Friday, July 9, 2010

A Birch, To Katherine

I purchased this copy of Color, by Countee Cullen (Harper & Brothers, NY, 1925) because I liked what little I knew of Cullen's poems and also for the mysterious mementos inside the book.

Cullen was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, an explosion of black literary and artistic creativity comprising a cultural and social movement within the African-American community.

When I saw this book for sale online, I decided to buy it and get reacquainted with his work. I knew he was a fine wordsmith and I would enjoy new discoveries in his art. But another reason for the purchase was the mention of some items lurking inside the covers waiting to be discovered and explored.

The book's description included a bookplate and a poem handwritten on the front endpaper to "Katherine" from another poet, H. Campbell Scarlett (a literary name if ever there was one!). Mr. Scarlett's obituary was also included. All that sounded like a story, maybe even a mystery, waiting to be unraveled. Certainly, I knew I would explore it and do a little sleuthing.

I have not been disappointed with the content of the book--Cullen's writing--but the artifacts of the original owner, Katherine, have been equally pleasing and interesting.

Her... what... lover, admirer, friend... H. Campbell Scarlett wrote the poem and is described in the obits as a writer and a teacher. That he aspired to write poetry is evident. That he ever ascended to a higher stage than book inscriptions is not. Doesn't mean he didn't--I just can't find any hint of evidence to support it. But he summoned his poetic muse to express his feelings to Katherine and Katherine apparently was moved enough by his feelings, his friendship, or his love to keep it for what I would suspect was the rest of her life. Here is Scarlett's heartfelt attempt to compare Katherine's beauty to that of a birch tree against a deep blue sky:
A Birch
To Katherine

The trunk, cream white picked out in black
The leaves part green, part touched with golden brown
A birch, etched 'gainst the sky's deep azure blue
By this, dear one, shall I remember you.

A birch, all gold and white and black and green,
A birch, caressed and teased by every passing wind
A birch, as lovely as these words would be
By this, dear one, do thou remember me.
On the facing page are two clippings of the poet's obituary. I am intrigued by the bread crumbs of a life or lives left behind in books. Just a trace of something--a poem, an obit, an inscription, a photo--can create an event, a story, or an entire life around that something.

Certainly, more questions than answers exist. Questions that come immediately to mind are: Why this book for a gift? Why the birch tree for a metaphor? And what exactly is the metaphor? And if the two were lovers, why was that love unrequited, as evidenced by the fact that Campbell died unmarried and without children? There is no way to know the answers to these questions, but that's okay--I have my own:
This was a teenage romance. Campbell's obits list his age at death as 55. The date of the obits is May 17, 1965, which means Scarlett was born about 1910. This book by Countee Cullen, Color, was published in 1925. This particular copy is an early reprint, likely within a few years. That makes Campbell somewhere around 16 or 17 when he wrote to Katherine, who was part black, part white... and there's the birch tree metaphor--the black and white skin of the tree. That's also a scandal within the Scarlett family. Campbell was survived by his father, who is listed in the obits as a judge, which, in the 1920s, most assuredly makes him and son Campbell white. The judge's re-election could not withstand an interracial dating scandal in his family and so young Campbell was forbidden to see the biracial girl he was so smitten with. Campbell moved on, but held Katherine so close to his heart that there was never room for another love. And so he died alone and true to his one love. He had the heart of a poet, but the firm hand of the judge overruled his emotions. And Katherine never forgot her young poet and the gift of his feelings inscribed in a book by an exciting young African-American poet. Katherine kept the gift of two poets close to her and when Campbell died alone some 30 years later, she felt moved to leave another scrap of Campbell's life, symbolic closure perhaps, and, in effect, her own feelings toward a young man whose love could not overcome the social conventions and restrictions of the day. A sad ending.
Of course, I could be way off base here and probably am. But however else the story might have unfolded, I'm sure it's not near as interesting and poignant as my version.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Horace and Bess in hard times

I wrote this for another blog a few years ago and now it seems more appropriate for this one (minor change to reflect the current year).

Sometimes what you find tucked inside an old book is more interesting than the old book. And when the two work in concert to reveal clues about a life or lives touched by both, an imaginative mind has at its disposal the necessary tools to flesh out the characters and situations that spring to life from old ink and paper. That was the case with this book: How to Criticize Books, by Llewellyn Jones, W.W. Norton & Co., 1928.

I like to do a little time travel when I find something like this. I find it interesting to create an historical context for analyzing the artifact I’ve found and see if there is a story there worth exploring. Here, I think there is, with relevance to the tough economic times many find themselves in today.

Inside the front cover of this book was a letter written about 70 years ago from Horace to Bess in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I don't know where Horace was, but he was very unhappy. I'm guessing Bess is Horace's sister back home and he is thrilled to get a letter from her. I thought she might be a romantic interest until he signed off with "love to you and Floyd."

Two possible assumptions about the letter and the book:
Assumption #1: The book belonged to Bess and she saved her brother’s letter in this book. If so, she was interested in reading writing and possibly had a desire on some level to write book reviews.

Assumption #2: The book belonged to Horace. He was an aspiring book reviewer. He wrote this letter, but never sent it. Maybe because it was too depressing. He stashed it inside one of his books (he evidently read a lot) and forgot about it.
Both assumptions have some common ground, but each veers off into dramatically different stories. I’d love to write a story for each, but for now I’ll just give a general overview of what I found and why it’s interesting to me.

This brief one-page letter reveals many pages about a man struggling psychologically as well as financially. This is a life not being lived well. From Horace's lines, we learn that Bess seemed concerned about his mental state and urged him to focus on the things he has that he can enjoy and don't require money. Evidently, Horace is feeling quite a financial pinch and generally hating his life at the moment.

I also learn in the first paragraph that the things he enjoys are books and music and studying because he states that his present job is so demanding that it keeps him from indulging in them. Except for reading metaphysics. This subject must be important enough to him that whatever free time he can muster will be devoted to reading and studying that subject. From that piece of information, I think I can safely assume that Horace has a nice little stack of books and old 78s for his intellectual stimulation and pleasurable diversions.

The date of the book and the tough times Horace seems to be going through indicate that the Great Depression has a grip on the country and on Horace. The book predates the stock market crash by a year, but the letter could easily have been tucked into an older, used book.

Further down in the letter, Horace critiques a book Bess gave him for Christmas:
It was so sparkling and refreshing that it was sipping a long cold drink. That Margaret Halsey has a flow of language and the most marvelous gift of pertinent synonym.
He goes on to say that although he hasn't had time to read, that doesn't include metaphysics, which he still indulges in, if in an unorthodox way.

So is he the wannabe book reviewer or is it Bess? Sounds here more like Assumption #2 is the likely scenario. This mention of Margaret Halsey is the clue I need to pin down the approximate year this letter was written. Halsey’s first book, With Malice Toward Some, was published in 1938. The Great Depression was in the process of bottoming out after nearly a decade of ravaging the economy and lives of millions.

He pines away for an opportunity to return home to Louisiana or Mississippi (they must have lived in both places growing up) and just have a normal life where he could work for enough to be comfortable and have time to enjoy leisurely pursuits. One of the most poignant lines in the letter reveal his resignation and frustration:
I realize we are always in our rightful places, but it is difficult sometimes to understand it.
His present employer is having trouble, much like his previous employer, whom he names as Saenger Co., which appears to started business as a chain of theaters for both vaudeville and movies in the early twentieth century.

This sad letter finishes with advice for Bess to make a change in her life by leaving Hattiesburg. He believes the change would be good for her. This opinion injects a new idea about just how well Bess is doing. Likely, she is not too happy with where she finds herself at this point in time, else why would Horace suggest a leaving Hattiesburg? I wonder if that change of address would include Floyd?

Also in the closing paragraphs, Horace laments a busted relationship between Bess and her girlfriends, and then Horace lapses into memories of a happier time when he and Bess would visit and play among friends, travel to the Gulf coast, etc. Horace seems to be retreating into the past to escape the present. A sad commentary on circumstances of the day, soothed somewhat by fragmented escapes into the pleasure of a book and memories of a happier time.

I'll never know whether Horace or Bess saved the letter. Whether it was sent or not. Times may have gotten worse before they got better. Did Horace's prospects ever get better? Did he eventually prosper and build a respectable library of books (emphasis on metaphysics, of course!) and music? Did Bess stay in Hattiesburg? Did either sibling ever find happiness?

Parallels to our present economy and its southward sprint of late makes me wonder what current-day ephemera of an unsatisfied or unhappy life will offer a future reader a time-capsule glimpse into that life and today's times. Maybe 70 years from now, sometime around 2075 to 2080, something laid in an "old" book from 2010 will give that reader pause to stop and consider it. And, hopefully, the chain of relevance will be broken, with respect to the economy.

Click on the images to enlarge them