Wednesday, October 04, 2017

`The Poor Mud-Ball Below Called Earth'

We sympathize with forgotten writers. We suspect their fate will be ours someday. Forgotten does not mean minor. Melville was forgotten for thirty years before scholars discovered him, and Thomas Traherne remained unpublished for more than two centuries after his death. But to be forgotten and legitimately minor is to dwell in bookish limbo – erased from memory but not good enough ever to be remembered. That seems to have been the destiny of H.M.(Henry Major) Tomlinson (1873-1958), a novelist, biographer of Norman Douglas (a nice case of one minor writer writing about another, though Douglas was less minor, though not more major, than Tomlinson) and travel writer. I’ve been reading or skimming Old Junk (Alfred A. Knopf, 1920), “stories of travel and chance,” as Tomlinson calls them, that I selected solely because of the title. Tomlinson is alternately folksy and whimsical. He makes no pretense to philosophical heft. He chats.  

The title of Chap. 4 is promising: “Bed-Books and Night-Lights.” Its first sentence is not: “The rain flashed across the midnight window with a myriad feet.” Tomlinson’s prose is cozy and sometimes achingly poetic. For him, “bed-books” are “night-lights.” For nine pages he toys with that conceit. A true bed-book, Tomlinson tells us, is not a soporific. Neither is it Plato, Dante or Tolstoy. “I know those men I have named are transcendent,” he writes, “the greater lights. But I am bound to confess at times they bore me.” Here Tomlinson dips into genuine minor-ness. “As for [Tolstoy], vast and disquieting, I refuse to leave all, including the blankets and the pillow, to follow him into the gelid tranquillity of the upper air, where even the colours are prismatic spicules of ice, to brood upon the erratic orbit of the poor mud-ball below called earth.” Unapologetically purple prose is the first symptom of advanced philistinism, though Tomlinson proposes a few worthwhile “night-lights” – Heine, Gulliver’s Travels, Tristram Shandy, Doughty’s Arabia Deserta.

I borrowed Old Junk from the university library. The last date stamped on the circulation card is July 20, 1963. The first, written in ink, is Aug. 29, 1932. The volume came with an unexpected addendum. Tucked between pages 14 and 15 are two sheets of ruled note paper. One is blank. The other is filled, both sides, with notes written in a perfect Palmer-tutored hand. Side one, dated “3/22/63,” is a paraphrase of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson: “19 yrs. old – most beautiful woman in world – orphan – mother was circus rider,” and so forth. The notes continue onto the other side, stopped only by a drawing of stylized, snow-capped mountains. Written on each of the sixteen peaks is a letter, and together they spell: “REMEMBER THE ALAMO.” Below that is the same date as noted above, and this: “Part I, Burton, on Learning, plus outside material.” Then the formal notes begin:

“`Learning’ has no satisfactory definition . . .”

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