Parnassus on Wheels (1917)
Although I had read this volume’s sequel before, I couldn’t remember if I had read Parnassus on Wheels, and it bothered me. Fortunately, I only needed a few hours on a particularly lazy Sunday to get through the whole book.
Morley’s idyllic tale revolves around the life of a woman who seems to have fallen into the role of a household drudge. Helen, who has kept house thanklessly for her brother, a literary sage of sorts, abruptly decides to abandon him. She encounters Mifflin, a man who travels with a mobile horse-drawn book-wagon, and take up life with him. Both are in late middle age, which apparently made such a proposition less-scandalous in the 1910s. Morley’s subsequent tale of life as an itinerant bookseller still sparkles, and even if some of the books on which Mifflin dotes are unfamiliar, those which are less-ephemeral still resound today. It reminds us that life at any given time is filled with minutia which can be almost meaningless four, five, or ten decades later.
Obviously a “literary man” of a type which doesn’t much seem to exist today, Morley comes off an author who delights in all things bookish. His amanuensis, Roger Mifflin, he of the ginger beard and surprising scrappiness, is a veritable font of literary knowledge and an almost religious desire to convert people to the cult of reading. If you’ve ever read a book that you adored so much you couldn’t stop talking about it to anyone and everyone who didn’t run in the other direction, you’ll sympathise.
Much like Morley’s Shandygaff, a collection of essays from the same year, Parnassus on Wheels is very much a period piece. The introduction to the Lippincott edition from 1955, published a few short years before Morley’s death, points out a few of the references that would have been readily familiar to readers during the Great War. This would certainly be a help to those readers not readily conversant with the world of one hundred years ago.
There is little wrong with Parnassus on Wheels – it is a quick, fun, entertaining read, and definitely an affirmation for anyone who has ever been a bookseller or otherwise involved with that arcane, Byzantine world, no matter the date.
The Haunted Bookshop (1919)
When I last re-read The Haunted Bookshop, I wasn’t necessarily planning to, but found myself flipping between an edition of it downloaded from Project Gutenberg on my Kindle, and the Queens House reprint, over the course of several days while doing and reading other things. While I can say that I still retain a fondness for this book, I can honestly report a few flaws with the tale, although probably nothing that hasn’t been pointed out before.
The story of The Haunted Bookshop is pretty straightforward. The shop, “Parnassus at Rest” (after the horse-drawn cart named in the first book) is home to Roger and Helen Mifflin. Roger Mifflin is the same book-evangelist of the first novel, but now comfortably ensconced on Gissing Street in Brooklyn. It is 1919, the Great War has just ended, and Americans are trying to return to their pre-War lives. But the news is a-buzz with President Wilson’s plans to attend the peace conferences, planning to travel aboard the George Washington to Paris later in the year (the part of the Peace Conference hammering out the Treaty of Neuilly dovetails with the November setting of the story). Morley’s novel shies away from a lot of what was in the news otherwise – the collapse of a war-time farmland price bubble, race riots, Red scares, a chaotic demobilization of American soldiers, steep inflation, et cetera – and tells what is very much a Brooklyn-based story. As it was a hundred years ago and a very different town, I can forgive the by now worn-out trope of yet another damned story about New York. There is a small trip to Philadelphia in service of the plot, but anyone can be excused a lapse here and there.
Against this backdrop, Morley’s story takes place: Aubrey Gilbert, an advertising man, tries to interest Mifflin in doing some advertising, and Mifflin, in turn, tries to get Aubrey interested in books. Mifflin is the type of bookseller who really reads, and has strong opinions on what he finds between the hard covers. Mifflin is taking on a new shop assistant, the lovely Titania, daughter of Chapman, the food magnate for whom Gilbert does advertising. A minor romance between Aubrey and Titania ensues, but the real crux of the book is this: why does the shop’s edition of Thomas Carlyle’s Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell keep vanishing and reappearing? What is the shady druggist Weintraub really up to? And how could all of it possibly relate to President Wilson’s trip to the Peace Conference?
Morley’s plot misses out those other larger issues of the day as I mentioned, but his story would have been incredibly current otherwise: it is very much a “tale of today”, one hundred years gone. His choice of villains is logical, considering the amount of espionage undertaken by German agents in the United States during the Great War, but it is in the same breath fairly simplistic. Morley was at his best in the realm of fantasy, much as was the case in Mifflin’s first outing: trying to ground this tale in the real world hampers him, and also means that Helen is woefully under-used, after being a strong character in the first book. The previously mentioned outing to Philadelphia in the story serves the plot only in the barest way, although the knowledge that it would take twenty-five minutes of holding to put a telephone call through from Philadelphia to Brooklyn is both staggering and deeply charming at the same time.
What is useful and indeed entertaining about this book are Morley/Mifflin’s discursions on literature, of which there are many, and on writers perhaps better known in his day than in ours. There are many such examples beyond the Carlyle which is central to the plot: Aubrey is described as an O. Henry reader, implying that his tastes are merely baseline for the culture of the day (and if you take a look, O. Henry himself is a fascinating figure, and he wrote a good deal more than “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “The Gift of the Magi”), while Mifflin’s tastes are illustrated by his adoration of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Other authors populate these pages: John Kendrick Bangs – now almost entirely forgotten – merits several mentions, especially for his The House-Boat on the Styx, which looks as though it will be an interesting effort. George Gissing is also mentioned several times, including for The House of Cobwebs, and Logan Pearsall Smith gains an entry for Trivia: these are just a few of the authors mentioned. Fortunately, it your curiosity is piqued and you have some sort of electronic reading device, most works can be found for free on the Project Gutenberg website.
So what is arguably a bit of a mish-mash in terms of plot is also a delightful read for the simple virtue of hearkening back to a time that many neither know nor understand, and giving us a thick slice of it all at once. Much is familiar, but much is strange, and the plot is somewhat frivolous. And the book still holds more than enough of interest for a bibliophile to sink their teeth into, and perhaps even to discover a new author or two along the way.
Taken together, these are two pieces of literary Americana which should not be missed. Morley himself went on to great literary acclaim in his day, and, need I say it again? deserves his own posh cloth volumes in the Library of America, richly bound and lovingly slip-cased, to bring his bright and hopeful world to life.
Four-and-a-half stars of five. Recommended.
Originally reviewed 3 June 2012 (Parnassus on Wheels) and 26 May 2014 (The Haunted Bookshop).
Find your copy of Parnassus on Wheels on AbeBooks.com.
Find your copy of The Haunted Bookshop on AbeBooks.com.