Wednesday, December 07, 2005


More than merely Morley

Christopher Morley said, “Literature, everything ever written, is addressed to Me. By Me I mean You; and by You I mean Us; and by Us I mean Everybody.” (Letters of Askance, Lippincott, 1939, p.275)

Today Morley is primarily known as the author of Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop. Both of those sweet bookish novels are widely available and can be fairly described as "whimsical" - as can much of Morley's poetry. Not the happiest of adjectives, as far as a serious literary career is concerned. But anyone who digs a little deeper will be richly rewarded. His essays, editorial columns, sonnets, and occasional writings are full of literary gold dust, and he wrote over fifty books, so there's a lot to mine. He also edited successive editions of Bartlett's Quotations, in 1937 and 1948. Rumour has it that Morley inserted several fake quotations in the 1937 edition.

Two of my favorite Morley books: a collection of snippets about poetry and poets, Inward Ho! (Doubleday, 1923), and his beautifully-written fictionalized autobiography, John Mistletoe (Doubleday, 1931).

I've been Morley-hunting for over a decade. At one used bookshop I visited several years ago, the visibly grumpy proprietor said, “No, I don’t have any Christopher Morley, no one wants to read him anymore.” I retreated to the essays section feeling like chopped liver (I want to read him…) and promptly found a signed Morley book for $8, and a nice one at that, Ex Libris Carissimis (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932). I put it on the top of my stack at the checkout and paid, and he didn’t say a word.

Oh, yes, Christopher Morley is great. I remember reading what must've been a later edition of Parnassus because the author took himself wittily to task for inconsistencies in the plot.
I found a fat trove of his in a used bookstore ($8), the book caught my eye on account of it's transit worthy title: "Fifth Avenue Bus", an omnibus of Morley's writing, plays poems essays all in the various typefaces and paginations of the original plates which come from numerous publishers.
The most memorable piece is called "Good Theater" and takes place in the lobby of a Broadway theater where a hit play is going into it's third year of SRO performances. Two men dressed in Elizabethan garb come in and try to figure out what's going on--- very nice interplay between Shakesperian speech and '30s NYC slang.
I think Morley and a few of his friends (like Don Marquis) wanted to be Elizabethan sonneteers, not 1930s journalists writing weekly columns and potboilers. His work is riddled with great references. Morley's book "Seacoast of Bohemia" is a humorous look at his and his friends' attempts at staging plays and running a theater in Hoboken. I'll post more on Morley later, I could go on and on here. Thanks for your comment!
I've been a fan of Morley's for thirty years and have always struck by his good humor and essential goodness. He was a promoter of literature and authors. His 85 Golden Florins at the end of Ex Libris Carissimis and his selections in the Modern Essays volumes have led me to writers I treasure that I'd never have come across otherwise, in particular Alexander Smith, David W. Bone, C.E. Montague, Cunninghame Graham, Simeon Strunsky, W.H. Hudson, and, above all, H.M. Tomlinson.

I'll be interested in reading your further thoughts on CM.

Dan Chambers
Hi Dan, I have a shelf full of W.H. Hudson at home - my particular favorite of his is "Far Away and Long Ago" about his childhood in Argentina. Morley is one of those writers who used his position to champion other writers whose work he loved: William McFee, Tomlinson, Conrad, Whitman, Melville, the list goes on. Morley's generosity and good will ring down the decades...
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