The Sunny Side Of Grub Street by Christopher Morley

Story type: EssayI often wonder how many present-day writers keep diaries. I wish The Bookman would conduct a questionnaire on the subject. I have a suspicion that Charle …

Story type: Essay

I often wonder how many present-day writers keep diaries. I wish The Bookman would conduct a questionnaire on the subject. I have a suspicion that Charley Towne keeps one–probably a grim, tragic parchment wherein that waggish soul sets down its secret musings. I dare say Louis Untermeyer has one (morocco, tooled and goffered, with gilt edges), and looks over its nipping paragraphs now and then with a certain relish. It undoubtedly has a large portmanteau pocket with it, to contain clippings of Mr. Untermeyer’s letters to the papers taking issue with the reviews of his books. There is no way for the reviewer to escape that backfire. I knew one critic who was determined to review one of Louis’s books in such a way that the author would have no excuse for writing to the Times about it. He was overwhelmingly complimentary. But along came the usual letter by return of post. Mr. Untermeyer asked for enough space to “diverge from the critique at one point.” He said the review was too fulsome.

I wish Don Marquis kept a diary, but I am quite sure he doesn’t. Don is too–well, I was going to say he is too–but after all he has a perfect right to be that way.

It’s rather an important thing. Every one knows the fascination exerted by personal details of authors’ lives. Every one has hustled to the Cafe de la Source in Paris because R.L.S. once frequented it, or to Allaire’s in New York because O. Henry wrote it up in one of his tales, and that sort of thing. People like to know all the minutiae concerning their favorite author. It is not sufficient to know (let us say) that Murray Hill or some one of that sort, once belonged to the Porrier’s Corner Club. One wants to know where the Porrier’s Corner Club was, and who were the members, and how he got there, and what he got there, and so forth. One wants to know where Murray Hill (I take his name only as a symbol) buys his cigars, and where he eats lunch, and what he eats, whether pigeon potpie with iced tea or hamburg steak and “coffee with plenty.” It is all these intimate details that the public has thirst for.

Now the point I want to make is this. Here, all around us, is fine doings (as Murray Hill would put it), the jolliest literary hullabaloo going. Some of the writers round about–Arthur Guiterman or Tom Masson or Witter Bynner or Tom Daly, or some of these chaps now sitting down to combination-plate luncheons and getting off all manner of merry quips and confidential matters–some of these chaps may be famous some day (posterity is so undiscriminating) and all that savory personal stuff will have evaporated from our memories. The world of bookmen is in great need of a new crop of intimists, or whatever you call them. Barbellion chaps. Henry Ryecrofts. We need a chiel taking notes somewhere.

Now if you really jot down the merry gossip, and make bright little pen portraits, and tell just what happens, it will not only afford you a deal of discreet amusement, but the diary you keep will reciprocate. In your older years it will keep you. Harper’s Magazine will undoubtedly want to publish it, forty years from now. If that is too late to keep you, it will help to keep your descendants. So I wish some of the authors would confess and let us know which of them are doing it. It would be jolly to know to whom we might confide the genial little items of what-not and don’t-let-this-go-farther that come the rounds. The inside story of the literature of any epoch is best told in the diaries. I’ll bet Brander Matthews kept one, and James Huneker. It’s a pity Professor Matthews’s was a bit tedious. Crabb Robinson was the man for my money.

The diarists I would choose for the present generation on Grub Street would be Heywood Broun, Franklin Adams, Bob Holliday, William McFee, and maybe Ben De Casseres (if he would promise not to mention Don Marquis and Walt Whitman more than once per page). McFee might be let off the job by reason of his ambrosial letters. But it just occurs to me that of course one must not know who is keeping the diary. If it were known, he would be deluged with letters from people wanting to get their names into it. And the really worthwhile folks would be on their guard.

But if all the writers wait until they are eighty years old and can write their memoirs with the beautifully gnarled and chalky old hands Joyce Kilmer loved to contemplate, they will have forgotten the comical pith of a lot of it. If you want to reproduce the colors and collisions along the sunny side of Grub Street, you’ve got to jot down your data before they fade. I wish I had time to be diarist of such matters. How candid I’d be! I’d put down all about the two young novelists who used to meet every day in City Hall Park to compare notes while they were hunting for jobs, and make wagers as to whose pair of trousers would last longer. (Quite a desirable essay could he written, by the way, on the influence of trousers on the fortunes of Grub Street, with the three stages of the Grub Street trouser, viz.: 1, baggy; 2, shiny; 3, trousers that must not be stooped in on any account.) There is an uproarious tale about a pair of trousers and a very well-known writer and a lecture at Vassar College, but these things have to be reserved for posterity, the legatee of all really amusing matters.

But then there are other topics, too, such as the question whether Ibanez always wears a polo shirt, as the photos lead one to believe. The secret Philip Gibbs told me about the kind of typewriter he used on the western front. I would be enormously candid (if I were a diarist). I’d put down that I never can remember whether Vida Scudder is a man or a woman. I’d tell what A. Edward Newton said when he came rushing into the office to show me the Severn death-bed portrait of Keats, which he had just bought from Rosenbach. I’d tell the story of the unpublished letter of R.L.S. which a young man sold to buy a wedding present, which has since vanished (the R.L.S. letter). I’d tell the amazing story of how a piece of Walt Whitman manuscript was lost in Philadelphia on the memorable night of June 30, 1919. I’d tell just how Vachel Lindsay behaves when he’s off duty. I’d even forsake everything to travel over to England with Vachel on his forthcoming lecture tour, as I’m convinced that England’s comments on Vachel will be worth listening to.

The ideal man to keep the sort of diary I have in mind would be Hilaire Belloc. It was an ancestor of Mr. Belloc, Dr. Joseph Priestley (who died in Pennsylvania, by the way) who discovered oxygen; and it is Mr. Belloc himself who has discovered how to put oxygen into the modern English essay. The gift, together with his love of good eating, probably came to him from his mother, Bessie Rayner Parkes, who once partook of Samuel Rogers’s famous literary breakfasts. And this brings us back to our old friend Crabb Robinson, another of the Rogers breakfast clan. Robinson is never wildly exciting, but he gives a perfect panorama of his day. It is not often that one finds a man who associated with such figures as Goethe, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, and Lamb. He had the true gift for diarizing. What could be better, for instance, than this little miniature picture of the rise and fall of teetotalism in one well-loved person?–

Mary Lamb, I am glad to say, is just now very comfortable. She has put herself under Doctor Tuthill, who has prescribed water. Charles, in consequence, resolved to accommodate himself to her, and since Lord-Mayor’s day has abstained from all other liquor, as well as from smoking. We shall all rejoice if this experiment succeeds…. His change of habit, though it, on the whole, improves his health, yet when he is low-spirited, leaves him without a remedy or relief.

–LETTER OF HENRY CRABB ROBINSON To Miss WORDSWORTH, December 23, 1810.

Spent part of the evening with Charles Lamb (unwell) and his sister.

–ROBINSON’S DIARY, January 8, 1811.

Late in the evening Lamb called, to sit with me while he smoked his pipe.

–ROBINSON’S DIARY, December 20, 1814.

Lamb was in a happy frame, and I can still recall to my mind the look and tone with which he addressed Moore, when he could not articulate very distinctly: “Mister Moore, will you drink a glass of wine with me?”–suiting the action to the word, and hobnobbing.

–ROBINSON’S DIARY, April 4, 1823.

Now that, I maintain, is just the kind of stuff we need in a diary of today. How fascinating that old book Peyrat’s “Pastors of the Desert” became when we learned that R.L.S. had a copy of the second volume of it in his sleeping sack when he camped out with Modestine. Even so it may be a matter of delicious interest to our grandsons to know what book Joe Hergesheimer was reading when he came in town on the local from West Chester recently, and who taught him to shoot craps. It is interesting to know what Will and Stephen Benet (those skiey fraternals) eat when they visit a Hartford Lunch; to know whether Gilbert Chesterton is really fond of dogs (as “The Flying Inn” implies, if you remember Quoodle), and whether Edwin Meade Robinson and Edwin Arlington Robinson, arcades ambo, ever write to each other. It would be interesting–indeed it would be highly entertaining–to compile a list of the free meals Vachel Lindsay has received, and to ascertain the number of times Harry Kemp has been “discovered.” It would be interesting to know how many people shudder with faint nausea (as I do) when they pick up a Dowson playlet and find it beginning with a list of characters including “A Moon Maiden” and “Pierrot,” scene set in “a glade in the Parc du Petit Trianon–a statue of Cupid–Pierrot enters with his hands full of lilies.” It would be interesting to resume the number of brazen imitations of McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”–here is the most striking, put out on a highly illuminated card by a New York publishing firm:

Rest in peace, ye Flanders’s dead,
The poppies still blow overhead,
The larks ye heard, still singing fly.
They sing of the cause which made thee die.

And they are heard far down below,
Our fight is ended with the foe.
The fight for right, which ye begun
And which ye died for, we have won.
Rest in peace.

The man who wrote that ought to be the first man mobilized for the next war.

All such matters, with a plentiful bastinado for stupidity and swank, are the privilege of the diarist. He may indulge himself in the delightful luxury of making post-mortem enemies. He may wonder what the average reviewer thinks he means by always referring to single publishers in the plural. A note which we often see in the papers runs like this: “Soon to be issued by the Dorans (or Knopfs or Huebsches),” etc., etc. This is an echo of the old custom when there really were two or more Harpers. But as long as there is only one Doran, one Huebsch, one Knopf, it is simply idiotic.

Well, as we go sauntering along the sunny side of Grub Street, meditating an essay on the Mustache in Literature (we have shaved off our own since that man Murray Hill referred to it in the public prints as “a young hay-wagon”), we are wondering whether any of the writing men are keeping the kind of diary we should like our son to read, say in 1950. Perhaps Miss Daisy Ashford is keeping one. She has the seeing eye. Alas that Miss Daisy at nine years old was a puella unius libri.

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