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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment