Monday, January 11, 2016

Twentieth Century Authors: John D MacDonald

July 24th of this year will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of John D MacDonald, and during this centenary year there is a lot of activity going on to mark the occasion. Appropriately, Sarasota is the focal point of this celebration, with the library system there sponsoring monthly events throughout the year. (Visit One Book One Community for details.) The Sarasota Herald-Tribune is planning 52 weekly columns written by guest authors recalling how JDM and his works inspired their own writing. If the first two columns (by John Jakes and Stephen King) are any indication of the quality of this series, we are in for a year-long treat. I’ve even had word that a new biography may be published in 2016.

I’ve been going through my collection and revisiting some of the critical and biographical works on MacDonald over the years, much of it cursory and bland in the early part of his career. There were several book critics like Anthony Boucher, Clarence Petersen and Jonathan Yardley who unfailingly sung his praises, but his real recognition as an author didn’t really come until 1975 when he made it into the standard reference book of English language fiction writers.

Twentieth Century Authors was first published in 1942, four years before MacDonald's first story was published and eight years before his first novel. The reference work set out to "provide a foundation-volume of authentic biographical information on the writers of this century, of all nations, whose books are familiar to readers of English." It quickly became the standard and sat on the shelves in the Reference sections of thousands of American libraries. The First Supplement followed in 1955, updating the information of the previously-included authors and adding 700 more. MacDonald was not one of them.

Then, in 1975 a new editor produced a companion volume of 959 new writers and titled it World Authors: 1950 - 1970, ignoring the previously covered authors and broadening the scope of the work. MacDonald made the cut and was, as with all of the writers, asked to provide his own biography, which would be appended by a brief critical piece. Only half of the authors provided this autobiography but MacDonald was one of them.

I’ve transcribed it below and have included it as one of the links in the Trap of Solid Gold Resources available in the right hand column of this blog. There’s no real new information for anyone familiar with MacDonald’s background, but it’s interesting to hear it in his own words. What is, for me, the most eye-opening aspect of this inclusion is JDM’s listing of his most important works, or as he put it himself, his "own modest selection of 'the few which might properly be mentioned.'" It includes Cancel All Our Vows, his first attempt at mainstream acceptance, and is a work I’ve never seen mentioned by him as one of his greats. Coincidentally or not, all but one of the novels included were first published in hardcover.

Oh, and there is no Travis McGee title on the list.

MACDONALD, JOHN D(ANN) (July 24, 1916- ), American detective story writer, writes: "I was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania. My father was a corporation executive, doing accounting and financial work. I have a younger sister. When I was twelve my father went with a company in Utica, New York. My mother and my married sister still live in Utica.

"I went to the public schools in Sharon and Utica, and after graduation from high school, attended the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. I left abruptly after a year and a half and worked for a time in New York City at whatever I could find. I went to Syracuse University, and from there to the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration where I received a master's degree.

"I met and married Dorothy Prentiss while at Syracuse, and our only child, Maynard John Prentiss MacDonald, was born while I was at Harvard.

"I had brief and mutually unsatisfactory encounters with several employers, and then accepted a commission as a lieutenant in the Ordnance Department of the Army in June 1940. I spent two and a half years in the China-Burma-India Theater, the latter portion with the Office of Strategic Services, and was discharged as a Lieutenant Colonel in January of 1946.

"While overseas I wrote a short story in lieu of a letter to Dorothy, hoping to amuse and entertain her. She typed it and submitted it to Whit Burnett of Story Magazine, who purchased it for twenty-five dollars. I did not learn of this until she met me at Fort Dix.

"Instead of seeking work I decided that I would be a writer. Our cushion was four months of terminal leave with pay. During those four months I wrote over a quarter of a million words of finished manuscript, all in short story form. I kept from thirty to forty stories in the mail at all times. I worked fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, and lost a noticeable amount of weight. I believe that, except for Dorothy, I was thought of as a readjustment problem.

“One learns only by writing. I compressed years of learning into a very few months. By the end of 1946 it became clear to us that I could support us by writing alone, and this has been our only source of income ever since. We lived in upstate New York, in Texas, in Mexico, and have lived in Florida since 1949.

"When I was a child I was continually being torn away from my books and herded out into the sunlight, into the dreary glare of reality. I required glasses quite young. In high school and in college I had the wistful feeling that I would like to write, but could not really believe that I could ever make that magic which I read so compulsively. This hesitancy kept me from making the try until I was nearly thirty.

"Now I cannot imagine being anything else or doing anything else. I feel like an impostor twice over. When my publishers and my agent tell me that over thirty-seven million copies of my sixty books have been sold all over the world, I cannot relate such an absurdity to this quite solitary adventure of trying, every time, to reach a little further, tell it more validly and simply. Learning is a constant, but it goes so slowly that impatience often becomes a kind of despair.

"The second feeling of imposture arises from my being aware of my own automatic, unconscious watchfulness. Memory and sensory perceptions provide excellent input and storage. The paradox is in being so attuned to reality, so anxious to write novels which create the illusion of reality, stress, randomness and man's sad and comical gallantry, that one stands a little aside from all the direct impact of life. I suspect that were I to be executed, I would watch and weigh each quantum of panic and despair, checking it for sincerity and usability.

"I work long each day, and usually have at least three books in various stages of clumsiness, letting the subconscious mind untie the knots of the ones on the shelf while I work on the one in front of me. I revise by throwing out whole chapters, sections, even whole books, and starting again—a device which seems to enhance freshness. I fight to keep from becoming too ornate, the most egocentric form of author-intrusion. I tend to neaten things up too carefully at the end. Many of my solutions are too glib.

"But the joy, of course, is in doing thirty or forty passable pages and then doing just one or two where everything works just a little bit better than you have ever been able to make it work before, and thus says more than the words themselves say. And the chance of more such pages is the carrot, forever just out of reach."

MacDonald's early sales, in the mid-1940s, were mainly to the pulp magazines—adventure, sports, mystery, western, and science fiction stories. Since his first book, The Brass Cupcake, appeared in 1950, he has published some sixty novels. A few of his early books, like Wine of the Dreamers (1951) and Ballroom of the Skies (1952), are readable and provocative science fiction, but the vast majority are thrillers. Fifteen of these (as of 1973) recount the exploits of Travis McGee, a hard-bitten but quixotic private detective whose home base is a Florida houseboat. These tough, sexy, and intricately plotted thrillers are written on a lower level, intellectually and stylistically, than Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe stories, but are in the same tradition and, since ten million McGees were in print in 1972, are evidently no less readable.

Other MacDonald stories are in a genre which Anthony Boucher once described as the author's "patented combination of the novel, the thriller, the puzzle and the social commentary." A notably successful example is The Executioners (1958, filmed and reprinted as Cape Fear). Its hero is not a detective but a successful lawyer, leading a happy suburban life with his wife and children. Many years before he had been responsible for the conviction of a GI rapist, and his security crumbles abruptly with the release of this monster, who arrives in town intent on revenge and begins a long murderous game of cat and mouse. As one reviewer said, the book "takes a deeper look than most suspense novels at the problem of private and public justice." Anne Ross called it "an exciting story which keeps you reading from start to finish. MacDonald is no practitioner of the distinguished style or the sensitive detail, but he can spin an expert yarn." There was even more critical enthusiasm for A Flash of Green, which studies the defeat of a group of conservationists by local businessmen who want to develop (and destroy) a beautiful bay. The result seemed to one English reviewer "an exceptionally good novel about the corruption of the human spirit."

Not all of MacDonald's books are novels. The House Guests (1965) is an agreeable portrait of the MacDonalds' pets, and No Deadly Drug is a detailed and very objective record of the 1966 trial for murder of Dr. Carl Coppolino. It is some measure of MacDonald's popularity that Anthony Boucher in 1967 was able to report the existence of the JDM Bibliophile, a California magazine "which attempts to straighten out the almost infinitely complex bibliography of John D. (who doesn't know some of the answers himself)."

The short list of titles below is the author's own modest selection of "the few which might properly be mentioned."

MacDonald is a big man, over six feet tall. He likes to watch pro football, hockey, and bullfighting, and himself enjoys many sports, including skiing, fishing, and sailing. He has given up bridge and golf because they take up too much of his time, but is an ardent poker player and a photographer of semiprofessional caliber. MacDonald is a former president of the Mystery Writers of America and received the MWA's Grand Master Award in 1972.

PRINCIPAL WORKS: Fiction—Cancel All Our Vows, 1953; The Executioners, 1958 (reprinted as Cape Fear); The End of the Night, 1960; A Key to the Suite, 1962; A Flash of Green, 1962; The Last One Left, 1967. Nonfiction —No Deadly Drug, 1968.


  1. As usual, Steve, very interesting. I wonder why no McGee books in his most noteworthy. Maybe he did not want to single one out. Is there an easy way to follow the weekly columns? Thanks for your hard work.

    1. Thanks Frank. You can follow the blog using one of the three methods located in the right hand column. You can "Join This Site" if you have a Google account, you can use one of the three RSS feeders offered in the "Subscribe To" box, or simply "Follow By Email," and you will receive an email every time I post a piece.

  2. Great article Steve. It was interesting to hear JDM's own bio. I'm not really surprised he didn't pick a McGee book as one of his personal selections. While it's clear he loved and took great pride in McGee, it sometimes seems to me he was concerned McGee would be all he would be remembered for.

    Speaking of McGee, did JDM ever state which McGee books he felt were his best?

    1. I think you're right Chris, and by 1975 McGee WAS pretty much all MacDonald was being remembered for.

      I'm sure at some point JDM may have picked a favorite McGee, but I am not aware of it. I know there were a few he DIDN"T like: I think INDIGO was his least favorite.