Wednesday, July 08, 2020

'A Medley, Farrago, Gallimaufry'

D.J. Enright writes in Interplay (1995), the first of his three commonplace books:

“‘It seems to have something for everybody, but ends up appealing to nobody.’ As much could be said of many a commonplace book or assemblage of obiter dicta. Actually the judgement occurs in [Umberto] Eco’s Misreadings, in a reader’s report on a manuscript, submitted for publication, entitled The Bible.”

An easy irony, dismissible as a cheap, harmless wisecrack. Enright makes little of it. Here is his subsequent entry:

“Undeniably a hotchpotch. Which word in its more formal usage means the collecting and blending of properties with a view to redistributing them in equal shares.”

A definition new to me. Also, an unfamiliar spelling. I’m accustomed to hodgepodge.

I don’t think of either word as necessarily derogatory. The Anatomy of Melancholy is a hodgepodge, possessing anything Burton wished to cram into it.  We can even identify it as a genre or informal form. Consider Montaigne’s Essays, Tristram Shandy and Moby-Dick, all encyclopedic, elastic and digressive, indulgent of their authors’ whims. So too are journals and collections of letters. What about dictionaries? The OED gives as the first definition of hotchpotch “a confused mixture of disparate things; a medley, a jumble.” The first citation is Chaucer’s.

The next meaning is drawn from cookery: “a dish containing a mixture of many ingredients; spec. a thick soup of barley, peas, and other vegetables, and sometimes meat. Also: a mutton and vegetable stew.” I grew up calling such things slumgullions. Enright’s usage is spelled hotchpot in the OED, and it comes from English law:  “the reunion and blending together of properties in order to secure equality of division; bringing into account, esp. on intestacies.”

In its entry for hodge-podge, the OED includes an interesting, nonjudgmental definition, using at least three words that are themselves interesting and rather colorful:
“a heterogeneous mass or agglomeration; a medley, farrago, gallimaufry [or gallimaufry].” The last was favored by H.L. Mencken, as in “on the other side is a gallimaufry of transparent quackeries, puerile in theory and dangerous in practice.”

Hodge-podge carries another, more personal association. On Lark Street in Albany, N.Y., Hodge-Podge Books was in business for twenty-seven years. On sale were children’s books and nothing else. The owner was Frank Hodge, and his shop tended to be a hodge-podge, an old-style bookshop complete with dust and confusion. Frank wasn’t much interested in marketing or interior decoration. His professional interests were largely confined to children and books.

I hadn’t been in Frank’s shop in more than twenty years. I went there often in the pre-Amazon days when my oldest son was young. Now I see that Frank closed Hodge-Podge Books in 2009 and died in 2018 at age eighty-seven. One of the mixed blessings of the internet is the ease with which we can learn the fate of people we remember fondly.

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

Speaking of bookstores, I was pleased to discover that the Book Loft, founded in 1970 and located in Solvang, California, is still purring along nicely, celebrating its 50th birthday this year.

From there, last weekend, I picked up Harold Bloom's "Possessed By Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism" (2019; his last book, I think), "The Fellowship: The Lives of the Inklings" by Philip and Carol Zaleski (2015), a Library of America volume (1984) containing 1,400 pages of Henry James's literary criticism - and, best of all, the 6 hardback volumes of the 1904 reprint of George Birkbeck Hill's 1887 edition of Boswell's life of Johnson.

A living and breathing bookshop, still at it after 50 years. Such a pleasure.