Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Siblings:The Story of Delaware's Literature in the First Half of the 20th Century

Anne Parrish
It was Wilmington author Henry Seidel Canby, who was among the founders of The Saturday Review of Literature, along with his cousin Christopher Ward, author of a wide range of literature including satire, serious fiction and local history, who were most responsible for launching Delaware's literary presence for the first half of the 20th century. It was through Canby's intercession that Anne Parrish, Delaware's most prolific novelist garnered success. Her younger brother Dillwyn also enjoyed some literary success, but as suggested in my last blog article, Dillwyn's shortened life and the manner in which he presented his novels deprived him of deserved recognition. 

The story of Delaware's literary art during the first half of the 20th century, in large part, is the story of three sets of siblings who wrote more than two dozen quality novels among them. However, availability of these novels runs from barely available used, and usually frail, copies to those that are no longer available.  

In addition to the Parrishes, those other siblings were Charles Wertenbaker and his younger brother Peyton, and John Biggs Jr and his sister Mary. 

Charles Wertenbaker

Charles Wertenbaker is arguably the most controversial novelist to have hailed from Delaware. Of the seven novels he wrote over his career, three of them were influenced by how Delaware brought him to conclusions about America, about the thirst for political power and its influence on our social and cultural life. In his final novel, Death of Kings, he demonstrates how, during the Second World War and the immediate period afterwards, our social and cultural environment would morph into the early years of the domestic Cold War when the ultra right wing found the means to manipulate the news in order to whip up social hysteria in an emerging post war America. 

Charles' younger brother Peyton wrote under two names. Under his own, G. Peyton Wertenbaker, he wrote some of the most insightful science fiction to appear in the pages of the earliest issues of the groundbreaking "Amazing Stories" magazine. He wrote two novels in the early 1930s under the name of Green Peyton. The first of these, Black Cabin, was his side of the story that was told in his brother Charles' first novel from 1928 entitled Boojum!. Early in the brother Wertenbakers' writing career, as to a similar degree with the Parrish siblings, the two developed their craft by generating both subject matter and perspective from each other, and all four went on to develop their own voice in the later literature they created.

Another set of literary siblings from the early 20th century was John Biggs and his sister Mary. John Biggs published only two novels, though he reputedly wrote two others and wrote and published a slew of short stories. One of his novels, Seven Days Whipping, from 1928 is the most accessible. It's his 1926 novel, Demigods, that's the real gem, and it's nearly impossible to find a copy though the University of Delaware library has one frail circulating copy. Evidently Biggs wrote the novel at the same time that his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby and there are some parallel elements in both though are very different from each other. Biggs' novel is about a fanatic who is also a bit of a naïf, who at varying times runs a newspaper in Wilmington, and runs for Governor of Delaware as a Single Taxer. It's a wild, hallucinatory novel in places and establishes a kind of land-faring metaphor early on when the protagonist, John Gault, is afflicted with a visionary purpose in life while working in a Philadelphia shipyard. 

Mary Biggs, in her only novel entitled Lily-Iron, also uses the underlying metaphor of "land-faring" as she takes themes reminiscent of Melville's Moby-Dick, and obliquely turns them inside out. Instead of the white whale, Biggs' protagonist, Jenson Romm, pursues a legendary race horse to which he attaches mythic attributes, after which he captures then loses and leads him to realize his own place in a world that he has caused to swirl about him. Lily-Iron is a masterpiece. It is the only novel Mary Biggs wrote because she died young. It is impossible to find a copy, though the University of Delaware Library has one copy. In the upcoming Dreamstreets 54, I'll have a longer article about Mary Biggs' Lily-Iron.

The single element that runs through the story of these novels, which were published by the country's most notable publishing companies, is that the best of them is extraordinarily rare. You will not find copies of Lily-Iron or Demigods. You will not find copies of Green Peyton's (G.Peyton Wertenbaker) second novel, Rain on the Mountain. Dillwyn Parrish's final novel, which he authored with M. F. K Fisher, is impossible to find, and only two copies of My Wives appear to be available. The point is that examples of Delaware's early literary history are disappearing at the very point of discovery. In cases where copies of these novels have survived, because copies are in the neighborhood of 80 - 90 years old, they are very frail. These novels ought to, and need to, be republished before they disappear for one or many reasons. If I had the money, or if Dreamstreets had the money, or had Broken Turtle Books, they could be save through republishing. 

Only one established local publisher could republish these works, a publisher that has an obligation to republish these novels because of their cultural standing in the community. That publisher is the University of Delaware Press. But will they? The answer I am sure would be a resounding NO! Delaware's literature is not worthy of any consideration, according to local academics. There is no local literary canon, except maybe for the fanciful tales of Howard Pyle. 

So what are we left with? The question is posed with incorrect grammar, but it is also rhetorical. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Disappearing Novels of Delaware Author Dillwyn Parrish

Dillwyn and Gigi Parrish
Dillwyn Parrish was the younger brother of Delaware's most prolific novelist Anne Parrish. While Anne wrote sixteen novels, not counting the three early volumes of children's fiction on which the pair collaborated at the beginning of their careers, Dillwyn wrote only four using his own name, one written anonymously, and one written with his second wife, M. F. K. Fisher. All his novels were published by Harper and Brothers. They were Smith Everlasting in 1926, Gray Sheep in 1927, Praise the Lord! in 1932, and Hung for a Song: a novel of the lives and adventures of Major Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard the pirate in 1934. In 1929 his anonymous novel My Wives was published, and Touch and Go, written with M. F. K. Fisher was published in 1939.

After Smith Everlasting, the locale of which could be Wilmington, there are parallels in the narratives of his next two novels. In the next, Gray Sheep, both John Rain and Dillwyn Parrish volunteered as an ambulance driver during the early stages of World War I, interrupting a college career at Harvard. Both were victims of gas attacks, which in both cases caused health problems. At the end of Gray Sheep, John Rain comes to terms with his feelings for a younger, precocious girl and with her heads west – destination California. That's  how the novel ends. In actual life Parrish ran away with a child bride, Gertrude "Gigi" McElroy, hopping on motorcycles at the Parrish homestead in Claymont, Delaware and heading for California. In Dillwyn's and Gigi's case, after an accident somewhere in the southwest, and a recovery period for Gigi, who was injured, the couple arrived in California by train. Setting up house near Hollywood, Gigi signed a movie contract with Samuel Goldwyn and appeared in several movies in the 1930s, then getting a divorce from Dillwyn and marrying screenwriter John Weld.

None of the references to Dillwyn Parrish that I could find refer to his secret 1929 novel, My Wives, which was cited in one of the the front pages of his 1932 novel Praise the Lord!  as having been one of his previously published. As it turns out, the novel was written anonymously. It was also the only one of his novels written in the first person who is never identified by name.

Why My Wives was published anonymously is open to speculation. There's reason to believe the novel may have some autobiographical aspects. The first part of the novel, and the first of three wives, "Penny," takes place in Greenwich Village. Penny turns out to be very precocious and independently mannered. After a quick and summarily contrived marriage, the narrator divorces her after it's learned she's been found to be unfaithful and a bit of a gold-digger. A bit wounded, the narrator returns home to a town never identified. Could the town be the Wilmington environs? And could the rich woman who becomes his second wife, who is a member of a very wealthy family, be someone who had been in the public eye? It turns out this second wife "Marilyn" is both petty and vindictive. The narrator gets a divorce and escapes to the Swiss Alps, to a real place where Dillwyn's actual second wife, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, lived for a short while, and which is where the pair collaborated on Dillwyn's final literary effort, the 1939 novel Touch and Go, using the pseudonym, Victoria Berne. But we're getting ahead of our story.

Near the end of Dillwyn's marriage to Gigi he met Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, known as M. F. K. Fisher to those who have read her books on culinary subjects and reviews of cook books for The New Yorker during the 1960s. It was during this period that Dillwyn wrote his final novel Praise the Lord! about a rural kind of down home family who travel from farm country in Iowa to sunny southern California. They're trapped in the fundamentalist ethos of a religious charlatan and fast women. The mother shoots her husband because, in the context of religious hysteria, she claimed God told her to. Their deaf/mute daughter is traumatized and has to be institutionalized. Their guilt ridden, clueless son returns to the simple life in Iowa. Only a second daughter is smart enough to survive and make a life for herself in California, but only after turning her back on both her family and the crazed fundamentalist church with which they'd been involved. 

In the meantime Dillwyn had contracted Buerger disease, which is a disease of the circulatory system with neurological implications. The disease was probably a consequence of the gas attacks incurred by Dillwyn during World War I. The fact that he was a heavy smoker exacerbated the condition. At the time, the ultimate treatment was amputation of limbs. The couple travelled to Switzerland, the same locale described in the third part, "Paulette," of My Wives, as well as in Touch and Go. One reason for traveling to Switzerland is the availability of Analgeticum, which was affective in treating the chronic pain, but the pair had to return to the United States for treatments, which included an amputation of a leg. Two procedures were performed in Wilmington, and others at clinics in other parts of the country. Dillwyn and Mary Francis ultimately returned to California.

Their novel,  Touch and Go, published in 1939 by Harper and Brothers under the name of Victoria Berne is extraordinarily rare. Only a few copies are known to exist. About the novel, the Kirkus Review, in a review on May 9, 1939 wrote: "A pleasant tale, with likeable characters, a moral around the edges, intelligent though not important. The story of a widow who breaks the mother-in-law bond, and plans deliberately to have the child she craves. There's an unforeseen complication and several characters working at cross purposes, but she finds a man to love -- and marry -- and his children fill her needs and that of the wise old woman to whom she had gone at an earlier date. A rather ticklish subject well handled."

By 1941, Dillwyn Parrish's struggle with Buerger disease had become critical. Analgeticum was unavailable in the United States, and pain blocking injections with Novocaine proved ineffective. Facing more amputations, Dillwyn Parrish shot himself on August 6, 1941. It was the only way out. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

J. Saunders Redding: Delaware's Literary Critic of American Culture

Up until the mid 20th century only four Black literary artists from Delaware rose to any sort of notoriety. Most well known is Alice Dunbar-Nelson who, incidentally, had been one of J. Saunders Redding’s teachers when he was a student at Howard High School in Wilmington and one of those four literary artist to achieve notoriety. Another was Stanford Davis, who was an itinerant poet from the early 20th century in southern Delaware. Davis’ poem “The Voice of the Negro in America” was publicly praise by U.S. President William Howard Taft. Davis’ only book of poetry, Priceless Jewels, was published in 1911 by Knickerbocker Press. Another local poet, Helen Morgan Brooks from Wilmington published three books: From These My Years from 1945, Against Whatever Sky in 1955, and A Slat of Wood and Other Poems in 1976.

One reason J. Saunders Redding would have chaffed at being called a Black literary figure is because he saw that rising above labels was tantamount to his view of the role of Black literary artists in the larger American literary canon in particular, and as an integral part of America’s cultural identity in general. Nevertheless, his few works of literary fiction address the problem of being Black in America, a problem that has unfortunately become a big part of American culture.

J. Saunders Redding was part of an illustrious family. He was born in Wilmington on October 13, 1905. His older brother Louis B. Redding became a lawyer who was a litigant in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The younger brother sought a career in academia, becoming the first Black faculty member at Brown University specializing in literature.
Redding wrote one novel, Stranger and Alone (Harcourt, Brace 1950). In the novel Shelton Howden is a young man who was raised in an orphanage. He knows little more than that his father was white and that his mother was Black. The story begins with Shelton as a student, in the late 1920s, at New Hope College, one of any number of small Black colleges like Spelman or Tuskegee that dotted the southern United States. Its educational philosophy is patterned after Booker T. Washington’s ideas during a time when those ideas were being challenged by the writings and activities of W.E.B. duBois. In Redding’s novel Shelton Howden, in spite of his ambition, in spite of his denigration of the behavior on behalf of the effort to overcome the burden of racism within the Black community around him, can never escape. He grows bitter and more surly until he is lost in time that passes him by.

J. Saunders Redding would never consider himself part of the canon of Black or African American literature in the same way we may have considered Ann Petry, or Zora Neale Hurston, or Richard Wright to be part of that canonical sub genre, even though Redding has done much to establish, enhance and maintain the efficacy of it. Redding, who died March 2, 1988, had lived long enough to see the changes in the status of Black Americans.
The great dilemma expressed throughout Redding’s writings, both in fiction and non-fiction, is to examine and extol Black Americans’ contribution to American culture through music, dance, fashion, art and the contribution and subtleties of Black vernacular in literature that depicts the larger American experience through a Black context. If one is to be honest and unbiased, one cannot separate one sector of American culture from another, or from the whole culture. All these perceived sectors are not separate but intimately interrelated. For this reason Redding was considered an “integrationist,” especially during periods in 20th century American history during episodes of Black nationalism, like the Marcus Garvey movement during the post World War I years when lynchings, even on the scale of destroying whole towns like Rosewood, Florida in 1923 and Greenwood, Oklahoma in 1920, had reached epidemic proportions; and then again during the Black Power, Black Panther, Malcolm X era of the 1960s. Redding felt that both, similar in necessity, served to assert, preserve, and maintain strides made from the contributions of Black artists of every discipline, especially during periods like the Harlem Renaissance and the amalgamating power of late 20th century American music.

Redding’s own life and struggles against a prevailing system designed to deprive him of opportunity is reflected in his autobiographical book from 1942 No Day of Triumph (Harper: New York), which includes his account of growing up on Wilmington’s east side, and carries the reader through his struggle to realize his dream of being an important and unique observer of the American scene. In his Preface to No Day of Triumph the American author Richard Wright, referring to the “Talented Tenth,” or the prevailing Black intelligentsia, wrote:
“For a long time this book cried out to be written. I predict that it will rock the Negro middle class back on its heels; I forecast that it will set the 'Talented Tenth' on fire with its anger; I prophesy that it will be as acid poured in the veins of the smug Negro teachers in Negro colleges. No Day of Triumph is a manifesto to the Negro and a challenge to America.”
In an earlier time, Redding may have been considered a member of “The Talented Tenth,” but times, as Wright predicted, have changed. As late as 1970, Redding acknowledged and recognized those changes, perhaps happening too slowly but surely. He advocated the assimilation of Black Studies into American Studies, recognizing the former’s relevance without serving to diminish the contribution of Black culture or the history of Black people in America. He attributed the contribution of academia in the effort, citing works like John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom and Benjamin Quarles’ The Negro in the Making of America, but he also cited more familiar literary works like Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 
In the forty-five or so years since 1970, progress in the formulation for an all inclusive vision of America has been sure, even though slowed by occasional set backs, and certainly too slow for many. For serving an early and pivotal role in this important advancement in American social and cultural history, J. Saunders Redding was among the giants.

Monday, May 30, 2016


This morning, due to an odd dream, I found myself sleepless at 2 AM. The dream wasn’t particularly profound, just the day’s junk remixed.

Usually, I can recover from such dreams easily. I pace, try to do some stretches, then quickly realize I’m too tired to do anything of consequence. My head hits the pillow and I’m off to dreamland again.
But not this time. So I scrolled through Facebook. Nothing interesting there, so I decided to check e-mail. Junk. Finally, I decided to check my crescentseries account, my “writer’s account”, on the minute chance there might be something juicy afoot.

I don’t check that account very often, maybe twice a month, because, truthfully, it’s not all that active. Occasionally I get a couple of quick notes from people I don’t know who took the time to read my book. I always thank them, and try to answer their questions if I have time.

I had two messages. One was from my e-mail service provider asking if I’d like to purchase some space in their cloud. Delete. The other was from some incomprehensible string of characters and had a subject line in broken English, something about book, world, and gorgeous. I figured it was one of those advertisements for counterfeit Viagra. I almost trashed that one, too, except I don’t get junk e-mail on that account because I never buy anything with it. So I scanned it to be safe and opened it.
It was a legit message. Someone in Moscow (!) had read my book and had lots of questions, not only about the book, but about this country’s current political situation.

Holy crap. If I answered every question fully, I was going to have to explain America. I hate when people ask me to do that. It’s like when customers at work ask me where a certain store that I’ve never been in is at the mall. When I tell them I don’t know, they get all indignant. “Don’t you work here?” they cry. Why yes, I want to tell them, I work in this store and when I’m done, I rush to my car and hightail it home. Do you hang out where you work after hours? I’m not an expert on the mall. Likewise, just because I live in the U.S. doesn’t mean I understand everything about it. Sometimes this place baffles me too.

My correspondent’s command of English grammar might have been tenuous, but his knowledge of U.S. history and current events wasn’t. He knew things many Americans probably wouldn’t know. Basically he asked me if I thought my book was coming true, and did I think the United States was headed towards some type of revolution, and when was the sequel to LOVE IN THE TIME OF UNRAVELING coming out, and what historical events did I use as a model for the Crescent, and did I think America would survive?

Whew. Maybe I shouldn’t have checked my e-mail. Because after I read that, my mind was racing.

Do I think my book is coming true?

Literally, no. I’m no clairvoyant. The characters in LOVE first came to life in the wake of Katrina but didn’t start keeping me awake at night until after Deepwater Horizon blew. I did what many writers of speculative fiction do: I extrapolated a future from the present. I knew the Deepwater Horizon spill would have long-lasting effects we couldn’t even begin to imagine. I knew the effects of environmental degradation would more adversely effect the poor and people of color. People of means would devise some way of escaping the worst of it. I could see corporations trumping governments and business becoming the model for what little government remained. Crescent Region is governed by a board of rich white property owners. Which, incidentally, is how this country began.

When I was researching for a historical “feel”, I read about the Gilded Age and the period leading up to the Civil War. Because that’s what the present feels like to me: a combination of the two.

The Gilded Age vibe is obvious. The income equality of the present is a mirror of that past. And while the barons might not be as bold to deliver bags of cash to Congress anymore, they do hold secret donor conferences and audition candidates. It’s glaringly apparent the government doesn’t work for the “small people”. That’s one reason you’ve got Trump. (Not that he cares for the common people either.)

The Civil War part is obvious, too. We’re still fighting that war over a century and a half later. Racism still exists. Folks still fly the Confederate Battle Flag.

But something else struck me when reading about the period directly preceding the Civil War. Slavery was so ingrained in American culture, people could not see or think their way out of it. Otherwise decent people thought the peculiar institution was as immutable as the laws of physics.
Today most of us (and by "us" I mean descendants of masters; slaves always knew the score) recognize slavery as the great evil that it was, but we aren’t living in the midst of it. To take a stand against something that was so woven into the social fabric took unbelievable vision, perseverance and courage. And even then, it took a blood sacrifice to end it.

I believe there are current institutions and systems that will seem as evil to our descendants as slavery does to us today. Thing is: like slavery, these practices seem as immutable to us as natural law. Only the most visionary among us can even begin to see a way out.

Imagine: there are entire sectors of the economy that depend on paying people far less than it takes to survive. Recently those sectors have been shamed into changing their ways, but their stocks have suffered. Think about that. In order to “work”, the system demands exploitation.

We massacre the environment daily, yet we seem powerless to stop. Oh, we recycle and drive hybrid cars, but what is needed is a radical re-visioning of energy use.

Change WILL eventually come whether we like it or not. I think even the most clueless among us feels that in our bones. That anxiety about the future haunts our lives. Like animals before an earthquake, we can feel the rumblings, but because of our fear, ignorance, bitterness, and rage, we have rendered ourselves powerless to do anything constructive about it.

So: do I think this country is headed towards revolution? I believe we’re careening towards something and I pray it’s not a bloody mess. I hope as Papa Z says (or will say, and that’s the only spoiler I’m dropping) it doesn’t take a war to fix this. Because Lord knows, the Civil War didn’t fix anything. The required paradigm shift was never completed. You don't raise consciousness with a hail of bullets.

Will America survive? I don’t know. Something will survive; I know that. Perhaps the country will split into regions like the Crescent, Liberty City, and Upper Midwest. Some people will survive and they will continue to make love, life, and art against all odds, even if they can’t go out in their bare clothes (and even then, they’ll turn their haz suits into high fashion).

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, though.