Sunday, July 7, 2013

Right Odd'uns: Queer Books (1928), by Edmund Pearson

In 1928, with three of his true crime studies behind him (see here and here), Edmund Lester Pearson published a work intriguingly entitled Queer Books.

Although today a book with this title likely would be the product of a student of gay studies, in fact Pearson's Queer Books deals with oddities of nineteenth-century writing.  Pearson is just as interesting and clever in this book as he is in his accounting of murder.

Not surprisingly, there are two chapters devoted to writing about murder ("From Sudden Death" I and II).

Yet there are also chapters on the following fascinating subjects:

temperance novels
American 4th of July orations (issued as pamphlets by the proud orators)
the Gothic novel (specifically Isaac Mitchell's The Asylum; or, Alonzo and Melissa)
some very bad poetry (see below)
sensational pamphlets masquerading as true stories (Love, Suicide, and Murder! The True Story of the Unfortunate Lives of Mary Caroline Austin and Edgar Worthington)
etiquette books
ladies gift books/albums
purportedly true life seduction tales (such as The Great Wrongs of Shop Girls: The Life and Persecutions of Miss Beatrice Claflin: How Miss Claflin became the White Slave in the Gilded Dry Goods Palace of a Merchant Prince! Her Incarceration in a Private Insane Asylum! Two Years in a Mad House!...)
local color novels (Shepherd M. Dugger's The Balsam Groves of Grandfather Mountain, an amalgam of a romance novel and "a guide book to the mountains of North Carolina")

1998 collection of the imperishable
works of Julia A. Moore,
The Sweet Singer of Michigan
This is a droll book, as you can imagine.  The writing discussed herein is of the sort that vastly amused Mark Twain in his day.  Some of it he satirized in Huckleberry Finn and other works, as Pearson mentions.

With the character of Miss Emmeline Grangerford, Twain paid specific tribute to a contemporary of his,  Julia A. Moore (1847-1920), aka The Sweet Singer of Michigan, often termed the greatest bad poet in American literature.

At heart a "mortuary poet," Julia Moore was inspired by the subject of tragic demise, especially the deaths of children and those incurred in dreadful mass calamities, like the Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster (1876), the Great Chicago Fire (1871) and southern yellow fever epidemics (1873, 1878).  Certainly the 1870s gave Moore a lot of material!

As Pearson notes, in her poetry Moore "was far happier when her themes were casualties; sudden deaths, and the fate of people who suffered fits."

Her poem "Ashtabula Disaster" begins:

Have you heard of the dreadful fate
Of Mr. P. P. Bliss and wife?*
Of their death I will relate,
And also others lost their life.

*(Mrs. Moore here refers to Percy Bliss, the gospel singer and hymn writer, who, with his wife, perished in the tragedy)

Then there's Moore's poem on "The Great Chicago Fire," which starts:

The Great Chicago Fire, friends,
Will never be forgot;
In the history of Chicago
It will remain a darken spot.

Moore's yellow fever dirge, "The Southern Scourge" begins:

The yellow fever was raging,
Down in the sunny south;
And in many of the cities,
There was a death in every house.

You get the idea!

Mark Twain's fictional genteel death-obsessed poetess, Emmeline Grangerford, famously composed the "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd.":

And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourners cry?

No; such was not the fate of 

Young Stephen Dowling Bots;
Though sad hearts round him thicken,
'Twas not from sickness' shots.

No whooping cough did rack his frame,
Nor measles drear, with spots;
Not these impaired the sacred name
Of Stephen Dowling Bots.

Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots

O no.  Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly,
By falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.

So now you know!  As the bad poet might put it:

The well it was
That sadly brought
Young Stephen Bots
To utter naught.

Mark Twain (1835-1910)
The man who immortalized
young Stephen Dowling Bots
Like Mark Twain, Edmund Pearson had a great eye for what Bill Pronzini calls the "alternative classics" of literature (stuff so bad it's good).

On the qualities necessary to make a bad poet, Pearson writes:

There must be an absolute inability to know what is ridiculous; absence of the sense of humor must be congenital.  Great seriousness of purpose must exist, together with a persistent urge for literary fame.  But all these will avail nothing, unless the poet has, in addition, a diabolical aptitude for the wrong word in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And, rest assured dear reader, it doesn't stop with poetry!

There is such a cornucopia of queer writing in Queer Books, it is too much to cover in a mere blog article, but I will deal with some more in part two (and don't worry, there will be some actual murder and mystery!).


  1. You could probably read about this poetess to the accompaniment of a Florence Foster Jenkins album.

  2. Noah, I think so! I had never heard of FFJ, great stuff!