The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes by Donald Hall (ed) - review by James Campbell

James Campbell

Drinking and Rivalry and Sex

The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes


Oxford University Press 360pp £8.95

Literary anecdotage has a claim to being the highest form of gossip, although it is more often a pretty low form. It is all the better for that, of course: at its worst, a literary anecdote portrays nobility in its subject; at its best it reveals something humorous or eccentric or slightly wicked. For example (not included here): Auden, on being asked by a worried friend if homosexuality might after all be a sin, ‘Of course it is, my dear, but we shall just have to hope that Miss God will forgive us.’ Fortunately, Donald Hall’s anthology contains many of the latter sort of story and few of the former.

The literary anecdote is really a minor literary form in itself (a fact attested to by the existence of this anthology) having its own set of procedures and rules. One such is that the fact of a story being untrue should present no obstacle to its being told. Many of the stories in American Literary Anecdotes are post-scripted, ‘So-and-so denied this’, or with a brief resumé of another version of the same tale. For example, there is the story of Max Perkins receiving a manuscript of Hemingway’s containing the extremely doubtful words balls, shit and cocksucker. Perkins worried whether these words could be printed and had a solemn discussion on the subject with Charles Scribner:

The first two words were discussed, and it was decided to suppress them, but when Perkins came to the third – which he thought Mr Scribner had probably never heard – he couldn’t get it out, and wrote it down on a piece of paper. Old Mr Scribner put on his pince-nez and considered it with serious attention – then said, ‘Perkins, do you think Hemingway would respect you if he knew that you were unable to say that word, but had to write it out?’ Perkins was so flustered by his incident that he forgot and left the memorandum pad with cocksucker on it on a bracket in his office, where it was just on the level of the eyes of anybody who came in.

So goes Edmund Wilson’s version. Hall reminds us at the close that another has it that the words were shit, piss and fuck and that Perkins wrote them on his calendar under the legend, ‘Things to do today’.

Naturally enough, Hemingway is bound to figure large in a collection such as this. It is hard to see how Mr Hall could have avoided dragging out old favourites such as the boxing match with Morley Callaghan (told here in Callaghan’s version) at which Fitzgerald allowed the round to run on too long, the result being that Hemingway was knocked flat. Another well-known story, that of Ernest bending the blackthorn cane over John O’Hara’s head, has already been gently revised in the columns of the New York Times Book Review by someone who witnessed it, giving a version less damaging to Hemingway, and therefore less welcome to those who prefer to despise the man’s image than to read his books. If you are going to take the line that Hemingway was one of the nastiest and stupidest men that ever lived, then surely the story of him knocking down poor old Wallace Stevens is worthy of inclusion, and possibly the picture – drawn by Lillian Ross in her brilliant and generally affectionate profile first published in the New Yorker – of him insisting to a bewildered taxi driver that he be allowed to sit in the front, so that, as Mrs Hemingway confided to Lillian Ross, he could give all his concentration to the road ahead. ‘It’s something Papa picked up in the First World War.’ The road was in New York City; the year was 1950.

It was Gore Vidal – who else but the number one bookchatterbox himself? – who said in an interview that just about all the leading contemporary American writers had a drink problem. Prudence, and fear of the libel laws, has prevented Mr Hall from including living writers in his anthology, but the dead amply support the principle of Vidal’s thesis. In the topic index, ‘Drinking’ gets most entries, followed closely by ‘Rivalry’. (‘Sex’ is next, but strangely enough ‘Money’ lags behind.) There is the story of Ring Lardner being confronted by an unruly actor and saying, ‘How do you look when I’m sober?’ When William Faulkner left Warner Brothers, they cleaned out his desk and found only an empty bottle and a sheet of paper on which he had written ‘Boy meets girl’ five hundred times. When the author’s daughter begged him not to get drunk he asked her, obliquely but perhaps quite pertinently, ‘who ever heard of Shakespeare’s daughter?’ There are many sad, tiresome stories of one or both of the Fitzgeralds getting drunk and boiling purses, or clinging to the outsides of moving taxis, or standing on their heads in restaurants. One difference between Fitzgerald’s drunkenness and that of other people is that, in the stories told about it, even when doing something outrageous he never seems to be enjoying himself. It was for the inclusion of the element of fun that I particularly enjoyed the account, given by William Styron, of a night on the town with James Jones:

Jim and I decided to get good and drunk, no fooling around. Jimmy Baldwin was with us. We had a few drinks before dinner, then a really fine meal, then we went out … We were in some nightclubs, and some girls still clung around for a while. Finally even Jimmy Baldwin faded – a very good man with the bottle. He folded around four or five am, to give him credit maybe a little longer. The collapse of Jimmy Baldwin should’ve given us pause for thought, but didn’t. Dawn was coming up, a beautiful late summer’s morning. Jim and I decided to carry on. So we opened a little brasserie on the Left Bank and talked about life, love, literature, morality and sex. My wife and kids and I had to leave Paris at seven pm to drive to Le Havre. All the more reason to stay up.

Reading a collection of anecdotes, the reader might find himself expecting every story to have a punchy ending. This is not so with the present collection – a disappointingly large number fall flat – but there are many brief, succinct stories. Eugene O’Neil, on receiving a request from Jean Harlow to write a script with a part for her and invited to cable collect in no less than twenty words, wired, ‘No No No No No No No No No No No No No No No No No No No O’Neil’. Chandler, in answer to Howard Hawks’ need to know who killed Owen Taylor in The Big Sleep for the purpose of making the film, thought about it and then replied, ‘I don’t know.’

We learn that Upton Sinclair wrote so much, under so many names, that he was eventually unable to identify his own pseudonyms; that Henry James’s famous change of style in later life was, according to his brother, no such thing, only a change of amanuensis who actually recorded all of Henry’s subordinate clauses; and, most astonishingly, that Marianne Moore once had a successful meeting with Muhammad Ali and collaborated on a poem with him. The whole, wonderful story is recorded here in fine detail by George Plimpton.

Donald Hall has done a good job with what must have been an exhausting task. Any such selection is bound to depend not only on the extent of the research undertaken but also on the depth of the editor’s sense of humour; despite the bathos of some stories, Hall comes out well on this score – his own unobtrusive, genial commentary provides many further brief tales as well as, for the sake of accuracy, recording the denials and variations.

Only occasionally did I find evidence of laziness in the choice of items: for example, in the case of John Berryman, about whom there must be many revealing stories, the fact that I happened to have read Saul Bellow’s introduction to Berryman’s novel Recovery, from which all three Berryman anecdotes are taken, meant that Berryman was a non-entry for me. Repetition of well-known stories is unavoidable, but to take all three from a single source seems lax. Otherwise this anthology – stretching from Anne Bradstreet to Sylvia Plath – provides many enjoyable moments in the company of great authors who were not all, I am sure, great company in real life.

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