Bet You Haven't Read This One | Newberry

Bet You Haven't Read This One

Let us once again, kumquat gravy, gather to sing of obscure writers and their work and remember that, really, it’s not ALL their fault.

Edwin Markham was an earnest poet who once upon a time was one of the great names of American literature. You were no one if you had not heard, read, and/or recited from memory his “Man With a Hoe”, based on the painting of the same name. This was an examination, as was the painting, of the strains and struggles of people who spend their lives at manual labor with little respite for anything else. He compounded this by producing, a generation later, another must-read poem with Lincoln, Man of the People, which was read at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. He wrote a goodly number of poems besides, and spent a lot of time promoting the Poetry Society of America. There is actually experimental sound film footage of him reciting Lincoln, and he has achieved the not entirely rare feat of coming full circle. Whereas in his day, you knew nothing about Poetry if you hadn’t read Edwin Markham, you now know nothing about it if you have.

John R. Musick never made it that far, dying relatively young (early fifties) trying to rescue his neighbors from the wreckage in the aftermath of a tornado in his hometown Kirksville, Missouri. His thing was historical fiction in the form of linked novels. This is not unique to Mr. Musick: the characters in one novel are the parents of the characters in the next one, the grandparents of the heroes of a third, and so on. What is notable about him is that in the furor over the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, his linked novels were published in a 12-volume set called the Columbian Historical Novels. (He also wrote poetry, commentaries on current events, and one of the few “osteopathic novels” of the nineteenth century.)

Now, Mr. Musick died, in his own heroic and historical fashion, in 1901. So exactly who did what with the set we will have for sale in July is not at all clear.

Edwin Markham is given credit in many sources for authorship, but it is clear from the title page of The Real America in Romance (1910-1914) that he was merely the editor. The text derives, according to library catalogs, from the historical novels of John R. Musick. It would appear to me, therefore, that this is clearly a multi-volume novel, dealing, as far as I can tell, with the descendants of a pair of brothers who came to America with the Conquistadors only to be adopted by families in Massachusetts and Virginia (so one brother winds up with the Pilgrims and the other in Jamestown. I haven’t checked, but surely one of their descendants is fighting bravely for the Union in a later volume, while his noble cousin battles heroically for the Confederacy.)

There are those, however, who state clearly that they regard this book as an excellent history of the United States, certainly suitable for use by grade school children, who can follow the adventures and also learn how important religion was to our noble ancestors. There are others who complain that the respective roles of Protestants and Catholics in the saga are a bit quirky, if perhaps reflective of nineteenth century attitudes. The part played by women in the various volumes is described as “cloying”.

The problem is that the 14 volume set is filled with portraits and historical paintings and notes to make it look as much like an encyclopedia as possible. (The binding helps.) In the past, we at the Book Fair have sorted this set into Short Stories, but on reflection, we shall henceforth be placing (deep breath) “The Real America in Romance, With Reading Courses: Being a Complete and Authentic History of America From the Time of Columbus to the Present Day” in HB Fiction, M-Z (Set). If you need a set of books for your vacation cabin, guaranteed to decorate empty shelves and provide interesting reading on a rainy weekend, check it out next July. (No, don’t check it out: buy it. You don’t want it to fall overdue when you’re only halfway through the War of 1812.)