Thursday, February 21, 2008


A fiery particle

It doesn't take much to make me happy. A two-inch by two-inch fragment of dust jacket will do the trick, from Christopher Morley's book of essays Off the Deep End (Doubleday 1928). I picked up the book years ago in a local bookshop, thinking it was a shame that part of the spine of the dust jacket was missing. Then I opened the book to check the price (ten dollars), and saw that the missing fragment was neatly tucked inside. Now I consider this little bit of ragged-edged ephemera one of the highlights of my Morley collection:
The jacket was designed by John Alan Maxwell and has his sketches of people all over it - twenties girls in cloche hats sitting in cafes drinking martinis, authors hard at work over their mss, guys browsing in the sale bin outside a bookshop, a bar packed full of revelers. And on the top of the spine, on this surviving bit - is that Morley? - striding along the edge of a high city street, with something - a book? a manuscript? - tucked under his arm, jacket blowing in the breeze, hat on straight, streetlight beside him, his name in writing over his head, and a title that really says it all, about the life of an author and journalist. It seems almost unbearably poignant to me, all these decades later. I'd mat and frame this little piece, if I didn't mind separating it from its book. But I do.

The book itself contains essays on all kinds of topics, among them some bookish pieces entitled Notes on Rosy (A.S.W. Rosenbach), Bookseller's Progress, and Grub Street Runners. One is merely a collection of essayish fragments, Letters from a Fortress, but it illustrates Morley's frame of mind as it begins (p.280):

"A fortress, I suppose, is exactly the opposite of a jail. A jail, theoretically, is a place any one can get into but no one gets out of. A fortress is a stronghold you can leave when you choose, but no one can enter without your permission. People break out of jail, but break into fortresses.

It is well to have some kind of fortress, however impalpable, if you want to talk about things that seem important."

That's near the end of the book; at the very beginning, opposite the table of contents, Morley chose an epigram from C.E. Montague's The Morning's War:

"Words must have been made by man for telling about quite small delights only, and lighting the dim spaces between people who did not know how to be friends."

This is getting too maudlin. Time to go sell some books. Or - only fifty pages to go in the other Essays I've been reading.

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