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Studies in Crap: Beloved real American George Leonard Herter explains How to Live With a Bitch

Each Thursday, your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets. I do this for one reason: Knowledge is power.

How to Live With a Bitch

Author: Legendary coot George Leonard Herter

Date: 1969

Publisher: Herter’s, Inc., a Minnesota sporting goods outfitter now distributed through Cabela’s.

Representative Quotes:

  • “Do not establish a nudist camp in your home but keep a natural body exposure around the house on a normal basis. Children, including boys, should see their mother nude wearing external menstrual pads.” (page 3)
  • “All facts show that many women have built-in traits to nag, bitch, insult, try to be cruel and try to be demanding. Such traits, of course, cause much divorce. Again a woman is not exactly like a Canadian goose, she does not intend, in the vast majority of cases, to mate for life.” (page 59).

There’s crap and then there’s bullshit.

In the first fifty pages of this pioneering achievement in all-American jack-assery, George Leonard Herter decries the pill as “racial suicide,” insists that logic tells us that the nine unmarried apostles had to be masturbators, claims that men are a fine wine but women a whiskey (“The more they age the worse they get”), and offers this explanation for why the bitches that men marry crab so much:

“Murder through continual stress situations is not difficult for some people. Watch out for this in selecting a mate.”

Once I mopped my blown mind off the tarp I spread about my desk for such occasions, I put the book down and got to Googling. Come to find out, this cranky sumbitch is considered an American treasure.

Just ask the critics at niche publications like Field & Stream (they called him “an eccentric genius”), the Minnesota Fishing Blog (“isn’t quite as misogynistic as it sounds”), and the New York Times (“one of the greatest oddball masterpieces in this or any other language.”)

Impressive notices for the man who wrote, “The jeweled engagement ring is quite recent and was created by Jewish jewelers to sell more rings and jewels.”

That Times quote, from a warm appreciation by likable bookhound Paul Collins, refers to Herter’s best-known work, the recipe book Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, justly celebrated on the better cooking sites for including “titty sauce yams.”

Herter’s second most celebrated work: the thousands of excitable entries he penned for the Herter Sporting Goods catalogs in the 1960s.

That said, the shrill harangues of How to Live With a Bitch don’t square with Collins’ description of Herter as “a genius of straight-faced balderdash” and “a teller of tall tales.”

Here, Herter rants joylessly against Catholics (“There is nothing wrong with Italians but there is with 400 years of Italian Catholic Church rule bought by murder, money and dirty power politics” ) psychologists (“far below a reliable witch doctor” ) and sometimes both at once :

“The Roman Catholic Church taught reincarnation for 300 years, castrated the boys of their choirs in Rome and put Castro to power in Cuba by supporting communism. I think their support of psychoanalysis will do more real harm than any of these things.”

If these are tall tales, Paul Bunyan was a John Bircher.

Herter’s ire is especially provoked by women.

“There is nothing in the world so utterly disgusting as the woman who has used every trick in the trade all of her life to keep from having children, then wailing at menopause that she has no children.”

But unlike the “careless Catholics,” he doesn’t oppose birth control in all instances.

“At puberty and through the teenages [sic] your strongest desire is to have sexual intercourse with almost any girl who will lay still long enough to let you. You can get a girl pregnant very easily if she wants you to . . . Either use contraceptives or have sexual intercourse with a girl you wouldn’t mind marrying.”

So, this is less a rustic lark from the Times‘s lovable crackpot than it is a sour belch from a sour man. Thankfully, some lighter passages do read like a put-on.

“The problem of a woman’s lack of sex enjoyment or sex frigidity . . . was actually solved and described in detail way back in the days of the Greek philosophers. All it takes is a little exercise of the right muscles to start female sex enjoyment. Just pretend that you are going to urinate, then don’t. Do this for an hour or so a day, or less if it takes up too much of your time, and your problems will soon be over.”

And occasionally, a flight of fancy justifies Collins’ insistence that Herter resembles “John Hodgman, but with a gun.”

“In the whole history of the world only two women were able to become even fairly well-known painters. Some women can learn to play the piano fairly well. Well-known women cannot compose lasting music. Women are different in more ways than just sex. Women can hold their breath for 2 1/2 minutes and descend and work in water 45 feet deep, men cannot.”

But such jokes – if jokes they are – only sweeten the poison that Herter’s recent celebrators ignore. By housebreaking Herter, by ignoring his xenophobic viciousness, they diminish the American spirit that they suggest he exemplifies. Collins glosses over the mean streak by describing Herter as “a surly sage,” which cutens up the truth: Herter was touched by a peculiar greatness, but the dude was also a prick.

Key to being a Crap Archivist– or an American — is acknowledging such prickishness among our forebears while never losing sight of all that’s worth admiring in them, too.

Shocking Detail:
What I admire most about Herter is his crazed dilettantism.

Purportedly a marriage guide, How to Live With a Bitch opens with twenty-odd dense, humorless, science-y pages explaining ovulation, pregnancy, and the functions of the sex organs. The book closes with an alarmed report of new missile technology and a short story about De Gaulle.

Herter even includes his own anatomical illustrations:

The birth of Beavis & Butthead!

Highlight:
And just when his meticulous description of the anovulatory menstrual cycle gets dull, he springs this doozy:

That’s a joke, right?

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The Voltaic Yoo-Hoo Acid Test

The candy-salesman hero of The Riddle of the Traveling Skull might be describing his creator’s peculiar allure—and the cravings of the Harry Stephen Keeler cult—when he refers to his company’s latest product as “a new and weird and engaging candy flavor that caused every tongue over which it trickled to hang out for more, more, more!” Keeler (1890–1967) published nearly 70 mystery novels, most between 1924 and 1942, and was largely unheralded in his lifetime, save for the occasional head-scratch from a daily reviewer. But that’s changed over the past three decades. Today he’s a minor sensation, with an appreciable following and numerous reprints; copies of his more obscure titles go for hundreds on eBay.

Aficionados adore Keeler for (a) his prose style, which springs jacks of hyperbole and surrealism from the whodunit’s musty Edwardian box; and (b) his “web-work” plotting, which often surpasses the Illuminatus! trilogy for sheer lunatic, self-justifying intricacy. “Keeler does everything you are never supposed to do as a novelist,” writes editor (and Voice contributor) Paul Collins, apropos of (a), in his introduction to this snappy new reprint from the Collins Library. As to (b), “Keeler takes the implicit absurdity of the mystery [genre] and makes it explicit.” Sober admirers of Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, and their upper-middlebrow ilk might challenge Collins’s assumption of the form’s “absurdity.” And anyway, what’s unquestionable—and lovable—about Keeler is that he makes his own absurdity so explicit.

The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, first published in 1934, begins when our hero, Clay Calthorpe, inadvertently gains possession of a satchel containing a human skull. The skull has several unusual features: a metal disc bearing numbers and a name, paper stuffing scrawled with sentence fragments, a bullet hole, and a bullet. In seeking the skull’s provenance, Calthorpe ranges over the burgeoning expanse and social strata of Chicago (“that strange London of the West,” he calls it), meanwhile detailing characters like Philodexter Maxellus, Ichabod Chang, and Sophie Kratzenschneiderwumpel.

Keeler famously systematized his principles of narration and character motivation in a multi-part article entitled “The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction” (1928). Sample: “It should be evident that in many cases the motiving of a desired incident with respect to that participant in it who is not fixed by the exigencies of the required plot, can and does form part of the motivation for the fixed participant.” Skull may represent a later evolution of such theories, as its action functions more on the helter-skelter principle. Which was far from unusual in the pop novel of Keeler’s day: His plotting is actually not much more Byzantine than, say, John Buchan’s, or his commitment to plausible motivation more marginal than that of Earl Derr Biggers. Improbable yarns and exotic personages, too, were the popular standard in the reign of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard.

As a plotter, Keeler mainly lacks a sense of distribution. Rather than apportioning greater weight to scenes with key value, Skull features protracted pursuits of hunches that don’t pan out, elaborate expositions of eventualities that don’t occur. There are enough MacGuffins to smother Hitchcock, enough coincidences to render Dickens a chaos theorist. Keeler doesn’t always trouble himself to plant essential information early, so that its climactic reappearance will ring both surprising and true: Repeatedly, the rational impossibilities engendered by his own perfervid plotting are simply neutralized by an expedient invention. It can’t have been so difficult for Keeler to construct his web-work plots when he knew any dangling strand could be secured, come crunch time, to an explanation conjured on the spot.

Then there’s the racism. Francis M. Nevins, whose 1969 serial study in The Journal of Popular Culture sparked Keeler’s rediscovery, thought the author “hated racism deeply, but refused to be solemn about the subject and insisted on his right to express himself in a way that could be misinterpreted.” Richard Polt, founder of the Harry Keeler Society, has written a more recent defense on the same lines. Both argue that the totality of Keeler’s work ameliorates individual cases, some of which they admit are nonetheless loathsome. Skull is one of those cases: At the very least, it is deformed as entertainment by the insistent (therefore purposive) use of such charming locutions as “Cockney bastard,” “stinking Chink,” “confounded Mick,” and “moron negro.” Scarcely three pages pass without some malodorous slur; in the concluding chapters, the Chinese and Germans are hit especially hard. Some Keeler novels are explicitly anti-racist, others merely ambivalent about otherness. But gauged on its extremes, Keeler-mania would seem to depend partly on one’s willingness to inhabit a universe in which Anglo-Saxon bravehearts are alternately aided or assaulted by a succes-sion of pidgin-speaking ethnics.

But that’s scarcely all there is inside this Skull—the novel, or Keeler’s cranium. The book is full to bursting with woolly characters, stupefying style, and narrative so convoluted as to be self-consuming. There are addled adverbs (“friendlily,” “troubledly”) and silly similes (“like a drunken mule with elephants’ feet grafted onto his ankles”); oafish constructions (“my own last only chance”) and oddball gangsterisms (“muffed his stunt”); antique phrases (“microscopical,” “spirituelle”) and touching homilies (“People change, as well as styles in dogs”). Exclamation points abound, not only as sentence-enders (“And it was a bullet!”) but as chapter-starters (“Filkins the Poet!”). The first-person voice is alternately loquacious and halting: A period will fall onto the page out of nowhere, more or less arbitrarily. In the middle of a sentence. To break it up. Into two fragments. Or three. Or more! It’s as if both peripatetic hero and indefatigable author were gasping between wind sprints.

Pixilation enlivens and estranges the dialogue—vide this exchange between the hero, recently beaned from behind, and some Irish cops:

“The minute I went up the steps of No. 1870, and tried to grope around in the vestibule for a push button, the house fell on my head and I traveled through space with the square root of minus one—” “What’s that?”

“That’s the speed of light, according to Einstein,” said the other of the plainclothesmen. “He’s persiflageous, Sarge!”

In the manner of the broken clock that’s correct twice a day, Keeler will here and there fashion a passage, or merely an aperçu, that is actually, conventionally good. Like the narrator’s sketch of a suburban housing development, “with small one-story bungalows laid around within it, and little toy garages with red-tiled roofs in back of each. A single combined driveway and entrance for all the natives to get in. Or to get out.” Or his coining of piquant names for imaginary periodicals, such as Hearstmopolitan and Literary Regurgitation. Or his suggestion to a lam-considering criminal that “Canada is as much of a refuge for you as—as a Wisconsin lumber camp is for a lost virgin.”

In life and death, Keeler has borne his critics’ attacks—the latest being a piece in the December 21 New York Sun by Mysterious Bookshop owner Otto Penzler that is less a hatchet job than a series of shallow pinpricks. (“Keeler is to good literature as rectal cancer is to good health,” Penzler writes, in what is ostensibly a review of The Riddle of the Traveling Skull but overall evidences greater familiarity with the McSweeney’s press release than with the novel itself.) Indeed, there are sound reasons for disliking Keeler’s work. But mediocrity is not among them. Unlike the cults around, say, Ed Wood or Eisenhower-era lounge music—the fetishizing of dullness, the caressing of a void—Keeler’s is a cult of the wildly overcreative, the sincerely, bountifully bizarre.

In the words of Skull‘s Teutonic neurosurgeon, “Life! What a tangle it is, isn’t it! Gott! People—objects—all bound together—in all sorts of odd relationships!” That’s Harry Stephen, whether you get him whole, halfway, or not at all. But for those willing to look past the racism—a challenge—Keeler is a home-brewed hallucinogen, the literary equivalent of the quackish medical compounds and energy elixirs once peddled by tent and wagon in those dark decades before the all-night infomercial. He had a bent of brain and twist of pen that make him an acquired but irreplaceable taste—not Electric Kool-Aid, but its ancestral counterpart, its Depression-bred grandfather: Voltaic Yoo-Hoo, perhaps.


Devin McKinney, author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard), writes a music column for The American Prospect online (prospect.org).

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Skull and Bones: Historian Collins’s Head Games

A quest for the mortal remains of America’s late great radical Tom Paine serves as pretext for Voice contributor Paul Collins’s agreeably meandering volume of reflections on cultural memory and forgetfulness. “We forget all the time,” begins one of the book’s riffs: “Every moment gets thrown out like so much garbage.” Luckily Collins has the sharp eye of a first-class dumpster diver, noting oddities with a precision that saves the book from whimsy: He coins the phrase “sepia-tone manga” to describe a “hell-raising tale” called The Quaker City, and tells us that one plaster head in the phrenologist Orson Fowler’s collection was simply labeled “Excessive Digestion (Name Lost).” The book chronicles bizarre scenes such as the British journalist William Cobbett trying to clear customs with a wooden box full of Paine’s bones or Cobbett’s son engraving his own name on the Common Sense author’s skull. Such was 19th-century Englishmen’s fondness for cranial graffiti that one sexton posted in his crypt a notice that simply said “Please Do Not Write Upon Skulls.”

As befits the editor of the Collins Library (best known for reclaiming the notorious English As She Is Spoke), the author favors bookstores and libraries over most other repositories of the past. A visit to Columbia’s rare-book room—and the incongruity of looking at daguerreotypes on blond-wood tables under buzzing fluorescent lights—prompts a flight of fancy about the suite of period rooms Collins would build for his ideal library, equipped in this case with a fainting sofa, a damasked ottoman and “the yellow pallor of a gaslight chandelier.” While Collins’s facts are occasionally unreliable (not Swift’s “Modest Proposal” but Defoe’s Shortest Way With the Dissenters was the “hoax meant to be so absurd that it would backfire on its erstwhile proponents”) the charm of his manner and the originality of his critical intelligence mark this sensitive rendering of Paine’s afterlife.

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Ad Infinitum

I read nothing except the criminal news and the agony column,” Sherlock Holmes once mused. Personal ads—what the British call the “agony column”—were, Doyle’s detective observed, “surely the most valuable hunting ground that was ever given to a student of the unusual!” They lacked a modern-day Sherlock to decipher their intricacies—but no longer, thanks to Sara Bader’s new Strange Red Cow and Other Curious Classified Ads From the Past (Clarkson Potter).

America’s first classified ad appeared in 1704, seeking “Two Iron Anvils” lost by their owner. This begs the question: How do you lose an anvil? But classifieds thrived from that odd beginning, evolving into rhymed tradesmen ads, help-wanteds, barter ads, and—inevitably—the first personals ad in 1759. But among the quaint ads seeking a woman “who must love a mustache” or lost livestock—e.g., the “strange red cow” of the book’s title—you soon find notices like this in 1804: “Stop the Runaway. FIFTY DOLLARS REWARD. Eloped from the subscriber, living near Nashville, on the 25th of June last, a Mulatto Man Slave . . . ten dollars extra [reward], for every hundred lashes, any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.”

The cruel master who placed that ad? Andrew Jackson. The future president was not alone; Bader also reproduces runaway-slave newspaper ads by Washington in 1761 and Jefferson in 1769. Lost-and-found ads always give a telltale account of an era: After the Civil War one finds ads for missing lockets bearing the snips of hair of the departed, though sometimes other pieces went missing too. An 1866 Boston Evening Transcript carries the plea “LOST—On the Common, on the 23rd ult, an ARTIFICIAL HAND.” Bader also finds a surprising number—even one should be a surprising number—of Found ads for money. One advertiser seems so conscience stricken that he placed this ad in 1849, four years after finding the money: “FOUND, FOUR DOLLARS, WHILE LEAVING THE CARS at Paterson, in the summer of 1845.”

But the enduring charm of classifieds has always lain in the
personals. Not everyone was impressed: Missed Connection and I Saw You ads seemed just as faintly pathetic to Mark Twain in 1867 as they do today. “There seems to be a pack of wooden-headed louts about this town,” he snapped, “who fall in love with every strumpet who smiles a flabby smile at them in a street car, and forthwith they pop a personal into the Herald.”

The personals can also be a graveyard of romance; one uncovered by Bader from an 1862 [New York] Sunday Mercury reads:

“X.Z.—IF YOU MUST HAVE A REASON why I refuse you, understand, then that I cannot marry a man who wears soiled linen, has foul teeth and breath, and uses tobasco and whisky. Faugh!”

Sometimes the ad is the literal headstone of romance: Bader recounts the tale of Belle Gunness, a Norwegian woman who lured at least a dozen men and women to shallow backyard graves through personals in turn-of-the-century Indiana. She appears to have absconded and lived for perhaps another three decades in L.A., one suspects after permanenty ending the loneliness of California men through her nickel-a-word murder weapon.

Strange Red Cow is a book of American ads: The mind reels at the possibilities if anyone were to compile a companion volume of British ones. As early as 1843 a writer for the Edinburgh Review was digging up such agony column gems as “IF WILLIAM will return to his affectionate parents, he shall not be snubbed by his sister, and be allowed to sweeten his own tea.” Tea was no small matter over there; another ad simply read “TO
M.N.—If you don’t choose to come back, please to return the key of the tea-caddy.”

Pore over the classified columns in old British papers—and I recommend that you bring both a strong pair of reading glasses and a strong pair of eyeballs to the task—and you start discovering the news beneath the news, the vast depths of unplumbed minutiae. In the 1790s, for instance, we find tutoring in “The Digitalian Language,” apparently a fad for hand signaling among fashionable ladies—one imagines Georgian women throwing gang signs at each other. I’ve never found the phrase again in any other source. If only the man who placed the ad were still responding to enquiries at No. 11 St. Clement’s Churchyard . . . but no. The ad is all we have now, a tantalizing hint of a forgotten past.

Other ads, though, are reassuring in their timelessness. Sick of your landlord? Then read this ad from 1816:

“WANTED IMMEDIATELY, to enable me to leave the House which I have for these last five years inhabited, in the same plight and condition in which I found it, 500 LIVE RATS, for which I will gladly pay the sum of L.5 Sterling; and, as I cannot leave the Farm attached thereto in the same order as I got it without at least Five Millions of Docks, Dockens (weeds), I do hereby promise a further sum of L.5 sterling for said number of Dockens. . . .

N.B. The Rats must be full grown, and no cripples.”

The classifieds were a haven for this dry British humor; the Pall Mall Gazette once ran an ad for a “DOG.—Required a kind master for an excellent black retriever dog. Owner parts with him on no other account than his savage tendencies.” One can even find high-flown literature itself—of a sort—among the classifieds. Before the advent of display ads, commercial ads were crammed alongside everyone else’s and merchants vied to outdo each other in the floridness and cleverness of their compositions. It was widely rumored in the early 1800s that Lord Byron was receiving a year to write verses praising Warren’s Blacking Shoe Polish. To wit: “As I one morning shaving sat,/For dinner time preparing,/A dreadful howling from the cat/Set all the room a staring!/Sudden I turn’d—beheld a scene/ I could not but delight in,/For in my boot, so bright and clean,/The cat her face was fighting./Bright was the boot—its surface fair,/In lustre nothing lacking;/I never saw one half so clear,/Except by WARREN’S BLACKING.”

You won’t find that one in your Norton anthology. You will find it, though, in the classifieds.

Even as early as 1692, London had an entire newspaper containing nothing but ads—The City Mercury, the forerunner of the modern Pennysaver. Classifieds possess a fascination all their own; whole newspapers and books can be made of them. And that is what makes Bader’s collection of American classifieds such a wonderful find. Strange Red Cow is quirky and entertaining, but it is also something more: It heralds a new genre in overlooked history.


Paul Collins’s latest book is The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (Bloomsbury).

Paul Collins’s reads at the Housing Works Used Book Café November 9.

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Tee Season

“Hi, Dorkwad.”

OK, I suppose that’s not the greeting you expected—particularly not when it comes out the mouth of an adorable little woodland animal. But that’s the greeting you’ll get from It’s Happy Bunny, a popular and cheerfully cruel line of T-shirts, stickers, notebooks, and other teen accessories, all featuring a harmless-looking rabbit that flings such vitriol as “Whatever, You Moron” and “Run Along and Die Now.” Not surprisingly, someone failed to see the humor in It’s Happy Bunny: namely, a Boca Raton retiree mortally and loudly offended by a T-shirt sold by Sears that read, “Seriously. Old People Have Got to Go Now.” “The children of today don’t have good role models as it is,” she complained to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel last month.

Sears pulled that particular It’s Happy Bunny shirt out of its stores in the end, which was no small decision to make. T-shirts are big business—in fact, economist Pietra Rivoli argues in her recent study The Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy (Wiley), they are the epitome of industrialization and international trade. The Industrial Revolution began with British cotton textile factories, and little wonder: Through the early 1800s, half of Britain’s exports were cotton goods. Our own era of empire means that, bolstered by the finest subsidies and ag tech that pork barrel money can buy, the United States maintains a fearsome lead over the rest of the world in cotton production. A single acre of West Texas land now produces enough cotton for a Chinese factory to produce 1,200 T-shirts. These blank shirts, returning to the U.S. for a wholesale cost of $1.42 after steep tariffs, then get silk-screened, live out their sweaty lives, and are cast off for about 25 cents each to the secondhand
mitumba markets of Tanzania, where residents of Dar es Salaam can puzzle over a cute rabbit telling them to cram it.

The beginnings of the T-shirt are traditionally ascribed to American sailors in World War I; the newly created shirt allowed ease of movement and quick drying. But the tee received its big boost from returning soldiers in the 1940s, after military servicemen took to wearing the eminently practical white cotton tees. Throw in Brando’s sweaty T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire and James Dean’s iconic white tee in
Rebel Without a Cause
, and you had the making of a fashion that would fully blossom with the wild and unruly growth of tie-dyes, iron-ons, and silk screens by the late 1960s.

That, at least, is the pop mythology. The tee’s actual history, though, is a little more complicated than that. Fashionable colored T-shirts were being sold on Fifth Avenue as early as 1931 at the B. Altman department store: “The T Shirt becomes respectable—actually smart,” they boasted in the Times. By 1951, before Dean and Brando had brought their white tees to the big screen, Life magazine was already gushing over such elaborate T-shirt couture as a tee woven to resemble houndstooth tweed.

And while Happy Rabbit’s slogan “You Suck and That’s Sad” seems straightforward enough, it turns out that this too has unexpectedly deep roots. The conventional wisdom in textile history is that slogans on T-shirts grew out of the pre-war practice of college athletic departments stenciling, say, “Property of Virginia Tech” on their athletic shirts. But I was astonished to discover this headline while paging through an old Chicago Tribune from June 10, 1897:

MOTTOES ON REVOLVING SHIRT FRONT. Flippant Youth May Now Display Prominently the Phrase,‘There Are No Flies on Me.’

It seems that Victorian hipsters realized one hot summer day that the octagonal celluloid shirt-bosom, which you could revolve around to display different designs, made for a handy personal billboard. “No Flies on Me” was the casual kiss-off of the moment, the “whatever” of 1897 slang; and so with a few strokes of a pen on their shirtfronts, these Chicago smartasses created a defining fashion of modern life. But the strange thing is just how inevitable the slogan shirt’s invention was. It was a direct descendant of a fad that had consumed America for the entire previous year: the slogan pin-back button.

Flippant youth at work again? Hardly. The enameled-tin button, suitable for sloganeering on your shirtfront or backpack, started in 1896 with a bunch of old cigar-chewing Republicans. The newly patented bauble was snapped up by Meyer Bimberg—a sometime embezzler, political gadfly, and Harlem theater impresario—when he got a hot tip at the 1896 convention that William McKinley was going to announce Garrett Hobart as his running mate. Bimberg printed up 100,000 of the newfangled buttons emblazoned with their faces; when the nomination was announced, he’d beaten everyone else to the punch, and “Bim the Button Man” instantly made his name and fortune.

Message buttons soon followed, though they weren’t exactly in-your-face sentiments. One of the first ones simply read, “I Am for Sound Money.” You can guess how long that sort of sobriety lasted. Within months, High Admiral Cigarettes and its ilk were including promotional pin-backs in every pack, and they weren’t exactly of the Sound Money variety. Kids immediately showed up at school with what the Brooklyn Eagle aptly termed “advertisements for their lung destroyers,” and by the fall of 1896 teachers, parents, and newspaper columnists had a new craze to get in a tizzy over.

“Boys and girls neglected their lessons in comparing qualities, quantities, and styles of badges,” the Eagle reported amid a crackdown on badges by Hoboken educator Edward Russ. “Mr. Russ examined some of the mottoes and concluded that such inscriptions as ‘Set ‘Em Up Again,’ ‘You Make Me Tired,’ ‘I’m Somewhat of a Liar Myself,’ ‘If You Love Me Grin,’ and ‘I’m Out For a Good Time’ were not the best things in the world for school children to think about.” The following week a Catholic school in Brooklyn joined the attack on “immoral” badges. The craze gave the media plenty of grist: Newspapers gleefully reported how one boy stabbed another in a fight over a button and how a tyke swallowed a cigarette pin-back and got it lodged in his large intestine.

Amid the inevitable back-lash came the equally inevitable attempt to commandeer buttons as a force for good by embossing them with Sunday-school sentiments. “Let Us All Be Friends,” pleaded one—a pleasant thought, though hopelessly outgunned by rivals like “Get Off the Earth, Your Time Is Up.” Even as the Eagle thundered against school yard badge pushers “supplying children with vulgar, yes, indecent motto buttons,” they found newer and smuttier buttons appearing among “the idle and the vicious, the young men who loaf in Fifth Avenue.” These cunningly appropriated that year’s campaign buttons by featuring McKinley or Bryant on one side and “a vile epithet or viler picture” on the other.

Nefarious cigarette badges became legion. One website maintained by pin-back enthusiast Randall Whitaker has tracked down hundreds of early slogans, from the snappy “Put an Egg in Your Shoe and Beat It” to the intriguing come-on “I Make My Own Ice.” By the time you get to “Quick Watson, the Needle,” it’s pretty easy to see how Victorian parents were driven up the wall by these things.

Not much has changed. Every year brings its own share of fretting over T-shirts, the latest student sent home for fashion crimes. The slogan T-shirt comes and goes and comes back again, as do the T-shirts and the slogans
themselves. Click over to everythingaustralian.com.au, and you can still find this curiously familiar-sounding T-shirt: “There Are No Flies on Me, Mate.” It may be an Australian shirt in the 21st century, but it’s the direct living all-cotton descendant of that first slogan shirt from Chicago. They’re a permanent part of modern life, and one could do worse than to simply follow the advice on one Victorian pin-back that I keep at my desk:


Paul Collins’s new book is The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (Bloomsbury USA).

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Decline and Fall and Fall and Fall

I’m amazed you’re reading this—or reading anything at all.

“For the first time in modern history, less than half the adult population now reads literature . . . [amid] our society’s massive shift toward electronic media for entertainment and information,” thundered NEA chairman Dana Gioia earlier this summer. “Greater understanding of human motivation and behavior, for instance, can be gleaned from a multi-dimensional novel than from the fleeting images on a video screen. The indictment to be made against the Internet as a disturber of reading in America is considerable.”

Terribly sorry—I’ve mixed up my notes. Only the first sentence was written by Gioia. The second appeared in a New York Times piece inveighing against television . . . in 1959. And the third? Replace “Internet” with “motor” and “America” with “England,” and you’ll find that sentence in a 1909 newspaper article titled “Motor Enemy of Reading.” Automobiles, it seems, were lobotomizing our friends from across the pond.

“Reading at Risk,” proclaimed the cover of the NEA’s curiously familiar-sounding call to arms issued in July. For a man appointed by a president whose last known act of reading was “The Pet Goat,” Gioia sure is upset at everyone else’s literary laziness. Wielding a “comprehensive survey . . . based on an enormous sample size,” Gioia found that “literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young.

“The concerned citizen in search of good news about American literary culture,” he concludes, “will study the pages of this report in vain.” The figures certainly look dire. The percentage of American adults reading literature has declined from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 54 percent in 1992 and 46.7 percent in 2002. But now (ahem) read the wording of the question: “The survey asked respondents if, during the previous twelve months, they had read any novels, short stories, plays, or poetry in their leisure time (not for work or school).” It will come as news to historians and memoirists, working in the two most vibrantly evolving genres of the last decade, that what they create does not constitute “reading.” Nor, for that matter, do essays or graphic narratives.

See, Bergdorf Blondes is literature; Persepolis is not.

The question’s wording also rules out any students who may already be reading for their classes, and for that reason are not engaged in leisure reading. Fancy that: You can be an English major and still be a nonreader. And then, when you’re done working on your term paper, you can relax in the campus coffeehouse Not-Reading newspapers and magazines, and fire up your laptop to Not-Read the blogs and the latest wire reports.

Maybe Reading at Risk should really have been called Reading Several Genres Favored in a Certain Historical Period at Risk. Still, might the NEA’s focus on these more allegedly artsy forms of reading be due to their social significance? Literary readers, we are primly informed by the NEA, are more likely than nonreaders to be involved in charity work. Whether this constitutes a meaningful and causal correlation, alas, is less obvious. A set of statistics buried in Reading at Risk shows “literary reading” rising hand in hand with income levels and education. Might we wonder whether people with the time and education to read novels might be better situated to provide charity in the first place?

Why yes, we might wonder. But the NEA did not.

Surprisingly, for a document trumpeting its white-lab-coat credentials, nowhere in Reading at Risk‘s numbers is its margin of error noted. Nor is an even more serious problem addressed. The NEA’s figures were compiled through telephone surveys each decade, which we are informed had a response rate of 70 percent in 2002. Presumably that response rate is for those people who picked up the phone. But much has changed in phone usage since the 1992 survey, including widespread use of voice mail, machine screening, and caller ID, all of which allow sizable numbers of potential respondents to now select themselves out of the pool of respondents without changing the alleged response rate. It may be impossible to compare a 2002 phone survey with those of previous decades—not because the survey changed, but because the phones did.

No matter. While Reading at Risk‘s moral inspiration is obviously William Bennett, its statistical conclusions are pure Rufus T. Firefly. “At the current rate of loss,” the report yells, “literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century.”

Really? To answer this question, let’s look for a moment at the photograph of NEA chairman Dana Gioia displayed in the report’s introduction. He’s a trim-looking fellow: I’d guess about 165 pounds. Now, let’s say that Dana’s been hitting the maple scones lately, and gained four pounds in the last month. By applying Reading at Risk‘s statistical model of linear progression, I hereby predict that in 50 years time, NEA chairman Dana Gioia will weigh 2,565 pounds.

And the real cause of this impending obese illiteracy? Well, we all know the answer to that one. “The computer, brighter and better than books,” reports the NEA, “which was supposed to lead men and women to the library, merely lures human moths to chat rooms.” Dreadfully sorry: my mistake again. I’ve made hash of a Times article from 1937: Edison’s electric lamp, brighter and better than gas, oil, or candles, which was supposed to lead men and women to the library, merely lures human moths to Main Street.

Now here’s what the NEA chairman actually did say about electric lam . . . um, computers: “Although the news in the report is dire, I doubt that any careful observer of American society will be greatly surprised—except by the sheer magnitude of the decline . . . [accompanied by the rise of] video games and the Internet, [which] foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification.” So insidious is this shortened attention span that it appears to have prevented Gioia from reading his own agency’s report, since it explicitly notes that it found no such causality. Well, perhaps we can find evidence elsewhere. What about the world’s most electronics-smitten country? Surely it’d be a harbinger of what’s to come for the U.S.

Is reading big in Japan?

Since 1947 the Mainichi Shinbunsha newspaper company has performed an annual door-to-door Dokusho Yoron Chosa (“Public Reading Survey”) on just this question. But their question, not reliant on telephone responses, also includes all forms of reading—fiction, nonfiction, manga, and periodicals alike. The result? Pollsters found that Japanese reading rates have risen in the last two decades.

And yet, as in the United States, Japanese cultural conservatives fret over dokusho-banare—a “detachment from reading.” The latest culprit is the cell phone, since what little reading it entails involves thumbing away through execrable text-messaging shorthand. “Will any endure to read or write at all that delicate composition which we now call a letter, and not rather pervade the length and breadth of the country, each for himself, with a kind of running conversation—a continual communication of small gossip and detached thoughts—new clothes—new acquaintances—dinner parties, and bon mots?” asks one worried Japanese critic. “Can we suppose that the real antique letter will at all survive the revolution, and not be swept away in a flood of notes?”

Ah! I fear I have misplaced my date and author again. That quote was taken verbatim from British Critic magazine in 1842. They were fretting over the introduction of penny postage for letters. Conservatives must always have something to conserve, you see.

Reading at Risk is not a report that the National Endowment for the Arts is happy to issue,” Gioia insists. I’m not so sure of that. Gioia seems happy indeed to grind out the old hurdy-gurdy song of cultural decay, dolefully performed by codgers who believe that Reading is declining and falling, rather than merely Reading as They Knew It. What Gioia and centuries of soundalikes never seem to learn is that it does keep falling, but toward a cultural ground forever speeding away from underneath it. Art, it seems, is rather like a satellite—perpetually hurtling earthward, and yet curiously fixed in its orbit.


Paul Collins edits the Collins Library for McSweeney’s Books. His latest book is Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism.

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ART ARCHIVES BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Human Remainders

Even literary travel writing should make you want to travel, not read. Take Alain de Botton’s recent The Art of Travel. Relying on the able guidance of Edmund Burke, William Wordsworth, and Charles Baudelaire, de Botton tours the Sinai desert, England’s Lake District, and Mauritius and offers meditative aphorisms like “Travel is the handmaid of thought” to send you on your own journey to the . . . library. Paul Collins’s version of the genre, on the other hand, makes you want to hit the road yourself. He may lose his passport and blurt out things like “I will admit to a real fondness for the Victorians, because they amuse me,” but he never makes travel sound like homework. Collins also invokes the literature of the past, but his taste runs toward less obvious titles, including such forgotten classics as Walter Wilkinson’s Puppets Through America (1938), Elinor Wylie’s The Venetian Glass Nephew (1925), and Freak Brothers (the 1970s comic book heroes, not Henry and William James).

De Botton takes his reader all over the travel shelf; Collins takes his family to Wales. Hay-on-Wye, the book town of the title, hosts more than 40 used bookstores and attracts scholars and collectors from all over the world. Richard Booth, the enterprising “King of Hay,” opened the first shop in 1962 and went on to put the village on the map by buying massive lots of unwanted books from America and putting them up for sale as fast as the local lads could hammer shelves together. Collins, his wife, and their baby relocate here from San Francisco while awaiting the publication of his first book, Banvard’s Folly (2001), and much of the present volume finds the Collinses house hunting and growing accustomed to their new surroundings. Booth hires Collins to sort out his American literature, a collection of books that probably outdistances the Strand’s by a good five miles.

Full of enthusiasm for the new life he is incompetently trying to assemble, Collins lights on any possible symptom of the relative superiority of a touristy hamlet on the fringes of a dead empire. Game show prizes over here are modest! Game show hosts have real opinions on issues like whether Britain should return the Elgin Marbles to Greece! Envelopes are brown! Sure, the water pressure sucks, but they build houses out of real stone! Even when Collins admits, “Many British pubs really are not much fun at all,” you get the feeling that he likes it that way. For every Seinfeldesque observation, there’s a digression on some nugget of forgotten literature.

Collins isn’t in Wales for the cider; he’s there for the books, and as a freshman author, bibliophile, and curator of the McSweeney’s imprint Collins Library, which revives out-of-print gems (the only title issued so far is the accidentally brilliant phrasebook English as She Is Spoke), he has something to say about what books mean and what our society’s treatment of books says about us. Sixpence House begins with Collins’s editor telling him to be glad Banvard’s Folly wasn’t supposed to come out at the same time as the fourth Harry Potter novel, because the plucky young wizard had tied up virtually all of the available paper at both of the industry’s two suppliers. This depresses the author, not because he’s a snob but because he’s a pluralist. He recognizes that adventure books, celebrity memoirs, disaster pictorials, and how-to manuals have value both for their intended readers and for browsers in later centuries curious to learn how, for example, they used to make doorknobs out of sawdust and cattle blood.

Collins summarizes his attitude toward books (not to mention something of his attitude toward fatherhood) with a striking simile: “For a writer with a book coming to press, to work here—why? It is like a pregnant woman taking a job at the morgue.” Books have a life beyond their creators and never come out quite exactly how they were planned. Their own short lives come to an end, though that eventuality must be shrugged off during the act of creation. Like people, books can die in more than one way: scathing review, lack of publicity, remaindering, fire, or slow suffocation under a pile of other books in a pile in Hay. The simile is also inexact in exactly the right place, for some books, unlike children, do attain something like immortality, a goal that has impelled more than one hack, though Collins never supposes that Banvard’s Folly has any chance of joining Goethe and Milton on the five-foot shelf of classics.

Death won’t catch up to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for a couple decades, but it’s gaining on the books Collins wants to rescue. His list includes the likes of Gail Hamilton’s Country Living and Country Thinking (1862), which argues against the 19th century’s version of disposable culture, and Andrew Boyd’s Recreations of a Country Parson (1861), which describes the pleasures of reading how-to guides about activities that you’ll never even try. If these are real books, and I think they are, then they probably would have “died” if he weren’t here to revive them, at least for as long as Sixpence House lives. His work as a writer and editor make him a sort of one-man World Wildlife Fund for the out-of-print, the more threatened with extinction the better. His favorites “leave your hands and the front of your shirt covered in reddish brown smudges.” A visit to the local bookbinder prompts him to wonder about the unlucky volumes that never made it this far. He even frets about the fate of all the great passages and descriptions trapped in mediocre books. (In the almanac at collinslibrary.com, you can survey some of the lines he’s busy saving.)

The obsession with the death of literature leads to what could arguably be regarded as the climax of this largely plotless tale, the moment when Collins accidentally drops his own manuscript in the toilet and accidentally pisses on it. One recalls with horror Samuel Beckett’s remark about giving birth astride a grave, or Oscar Wilde’s on destroying what you love. Or perhaps the composer Cornelius Cardew’s observation that “everyone’s failing; our entire experience is this side of perfection.”

Yet Collins is uncharacteristically pragmatic when confronted by the spectacle of his yellowing manuscript. He fishes it out and patiently holds the pages up to the hand dryer, managing to save all of them except the first. Not bad, and illustrative of an important lesson: Quoting only takes you so far. Eventually you have to learn to say it—or do it—for yourself.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Slips of the Tongue

An insidious device for producing unwitting comic stereotypes, English as She Is Spoke has sputtered incoherently in the background of our culture for nearly a century and a half now, and the extent of its damage to Anglo-American/Portuguese-Brazilian relations can only be estimated. Thanks to Paul Collins and McSweeney’s Books, it has returned after a hiatus of some 30 years, beautifully bound to resemble a volume from a school library, a new cover for an old trap.

“A choice of familiar dialogues, clean of gallicisms, and despoiled phrases, it was missing yet to studious portuguese and brazilian Youth,” the authors, José da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino, state in their baffling Preface. The need has since been met by a wide variety of helpful phrase books, of which this is notoriously not one.

“Clean of gallicisms” strikes a particularly unfortunate note, given the received story of how this bizarre thing came to be. The authors, it seems, accepted the commission for a phrasebook despite the hurdle of being themselves non-English speaking. In addition, they were unable to procure a Portuguese-English dictionary.

They did, however, have access to Portuguese-French and French-English dictionaries, and with admirable pluck, made the most of their limited means. (Were the authors stranded in a mountain cabin by agents of a particularly unscrupulous publisher? One of the most entertaining things about the book is the possible scenarios it spawns—not least of which is the attempt of an unwary Portuguese speaker to actually use it.) The result is, of course, flush with gallicisms, along with infusions from Portuguese and from the mysterious hybrids that sprout along linguistic borders.

EASIS begins, respectably enough, with a “Vocabulary” section, which soon goes wonky with the inclusion of “Some wigs, A dainty-dishes, An amelet, and Vegetables boiled to a pap” as representative “Eatings.” There follows a list of “Familiar Phrases”—a number of them quite violent, e.g., “He has spit in my coat. He does me some kicks. He laughs at my nose. He has me take out my hairs. He has scratch the face with hers nails.” Herein lie the intimations of a complicated story. The authors must have anticipated that the book might cause trouble and perhaps intended to aid the speaker in filling out a police report.

Indeed, ill temper is a recurring theme in the book. In one of the “Familiar Dialogues”—”For to Ride a Horse”—da Fonseca and Carolino envision, with characteristic ambiguity, either a very particular customer or an incredibly sorry nag: “Here is a horse who have bad looks. . . . He not sall know to march, he is pursy, he is foundered. . . . He is undshoed, he is with nails up; it want to lead to the farrier. He go limp, he is disable, he is blind.”

Then, some “Anecdotes,” the points of which remain dimly visible beneath the lush growth of this new dialect, and lastly the apt “Idiotisms and Proverbs.” Here, some familiar phrases return, made strange (“The stone as roll heap up not foam”), while other entries seem wholly new and demand inclusion in English as we speak her now—especially “That which feel one’s snotly blow blow one’s nose.”


It is, in short, a book that fairly begs to be mocked. And it has been, mercilessly, since soon after its original publication in France in 1855. Did the authors anticipate this too? Consider the following testy dialogue, “With a Bookseller”: “The actual liking of the public is depraved they does not read who for to amuse one’s self ant but to instruct one’s.” The target is not quite clear—perhaps it hinges on the word “ant”—but a denunciation of popular taste is obviously intended.

EASIS led a subterranean existence—an accident waiting to happen—until a London publisher brought out a new edition in 1883, changing the title from the respectable if muddled The New Guide of the Conversation, in Portuguese and Englishto the more obviously comic one it still bears. American knockoffs soon followed, one with an introduction by Mark Twain that contributed greatly to its ongoing popularity.

The McSweeney’s reprint unfortunately doesn’t include the Twain piece, but editor Paul Collins has supplied a succinct and sympathetic introduction of his own (he says of the authors, “their intentions were good”). It marks the inauguration of the Collins Library, devoted to the rediscovery of forgotten beauties and oddities of literature and potentially the most exciting new imprint since the launch of New York Review Books. “When I find really great weird old books that have been forgotten,” Collins says, “the question that always gets me is ‘Why don’t people know about this? Why doesn’t somebody reprint it?’ The wonderful thing about a book is that it only takes one surviving copy to bring it back to life—they are the world’s longest-lasting seeds.”

As Collins, a former instructor of English at Dominican University, demonstrated in his own Banvard’s Folly (Picador USA, 2001), he’s a canny explorer of the crevices of culture. In that book, a worthy companion to John Michell’s Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions, he offered studies of 13 overlooked historical figures, unlikely in themselves and/or devoted to unlikely pursuits. Among its highlights are a portrait of Shakespearean forger William Henry Ireland, whose spurious plays have their own genius, and a history of Jean François Sudre’s Solresol language, originally based on the seven notes of the Western scale and later adapted for hand gestures, numbers, and colors. The second promised volume in the Collins Library is The Memoirs of **** by “George Psalmanazar” (real name unknown), whose life as a refugee from an imaginary Formosa is also detailed in Barnvard’s Folly.

Collins says he can’t reveal future titles, but mentions as likely contenders a “very odd POW escape narrative” and a couple of missing links from the Bloomsbury circle. Some of the authors on his short list, he adds, are so obscure that “Google searches on their names turned up zero hits—nothing at all, not even different people with the same name.”

His own Web site (www.collinslibrary.com) contains mini-discoveries made during his prolonged library trawls—and also a revision to the story of EASIS‘s genesis, as she is known, from Alexander MacBride, a graduate student in linguistics at UCLA. In brief, MacBride thinks da Fonseca (described by Collins as author of “a long and respectable list of published works in poetry, linguistics, and translation”) may have been the victim of a shoddy publisher and an incompetent fellow countryman.

MacBride’s suspicions were initially aroused by internal evidence in the book itself, notably the authors’ brain-twisting preface. “Untwisted,” he writes on the site, it “becomes a sensible (though somewhat boastful) introduction to what sounds like a decent little textbook.” Intrigued, he consulted the online catalog of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France—and found a French-Portuguese phrasebook by da Fonseca alone, published by J.-P. Aillaud in 1836.

If MacBride is correct that Aillaud did assign another writer to do an English knockoff, the hack in question was presumably Carolino, of whom, Collins informs us, little is known beyond his authorship of a manual on letter writing. MacBride soon discovered he was not the first to reach this conclusion. A 1967 British edition features an introduction by Leslie Shepard that likewise puts the blame on Carolino, though he speculates that da Fonseca may have been complicit. “The idea of an English-language version was perhaps a natural one, and it seems that da Fonseca became acquainted with a certain Pedro Carolino, who confidently undertook the task of producing an exact English edition,” Shepard wrote.

But MacBride is dubious that the genesis of EASIS lies in da Fonseca’s unwarranted faith in a newfound friend’s language skills: “[It] looks an awful lot like a guess on Shepard’s part, and if it’s a known fact, Shepard provides no source for it,” he tells the Voice.

Then there’s the point that in 1853, Aillaud brought out an edition of da Fonseca’s 1836 Portuguese-French phrasebook, just two years before publishing the work that would achieve infamy as EASIS. Could the latter primer simply have been a blind translation of the former? MacBride says it’s possible da Fonseca had nothing to do with either of these books: “If he didn’t live in France, he may not have even known about them.”

A further twist to the tangled tale occurred when MacBride came upon an article by George Monteiro from the 1983-84 issue of the journal Estudos Anglo-Americanos. According to Monteiro, “It is now accepted . . . that [Carolino] was merely a pseudonym for [da Fonseca], whose dates are given on library catalog cards as 1792?-1866.”

MacBride contacted Monteiro, who was unable to provide any further information. It would certainly seem bizarre for da Fonseca to include his own name along with a pseudonym, since this is usually a tactic of writers who wish to conceal their identity, not multiply it. In fact, the proliferating histories of EASIS itself begin to read like bad translations from a decayed source. “Every time I look at this stuff again, it becomes more mysterious,” says MacBride, adding that da Fonseca is “the Lautréamont of incompetence.”

Unable to find any biographical information on either da Fonseca or Carolino, MacBride has nevertheless discovered a clue that may prove decisive—da Fonseca had published books on English prior to 1855, including phrasebooks; he would later translate Gulliver’s Travels. “I’m wondering now if da Fonseca actually did have some solid work in English, and the bad phrasebook was an attempt to cash in on his reputation,” MacBride says. “If not, and the earlier English works are as bad as this one, he must have been a tremendous imbecile.” The books that could prove the case, one way or the other, reside in French libraries. MacBride is trying to secure copies.


Was da Fonseca an unknowing dupe, a too trusting friend, a linguistic serial killer, or a borderline schizophrenic? “My first assumption was that the mysterious ‘Pedro Carolino’ was some hack who’d gone through the original phrasebook with a dictionary, and that Fonseca was completely innocent,” MacBride says. “I still think that’s likely, but I’m not tremendously confident about it.”

Indeed, the ground shifts like the tenses in EASIS. Yet MacBride’s initial hypothesis still seems the most probable. If da Fonseca did have some command of English, it’s unlikely he would have had his name tied to such a work. If he did not—well, the mind boggles at the prospect of other books of this ilk remaining undiscovered for so long. And how did he continue to get commissions? Surely someone in France spoke English.

If the hypothesis holds, da Fonseca (one imagines a thin, quiet man with a neatly clipped moustache) has been the innocent victim of the worst possible press. As Collins says, “Da Fonseca has gone down as the worst scholar in history—and probably undeservedly. The irony is that, unlike most of his colleagues, it means that people still read him.”

But would such immortality have appealed to the respectable da Fonseca, or was he the first to be caught in the trap? If the latter, the calumny is unspeakable. A moment of silence, then, for his tormented shade. To use a Familiar Phrase, He is tears.