“Owd Bob” by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

CHAPTER I

(INTRODUCES OUR HERO)

Loitering perchance on the western pavement of Madison avenue, between the streets numbered 38 and 39, and gazing with an observant eye upon the pedestrians passing southward, you would be likely to see, about 8:40 o’clock of the morning, a gentleman of remarkable presence approaching with no bird-like tread. This creature, clad in a suit of subfuse respectable weave, bearing in his hand a cane of stout timber with a right-angled hornblende grip, and upon his head a hat of rich texture, would probably also carry in one hand (the left) a leather case filled with valuable papers, and in the other hand (the right, which also held the cane) a cigarette, lit upon leaving the Grand Central subway station. This cigarette the person of our tale would frequentatively apply to his lips, and then withdraw with a quick, swooping motion. With a rapid, somewhat sidelong gait (at first somehow clumsy, yet upon closer observation a mode of motion seen to embrace certain elements of harmony) this gentleman would converge upon the southwest corner of Madison avenue and 38th street; and the intent observer, noting the menacing contours of the face, would conclude that he was going to work.

This gentleman, beneath his sober but excellently haberdashered surtout, was plainly a man of large frame, of a Sam Johnsonian mould, but, to the surprise of the calculating observer, it would be noted that his volume (or mass) was not what his bony structure implied. Spiritually, in deed, this interesting individual conveyed to the world a sensation of stoutness, of bulk and solidity, which (upon scrutiny) was not (or would not be) verified by measurement. Evidently, you will conclude, a stout man grown thin; or, at any rate, grown less stout. His molded depth, one might assess at 20 inches between the eaves; his longitude, say, five feet eleven; his registered tonnage, 170; his cargo, literary; and his destination, the editorial sancta of a well-known publishing house.

This gentleman, in brief, is Mr. Robert Cortes Holliday (but not the “stout Cortes” of the poet), the editor of The Bookman.

CHAPTER II

(OUR HERO BEGINS A CAREER)

“It would seem that whenever Nature had a man of letters up her sleeve, the first gift with which she has felt necessary to dower him has been a preacher sire.”

R.C.H. of N.B. Tarkington.

Mr. Holliday was born in Indianapolis on July 18, 1880. It is evident that ink, piety and copious speech circulated in the veins of his clan, for at least two of his grandfathers were parsons, and one of them, Dr. Ferdinand Cortez Holliday, was the author of a volume called “Indiana Methodism” in which he was the biographer of the Rev. Joseph Tarkington, the grandfather of Newton B. Tarkington, sometimes heard of as Booth Tarkington, a novelist. Thus the hand of Robert C. Holliday was linked by the manacle of destiny to the hand of Newton B. Tarkington, and it is a quaint satisfaction to note that Mr. Holliday’s first book was that volume “Booth Tarkington,” one of the liveliest and soundest critical memoirs it has been our fortune to enjoy.

Like all denizens of Indianapolis–“Tarkingtonapolis,” Mr. Holliday calls it–our subject will discourse at considerable volume of his youth in that high-spirited city. His recollections, both sacred and profane, are, however, not in our present channel. After a reputable schooling young Robert proceeded to New York in 1899 to study art at the Art Students’ League, and later became a pupil of Twachtman. The present commentator is not in a position to say how severely either art or Mr. Holliday suffered in the mutual embrace. I have seen some of his black and white posters which seemed to me robust and considerably lively. At any rate, Mr. Holliday exhibited drawings on Fifth avenue and had illustrative work published by Scribner’s Magazine. He did commercial designs and comic pictures for juvenile readers. At this time he lived in a rural community of artists in Connecticut, and did his own cooking. Also, he is proud of having lived in a garret on Broome street. This phase of his career is not to be slurred over, for it is a clue to much of his later work. His writing often displays the keen eye of the painter, and his familiarity with the technique of pencil and brush has much enriched his capacity to see and to make his reader see with him. Such essays as “Going to Art Exhibitions,” and the one-third dedication of “Walking-Stick Papers” to Royal Cortissoz are due to his interest in the world as pictures.

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While we think of it, then, let us put down our first memorandum upon the art of Mr. Holliday:

First Memo–Mr. Holliday’s stuff is distilled from life!

CHAPTER III

(IN WHICH OUR HERO DARTS OFF AT A TANGENT)

It is not said why our hero abandoned bristol board and india ink, and it is no duty of this inquirendo to offer surmise. The fact is that he disappeared from Broome street, and after the appropriate interval might have been observed (odd as it seems) on the campus of the University of Kansas. This vault into the petals of the sunflower seems so quaint that I once attempted to find out from Mr. Holliday just when it was that he attended courses at that institution. He frankly said that he could not remember. Now he has no memory at all for dates, I will vouch; yet it seems odd (I say) that he did not even remember the numerals of the class in which he was enrolled. A “queer feller,” indeed, as Mr. Tarkington has called him. So I cannot attest, with hand on Book, that he really was at Kansas University. He may have been a footpad during that period. I have often thought to write to the dean of the university and check the matter up. It may be that entertaining anecdotes of our hero’s college career could be spaded up.

Just why this remote atheneum was sconce for Mr. Holliday’s candle I do not hazard. It seems I have heard him say that his cousin, Professor Wilbur Cortez Abbott (of Yale) was then teaching at the Kansas college, and this was the reason. It doesn’t matter now; fifty years hence it may be of considerable importance.

However, we must press on a little faster. From Kansas he returned to New York and became a salesman in the book store of Charles Scribner’s Sons, then on Fifth avenue below Twenty-third street. Here he was employed for about five years. From this experience may he traced three of the most delightful of the “Walking-Stick Papers.” It was while at Scribner’s that he met Joyce Kilmer, who also served as a Scribner book-clerk for two weeks in 1909. This friendship meant more to Bob Holliday than any other. The two men were united by intimate adhesions of temperament and worldly situation. Those who know what friendship means among men who have stood on the bottom rung together will ask no further comment. Kilmer was Holliday’s best man in 1913; Holliday stood godfather to Kilmer’s daughter Rose. On Aug. 22, 1918, Mrs. Kilmer appointed Mr. Holliday her husband’s literary executor. His memoir of Joyce Kilmer is a fitting token of the manly affection that sweetens life and enriches him who even sees it from a distance.

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Just when Holliday’s connection with the Scribner store ceased I do not know. My guess is, about 1911. He did some work for the New York Public Library (tucking away in his files the material for the essay “Human Municipal Documents”) and also dabbled in eleemosynary science for the Russell Sage Foundation; though the details of the latter enterprise I cannot even conjecture. Somehow or other he fell into the most richly amusing post that a belletristic journalist ever adorned, as general factotum of The Fishing Gazette, a trade journal. This is laid bare for the world in “The Fish Reporter.”

About 1911 he began to contribute humorous sketches to the Saturday Magazine of the New York Evening Post. In 1912-13 he was writing signed reviews for the New York Times Review of Books. 1913-14 he was assistant literary editor of the New York Tribune. His meditations on the reviewing job are embalmed in “That Reviewer Cuss.” In 1914 the wear and tear of continual hard work on Grub Street rather got the better of him: he packed a bag and spent the summer in England. Four charming essays record his adventures there, where we may leave him for the moment while we warm up to another aspect of the problem. Let us just set down our second memorandum:

Second Memo–Mr. Holliday knows the Literary Game from All Angles!

CHAPTER IV

(OUR HERO’S BOOK AND HEART SHALL NEVER PART)

Perhaps I should apologize for treating Mr. Holliday’s “Walking-Stick Papers” in this biographical fashion. And yet I cannot resist it for this book is Mr. Holliday himself. It is mellow, odd, aromatic and tender, just as he is. It is (as he said of something else) “saturated with a distinguished, humane tradition of letters.”

The book is exciting reading because you can trace in it the growth and felicitous toughening of a very remarkable talent. Mr. Holliday has been through a lively and gruelling mill. Like every sensitive journalist, he has been mangled at Ephesus. Slight and debonair as some of his pieces are, there is not one that is not an authentic fiber from life. That is the beauty of this sort of writing–the personal essay–it admits us to the very pulse of the machine. We see this man: selling books at Scribner’s, pacing New York streets at night gloating on the yellow windows and the random ring of words, fattening his spirit on hundreds of books, concocting his own theory of the niceties of prose. We see that volatile humor which is native in him flickering like burning brandy round the rich plum pudding of his theme. With all his playfulness, when he sets out to achieve a certain effect he builds cunningly, with sure and skillful art. See (for instance) in his “As to People,” his superbly satisfying picture (how careless it seems!) of his scrubwoman, closing with the precis of Billy Henderson’s wife, which drives the nail through and turns it on the under side–

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Billy Henderson’s wife is handsome;
she is rich; she is an excellent
cook; she loves Billy Henderson.

See “My friend the Policeman,” or “On Going a Journey,” or “The Deceased”–this last is perhaps the high-water mark of the book. To vary the figure, this essay dips its Plimsoll-mark full under. It is freighted with far more than a dozen pages might be expected to carry safely. So quietly, so quaintly told, what a wealth of humanity is in it! Am I wrong in thinking that those fellow-artists who know the thrill of a great thing greatly done will catch breath when they read this, of the minor obits in the press–

We go into the feature headed “Died,” a department similar to that on the literary page headed “Books Received.” … We are set in small type, with lines following the name line indented. It is difficult for me to tell with certainty from the printed page, but I think we are set without leads.

In such passages, where the easy sporting-tweed fabric of Mr. Holliday’s merry and liberal style fits his theme as snugly as the burr its nut, one feels tempted to cry joyously (as he says in some other connection), “it seems as if it were a book you had written yourself in a dream.” And follow him, for sheer fun, in the “Going a Journey” essay. Granted that it would never have been written but for Hazlitt and Stevenson and Belloc. Yet it is fresh distilled, it has its own sparkle. Beginning with an even pace, how it falls into a swinging stride, drugs you with hilltops and blue air! Crisp, metrical, with a steady drum of feet, it lifts, purges and sustains. “This is the religious side” of reading an essay!

Mr. Holliday, then, gives us in generous measure the “certain jolly humors” which R.L.S. says we voyage to find. He throws off flashes of imaginative felicity–as where he says of canes, “They are the light to blind men.” Where he describes Mr. Oliver Herford “listing to starboard, like a postman.” Where he says of the English who use colloquially phrases known to us only in great literature–“There are primroses in their speech.” And where he begins his “Memoirs of a Manuscript,” “I was born in Indiana.”

We are now ready to let fall our third memorandum:

Third Memo–Behind his colloquial, easygoing (apparently careless) utterance, Mr. Holliday conceals a high quality of literary art.

CHAPTER V

(FURTHER OSCILLATIONS OF OUR HERO)

Mr. Holliday was driven home from England and Police Constable Buckington by the war, which broke out while he was living in Chelsea. My chronology is a bit mixed here; just what he was doing from autumn, 1914, to February, 1916, I don’t know. Was it then that he held the fish reporter job? Come to think of it, I believe it was. Anyway, in February, 1916, he turned up in Garden City, Long Island, where I first had the excitement of clapping eyes on him. Some of the adventures of that spring and summer may be inferred from “Memories of a Manuscript.” Others took place in the austere lunch cathedral known at the press of Doubleday, Page & Company as the “garage,” or on walks that summer between the Country Life Press and the neighboring champaigns of Hempstead. The full story of the Porrier’s Corner Club, of which Mr. Holliday and myself are the only members, is yet to be told. As far as I was concerned it was love at first sight. This burly soul, rumbling Johnsonianly upon lettered topics, puffing unending Virginia cigarettes, gazing with shy humor through thick-paned spectacles–well, on Friday, June 23, 1916, Bob and I decided to collaborate in writing a farcical novel. It is still unwritten, save the first few chapters. I only instance this to show how fast passion proceeded.

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It would not surprise me if at some future time Mrs. Bedell’s boarding house, on Jackson Street in Hempstead, becomes a place of pilgrimage for lovers of the essay. They will want to see the dark little front room on the ground floor where Owd Bob used to scatter the sheets of his essays as he was retyping them from a huge scrapbook and grooming them for a canter among publishers’ sanhedrim. They will want to see (but will not, I fear) the cool barrel-room at the back of George D. Smith’s tavern, an ale-house that was blithe to our fancy because the publican bore the same name as that of a very famous dealer in rare books. Along that pleasant bar, with its shining brass scuppers, Bob and I consumed many beakers of well-chilled amber during that warm summer. His urbanolatrous soul pined for the city, and he used in those days to expound the doctrine that the suburbanite really has to go to town in order to get fresh air.

In September, 1916, Holliday’s health broke down. He had been feeling poorly most of the summer, and continuous hard work induced a spell of nervous depression. Very wisely he went back to Indianapolis to rest. After a good lay-off he tackled the Tarkington book, which was written in Indianapolis the following winter and spring. And “Walking-Stick Papers” began to go the rounds.

I have alluded more than once to Mr. Holliday’s book on Tarkington. This original, mellow, convivial, informal and yet soundly argued critique has been overlooked by many who have delighted to honor Holliday as an essayist. But it is vastly worth reading. It is a brilliant study, full of “onion atoms” as Sydney Smith’s famous salad, and we flaunt it merrily in the face of those who are frequently crapehanging and dirging that we have no sparkling young Chestertons and Rebecca Wests and J.C. Squires this side of Queenstown harbor. Rarely have creator and critic been joined in so felicitous a marriage. And indeed the union was appointed in heaven and smiles in the blood, for (as I have noted) Mr. Holliday’s grandfather was the biographer of Tarkington’s grandsire, also a pioneer preacher of the metaphysical commonwealth of Indiana. Mr. Holliday traces with a good deal of humor and circumstance the various ways in which the gods gave Mr. Tarkington just the right kind of ancestry, upbringing, boyhood and college career to produce a talented writer. But the fates that catered to Tarkington with such generous hand never dealt him a better run of cards than when Holliday wrote this book.

The study is one of surpassing interest, not merely as a service to native criticism but as a revelation of Holliday’s ability to follow through a sustained intellectual task with the same grasp and grace that he afterward showed in the memoir of Kilmer in which his heart was so deeply engaged. Of a truth, Mr. Holliday’s success in putting himself within Tarkington’s dashing checked kuppenheimers is a fine achievement of projected psychology. He knows Tarkington so well that if the latter were unhappily deleted by some “wilful convulsion of brute nature” I think it undoubtable that his biographer could reconstruct a very plausible automaton, and would know just what ingredients to blend. A dash of Miss Austen, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and Daudet; flavored perhaps with coal smoke from Indianapolis, spindrift from the Maine coast and a few twanging chords from the Princeton Glee Club.

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Fourth Memo–Mr. Holliday is critic as well as essayist.

CHAPTER VI

(OUR HERO FINDS A STEADY JOB)

It was the summer of 1917 when Owd Bob came back to New York. Just at that juncture I happened to hear that a certain publisher needed an editorial man, and when Bob and I were at Browne’s discussing the fate of “Walking-Stick Papers” over a jug of shandygaff, I told him this news. He hurried to the office in question through a drenching rain-gust, and has been there ever since. The publisher performed an act of perspicuity rare indeed. He not only accepted the manuscript, but its author as well.

So that is the story of “Walking-Stick Papers,” and it does not cause me to droop if you say I talk of matters of not such great moment. What a joy it would have been if some friend had jotted down memoranda of this sort concerning some of Elia’s doings. The book is a garner of some of the most racy, vigorous and genuinely flavored essays that this country has produced for some time. Dear to me, every one of them, as clean-cut blazes by a sincere workman along a trail full of perplexity and struggle, as Grub Street always will be for the man who dips an honest pen that will not stoop to conquer. And if you should require an accurate portrait of their author I cannot do better than quote what Grote said of Socrates:

Nothing could be more public, perpetual, and indiscriminate as to persons than his conversation. But as it was engaging, curious, and instructive to hear, certain persons made it their habit to attend him as companions and listeners.

Owd Bob has long been the object of extreme attachment and high spirits among his intimates. The earlier books have been followed by “Broome Street Straws” and “Peeps at People,” vividly personal collections that will arouse immediate affection and amusement among his readers. And of these books will be said (once more in Grote’s words about Socrates):

Not only his conversation reached the minds of a much
wider circle, but he became more abundantly known
as a person.

Let us add, then, our final memorandum:

Fifth Memo–These essays are the sort of thing you cannot afford to miss. In them you sit down to warm your wits at the glow of a droll, delightful, unique mind.

So much (at the moment) for Bob Holliday.

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