Humboldt’s Gift: A look at a life

Humboldt’s Gift is a ramble through the mind of Charlie Citrine, pejoratively described by friends and relatives as “an intellectual.”

Saul Bellow invites readers to tag along as Charlie revisits his past and explores his options for the future if a gift from an old friend allows him to be more than “a formidable mass of credentials.”

All text cover of Humboldt's Gift
Will the rest of Charlie’s life all sunshine like the novel’s cover?

Charlie came east in 1952 to see Literature being made.

In New York, he met Von Humboldt Fleisher, a poet living on the fame of having published a book of highly acclaimed ballads at age 22.

Due in no small part to Humboldt, Charlie became a writer. But unlike Humboldt, Charlie made a fortune doing it.

When the novel opens, Humboldt has just died penniless.

Middle aged now, Charlie has a good life, aside from lawsuits by his ex-wife, trouble with the IRS, an expensive mistress, death threats by a mobster, and an inability to write.

He says he keeps “being overcome by the material, like a miner by gas fumes.”

As death loomed, Humboldt left Charlie a legacy.

Can it put Charlie’s life to rights?

You may wish you knew only half as many of Charlie’s thoughts as Bellow records for readers, but you won’t escape the odd feeling that you’ve known Charlie.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
Viking Press, 1975. 487 p.
1975 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Work of Art Unworthy of Its Name

hotel room, bed empty and unmade

Many novelists have written about what it takes for a writer to become good enough to create art.

In Work of Art, Sinclair Lewis attempts, with minimal success, to turn that familiar plot on end.

Ora Weagle aspires to be a renowned — and rich— Master Artist. He sees himself as too talented to need to learn anything.

Ora ends up pandering to a public that can’t recognize either quality or plagiarism.

As a teen, Ora’s older brother, Myron, seems to have no aspirations at all. He goes to school and does whatever is needed around the rural hotel their parents run.

Unsure what he wants to do with this life, Myron asks a traveling salesman if hotels are a good business. J. Hector Warlock paints a vivid picture of the importance of hotels and the vast learning hotel-keeping requires.

Myron is inspired.

He will work to become a Master Hotel Keeper.

Unfortunately, Lewis doesn’t make Myron’s story inspirational. Heaping sarcasm on the rubes who fail to appreciate the quality of Myron’s meals, beds, and service doesn’t make readers value the man more.

Myron appears to readers as he appears to Ora: hardworking but boring.

Lewis fails to to prove that any job done superbly is a work of art.

Work of Art
By Sinclair Lewis
Doubleday, Doran, 1935
452 pages
1934 Bestseller #6
My grade: B-
Photo credit: Going, Going, Gone by kmg

Daddy‘s Charm Is as Long as His Legs

If you liked Pollyanna and Anne Shirley, you’ll love Jerusha Abbott, heroine of Daddy Long-Legs.

A page from Daddy Long Legs with stick figure illustrationsThe oldest orphan at John Grier Home, Jerusha is awarded a college education by an anonymous trustee who thinks she may have a future as a writer. She’s to acknowledge her monthly stipend by letter addressed to “John Smith” and sent to the trustee’s secretary.

All Jerusha knows of the man personally is that he’s tall (she glimpsed his back as he left the home) and doesn’t like girls.

Jean Webster’s novel about what happens to Jerusha is told through the girl’s letters to her benefactor, whom she calls “Mr. Daddy-Long-Legs Smith.”

In her letters, which she illustrates with her own sketches, Jerusa reveals her joys and sorrows to the father-figure she invents for herself.

After first term failures in two subjects, Jerusha settles into her studies. She finds college work less difficult than “college play.” She has no experience of the normal experiences of family life or popular culture. However, her natural cheerfulness and adaptability soon make her part of the college community.

Through a roommate, she meets Jervis Pendleton, a wealthy, young, New York gentleman with whom she has much in common. If she didn’t feel obligated to pay Daddy Long-Legs for her education, Jerusha could easily fall for Jervis.

The heroine is believable as a person and as a fledgling writer. If the plot is a bit too pat, it’s nevertheless plausible for a girl with Jerusha’s orphanage upbringing.

Alhough it didn’t make the bestseller list (Dear Enemy, the sequel about the John Grier Home did)  Jean Webster’s 1912 epistolary novel is simply charming.

If you’re at a loss for a last minute Christmas gift for a stary-eyed adolescent or a senior citizen with a gentle sense of humor, Daddy Long-Legs might just fit the bill. The novel is readily available in both paperback and hardback. If your local independent bookstore doesn’t have it in stock, they can get it for you.

Daddy Long-Legs
by Jean Webster
Grosset & Dunlap, 1912
304 pages

Photo credit: page of first edition of Daddy Long-Legs, yellow with age, by Linda Aragoni

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Bridge of Desire Needs Less Romance

Bridge of Desire is a bit of a departure for Warwick Deeping from the overdone sentimentality of his more famous works like Sorrell and Son.

Unfortunately, he reverts to sentimentality at a crucial point in the plot, giving a happy-ever-after ending to a story that demands less romance and more nuance.

Here’s the gist of the plot:

Martin Frensham has achieved success as a dramatist thanks in large measure to his wife, Nella, who created the home atmosphere in which he could write.

In the seventh year of a happy marriage, Martin gets restless.

Looking for new ideas, he leaves Nella for a rich American widow whose hobby is collecting men. Nella tells friends her husband is traveling for his health. She is sure Martin will come to his senses and return to her.

Deeping’s probing of the male mid-life crisis is observant rather than psychoanalytical, his prose incisive rather than lyrical. The novel gives the impression of saying something that has to be said, even if the telling gives pain.

Even though Bridge of Desire is not a great novel, it’s one whose story will linger in your memory longer than many better ones.

 Bridge of Desire
by Warwick Deeping
Robert M. McBride, 1931
303 pages
My grade B
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Re-Creation of Brian Kent: Short and Overly Sweet

The Re-Creation of Brian Kent is a syrupy, sentimental novel about how Auntie Sue, a retired schoolteacher, helps a writer-turned-bank-robber become a writer again.


When small boat occupied by a drunken man washes up on the river bank by Auntie Sue’s Ozarks home, the spunky spinster sees  in him the son she’d always wanted. Even when she learns Brian Kent is  wanted for a bank robbery that included her own money, she is determined to rescue him.

Dried out, literally and metaphorically, Brian stays on with Auntie Sue, clearing trees for cropland and writing  a book.

When the book is done, Auntie Sue summons a girl she knows who can prepare a typewritten manuscript from  Brian’s handwritten draft. They fall in love, and after appropriate trials, the novel ends at the altar.

Because Auntie Sue is an artificial character around whom any plot will be implausible, Harold Bell Wright’s novel feels like a sermon. The sermon is, in Auntie Sue’s words, “Before you can DO anything that is worth doing, you must be something.”

Fortunately, the novel is short so you won’t  get sugar overdose.

The Re-Creation of Brian Kent
By Harold Bell Wright
1920 Bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg ebook #3625

Photo “Early Morning on the Buffalo” by OakleyOriginals shared under Creative Commons License.

©2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Project Gutenberg