Weird Book Room
July 29, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
Don Marquis, an early twentieth-century humorist, had an almost Disney-like knack for creating benign characters who thrived in the popular imagination. The most famous of these was Archy, a poet-cockroach who practiced his craft after-hours on an old typewriter in the offices of the New York Evening Sun. Archy wrote in lowercase letters with no punctuation, because he was too small to reach the shift key. With his companion Mehitabel, a cat who professed to have been Cleopatra in a past life, Archy and his free verse appeared in some half a dozen books, all of which sold handsomely. He counted E. B. White among his fans. “Mr. Marquis’s cockroach,” White wrote in an introduction to The Life and Times of Archy and Mehitabel,
was more than the natural issue of a creative and humorous mind. Archy was the child of compulsion, the stern compulsion of journalism. The compulsion is as great today as it ever was, but it is met in a different spirit. Archy used to come back from the golden companionship of the tavern with a poet’s report of life as seen from the under side. Today’s columnist returns from the platinum companionship of the nightclub with a dozen pieces of watered gossip and a few bottomless anecdotes. Archy returned carrying a heavy load of wine and dreams. These later cockroaches come sober from their taverns, carrying a basket of fluff. I think newspaper publishers in this decade ought to ask themselves why.
But Marquis was also responsible for a character called Clem Hawley, better known as the Old Soak: an endearing alcoholic who had the misfortune of living in America during Prohibition. Read More »
June 17, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
The history of our quest for eternal youth is a history of fools’ errands. It’s also, if your glass is half full, a buoyant tribute to the human imagination—or at least to the spirit of determination. We want so badly to stay young. We’ve sought to bathe in the Fountain of Youth, to imbibe the Elixir of Life, and to—well, to do whatever it is one does with the Philosopher’s Stone. (Grind it up and snort it?) But few solutions to the problem of aging are as risible or as tragic as that of Serge Voronoff, who essayed to stave off death by replacing old men’s testicles with those of healthy young monkeys.
Voronoff rose to prominence about a century ago, and his methods were in practice, if not in vogue, through the 1940s. His first book, 1920’s Life: A Study of the Means of Restoring Vital Energy and Prolonging Life, is a goulash of Freudian fixations and well-intentioned pseudoscience. Having observed that eunuchs tend to die young—“their faces are glabrous and livid, and their hanging cheeks make them look like old women. Most of them are fat, with rounded outlines and, in many cases, voluminous breasts”—Voronoff came to the deeply specious conclusion that testicles must hold the spermatozoon-shaped key to a long, vigorous life. He began to experiment by grafting the sex glands of lambs into aging rams, and went to great lengths to convince himself that his aim was true: Read More »
October 15, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Of all the books you’ve written, do you have any favorites?
Oh, I’m very fond of a book called Quick Service and another called Sam in the Suburbs, a very old one. But I really like them all. There are very few exceptions.
—P. G. Wodehouse, the Art of Fiction No. 60, 1975
I wonder how Wodehouse (born today in 1881) came down on Love Among the Chickens, one of his earlier novels and, to my mind, one of his strangest. It is, as its title page quite clearly states, “A Story of the Haps and Mishaps on an English Chicken Farm.” (Wonderful use of haps, there. Why is it that we only hear of mishaps these days?) Read More »
August 14, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
From “Hanging: From a Business Point of View,” a chapter in James Berry’s My Experiences as an Executioner (1892). Berry was a renowned hangman in England from 1884 to 1891; he refined the “long drop” method pioneered by William Marwood, and once famously failed to execute John Babbacombe Lee, “The Man They Couldn’t Hang,” when the scaffold’s trap door repeatedly stuck.
I am not ashamed of my calling, because I consider that if it is right for men to be executed (which I believe it is, in murder cases) it is right that the office of executioner should be held respectable. Therefore, I look at hanging from a business point of view.
When I first took up the work … I made application on a regular printed form, which gave the terms and left no opening for mistake or misunderstanding … I still use this circular when a sheriff from whom I have had no previous commission writes for terms. The travelling expenses are understood to include second-class railway fare from Bradford to the place of execution and back, and cab fare from railway station to gaol. If I am not lodged in the gaol, hotel expenses are also allowed. Read More »
July 23, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Given the ungodly humidity, today seems as good a day as any to peruse an 1858 volume whose full title is The Swamp Doctor’s Adventures in the South-West; Containing the Whole of The Louisiana Swamp Doctor; Streaks Of Squatter Life; and Far-Western Scenes; in a Series Of Forty-Two Humorous Southern And Western Sketches, Descriptive Of Incidents And Character, by John Robb (“Madison Tensas, M.D.” and “Solitaire”) author of “Swallowing Oysters Alive, etc.”
Oh, the glories of the public domain! Here’s a sordid bit from a chapter called “The Mississippi Patent Plan for Pulling Teeth”:
I had just finished the last volume of Wistar’s Anatomy, well nigh coming to a period myself with weariness at the same time, and with feet well braced up on the mantel-piece, was lazily surveying the closed volume which lay on my lap, when a hurried step in the front gallery aroused me from the revery into which I was fast sinking.
Turning my head as the office door opened, my eyes fell on the well-developed proportions of a huge flatboatsman who entered the room wearing a countenance, the expression of which would seem to indicate that he had just gone into the vinegar manufacture with a fine promise of success.
“Do you pull teeth, young one?” said he to me.
“Yes, and noses too,” replied I, fingering my slender moustache, highly indignant at the juvenile appellation, and bristling up by the side of the huge Kentuckian, till I looked as large as a thumb-lancet by the side of an amputating knife.
June 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
James Montgomery Flagg was one of the most famous illustrators of the early twentieth century. His most ubiquitous creation is that iconic World War I–era poster of Uncle Sam—the one where he points straight through the fourth wall and proclaims, I WANT YOU FOR U.S. ARMY—which is, depending on whom you ask, a stirring call to arms or a brazen, manipulative act of jingoism that did violence to the national psyche.
Flagg, born today in 1877, was a master draftsman with heavy, distinctive penmanship. He was versatile and prolific, and he came to prominence at a time when improvements in printing technology made it easier than ever to reproduce complex drawings—accordingly, he enjoyed a degree of celebrity unknown to his profession before or since, hobnobbing in Hollywood, vacationing in Europe, throwing caution to the winds of many nations. At the height of his powers, he was reputedly the best-paid illustrator in America.
Flagg loved to draw women, preferably voluptuous women, and he was no stranger to the bawdy and the blue. But none of this explains what compelled him to illustrate Virgins in Cellophane, a collaboration with Bett Hooper, published in 1932—one of the creepiest paeans to chastity (wink, wink) this side of purity balls.
Virgins’s subtitle is “From Maker to Consumer Untouched by Human Hand”: that consumer is lecherous enough to launch a thousand nightmares. The drawing on its cover features three ample, pink-nipped nudes bursting forth from some guy’s vest pocket—said nudes are duly wrapped in cellophane, their condition undoubtedly pristine, their maidenheads presumably intact, and the guy’s fleshy, prurient fingers are in the process of plucking one of them out like a cheap cigar. Read More »