America’s frontier is endless, just as any other aspect of our past, our history, is endless, and endlessly available to us. – Paul Metcalf
Certain books enthrall us, set us on a quest to discover more — not just the author’s complete bibliography, but the author’s influences and acknowledged peers. I think of them as gateway writers. — W.G. Sebald was one for me; because of my total admiration for his books I sought out I don’t know how many authors he mentioned in their pages or in interviews – Jean Améry, Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Bernhard (did I already know Bernhard?), Adelbert Stifter, Gottfried Keller… Later there was Joseph McElroy, whose essays and interviews opened the door to truly dozens of books I might not have discovered until much later, or ever: Nicholas Mosley, Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, A.R. Ammons, Michel Butor’s Mobile and Degrees, Harold Brodkey, Galway Kinnell’s terrible Book of Nightmares, E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, and last but certainly not least, PAUL METCALF.
In turn, the work of Metcalf came to occupy the same central place in my thoughts as Sebald’s & McElroy’s before, and Metcalf became a gateway author for me.
Why Metcalf? Metcalf’s work plunges us headlong into the history of the Americas in all its manifest plurality. Using sophisticated montage techniques and synthesizing reams of material, always with a poet’s ear, Metcalf constructs versions of the historical record that resound into the continuous present. (The past is not even past, to paraphrase Faulkner; indeed, Metcalf’s achievement is in part to have captured that immediacy.)
Metcalf’s landmark works include :
-Genoa, 1965. Metcalf’s early novel, written after he had systematically read through the entirety of Herman Melville’s work (Melville was in fact an ancestor of his), explores themes of teratology (monstruousness, and anatomical pathologies), genetics, seafaring, and the elusiveness of identity (in particular, those of Melville and Christopher Columbus).
-Patagoni, 1971. Part travelogue, part meditation on mobility across the American continent, via Henry Ford’s invention of the automobile and the native mythologies of Peru, this is as weird and wild as anything Metcalf published. It is segmented into three discontinuous sections. Beautifully published by The Jargon Society — see picture above.
-Apalache, 1976. A kaleidoscopic exploration of the geological and human history of eastern North America, Apalache might be the pinnacle of Metcalf’s œuvre. The book’s epic scope and its inventive visual prosody are unsurpassable, in my opinion.
-Waters of Potowmack, 1982. A documentary history of the Potomac River watershed, from its discovery and settlement on up to the 1960s, Waters of Potowmack eschews the irregular prosody so characteristic of much of Metcalf’s work, in favor of simple blocks of prose. What we have here is a chronological compendium of a place. In a similar vein is Mountaineers Are Always Free! (1991), Metcalf’s short history of West Virginia (recommended).
-Those are the big ones. But there are also a great many shorter works not to be missed, including Firebird, U.S. Dept. of Interior, Golden Delicious, and Both. And there are probably a dozen other short ones, in addition to The Middle Passage and I-57. More on these another time, perhaps.
Paul Metcalf as photographed by Jonathan Williams.
From the jacket of Metcalf’s Araminta and the Coyotes (Jargon Society, 1991).
Metcalf was never fashionable, come to think of it, although he did elicit the admiration of many of his peers, from Genoa (1965) onwards. I will be writing more about Metcalf, as I am writing an encyclopedia entry about his life & work. It’s going to take some time.
For those whose curiosity is piqued, here are some good links of freely available Metcalf. Anything I can to do to promote this man’s adventurous view of history, I will do. You’ll find some video footage of him jaunting about in Ohio, visiting Alex Gildzen, as well as a brief recording of him reading from Patagoni and Apalache.
One last word to the wise: Metcalf’s works can be found from used sellers in the U.S.A., often very cheap, sometimes in elegant first editions (see in particular Patagoni and Both, published by The Jargon Society), or very cheap indeed in the 3-volume Collected Works published by Coffee House Press in 1996-1997 ($8 for all 3 volumes + shipping, last time I looked). Also, a few of his books (The Middle Passage, Both, Araminta and the Coyotes) are available in 1st ed. new and sold by the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, who act now as the custodian of The Jargon Society’s remaining stock. (As for The Jargon Society, that’s a whole nother story.)
– Audio & images –
A selection of items from the Paul Metcalf archive, now in the possession of the New York Public Library. Some typewritten letters, photos, + lots more.
A four-minute video by Alex Gildzen, a friend & admirer of Metcalf’s, with home movie footage showing Metcalf gallivanting about in various locations over the years.
A recording of Paul Metcalf reading some of his work at a public reading in 1975. At about the 1 hr. mark, Metcalf reads “Darlington, South Carolina,” the opening section of his book Patagoni (1971); “Sable Island,” a section from Apalache (1976); and a very short poem called “Moby’s Brothel.”
– Interviews –
A long, in-depth 1981 interview with Metcalf by John O’Brien, publisher of Dalkey Archive.
1983 interview with George Myers, Jr. at Gargoyle Magazine.
– Miscellaneous –
Various bits about Metcalf, with some excerpts from From Quarry Road, over at Dan Visel’s blog, with hidden noise.
Various Metcalf discussion at John Latta’s blog, Isola di Rifiuti.
Metcalf’s obituary in the New York Times, after his death from a heart attack buying apples at a farmer’s market in 1999.
A 1999 eulogy of Metcalf and note on meeting Metcalf, by Allan Kornblum, founder of Coffee House Press, who published Metcalf’s complete works in 3 volumes.
A 1999 eulogy by Lucia Berlin, discussing a book project to which Metcalf contributed, Headlands: The Marin Coast at the Golden Gate.
A review by David McCooey of Metcalf’s 3-volume Collected Works.
There’s a new interview with acclaimed American novelist Joseph McElroy in the latest issue of Golden Handcuffs Review: “In the Port of Possibility: Interview with Joseph McElroy,” by Jacob Siefring. There’s other good stuff in there, including a translation from Harry Mathews of Marie Chaix, essays on Walter Abish, work by David Antin, Toby Olson, Rae Armantrout, Steve Katz, Bernard Hoepffner and more. So maybe worth buying that one, or better yet subscribing to Golden Handcuffs Review.
For context, I would also point out the numerous other interviews with McElroy have appeared over the years (see especially that which Tom Leclair did in the late 1970s and that which Trey Strecker did for Rain Taxi in 2003 (unlike the LeClair, it is freely available online)).
It’s also worth pointing out that a previous issue of Golden Handcuffs Review was devoted to McElroy’s work (#14, Winter/Spring 2011), and that pretty much all the articles are available online — or almost all. Well worth the time as an introduction to McElroy’s work, if you’re not familiar with it. Not to mention McElroy’s stories which appeared at Golden Handcuffs in years past and which are available online: “The Last Disarmament But One”; “Character”; and “The Campaign Trail,” collected in Night Soul and Other Stories (Dalkey Archive, 2011).
All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.
Joseph McElroy and Mike Heppner did a paired reading in late April at Apexart, which was recorded. The text, which is partly about the 2013 Boston marathon event, is called “What We Noticed.” Check out the video (21:31).
Albert Mobilio, who is from what I can tell a very accomplished critic, was there as the host or moderator of the readings. Event info & videos of other author readings (Wendy S. Walters, Siddhartha Deb, Catherine Texier, & Minna Proctor) are here at Apex.
Now if you haven’t, go read Mike Heppner’s The Man Talking Project, because it is profound and jugular.
Maddy’s desk faced the west window, which was even wider than the south or north. In his swivel chair past and present found shape: steel and white enamel plasticompo and the button that ran the swivel won only a tense counterpoise from the truth that this chair was in idea the same swivel Thomas Jefferson invented.
– Joseph McElroy, Hind’s Kidnap, Harper & Row, 1969. P. 53.
Jefferson’s revolving Windsor chair which he purchased in 1775-76. The writing arm was added later at Monticello. (Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society)
Every time I go to Ohio, I make a point to stop at Dark Star Books, a great used bookshop in Yellow Springs I’ve blogged about before. My latest trip yielded more good finds: two books by Lynne Tillman, Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience (trans. William Weaver), Stanley Elkin’s The Living End, and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (Harper & Row, 1968). As soon as I glanced at the cover, I recognized the painstakingly detailed and ornate artwork of James Spanfeller.
I recognized the style, and the face, from the incredible dust jacket of Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs (Harper & Row, 1969). Click on the image, zoom in, and look closely; you’ll see grasshoppers, pupae, birds, and more there in Hind.
Both these books were produced under the editorship of legendary editor David Segal, who was at Harper & Row before moving to Knopf in about 1970. A little light research shows that James Spanfeller also did these other book illustrations — each quite exceptional, I think. Photos culled from a Google Image search.
I also see, for those who are interested in digging deeper, that Spanfeller did illustrations for Pages from Cold Island by Frederick Exley, Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, Quill by Robert Steiner, and various other books by Larry Niven, May Sarton, and Julia Cunningham. Various other great illustrations are online here.
From my review:
Whatever the message is, Ancient History and Cy’s manuscript (for they’re one and the same) confront the impossible: Cy seeks in his project to embrace a totality that’s larger and greater than the limits of others’ minds. This high ambition stands parallel to that of Michel Butor’s Degrees (1960; cited by McElroy as a precursor and model for his early work), as well as McElroy’s first novel, A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), whose central protagonist, David Brooke, has “perfect recall.” Similarly gifted, Cy has in his brain an unusually developed “Vectoral Muscle” that enables rare feats of attention, perception, and intuition. On the page, this amounts to what Tony Tanner aptly termed a sense of “egalitarian respect for the most apparently modest detail.” A name on an apartment directory-board that’s “mint white grooved in velvety black,” for instance, or, an egg sandwich seen with “the gold-gray damp of the grease coming into the Pepperidge Farm white.” Like these minute touches, McElroy’s prose can, at its best, almost conjure synesthesia.
Note: an improved-quality audio file (optimized for voice) replaced the original recording on Jan 9, 2013. — JS
Last week I traveled to New York City, to lower Manhattan, to hear Joseph McElroy read from his work. The reading took place at the New School. In attendance were the renowned translator and poet Richard Howard, as well as McElroy’s son, Boone, and his wife, artist Barbara Ellmann.
I also visited McElroy at his Tribeca apartment and spoke with him about the (then) impending election, about how his week had been since the flooding of parts of the city, about his forthcoming books, and more. I am presently preparing a summary of this exchange for publication.
For now, enjoy the recording of McElroy’s digressively “self-interrupted” reading of his work, including excerpts from Cannonball, his “water book” which he’s wrapping up, “Canoe Repair,” “The Campaign Trail,” and a brief commentary on Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time, and Architecture.
All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.
In my devotion to McElroy’s projects I went far, to obsession some would say. But who can say what’s normal, insane? I read all the interviews and essays I found referenced. In these interviews, I found myself crossing numerous references to texts and authors that were totally unknown to me. I had to know more, had to read more. Tom LeClair’s interview with McElroy and the essay ‘Neural Neighborhoods…’ are both rife with mentions of marginal works, which I chronicle here. The list appears below, the source key follows.
Avid readers of McElroy will find the following a handy resource for tracking the literary background against which McElroy sees himself. Where I can, I provide a few notes about the work in question.
NN=“Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts” (1974 essay by McElroy)
JC=Joshua Cohen’s audio conversation with McElroy for a Triple Canopy event
SS=”Socrates on the Shore” (2002 essay by McElroy in Substances, Revue Francaise d’Études Américaines 93: 7-20.)
ACH=Tom LeClair’s interview (in Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists; This book includes interviews with Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Don Delillo, E.L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, etc.)
BM=Bradford Morrow’s interview in Conjunctions (1987)
MC=Marc Chénetier, Flore Chevaililer, and Antoine Cazé’s 2001 interview, “Some Bridge of Meaning,” in Sources, fall 2001
Bill Wilson, Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka (1977; 133 ps.)
This collection of stories, written using language and viewpoints partly medical and scientific in nature, shows certain similarities to J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), at least in its concern with pathological and modified human bodies. Accordingly, Wilson’s prose’s register of bio/medical terminology reflects his concern with pathology: entelechy; neoteny; seriatim; naevus; pelagic; tunicates; enuresis; cortisone; hypospadias; pemmican; adrenergics; sigmoidoscopy; saprozoic. These are not stories for everyone. They are brutal and detached from human intimacy, incisive as a surgeon’s scalpel’s cuts. Think, if you have read it, of J.M. Coetzee’s short fiction The Vietnam Project, comprising the first half of Dusklands (1974).
Charles Newman, New Axis: or the ‘Little Ed’ Stories (1966; 175 ps.) (NN)
Tales from a small MidWestern community that interlock, intertwine, interlace. Each story conveys the experience and POV of a single character who is glimpsed obliquely by others in other stories. This ‘interlocking points-of-view’ technique, while it forms an integral part of many, many novels, stands out particularly in The Sound and the Fury (1929) by Faulkner, Impossible Object by Mosley, and in A Smuggler’s Bible by McElroy. Charles Newman was the founding editor of TriQuarterly where some of William S. Wilson’s and Joseph McElroy’s short work first appeared.
Nicolas Mosley, Impossible Object (1968; 219 ps.) (NN)
‘One of the most fascinating novels of the last generation,’ according to McElroy. No brief summary could do this book, which consists of eight short stories alternating with intensely bewildering three-page intercalary chapters, justice, successfully characterize the paradoxical wager at the heart of the book. ‘Words were a vulgarity. One’s duty was to love those whom one loves’ (175).
If you don’t know Mosley at all but are curious, you might find this website of John Banks, with interviews with Mosley, to be a useful resource.
After Impossible Object I quickly read Catastrophe Practice (1979), itself a triumph of hope and positivity, despite its ‘theatre of the absurd’ qualities which exist alongside Mosley’s incisive critical essays describing his vision and ambitions; and alongside a novella which concludes the book. American literature scholar Tom LeClair: ‘N. Mosley is a throwback, a modernist mastodon whose project for fiction surpasses in grandiosity that of any American writer I know.’ Dalkey has a large selection of Mosley’s books in print; recommended to explore them a little here.
Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas (1811) (NN) (free text here)
Thrilling, fantastic, and awesome. A two-hundred-year-old text that is just as modern and entertaining now as ever. It’s about one upright citizen’s insistence on justice in the face of corrupt officials. I’ve heard that for Ragtime (1974) E.L. Doctorow borrowed some situational elements from this short novella.
Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ (1853) (JC) (free e-book)
If you’ve read this story, you know how unforgettable, eloquent, and bewildering it is–among the best stories ever written. If you are unfamiliar with this story, read or listen to it this week. Free audio version available from Librivox.
Michel Butor, Degrees (1960) (NN; 351 ps.)
This nouveau roman centers on a Paris school teacher who devises a project to meticulously record the totality of what happens to certain of his colleagues and pupils. Because his project attempts totality, it fails and he loses his psychic stability. Apparently an inspiration for A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), McElroy’s first novel.
Michel Butor, Mobile (1962; 319 ps.)
Not your typical travel book! Highly idiosyncratic and elliptical in its form, Mobile represents Butor’s experience of traveling in the U.S.A. when Eisenhower’s highway project was not yet old. This book makes extreme demands on the attention of the reader and provides singular rewards.
Knut Hamsun, Mysteries (1892; 340 ps.) (ACH)
Early modernist, experimental text that was praised early on by Henry Miller. About a man named Nagel who turns up one day in a small Norwegian village and stirs things up a bit.
Mailer is a somewhat neglected author today, but he was a public intellectual and a strong voice in the time of his celebrity. But what of Mailer ought one read?; not all Mailer is good Mailer, there is too much Mailer. Why Are We in Vietnam?, Of a Fire on the Moon, and parts of An American Dream are written with an incandescence that very few writers can equal. ‘The Man Who Studied Yoga?’ is a very good short story (in Advertisements for Myself).
William H. Gass, ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’ (c. 1960, 1964 ?) (NN)
Gass said once that he self-consciously composed this story on the structure of a musical composition. It attempts to convey the monotony of living in a small MidWestern town through repetitions, the very lack of action, lack of plot. Sound interesting? Gass’s language makes this, and the short story collection of which it is a part, a masterpiece of American literature.
Paul Metcalf, Patagoni (1971)
In ‘Neural Neighborhoods’ McElroy describes Patagoni as ‘a short history of North American Henry Ford and River Rouge… coupled with a rambling trip into South America under a weird metaphor of brain and body.’ The Jargon Press publication is an unusually beautiful, and somewhat rare, book-object. Coffee House’s 3 volume Collected Works of Metcalf has it, of course, in the 1st volume. (Note from 2016: I have since read nearly all of Metcalf’s work, and found it truly awesome. Here are some more posts tagging or discussing Metcalf.)
The story ‘State of Grace,’ Brodkey’s first published story, available in the collection First Love and Other Sorrows, is beautiful, eloquent, and touching; it even involves some plausible time travel, a real kick-in-the-pants. I have not read any of Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, but this beautiful appreciation of Brodkey surely makes me want to.
Jerome Charyn, A Child’s History of the Bronx (NN)
An excerpt from this unpublished novel was published in Statements 1, edited by Ronald Suzenick, of the Fiction Collective. From what I can tell it’s a playful, ribald colonial historiography (17th, 18th century) of Manhattan. Not something I recommend going the extra mile to consult.
Italo Calvino, “Priscilla,” from t zero
Imagine a cell thinking through how it feels to divide into or to combine with another cell, as in meiosis and mitosis. Calvino has done just that.
D.H. Lawrence, Selected Stories: (BM)
‘The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter’; ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’; ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’; ‘The Prussian Officer’
Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down (1966) (NN)
Cormac McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper and Suttree
Uwe Johnson, The Third Book about Achim (NN)
Von Dodderer, The Demons (ACH)
Henry James, What Maisie Knew (free here)
Henry Miller, Colossus of Maroussi (1958)(ACH)
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1962) (ACH)
Dow Mossman, The Stones of Summer (1973)
Mark Smith, The Death of the Detective (1973)
Günter Grass, Dog Years (ACH)
William Golding, The Inheritors (ACH)
J.G. Ballard, Crash (NN)
Hortense Callisher (NN)
Leonard Michaels (NN)
Donald Barthelme (numerous)
Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares (1971; 75 ps.) (ACH)
Dedicated to the children of the author (‘Maud and Fergus’), this collection of ten poems deploys an inventiveness of language and evokes an intensity of pathos that are rarely attained by even the best poets. The first printing by Houghton Mifflin includes amazing illustrations as frontispieces to each of the poems. This tiny book might be said to constitute some of the finest American poetry from the latter half of the 20th century.
Gary Snyder, “Good Things That Can Be Said for the Iron Age” (1970) (NN)
Retrieved from the vast Internet, here, the poem itself:
A ringing tire iron dropped on the pavement
Whang of a saw brusht on limbs
the taste of rust
A.R. Ammons, Collected Poems (ACH)
Philosophy and other
John Custance, Wisdom, Madness, and Folly (1952)
This book is referenced numerous times in McElroy’s first novel A Smuggler’s Bible. It’s a first-person account of madness and delusional revelations, and of a hospital stay. The book is really quite extraordinary, and also hard to find.
James Henry Breasted, Ancient History (1916)
A titular precedent for McElroy’s novel of the same name. The narrator, Cy, frequently digresses on ancient history (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Babylon, etc.) during the course of his book-length monologue. Ancient History is his school textbook, it seems.
E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) (ACH)
An awesome book written with strong and pragmatic convictions. As an economist Schumacher worked with Britain’s National Coal Board for twenty years. On the one hand, Schumacher’s book is a vehement critique of econometrics, and on the other it’s a re-definition of what economists and human beings ought to use to evaluate, understand, and (from a policy perspective) guide behavior. Schumacher’s assertion that ‘We must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small-scale units’ (80) informed the writing of Women and Men. Perhaps this is the only book I know whose back cover identifies its proper classification as ‘Economics / New Age.’
John Ruskin (ACH)
J.M. Keynes (ACH)
Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968)
Martin Heidegger, ‘Building, Thinking, Dwelling’ (1950 or ’54; mentioned on KCRW’s Bookworm)
Eugène Marais, The Soul of the White Ant and The Soul of the Ape (ACH)
Paul Kammerer, The Law of Seriality (ACH)
Paul Valéry, Eupalinos, or the Architect (SS)
Stanley Crawford, Mayordomo
The following books provided a research basis in the development of Plus, as acknowledged on the book’s copyright page:
Lehninger, Bioenergetics: The Molecular Basis of Energy Transformations (1973, 2nd ed.)
Noback, The Human Nervous System (1967)
Weiss, Principles of Development (1969)
All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.
All in one place: a compendium of resources on the open web for those interested in exploring American literature’s best-kept secret.[caption id="attachment_736" align="aligncenter" width="236"] Joseph McElroy photographed by Steve Hall. From page 235 of Anything Can Happen: Interviews With Contemporary American Novelists (conducted and edited by Larry McCaffrey and Tom LeClair; Champaign: U of IL P, 1983).[/caption]
Official website (http://www.josephmcelroy.com/)
See site for a full McElroy biography. Available gems from Reading Room and Essays are: ‘Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts,’ an essay written while McElroy was in the thick of Lookout Cartridge (Triquarterly, 1974). ‘9/11: Emerging’ (2001), ‘Attractions around Mt. St. Helens’ (ebr, 1997), ‘Thoughts about Consciousness While Cutting in the Brain’ (Shambhala Sun, Sep 2004), and these essays on water: ‘Water on Us’ (ebr, 2010), ‘If It Could Be Wrapped’ (ebr, 2004).
McElroy on Twitter (@watrwake)
‘What can happen?’. Short essay by McElroy on his use of inquiry and interrogative narrative forms. (the story prize blog, Nov 2011)
- 2012, Nov 5: ‘self-interrupted’ reading of parts of Cannonball, the water book, etc. at the New School
- 2012 (video): reading ‘I Ask’ at the book launch for While We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York
- 2011 (video): in conversation as a ‘visiting artist’ at a CalArts’s MFA session
- 2011: reading ‘The Campaign Trail’ from Night Soul & Other Stories (scroll to episode #229)
- 2011 conversation w/Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm, for Night Soul…
- 2010 conversation w/Joshua Cohen at Triple Canopy
- 2010 conversation w/Harry Mathews at Triple Canopy (poor audio quality)
- 2003 conversation w/Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm, for Actress in the House (1/2)
- 2003 conversation w/Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm (2/2)
- 2003 coverage w/Steve Inskeep of NPR, for Actress in the House
Trey Strecker’s fall 2003 RAIN TAXI interview, “Failure. Building. Embrace.”
Taji Maheen’s July 2013 Vice Magazine interview, “Postmodernism and Sumo Wrestlers: An Interview with Joseph McElroy.”
Jason DeYoung’s Dec 2013 interview in Numéro Cinq Magazine, “Sentences are like Home for Me, Even a Wilderness.”
Reviews and appreciations
‘The lost postmodernist,’ by Garth Risk Hallberg; a review of Women and Men for LA Times book review
‘On Joseph McElroy’; short review (tales from the reading room weblog, Jan 2012)
Journal issues dedicated to McElroy
With contributions from Rick Moody, Flore Chevaillier, Mike Heppner, Andrew Walser.
All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.
Just how many are we? Standers in awe of the best-kept secret in American literature? Avid readers, McElroy maniacs. His books now penetrate my life, as my life extends into them. If we note McElroy’s seeming obscurity, let’s not however miss the essential: the growth, the accretion, the writing: of the eight novels, the book of short stories, the uncollected essays and journalism work. Nevermind the tag-lines and reductionist claims that he’s the ‘lost postmodernist’ (LA Times book review); the ‘most important of all “unknown” postmodernist American authors’ (Larry McCaffrey), whose work is the ‘great unmined motherlode of American fiction’ (Michael Silverblatt). These generalizing claims carry little weight relative to what really counts, for me the unflagging spirit of inquiry and reflection — spiritual, intellectual, epistemological, scientific, idiomatic, and otherwise — that characterizes, perhaps in a fractal manner, the man’s loveable, mind-boggling prose.
Adapted from my paper “The Case for Thomas Jefferson as the Father of American Librarianship” and presented at the 6th Doctoral Symposium in Information Studies at the Université de Montréal, March 30, 2012:
Polymath of Albemarle county, Thomas Jefferson invented for his own use several ergonomic devices to reduce cumulative physical stress resultant from reading and writing. Of especial note is this ingenious revolving book-stand:
Shaped like a cube when not in use, the stand could be unfolded to hold five books simultaneously. Hinged at the top, the four vertical sides could be lifted up and angled out. A lip at the bottom of each let a book rest on the angled surface. Furthermore, the top of the cube could be tilted up to hold a fifth book directly above one of the lower books. Even when fully loaded with books, the stand could be easily revolved to let Jefferson quickly peruse multiple texts in succession.
Also remarkable: a portable writing desk constructed to his specifications. On the angled baize surface of this beauty, Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence.
Made of thin strips of mahogany, the desk was reduced to the minimum size and weight and produced the maximum utility of space. In addition to a folding writing board lined with green baize, it had a bookrest and a drawer with a lock for storing a supply of stationery, completed documents, ink, pens, wafers, and sand. Jefferson continued to use this desk until 1825, when he presented it to his grandson-in-law.
The Virginian statesman also devised a chair with a fully revolving base to facilitate easy interaction with print material:
Federalist William Loughton Smith ridiculed the chair in the anonymous The Pretensions of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency Examined, writing: “Who has not heard from the Secretary of State of the praises of his wonderful Whirligig Chair, which has the miraculous quality of allowing the person seated in it to turn his head without moving his tail?”
It may be added that the debt-ridden patrician of Monticello used several different polygraphs (copying machines) during his last 14 years to make a simultaneous copy of his vast correspondence over that period, polygraphing over 5,700 correspondences.
Sources: Bedini’s Thomas Jefferson and His Copying Machines, 1984;
Hayes’ The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 2008.
Final note: It just so happens that Jefferson’s ingenious chair, with its revolving base, pops up in a passage from Joseph McElroy’s second novel, Hind’s Kidnap (1969):
Maddy’s desk faced the west window, which was even wider than the south or north. In his swivel chair past and present found shape: steel and white enamel plasticompo and the button that ran the swivel won only a tense counterpoise from the truth that this chair was in idea the same swivel Thomas Jefferson invented. Viewed from an approaching helicopter, Maddy Beecher’s office, a white concrete block, perhaps like a huge clamping not just thick enough to hide its bolt, topped the rambling… (p. 53)