Though I had read some of Morley’s fiction in the past, this was my first time through his early volume of essays and stories. Published when Morley was twenty-eight, they have an odd feeling to them, as though being simultaneously of an enfant terrible and an old man of letters all at once. Often warm and conversational in tone, these short pieces allow the reader entry into Morley’s world of literary musings.
Sadly, in many ways, it is a world now largely forgotten. If ever there were a test of the staying power of the bestsellers of one hundred years ago, it is to try to find how many of the authors mentioned by Morley, sometimes with praise, sometimes not, are recognizable today. For every Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, or Joseph Conrad mentioned, there is Don Marquis or a Harold Bell Wright. The latter rattled around at the back of my mind for some time until I finally looked him up: if you’ve ever accidentally been to Branson, Missouri, you’ll have seen evidences of the only surviving piece of Wright’s output, that being a book which this early author of problem-novel potboilers set in Branson, The Shepherd of the Hills. In Branson, it is now impossible to avoid the Shepherd. But one hundred years on, who but a student of early 20th century American letters remembers Wright?
Morley is also very full of a love for the European schools of literature, including those on opposite sides of the Great War; though he admired the Germans, he was very clearly on the Anglo-French side of sympathies (as the crucial plot twist in The Haunted Bookshop would reveal). But here he also writes a heartfelt essay lamenting the death of the old German chemist who he has befriended on Long Island, published in the same book as an essay on the genius of another casualty of the war, Rupert Brooke.
But among the literary essays and the references to books which are thankfully now out of copyright and easy to find on Gutenberg (I must now read, for example, George Latimer Apperson’s The Social History of Smoking, simply because it sounds fascinating), there are gorgeous short descriptive essays. I particularly loved “A Morning at Marathon”, for no reason that I can adequately explain, except that it was beautiful. Equally, Morley writes about England in almost the terms that I would use, though some seventy years separate us.
In the end, it is Morley’s America which intrigues me, and makes me want to seek out more of his essays. Hopefully, it would do the same for other similarly-inclined readers. In the same way that it is probably better to read his books in paper, rather than Kindle, form (and in this case, I split the reading between print and digital edition), there is a split between Morley’s America and the one in which I now live. In many ways, I like his better. It is a world still innocent, with cities still livable, in which smoking was healthy, coins were made of silver, a good meal on a Saturday cost you thirty cents, Welch’s grape juice and flappers have already made their way onto the scene, trains and streetcars took you anywhere, and cycling got you the rest of the way. These are random effusions, but Morleyesque in their own way.
Finally, I don’t know why there isn’t a Library of America edition of at least some of Morley, and I think it’s a crime. He may not have been a great writer – opinions may vary – but he was a damned good one. Sit down and read this book sometime, and look up the things you don’t recognize. It will do you good.
Originally reviewed 4 July 2011.
Find your copy of Shandygaff at AbeBooks.com.