Sunday, September 12, 2010

`A Trunkful of Books'

Of a comedian and actor who never attended high school and started performing professionally as a juggler at age fifteen, his biographer writes:

“[He] always traveled with a trunkful of books, an eclectic mix of popular and classical fare that belied his public image as an uneducated man. `In the three decades of our friendship, we have never stopped swapping books,’ `Bucky’ Taylor wrote in 1942. `Before O. Henry had been published in England, I received the works of that supreme story-teller from Fields. He introduced me also to Rex Beach, George Ade, Irvin S. Cobb, Stewart Edward White, Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Dreiser, and many others.’”

The comedian, of course, is W.C. Fields (1880-1946), probably the funniest human being who ever lived. Rivals for the title? Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, P.G. Wodehouse, Buster Keaton, Flann O’Brien, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Samuel Beckett, Zero Mostel, Jonathan Winters. The passage above is drawn from W.C. Fields: A Biography (2003) by James Curtis, who goes on to write:

“Fields’ own traveling library, which he reconstructed from memory in 1934, included a Webster’s dictionary, several books on grammatical construction, translations of Homer, Ovid, and Virgil, and copies of Dickens, Thackeray, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Milton, Thomas Paine, Washington Irving, and, of course, Mark Twain.”

In other words, some of the contents of any educated person’s basic library. Fields was no savant and his formal education was almost non-existent but he was blessed with, in addition to comedic genius, an average man’s curiosity and drive for pleasure and self-improvement. Curtis writes:

“He also carried his own hand-lettered dictionary, a loose-leaf notebook in which he recorded words he found particularly interesting [Hart Crane did the same thing], sounding them out in capital letters (PAN-E-GYRIZE, PA-NEG-Y-RIS, PER-TI-NA-CIOUS) and adding terse definitions to guide their usage.”

Curtis adds: “Fields used books to assuage loneliness on the road, retreating into one between shows and rarely acknowledging the surrounding commotion.”

I resent the psychologizing and Curtis’ tacit assumption that to become absorbed in a book is to “retreat,” when sometimes reading is the deepest form of engagement with the world. Of Fields’ most famous movie role, as Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield (1935), Curtis writes:

“Fields wasn’t English, but he was undeniably Dickensian. David Copperfield was a favorite book, and enough of Micawber had invaded him over time so that it became a perfect marriage of actor and role. `I’ve been playing Micawber all my life, under a lot of different names, and never knew it,’ he said.”


Jordanian Joe said...

I wonder if you've read an even funnier biography of Fields, by Robert L. Taylor, a long gone, one-time prolific profile writer at The New Yorker who penned some of the most wry lines the magazine ever published. He wrote many books and even won the Pulitzer prize for fiction for his novel The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters. Besides Fields, Taylor wrote a hilarious and somehow informative life of Churchill. You can open to any page in the book and being laughing after a few sentences. I even tried this experiment on a friend who immediately asked ot borrow the book. Most of his books are out of print, and I've had to scrape them together through used sellers on Amazon.

Shelley said...

Fields' time, l934, is the era I write about, but I had no idea of the intelligence behind the comedy.How gratifying it must have been for him to play Micawber!

And Dickens must have been smiling down.