Monday, October 13, 2014

Forgotten Writers: Charles S. Brooks


One of my guilty pleasures -- after literary criticism -- is belletristic essays.  A slim volume with an unlikely title calls to me from a bookstore shelf, I open it despite the unfamiliar name, check the price, and...

Well, for two dollars, why not?

This is how I came across Charles S. Brooks, a writer so obscure there is no Wikipedia entry on him. From descriptions gleaned from ABEbooks, I determined that he graduated from Yale in 1900 and subsequently went to work at his father's printing business.  On the side, he wrote essays, short plays, a novel or two.  By testimony of his essays, he was a bookish man, though hardly of elevated tastes (of War and Peace, he wrote, "I read it once when I was ill and I nearly died of it").  He was blatantly  in love with words.

The book I found was Journeys to Bagdad.  Having read through its essays, I can safely say the man had stuff.  Every sentence, taken by itself, is beautifully written.  He clearly put his heart into his work.

Here are a few samples chosen, believe it or not, at random:

To me it is strange that so few people go down rabbit-holes.

In old literature life was compared to a journey, and wise men rejoiced to question old men because, like travelers, they knew the sloughs and roughnesses of the long road.

Though science lay me by the heels, I'll assert that the crocus, which is a pioneer on the windy borderland of March, would not show its head except on the sounding of the hurdy-gurdy.

Yesterday I was on the roof with the tinman.

Anyone who can write such sentences is my brother, come what may.

Alas, the essays have not aged well.  "The Worst Edition of Shakespeare" will do to explain why.  It begins with an account of going to the circus with a young relative, segues into a description of how essays should open, mentions John Bell's 1774 edition of Shakespeare, goes on to describe the contents of Brooks' bookshelves in whimsical terms, comes to the matter with the discovery that that Bell's edition is badly regarded, and then after some verbal didos, gets down to business:  Bell assembled his Shakespeare from acting copies of the plays as they were currently being performed. Cuts and all.

This is interesting.  As are Brooks' remarks on Bell's commentary.  Did you know that in 1774, a proper young woman would never use the word "blanket" in mixed company?  Neither did I.  It was a bedroom word, and thus Bell deplored Shakespear's putting the words "blanket of the dark" in Lady MacBeth's mouth.

But then, the essay moves on, to discuss the nature of gossip both literal and literary, and with a return to Brooks' anthropomorphized bookshelf, the essay ends.

The point I'm making is not that Brooks was a bad writer -- he was not-- but that he made what looked to be good choices at the time, and guessed wrong.

This can happen to anyone.  I am certain it has already happened to most of the writers I value.  I can only hope it hasn't happened to me.

To dedicate one's life to art is to take a leap in the dark.

You can find many of Brooks' books available free online.  Go and take a look.  De gustibus non disputandum.  I could be wrong.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  Or will be.  Tomorrow, I leave for Colorado.  I'm to be a guest of honor at MileHiCon, the largest science fiction and fantasy literary convention in the Rocky Mountains region.  That's this October 24th through 26, but Marianne and I are going early so we can take in some of the splendor of the country thereabouts.

I'll be blogging as I can.  Most likely you'll notice no interruptions here.  But I can promise nothing.

You can find the MileHiCon site -- it looks like it's going to be a terrific con -- here.

Above:  One of many original wood-cuts in the book by Allen Lewis.  It really is a well-made object.  The publishers can't have guessed how thoroughly the man would disappear from the literary scene.



Geoffrey A. Landis said...

OK, I give up: what's a "verbal dido"?
Google suggests something to do with the queen of Carthage?

Zvi said...

noun NORTH AMERICAN informal
perform mischievous tricks or deeds.

Michael Swanwick said...

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Unknown said...

I also picked up a cheap volume called "English Spring" by Brooks, about his travels in the west of England in about 1930, with his wife Mary Seymour, whose drawings add tremendously to Brooks' writing. I too was impressed by his word-smithing. Will try to find other books of his.