Gone and Forgotten

March 9, 1998
New ones Monday through Friday

Far-fetched experimental rose

Joseph Hergesheimer and the future of flowery writing

There's a certain kind of book you'll find lining the walls of family-style restaurants or propping up bookends in better furniture stores and knickknack shops. With nondescript covers, mid-century typefaces and obscure titles like The Hills of Allah by Lady Augusta Dainsforth, or The Limetree Grove by Wentworth Allan Brooks, these are books that once may actually have been read, but are now employed only as decor. The duty of these one-time mass consumption novels - and a little browsing reveals that they are almost always plot-driven books clearly intended for the bestseller lists of 1927 or 1948 - is to be seen and not heard, to give the joint an upscale, literary flavor. In extreme cases, they've actually been sawed in half, so that only the spine faces outward, declaring "I AM A BOOK" to the flannel-shirted patriarch stuffing deepfried chicken fingers into his face.

It's always tempting to believe there may be some undiscovered gem hidden among these literary cinder blocks, but read a paragraph or two and you'll understand why they have been put to this final purpose. Studies have shown that the unreadability of decor books is an infinitely expanding amount that will eventually fill up all spaces formerly occupied by T.G.I. Friday's handclapping birthday songs.

It's the sad fate of Joseph Hergesheimer's books that they would not be out of place at an Old Man Rafferty's restaurant. But unlike the rest of the placeholding blanks, Hergesheimer's books once actually meant a lot to America. In 1922, a Literary Digest poll rated him the Best Contemporary Author, and European writers consistently ranked him in the top five. The German critic Friedrich Bruns considered Hergeshiemer's style equal to Flaubert's. The first doctoral thesis ever written on "Modern American Literature" covered the books of Joseph Hergeshiemer.


Even late in life, when his reputation had soured and his books no longer sold, Hergesheimer's literary friends thought highly of his ornate style. When Hergesheimer asked why nobody was reading his work anymore, H.L. Mencken told him, "I don't know, Joe. I'll always enjoy watching you swing from tree to tree."

Hergesheimer suffered the ignominy of having his reputation collapse while he was still alive. By the time he died in 1954, he was a forgotten writer. Fewer than 20 papers have been written about him since, and his manuscripts linger untouched in the University of Texas library. An Alta Vista search for "Hergesheimer" turns up only a handful of mentions, the third of which is an earlier reference in simpleton; most of the others are catalogue listings for videos of the movies Java Head and Tol'able David, based on Hergesheimer books. Original copies of his books don't even fetch respectable prices - I bought my copy of Cytherea (1922, with a handwritten inscription: Irma, when you have read this pass it on - I've another one, Bula) in a used book store for $4. Bidding on Balisand (1924) at an auction last year topped out at $3.

Beyond the obvious point about the fickle finger of fame, there's a literary lesson in this. Hergesheimer's ornate, flowery, exhaustively descriptive style represented the "aesthetic" branch of American letters, a branch which, Victor E. Gimmestad's scholarly study notes, "began no school and had no followers." His style is so florid that it's amazing he ever acquired a reputation at all in a country where the highest praise you can bestow on prose style is to call it "lean" and "muscular."

In fact, I've never been able to finish a Hergesheimer book. Here's a characteristic passage from Cytherea:

The early gloom gathered familiarly in the long main room of the clubhouse; the fire cast out fanwise and undependable flickering light upon the relaxed figures; it shone on tea cups, sparkled in rich, translucent preserves, and glimmered through a glass sugar bowl. It was all, practically, Lee Randon reflected, as it had been before and would be again.

Jave Head, generally considered Hergesheimer's finest work, offers similar effluvia, as in this description of wallpaper:

Within the formal shaded space of the chamber she stopped to speculate on the varied and colorful picture of the wall paper reaching from the white paneling above her waist to the deep white carving at the ceiling. The scene which absorbed her most showed, elevated above a smooth stream, a marble pavilion with sweeping steps and polite company about a reclining gentleman with bare arms and a wreath on his head and a lady in flowing robes playing pipes...

But it's a fine line between flowery and just bad. Consider this simile-laden passage, whose point is to describe a room with a strong breeze coming in:

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.

This last one is not from Hergesheimer, however, but from that Jazz Age masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.. Maybe there's more excitement in Fitzgerald's writing, but if Hergesheimer was an overwriter, he certainly wasn't alone.

Hergesheimer's real failing wasn't his style, but his inability to turn it off. Who needs such an ornate description of a hallway? Or of wallpaper? When he is engaged by a topic, Hergesheimer can write some interesting passages, as in this portion from San Cristobal de la Habana (1920):

The moment had arrived for a Daiquiri. It was a delicate compound; it elevated my contentment to an even higher pitch. Unquestionably, the cocktail on my table was a dangerous agent, for it held in its shallow glass bowl slightly encrusted with undissolved sugar the power of a contemptuous indifference to fate; it set the mind free of responsibility; obliterating both memory and tomorrow, it gave the heart an adventitious feeling of superiority and momentarily vanquished all the celebrated, the eternal fears. Yes, that was the danger of skillfully prepared intoxicating drinks. . . The word "intoxicating" adequately expressed their power, their menace to orderly, monotonous resignation. A word, I thought further, debased by moralists from it's primary ecstatic content. . . but then, with a fresh Daiquiri and a sprig of orange blossom in my button-hole, it meant less than nothing.

Hergesheimer's career proves that there really isn't anything wrong with flowery writing. During the 1920s it was not yet clear whether the ornate Fitzgeraldian style or the brawny diction of Hemingway would become America's prose position of choice. Hemingway won that fight, but the ornate style stages an occasional comeback, bloated and puffy from disuse. It's often argued that celebrity editor Tina Brown has demolished the New Yorker (after years of defending the new version, I myself am exercising the negative option on my subscription). But what are Brown's editorial depredations compared to her occasional forays as a journalist? Consider this description of the late Princess Diana:

Perhaps it's her height that's unsettling. It renders her more than just an acute natural beauty. She's like a strange overbred plant, a far-fetched experimental rose.

The following description of President Clinton's social meeting with Tony Blair is a passage of such finely honed terribleness that it has quickly been taken up by Brown haters and connoisseurs of bad writing:

Now see your President, tall and absurdly debonair as he dances with a radiant blonde, his wife......his height, his sleekness, his iron-filling hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes project a kind of avid inclusiveness that encircles every jaded celebrity he passes. He is vividly in the present tense and dares you to join him there.

It makes you look forward to a day when Tina Brown may be as forgotten as Joseph Hergesheimer. Or if you're an optimist, it makes you hope for a time when Hergesheimer's books are fished out of the landfills and held up as an example of the kind of vigorous writing that the current crop of dilettantes can't match. It's a debased age indeed that can't tell where flowery ends and just plain bad begins.

Send your regrets to a forgotten writer

Previously in simpleton:

Friday: Youth Discipline Industry News A classic trade paper
Monday: Sesame Street Tabloid: A classic crime novel
Friday: We've Gotta have it Classic soft-core advertising
Tuesday: Can this meat kill you? A classic public service announcement
Monday: Hooray for Hollywood: A classic simpleton
Friday: New Works by Basho: The haiku master's lesser-known efforts

A century of simpletons in the simpleton archive.


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