Our book today is a garrulous little delight from 1939, The Literary Life and the Hell with It, by Whit Burnett, the founder (along with his wonderful wife Martha Foley, the brains of the outfit) and long-time editor of Story magazine. Martha Foley had a fantastic ear for prose in English and a nearly-infallible instinct for picking authors “with a future” – which did as much as Burnett’s oddly lackadaisical industry to establish Story, against all odds, as one of the premiere venues for fiction in the 1930s and ’40s.
Not a terrific amount of all that storytelling talent managed to rub off on Whit Burnett, whose anecdotes throughout this book range from ‘patchily effective’ to ‘what was your point again?’ – but he was a lively eye witness to the whole breadth of the literary world of his day, and that always makes for interesting and often invaluable reading. A long list of writers and editors and publishers walk through these pages, and Burnett usually does a wonderful job of preserving some interesting details – and serving them up with a tart bit of humor. About the great Irish writer Liam O’Flaherty, for instance, he writes: “O’Flaherty is an Aran Islander, but he lives where he fancies,” and then adds: “He is a trim fellow, lean and handsome, blue-eyed, neatly pressed, impulsively outspoken and suddenly reticent with that in-and-out-of-the-shell quality which seems to affect certain Irishmen if they ever lived once in the city of Boston.”
The bustling old literary world of Burnett’s time are vividly realized in vignette after vignette. The ghost of dear old Lewis Gannett is revived from his glorious tenure as literary editor of the New York Herald Tribune, during which he seized what he knew perfectly well was a priceless opportunity and went on to review new book almost every day for years on end. And here, too, Burnett works in some wry commentary, mentioning that Gannett sometimes published quick little “Hot Type”-style quotes from “various literary persons” about what they like to read:
Mary Pickford, an author in her own right since her historic discovery of God, reads Shaw and Barrie, Mark Twain and Thomas Mann. She likes especially “The Magic Mountain.” he also likes practically everything by Louisa M. Alcott, “Little Women,” “Little Men,” … “and oodles of others.”
The Literary Life and the Hell with It was drawn together as ominous clouds were gathering over all of Europe, and something of that darkens the text from time to time. There’s a moment involving Ernest Hemingway, for instance, that opens with Burnett’s usual abundance of fine details:
Hemingway, who had been several months in Spain as a newspaper correspondent and working with the Dutch Joris Ivens on a documentary film of the Civil War, spoke in Carnegie Hall from typescript, his right foot nervously cocked and uncocked across his left ankle, standing, perspiring, before a microphone, his face to the excite thousand persons packed in the concert house, his back to a couple of hundred American writers who, alas, from where they were sitting, were unable to hear a word he said.
… and then moves on to the man’s words, which naturally strike a chord:
“Really good writers are always rewarded under almost every existing system of government that they can tolerate. There is only one form of government that cannot produce good writers, and that system is Fascism. For Fascism is a lie told by bullies. A writer who will not lie cannot live or work under Fascism.”
Reading The Literary Life and the Hell with It made me smile to think about the bookish world it conveys so well, a gone-but-not-forgotten heyday of hard work and no money and big personalities. Whit Burnett wasn’t one of those big personalities himself, but he had a Boswellian eye for telling little details about those who were. A similar book by his divine wife would have been a pearl of great price, but in between keeping Story afloat and helping to shape the careers of two generations’ worth of short story writers, she never quite found the time to write one.
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