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.