Read | Newberry


Lamb chops and fried tomatoes. Why lamb chops, particularly? And were they fried green tomatoes?

A menu come in for a special dinner given in honor of Mark Twain’s hundredth birthday. The menu was printed for the Mark Twain Zephyr, a new but eventually legendary train, although the dinner itself was held in the Red Lacquer Room of the Palmer House on November 30, 1935. The crowd was a literary bunch. The governor was there, but Henry Horner was a noted collector of books on Abraham Lincoln. He may have exchanged remarks with Carl Sandburg, who was also present. A pair of literary sisters, one of whom won a Pulitzer, Margaret Ayer Barnes and Janet Ayer Fairbank, were among the guests, with the President of the Newberry Library, one of the Donnelleys of the great printing firm, and the President of the Crerar Library. Other men at dinner included trustees of the Newberry and officers of the Caxton Club (a man could be both). Among the women were such movers and shakers as Harriet Monroe, of Poetry Magazine, Fanny Butcher, bookseller and book reviewer, mystery writer Mignon Eberhart, and the legendary Miss Suzette Morton, committee chair and one of the earliest female members of the Caxton Club when, forty years later, that august masculine group decided to risk admitting women.

With so many luminaries on the guest list, it was hard to focus on any individual name. But my eye was caught by Opie Read, then over 80 and one of the few people at dinner, so far as I can tell, who had been a crony of Mark Twain himself. Opie Read, you see, is one of those authors who gives me headaches when I’m osrting books. Does he go in literature, or in fiction?

Once upon a time, see, everybody read Opie Read. A southerner who in his younger days had run five newspapers and a humor magazine, he headed to Chicago in the 1880s and spent the rest of his life there. It says here that in his first twenty years in Chicago he produced no fewer than 54 novels, all dealing with the South as he knew it. He had a way with a joke, and a technique of writing that went down easy, and it would be interesting to know whether between, say, 1887 and 1908, he or Mark Twain sold more books.

But the online encyclopedia of Arkansas history and culture quotes one Shirley Mundt as saying “He wrote something everybody read but nobody remembers.” The fate of his books after World War I was the same as the fate of so many bestsellers. He kept writing, but people read him the nostalgia value. Not for nostalgia about the old South, as readers in the 1890s had done, but for the nostalgia of remembering how they used to enjoy Opie Read. The Book Fair does not get battered old paperbacks of Opie read novels, because there are none to donate. By the time the paperback came along, Opie Read had disappeared in the dust of nineteenth century pop literature.

He was read, though, and cited as a good example of American writing. Is that enough to put him in OUR Literature section, though? If popularity and age blend to make literature, it means a century from now, someone will be wondering where to put that copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. (I heard that; behave yourself or I won’t tell you next time somebody donates handcuffs.)

I’ll give it more thought, but it’s mainly for intellectual exercise.  We don’t get many customers demanding where to find Opie Read anyhow, so whether I put him next to Miss Read in one category or Charles Reade in the other won’t matter too much. Ten to one if somebody DOES ask, I’ll think they’re asking for E.P. Roe, another nineteenth century writer the book groups are ignoring.

Oh, if you wanted to know, they finished with cake, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate sauce.

Add new comment