AB offered trade news, gossip and articles about book collecting. But it was for the classified ads that the journal was prized. Through its Books Wanted and Books for Sale departments, AB united far-flung collectors with dealers around the world, any one of whom just might happen to have a long-sought title in stock. ("Wanted: Any books on horse named Cruiser by Rary, Brown or others, ca. 1870?" a listing in the issue of Jan. 3, 1953, read.)

Some of the ads catered to highbrow tastes. In December 1953, a dealer in Milwaukee offered an early edition of Gertrude Stein's 1925 novel, "The Making of Americans," signed by Alice B. Toklas, for $12.50.

Others spoke of baser needs. "Wanted: Spicy pulps of the 30's. Pep, Ginger, Paris Nights, Spicy Detective, Tattle Tales, etc.," a 1965 ad read.

Still others were simply bewildering, like this one, from March 22, 1965: "Wanted: Anything on 'raining' of unusual objects - frogs, toads, fish, beads, etc. - falling or 'raining' from the sky."

Edie Eisenstein will talk about her rare Disney Tiny Theater set. The books were originally sold in beautifully lithographed boxes by Simon & Schuster with slip covers, in sets of 12. The three sets were Tiny Nonsense Stories (1949),Tiny Animal Stories (1948) and Tiny Disney Stories (1950). They were later done in single sets of 12 (with book numbers), 24 (non-Disney 1968) and 36 (all three sets 1964).

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Co-host Thorne Donnelley will consider the many ways booksellers can sell these days- traditional stories, catalogue sales, online, book fairs (and he has tried them all).

Lindsay Thompson will take a minute to remember a forgotten American author who vanished in 1939, leaving behind this iconic modernist California home:

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Rare Book Cafe program encourages viewer participation via its interactive features and video: if you've got an interesting book, join the panel and show it to us! If you’d like to ask the team a question or join us in the virtually live studio audience for the program, write us at

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Birthday: America's first celebrity travel writer lived fast, died young, and left no corpse.


Richard Halliburton (1900-1939)
Travel writer

Near the height of his fame in 1930, the travel writer and adventurer Richard Halliburton received a singular honor: Vanity Fair put him on its list of celebrities “We nominate for oblivion.”

In bestowing the prize, the magazine cited Halliburton for making “a glorious racket out of Dauntless Youth,” with tales it called “transparently bogus.” To be fair, it also admitted that Halliburton’s books were “marvelously readable… extremely popular, and have made their author a millionaire.”

As for oblivion, the magazine would ultimately get its wish. Today, except for readers who have stumbled across a cobwebby Halliburton book in their grandparents’ attic, he is all but forgotten.

-Greg Daugherty, “The Last Adventure of Richard Halliburton, America’s Forgotten Hero of the 1930s,” Smithsonian, March 25, 2014

Such stirring music was irresistible. I waltzed out of bed, hornpiped to my bath, boleroed into my clothes, fandangoed to breakfast, cancaned out the front door, and mazurkaed down the street in search of those mad, mad pipes.

-Richard Halliburton, on waking in Barcelona to the sounds of an Algerian band in the square outside.

The son of a successful Tennessee civil engineer, Richard Halliburton was a bookish, sickly kid (in his early teens, he was packed off for a time to Dr Kellogg’s sanitarium at Battle Creek for The Treatment) who, by his late teens, had determined to be the most famous, well-traveled man on earth.

After prepping at Lawrenceville, Halliburton edited The Princeton Tiger while studying for his degree. At 19, he told his parents he was visiting friends for the weekend, then signed on with a merchant marine vessel as an ordinary seaman for his first extended tour of the world.

The trip made plain to Halliburton tht it was now possible to go anywhere. He saw his future as one endless adventure, told to an admiring, homebound public. At 25 he published his first collection of travel adventures, The Royal Road to Romance. In it, he traveled down the Nile, headed over to India and Thailand, and climbed Mount Fuji in winter. It was a best seller and made him $70,000- just under a million in current cash.

For the next fifteen years, Halliburton published a book every eighteen months. He spent a year on the road, writing as he went- both the book, and syndicated columns. Then he barnstormed America, giving as many as fifty lectures a month. His model was the journalist Lowell Thomas, who’d made Lawrence of Arabia famous- and himself wealthy- with his lectures that included movie footage of the revolt in the desert.

His second book, 1927’s The Glorious Romance, featured Halliburton and some of his chums recreating the adventures of Ulysses, with laybys to visit the grave of Rupert Brooke and for Halliburton to reboot Byron’s swimming of the Hellespont in 1810.

New Worlds to Conquer (1929) featured Halliburton's tour of Central and South America, where he swam across the Panama Canal. Tolls for crossing the Panama Canal are assessed based on weight, and ships routinely pay over a hundred thousand dollars for a single crossing. But since Halliburton swam across, all 5’8’ and 140 pounds of him, his toll was just 37 cents — a record for the lowest toll ever. Cheeky as ever, he registered himself as a ship and covered the 51 mile trip in ten days.

Bending the rules became part of his routine. He like sneaking onto trains without paying the fare and then turning indignant conductors into comic foils in his adventures. Denied entry to places, he went anyway, overnighting in the Taj Mahal; sleeping atop the Great Pyramid. He dove twice into the Mayan Well of Death and described the skeletons littering the bottom.

The Writer’s Almanac picks up the itinerary:

On Christmas Day 1930, he set out on another one of his epic adventures. It was a trip around the world in an open-cockpit biplane. It would last 18 months and include stops in 34 countries, and it began in Los Angeles. There was a stop in New York, and then the British Isles, France, Gibraltar, Morocco. He and his co-pilot flew across the Sahara, made a stop in Timbuktu, spent time in Algeria, and landed in Persia (now Iran). They made a stop in Iraq, where they gave a joyride to the school-aged Iraqi prince, flying him up over his school's playground.

They headed over to India, where their crimson red plane did aerial stunts over the Taj Mahal. Then they flew to Mount Everest, taking the first aerial photographs of the summit. They flew to the Philippines. Once there, they crated the plane, and rode a ship with it back across the Pacific, landing in San Francisco. From there they flew back to L.A. so that they could complete their journey at its starting place.

Halliburton wrote a book about the aerial expedition called The Flying Carpet (1932), which was also the name of the plane. The book sold phenomenally well even though it was published in the midst of the Great Depression.

Despite the dash and glitter of his persona, Halliburton was a frequently lonely figure, a gay man in an age when his existence was a criminal act. As early as 1926 he wrote of his personal feelings of isolation in a number of over 1,000 letters to his parents, without explaining why. He invented glamorous liaisons with women in his books, but his relationships were with men, among them the silent film actor Ramon Novarro, philanthropist Noel Sullivan, aviation pioneer Moye Stephens- with whom he circumnavigated the planet by air in 1931- and, after 1930, the writer and journalist Paul Mooney, who acted as his assistant, editor and secretary for his last six books.

He told more about himself than readers realized in a early book:

Youth -- nothing else worth having in the world...and I had youth, the transitory, the fugitive, now, completely and abundantly. Yet what was I going to do with it? Certainly not squander its gold on the commonplace quest for riches and respectability, and then secretly lament the price that had to be paid for these futile ideals. Let those who wish have their respectability -- I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.

Perhaps it was the realization that there was no safe place to settle down that drove Halliburton to recast himself as the endless adventurer, always on the move. Early on, he wrote his father, "When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible. ... And when my time comes to die, I'll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills — any emotion that any human ever had — and I'll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed."

Halliburton was a man of his time: the endlessly chipper man-boy of the Twenties, like Rudy Vallee, Scott Fitzgerald and fictional peers Bertie Wooster and Lord Peter Wimsey. It didn’t play well with all. Vanity Fair’ curse was penned by Clare Booth Luce, author of the remarkably bitchy- even today, play The Women. She was decades from her now-frozen image as anticommunist helpmeet to her husband, Time’s publisher, and ostentatiously pious Catholic.

Hemingway- whose gaydar was improbably well-developed- despised Halliburton, Daugherty notes:

As a gag, he once sent Halliburton’s fellow Princetonian F. Scott Fitzgerald a picture of himself inscribed, “To Scott from his old bedfellow Richard Halliburton. Princeton 1931.” In a letter after Halliburton’s death, Hemingway dismissed him as “the deceased Ladies Home Journal adventurer.”

He had the opposite effect on most. In his memoirs, 1960s TV host Art Linkletter remembered working as a press flack for the 1936 San Francisco World’s Fair and receiving Halliburton:

I can still see him sitting there—lean, bronzed by the sun, impeccably groomed and tailored,” he wrote, “The starched cuffs of his shirt protruded two inches from the sleeves, and there was a silk handkerchief tucked into one cuff.”

Attending a Halliburton lecture persuaded CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite to seek a career in journalism:

He was a daring adventurer-journalist and best-selling author, as devilishly handsome as a movie star,” Cronkite recalled, and he “commanded his audience with superb theatricality.

Susan Sontag, the mandarin of American high culture, considered Halliburton's books among the most important of her life, recalling that he “had devised for himself a life of being forever young and on the move… my first vision of what I thought had to be the most privileged of lives, that of a writer.”

Modern travel writer Paul Theroux tips his hat to Halliburton. Even the controversial comic Lenny Bruce was a Haliburton groupie. There was something about him- a raffish yet wholesome Walt Whitman yawped barbarically while almost always traveling first class.

Bruce Chatwin, the greatest travel writer of the 20th century's second half, was a cooler, more detached Halliburton.

His last adventure taunted Fate too hard. He conceived the notion of sailing the Pacific in a Chinese junk. It was pure Terry and the Pirates/Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom fantasy.

Halliburton launched the project in 1936. A thousand men wrote to join the crew. He commissioned a Chinese shipbuilder to construct the vessel, just in time for the Japanese invasions. The project ran wildly over budget and the Japanese proved impervious to Halliburton’s charms.

It took him two years to complete and obtain the release of the vessel. He and his crew, including Mooney, left Hong Kong in early 1939. By March, they were west of Midway, radioing a liner about heavy weather. That was the last anyone ever heard.

Ironically, the Navy delayed a search for over a month, thinking the disappearance a publicity stunt. Conspiracy theories abounded, coming less than two years after the disappearance of Halliburton’s and Mooney’s pal Amelia Earhart.

The curse of the travel/adventure writer is that there’s rarely a following for what one has already done. It is the next adventure that feeds the beast. With Halliburton gone- a Tennessee court declared him dead in September, 1939- and a new world war on, his name vanished from sight and largely from memory.

His books lingered on in school libraries into the 1960s: I read them all by halfway through fourth grade. Copiously illustrated with photos, Halliburton’ books were a Boys’ Own Adventure series introduction to a world about to be paved over by atom bombs, rocket ships and technology. The last time a man swam the Panama Canal did so in 1962.

Halliburton did leave two lasting monuments. In 1962, his parents built a bell tower in his honor at Tennessee’s Rhodes College, with which he had never had any connection whatever. But they liked it, and left most of his papers to it. For its part, Rhodes was happy to assist in Mr and Mrs Halliburton’s sanitized and respectified version of his life. Not until last year did a biographer skip the whitewash pail and present Halliburton as the man he was.

The other came in 1936. Land bound for a while planning the Pacific voyage, Halliburton and Mooney commissioned an up-and-coming architect, William Alexander Levy, to design a house for them on a clifftop lot at Laguna Beach, California.

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Hangover House- named for both its location and its parties- rose from a huge concrete retaining wall 400 feet above a canyon and, Levy hoped, embodied Halliburton’s endless quest for new horizons.

Built of steel, concrete and block and plate glass, it was a pioneering International-style home on the west coast that dazzled an unknown writer called Ayn Rand so completely, she included her memories of a visit to it in creating Howard Roark’s famous Heller House in The Fountainhead six years later.

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Paul Mooney with the house’s nameplate before it was embedded in the retaining wall

Halliburton’s parents sold the house for $9,000 in 1942; the purchaser’s daughter died there in 2010 and it sold out of her bankruptcy estate the next year for $3.2 million. It has been undergoing a controversial modernization/restoration since.

He once summed things up about as well as anyone:

We are born strangers in a strange land, and remain so. Travel simply reminds us of this essential truth. The transmission of a powerful story, one human to another, is an alchemical activity in which we are enlarged and changed.

halliburton living room.jpg

Jacobean miniature traveling library of 50 tiny books is stored in a wooden case that looks like a large folio volume

We just love this. We think our friend Edie Eisenstein, who does a segment about miniature books on the Rare Book Cafe would love it, too. This is billed as a first travel-sized library, a Jacobean miniature library that was the only way an avid reader could take a library along on a trip in 17th century England. It's a wooden case fixed up to look like a folio.

This photo by the extraordinary Irish photographer Darren O'Brien was part of an article that appeared in the UK's Daily Mail a couple of years ago but has recently resurfaced and has been making the rounds online. You really ought to take the time to look at the article and O'Brien's amazing photographs of the collection of miniatures in the possession of the University of Leeds. This is a fairly rare specimen. Apparently, only four were made. It dates from 1617. A researcher at the school's library was quoted as saying: "It's essentially a 17th century e-book reader such as a Kindle."

Now, that's not a word we often use in any context much less related to antiquarian books.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Here's the January 7 Rare Book Cafe!

Here- for real- is today's Rare Book Cafe!

Producer Allan Smith is off today, attending a grandchild's christening. So co-host Lindsay Thompson, who's about as tech-savvy as a pail of gravel, had to fill in.

So we had some trouble with the live feed, but are able to bring you ALMOST Live, today's show, just 11 minutes out of the oven.

Birthday: Florida author Zora Neale Hurston, among the topics on today's Rare Book Cafe!


Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
Author, folklorist, anthropologist

The Hurstons were preachers in Alabama, her father and grandfather both. When Zora was a toddler the family moved to Eatonton, Florida, an all-black town she credited for giving her a sense of the possibilities of life outside the larger Jim Crow world. She used that idyllic setting as inspiration in more than one of her novels.

Getting to be a novelist was no small task, though. When Hurston was four, her mother died. Her father- by then a bigwig in Eatonton, and pastor to its largest church- remarried in what most thought unseemly haste. The stepmother was generally thought to have been Rev Hurston’s mistress.

Her father packed Zora off to a boarding school, where she thrived until he stopped paying her school fees and she was expelled. It took her until age 26 to get her high school degree; she landed a place at Howard University and, while there, co-founded the student newspaper. But the money ran out again, and she left in 1924, making her way- almost penniless- to New York City and the literary salons of Harlem. There she met another African-American woman writer, Dorothy West, with whom she had shared first prize in a magazine’s writing contest.

Having learned the tools of survival, Zora knew how to work a room, and soon counted Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and most of the other Harlem Renaissance writers as friends and mentors. She so impressed a Barnard College trustee at a party that she was offered a scholarship. The only black student in the school, she studied anthropology under Franz Boas and alongside fellow student Margaret Mead.

With her BA in hand- at 37- Hurston embarked on two years’ graduate study at Columbia University. Between 1928 and 1932 she did extensive field research in the rural South, work that provided material for her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), and an academic study, Mules and Men (1935).

The latter helped her win a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1937, and she spent a year in Jamaica and Haiti, studying voodoo and zombie religious cults. Her best-received, and most-remembered, novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, came out in 1937.

Two more books- Moses, Man of the Mountain, and Tell My Horse- appeared by decade’s end. Moving back and forth between fiction and anthropology was just two sides of the same coin to her: “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

Hurston wrote several musical revues in the Thirties, including one, with Langston Hughes, that ran for one night on Broadway. In 1934 she opened a dramatic arts school in a black college in Florida. She taught for a time at what is now North Carolina Central University. She married twice: first, to a Howard classmate, first, in 1927; they split after a few months and divorced in 1931. In 1939 a marriage to a man 25 years her junior ended after seven months. “Love,” she wrote, “I find, is like singing. Everybody can do enough to satisfy themselves, though it may not impress the neighbors as being very much.”

The advent of World War II dried up the WPA funding that kept many small minority owned magazines alive, and support for writers. Hurston moved into freelance journalism. In 1947-48 she spent a year on an anthropological study in Honduras, only to be embarrassed by a trumped-up scandal in which she was accused of mistreatment of a ten-year old boy. While she was able to show she was out of the country at the time the offense allegedly occurred, it dented her reputation. She published her last novel, Seraph on the Sewanee, in 1948.

After she covered a 1952 interracial murder trial in Florida in 1952,  her freelance work dried up; she spent some time at the Pan American World Airways Technical Library, only to be fired to being too well-educated for the job. Returning to Florida, she worked as a maid her last few years. Her papers were saved from burning by the happenstance intervention of a friend after she died in a Florida welfare home in 1960.

Hurston’s star-already well down in the firmament in her last decade- fell below the horizon after her passing. Critics abounded. Some thought her novels stylistically barren, reading more like her books on anthropology. Others faulted her sensationalization of voodoo rites; still others found her carefully reproduced dialect speech embarrassing and condescending to blacks.

Richard Wright, the preeminent black writer of her day, dismissed her work as formless and quaint. Textualists found evidence she manufactured scenes and dialogue that she passed off as true, and several times reused the writing of others as her own. Her last book, which dealt with “southern white trash”, was dismissed in some quarters as a relic of American anthropology's embrace of eugenics in the 1920s.

It didn’t help that Hurston was a Southern black Republican of the Booker T. Washington school; she wrote articles faulting The New Deal for creating a culture of dependency among African-Americans, and argued that integration, post-Brown v. Board of Education, would do little to improve educational opportunities for black children, a view the subsequent white flight to private academies and charter schools has proved not entirely misplaced.

Unlike Dorothy West, who, as a newspaper columnist on Cape Cod, lived long enough to be rediscovered, Hurston’s critical rebirth was too late coming. The writer Alice Walker erected a monument to her in the segregated cemetery where she was buried in an unmarked grave; a new generation of scholars reappraised her work after Walker published an article about her in Ms- “Looking for Zora”-in 1975. Hurston’s harsh portrayals of Southern life- which made Southerners deny and Northerners squirm- came to be seen in light of a broader historical record. But for a few turns of chance, she could have been a bestseller in her lifetime.


New editions of her work came out in the late 1970s. Today she enjoys a prominent place among 20th-century writers; Eatonton, Florida honors her with a yearly arts festival centered around the museum that bears her name. The US Postal Service honored her in 2003; in 2005, Oprah Winfrey produced a film version of Their Eyes Were Watching God. She was given a Google Doodle for her 2013 birthday.

#HenryBemisBooks  #LiteraryBirthdays #Charlotte #ZoraNealeHurston

Friday, January 6, 2017

Birthday: "A baby is God's opinion that the world should go on."

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Carl August Sandburg (1878-1967)
Author, poet, folklorist

Swedes, the Sandbergs were. They lived in Illinois. Young Carl- or Charles, as he called himself,  in one of several adjustments to his persona- dropped out of school at thirteen. He worked as a milk wagon driver, a hotel porter, a bricklayer, a farm hand in Kansas, hotel janitor,  and a coal heaver, all before he was 21. He did a brief stint at Galesburg College, then moved to Chicago and got a foothold in journalism with a couple of local papers.

He left that to volunteer for the American forces in the Spanish-American War. It was a quick, popular conflict, and when it was over he spent two weeks at the U.S. Military Academy. Having flunked maths and grammar tests, he returned to Galesburg College, which he left- without a degree- in 1903.

Sandburg- he’d changed the “e” for a “u” by then- moved to Milwaukie, then the nation’s Socialist paradise. He spent two years as secretary to the mayor, a Socialist, and met a lovely woman called Lillian Steichen at party meetings. She was a smart gal from a smart clan- her brother was the photographic pioneer Edward Steichen.

The two married. She persuaded him to use his real name, Carl. He decided he’d call her Paula. Go figure. They were Socialists.

The Sandburgs set up house in Chicago and had three daughters. Carl set to being a writer with a will. With financial backing from a Galesburg professor, he’d published his first of 19 collections of poetry in 1904, to good reviews. Inspired by the mythic possibilities of Chicago, packing house to the world, he made a fast name for himself, and in 1918 collected the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes. His variety of expression and subject matter made him a uniquely popular poet in an age of great poets.

Sandburg blazed through the Twenties and Thirties. He published more poetry, launched a massive biography of Abraham Lincoln, and in 1927, published the first of three great folksong anthologies. With a strong singing voice and an ever-present guitar, he traveled widely, performing, for decades. The Lincoln biography won his a second Pulitzer in 1940. He collaborated with Aaron Copland to produce the musical narrative, “A Lincoln Portrait”; his recording of it won the 1959 Spoken Word Grammy. By then he was the embodiment of the 16the President. As part of a 150th-anniversary celebration of Lincoln's birth, Sandburg became the only poet to address a joint session of Congress.

He won his third Pulitzer, again for poetry, in 1951. The Robert Frost Medal and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Gold Medal in History followed. From 1945 on, Sandburg’s base was Connemara, a farm he and Paula bought at Flat Rock, North Carolina, in 1945. He was a regular on TV, took part in film documentaries and sound recordings, and continued to write. His total output neared fifty books, including 13 collections of essays and nonfiction, a novel, a collection of silent movie criticism he wrote as a young journalist, five biographies (he had enough material left from his six volumes on Lincoln to produce one on Mary Todd Lincoln, too), three memoirs, and five kids’ books, including the two immensely popular Rutabaga Tales. He was always an activist; leveraging his fame, he won national attention for the causes he supported, and won an award from the NAACP as “a major prophet of civil rights in our time”.

Late in life his fame won the ultimate American accolade: school namings. He was delighted to attend the opening of Carl Sandburg High School in Illinois; years later, on a visit home, he dropped in to see it and was ejected. The principal thought Sandburg, who had no ID on him, was a tramp.

Carl and Paula raised goats at Connemara, and filled every room in the house with books. When he died, at 89, the nation mourned the loss of a national treasure. Paula lived another decade, dying at 93; their daughters lived to 85, 85 and 95. Helga, the youngest- and, in the end, eldest- died in 2014. Connemara is a popular National Historic Site.

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