Dusting Off Some Authors

I have mentioned elsewhere that you can tell a veteran book dealer by the occasional glance at an old book and the murmur, “We used to get that all the time.” It’s a reflection on the passage of time and the shock that accompanies the realization that a book that was only ten years old thirty years ago is now forty years old. If you don’t understand that, you are young yet, but I promise you you’ll get it one day.

This thought came to me last week after I looked over a book we almost never get, from a collection of books reflecting the passions of a previous age. Lothrop Stoddard was a leading racial theorist; he wrote a number of books warning that if the white races did not guard their supremacy, the lesser races would take over and destroy western civilization. He had gone to look over the exciting new government in Germany and was stunned by their efficiency in dealing with the Jewish problem, but felt they were too lax in enforcing sterilization of those people unfit to breed.

I wondered what had become of Lothrop Stoddard, and learned several things about him. A. He is the inspiration for the “man Goddard” cited several times by Tom in The Great Gatsby. B. He lost a lot of his audience during World War II. C. His father was a man who promoted a Jewish state in what was then Palestine, and was known for giving travelogues.

“It couldn’t be the same man as….” thought I. But it was. And, once upon a time, we got Stoddard’s Lectures ALL the time.

The father–John Lothrop Stoddard–was a child prodigy who whipped through his education and set his sights becoming a clergyman. But being the sort of prodigy who thinks deeply on things, he decided that religion was a silly way to spend one’s time. He seems to have been honestly stunned when it was suggested to him that he not seek to be ordained. Bereft of a career plan, he fell back on two of his great loves: travel and photography. For decades thereafter, he would spend half the year travelling the world and taking pictures, and half the year showing the pictures and telling ever-growing audiences what he had seen. He did so well that he retired to a life of leisurely writing at the age of 47.

An organist played background music when Stoddard stepped onto the stage, a large, square, robust man with a grand Victorian mustache. He looked like the hero of a melodrama, the kind who can take on half a dozen weaselly stage villains without even breathing hard. (Oddly, his son’s photo on Wikipedia looks like a weaselly stage villain. Could be a coincidence.) He would show scenes of breathtaking beauty, castles where once scenes of passion and dash were enacted, colorful natives doing colorful native things from Glasgow to Constaninople, and quiet corners of the world where only man is vile. He narrated, explaining the importance and beauty to those who couldn’t figure it out themselves. He made millions for his managers, and some thousands for himself, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies of John L. Stoddard’s Lectures, a set which ran to ten main volumes and five supplements, available in cloth or leather, postage paid.

He loved to hit the same theaters in the same cities over and over, and it became traditional in some communities: if it was September, it was time to go hear what John L. Stoddard had to say. He and Chicago had a special relationship, and he did not neglect the Columbian Exposition, to be sure.

I am sorry to say that his official biography, which arrived a few months ago, is rather dry; the author taking his tone from the books of lectures, but without quite the style Stoddard himself might have brought to it. He concentrates heavily on Stoddard’s spiritual search (Stoddard wrote a number of philosophical and religious books in retirement in South Tyrol, the nicest place he had found in all his travels) but treats it as another travelogue. Stoddard, after thirty years as a thorough agnostic, decided that made as little sense as anything else, and became a devout Catholic. But the whole thing sounds very Rational Victorian, as if he found a mathematical mistake in his ledger and corrected it. His wife joined him in the conversion but his son Lothrop, of whom little enough is said in the book, did not.

I don’t believe I have a set of Stoddard’s Lectures so far this year (we used to get it all the time) but one may yet appear. It’ll be in Travel. Son Lothrop will be found in Sociology, if you want to put father and son on the shelf together. But I don’t know if they’d fit.

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