Monday, January 09, 2012

Underrated Writers

The list of writers who deserve more attention than they get is very long indeed. Alexander Theroux! John Clare! Caritas Pirckheimer! (And for every one, there seems to be another fine writer who may get just a little more attention than is strictly deserved: Paul Theroux; William Wordsworth; Hildegard of Bingen). There isn't much rhyme or reason to fame, and that just doesn't seem fair.

For no particular reason, we just thought of two literary affections we want to share:

(1) Bradford Angier. In 1947, this Boston advertising man dragged his wife to the wilds of British Columbia, where they traded their comfy urban existence for an abandoned prospector's cabin and the life of hunter-gatherers. Obviously the guy had read too much Thoreau, which was the theme of his first book; but after that, he settled down to writing about the rugged life in a way that was less philosophical and more practical. The titles tell most of the story: Free for the Eating: 100 Wild Plants, 300 Ways to Use Them; Wilderness Gear You Can Make Yourself. And so forth

The guy wrote dozens of books (one, we regret to say, seems to have been plagiarized), and we have read only a couple. But, during our days at summer camp, we stumbled upon a battered copy of How to Stay Alive in the Woods, and it fascinated us. We spent the summer reading it and re-reading it. In later years, a copy kept us company during a snowbound month in the Adirondacks, and on a shelf in our New York parsonage from which it was pulled down whenever we tired of city life.

Angier isn't an especially grand stylist, but apart from the mere information conveyed, his writing has a certain winsomeness. His best bits strike a note that is one part Commander McBrag and one part Boy's Life: "To make pemmican, you start with jerky and shred it by pounding, suggests Colonel Townsend Whelen." Well, naturally, but then the Colonel would say that. Or consider this chapter opening:

One day, you may be boating down the Peace River near the start of its more than 2000 mile journey inland to the Great Slave Lake and thence as the Mackenzie to the Arctic Ocean. Soon after the headwaters of this wilderness highway mingle in the Continental Trough, the river turns abruptly eastward to flow with surprising tranquility through the entire range of the Rocky Mountains. if you watch the left shore after chuting through the minor turbulence known as Finlay Rapids, your eyes will likely as not catch the platinum gleam of Lost Cabin Creek.
What follows is a grim anecdote about campers who hadn't read a book like his, and didn't, ah, survive. But the real point is the promise that you, too, may someday be paddling down the Peace River, because sooner or later everybody does; and when that happens, here is a little stream to watch out for, with a kind of sad story attached.

There are many fine outdoors writers, and Angier isn't by any means the best of them. (Paging John McPhee). But he is a fine writer, and his books are full of handy tips for outdoors living. You could do worse, if you were ever to be stranded on Lost Cabin Creek.

(2) Montague Summers. Oh, Father Summers! You are the craziest of all crazed literary men men, the one who makes Baron Corvo look like John Updike and Ezra Pound like Wallace Stevens. (And that is high praise from somebody who cares as much as we for Corvo and Uncle Ez.)

Anglican deacon and (perhaps) Catholic priest; expert on Restoration drama and Gothic novels; tried and somehow acquitted of pederasty -- Summers (1880-1948) could conceivably be famous for any number of things. But as it is, his reputation rests almost entirely upon his writing about witches, vampires and werewolves.

We stumbled across Montague Summers decades ago, when young College Boy Anonymous first studied Renaissance History. Our prof, an expert on Italian intellectual history, had recently made the jump to Mitteleuropean social history, and was dipping his toes into witchcraft studies. By dipping his toes, we mean that he had provided expert Latin assistance to the first translation of Johann Weyer's classic De praestigiis daemonum. (What, you haven't read it?) After a morning's trot through the library stacks, we mentioned to the said prof that we had stumbled across something by this Summers fellow, and his eyes blazed like hot coals, as he arched his back and spat out the damning words, "Montague Summers believes in witches!"

True dat. Summers did indeed believe in witches, and we expect any manner of other things that go bump in the night. Even in his own time, and certainly in this post-Trevor-Roperian age of scientific study, such a belief put one beyond the pale among serious historians. But that's fine, because Summers wasn't a serious historian. He didn't teach at a university, hold a doctorate, or attend conferences of his colleagues. He was instead an old-school man of letters, the sort who wrote for a living, and wrote about whatever interested him -- sex, religion and the supernatural, ideally all at once.

You can, of course, read Summers looking for facts. But why would you, when the prose is so much more exciting? Once described as "more Churchillian than Churchill," his writing a strange mixture of languages, allusions, and examples piled upon examples. The naughty bits are in French, the holy bits in Greek or Latin; the references to secular poetry are shoveled in among those to canon law, folklore, or the records of the Inquisition. We confess that, in college, we found it incomprehensible.

And yet it can be irresistible. Try this:

The vampire has a body, and it is his own body. He is neither dead nor alive; but living in death. He is an abnormality; the androgyne in the phantom world; a pariah among the fiends.

Even the Pagan poet taught his hearers and his readers that death was a sweet guerdon of repose, a blessed oblivion after the toil and struggle of life. There are few things more beautiful and there are few things more sad than the songs of our modern Pagans who console their aching hearts with the wistful vision of eternal sleep. Although perhaps they themselves know it not, their delicate but despairing melancholy is an heritage from the weary yet tuneful singers of the last days of Hellas, souls for whom there was no dawn of hope in the sky. But we have a certain knowledge and a fairer surety for "now Christ is risen from the dead, the first-fruits of them that sleep."

He follows this up, immediately, with completely superfluous references to Gray, Swinburne and Bronte. Sheer genius!

Of course, there may be another reason we fell hard for Summers. According to this guy, Summers was

... described by acquaintances as kind, courteous, generous and outrageously witty; but those who knew him well sensed an underlying discomfort and mystery. In appearance he was plump, round cheeked and generally smiling. His dress resembled that of an eighteenth century cleric, with a few added flourishes such as a silver-topped cane depicting Leda being ravished by Zeus in the form of a swan. He wore sweeping black capes crowned by a curious hairstyle of his own devising which led many to assume he wore a wig. His voice was high pitched, comical and often in complete contrast to the macabre tales he was in the habit of spouting. Throughout his life he astonished people with his knowledge of esoteric and unsettling occult lore.

Geeze, Louise. The guy's our doppelganger.

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