The Elizabethan Jig and Related Song Drama (Baskervill)
Unfortunately, this book and many like it no longer are available from Dover which for many years served a unique role by keeping a lengthy list of worthy old books in print. What an amazing catalogue they once had, and all sewn and costing only a dollar or two! The chit-chat in their editorial offices must have been marvelous, among colleagues who could see the value in reissuing the autobiographies of both P. T. Barnum and Casanova, Sam Loyd’s puzzles, Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste, Ker’s Epic and Romance, reprints of Müller’s Sacred Books of the East, and Andrew Lang’s collections of folk stories for children.
Charles Read Baskervill’s The Elizabethan Jig, published originally by the University of Chicago in 1929, is a monument of what might seem from today’s perspective a golden age of scholarship. A leisurely and comprehensive survey of a variety of associated songs, skits, dramas, and dances, the book forged quite new territory in its attention to neglected texts and its enthusiasm (perhaps extending now and then to over-enthusiasm) for tracing folk sources. The book sheds much light on popular comedy and includes a considerable collection of original texts, including German Singspiele. This is the sort of volume that would cost a hundred and fifty dollars today (even assuming an author’s subsidy) could it even find a publisher.
The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Gissing)
The Signet paperbacks were part of that glorious age in which most of the world’s classics were easily available to virtually anyone. Signets were neither particularly attractive (like Doubleday Anchor editions were) nor were they well-made (like Dover books), but they were cheap and textually reliable. My copy of The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft is dated 1961. By contrast, a glance at Signet’s current offerings on B & N’s page today features horoscopes and sports trivia.
Even Henry Ryecroft would have been shocked, I think, to find civilization in such rapid decline. The introduction in my edition by V. S. Pritchett describes the book as “elusive,” “evasive,” and “weary.” “The voice is of one who has given up.” Ryecroft (and Gissing by implication) present the “self-accusing, self-consuming face of failure, the scornful silence of the lonely man.” To Pritchett the book’s charm consists solely in its “exposition of the mind of a scholar, of one who lives by the dreams of literature.” Naturally we who read the book are likely to be susceptible to the same dreams.
A reader such as I who lived for years on an income well below what the government called the poverty line might seem his ideal reader. Like Gissing’s Ryecroft, I sometimes felt as though I had learned sufficient Classical Greek to disqualify me for any employment. Like him I taught in various circumstances in which I found myself ineffective and unfit but where I persisted because I seemed even more unfit for other vocations. Like him I felt at home in a library.
Yet I would not care to be thought Ryecroft’s double. His studied modesty cannot compensate for his ego’s defensiveness expressed in misanthropy and in the absence of a lover. His fierce disgust at modern commercial culture leads him to be politically radical, but he has ambivalence about the working class, and his grandiosely elitist temperament leads him to consider himself an arch-conservative.
One might think from Gissing’s scholarly interest and declared bookishness that The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft would be full (like this site) of literary criticism. But it is not. Most of the pieces are psychological self-reflection and meditations on society. Many precise and sometimes pretty natural descriptions appear in keeping with the book’s arrangement following the course of the seasons.
Such seasonal descriptions have been more appreciated in Japan where the book has found, perhaps, more readers than in the U.K.. Since Tokubotu Hirata declared it his favorite book in 1908, a number of Japanese translations appeared, some published in periodicals. It became then a common choice for reading passages in English textbooks. It does, surely, share something of the tone of the great Heian Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon though the one was written by a wealthy aristocrat and the other by a constantly struggling resident of Grub Street.
Music for Chameleons (Capote)
I found a great deal to enjoy in Truman Capote’s late collection of pieces, many of which had appeared in magazines (The New Yorker, Interview, McCalls, New York, and Esquire). Though some feel Capote’s late work has little value, these pieces seem to me to offer wit, entertainment, and an occasional note of pathos. Further, he continues to explore the territory between fiction and nonfiction which he had made so much his own with In Cold Blood. Here he offers an account that pretends to be veracious (“Handcarved Coffins: A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime”), but which indulges in such improbable imaginative excesses that he cannot have expected anyone to take him at his word. (The story involves, for instance, an episode of murder by snakes injected with amphetamines.) It includes also the very amusing (and also unlikely) story of a day with his cleaning lady “A Day’s Work,” “Then It All Came Down” (a visit with Manson’s friend Bobby Beausoleil), , “A Beautiful Child” characterizing Marilyn Monroe, and “Derring-do” in which Pearl Bailey helps him evade the cops on his trail.
There is much more as well, though the ending piece is weak indeed. There may be no great works here, or even bits one would return to, but Capote’s charm holds for me. Though the murder may be made of whole cloth and the celebrities misrepresented, my wife and I read it out loud to no loss of good effect. In “Hello, Stranger,” he paints a portrait of a man ruined by what he claims to be false accusations of pedophilia. Whether Capote thinks his friend has done anything reprehensible, whether he is in fact guilty or innocent, or whether he exists at all seem matters of little moment. Did magazines as recently as the seventies print better material than they do today?