Monday, June 4, 2018
From the Top of the Hill # 1: October 23, 1947
This is the first column, preceded by an introduction I wrote back in 2010. These columns reveal a personal side of MacDonald from the earliest years of his writing career: from the parochial to the world view, from the expansive to the mundane, all presented in a relatively humble fashion, the polar opposite of his manner in the T Carrington Burns pieces. Or the Travis McGee rants.
[From 2010] “In addition to the hundreds of short works of fiction John D MacDonald wrote in his lifetime, in addition to the scores of novels, the handful of biographical and fact-based books, a monograph, an anthology of mystery stories written by women and a movie novelization.... in addition to all of that, MacDonald wrote many non-fiction articles that appeared in the magazines and newspapers of his day. A well-educated man with an MBA from Harvard, he could -- and did -- pontificate of a wide variety of subjects over the years, the scope of which is pretty amazing. Not surprisingly, he wrote about the craft of writing, nearly forty articles that began as early as 1950 for the Writer's Yearbook. He wrote about the environment, a singular passion of his, in periodicals as disparate as Holiday, Life and The Conservationist (an organ of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation). And he covered lots of other topics, including sports, boating, travel, race riots, world population and even retirement planning. He was also a newspaper columnist -- twice.
“Readers of the two most readily accessible MacDonald biographies, Edgar Hirshberg's critical study for Twain's Authors Series and Hugh Merrill's cut-and-paste bio The Red Hot Typewriter, can be forgiven for not knowing this fact. MacDonald's authorship of [the first] column is mentioned nowhere in those books… Of course, Walter and Jean Shine knew of these works and owned copies of every column. They wrote about both of them in their JDM Bibliophile column and occasionally reprinted excerpts. MacDonald himself never talked about these obscure works and even attempted to hide his authorship of the second series -- it is one of the few cases in his career where he deliberately used a pseudonym...
“MacDonald’s [first column], undertaken in the very early years of his writing career… began in October 1947 and continued until the spring of the following year, 32 weekly pieces that represent the first known JDM works of non-fiction published. The column, called "From the Top of the Hill," was published in The Clinton Courier, the weekly newspaper of Clinton, New York, an upstate college town where the MacDonalds lived for about a year before heading to Mexico. The columns are fascinating reading today, not only for their examples of early JDM writing, but for the many biographical insights they drop: mentions of the two MacDonald cats who would later star in his The House Guests, discussions of the books he was reading, his progress as an author, and even a childhood recollection that would show up 20 years later as a part of a short story, "Woodchuck." He worries about things all young parents worry about, from local hot-rodders speeding past his house to the Communist Menace of postwar America. He has several very interesting reminiscences of his wartime service (including tales of a few Hollywood stars he met in India), and a piece on Merrill's Marauders where he explains why no real history of that Unit can ever be written (it involves a mule and a bomb).
“I own copies of all 32 columns and will be posting excerpts from them now and then. There is a nice Thanksgiving piece which I will post this November, and a hysterically funny Christmas recollection that should have been mined for one of his works of fiction (perhaps it was), plus lots of little bits here and there that make for interesting reading. He writes (as he did for the second column) using the editorial "we," a somewhat antiquated nosism that takes the modern ear a bit of getting used to, but one quickly adapts.
“The MacDonald family's relatively brief stay in Clinton deserves a little background. Despite being a native New Yorker, MacDonald's wife Dorothy hated cold weather and invariably spent most of each winter sick or feeling poorly. When John returned home from the war in 1945 the family lived in a second-story apartment in an old frame house on State Street in Utica. Although they remained in New York for most of the winter his first season back (1945-46) as John pounded out some 800,000 words that garnered 1,000 rejection slips, they did manage to briefly get away to Florida in February. The following winter, with no "day job" to hold them down, the family temporarily pulled up stakes, had Dorothy's mother Rita stay in their apartment to watch the cats, and headed south for Taos, New Mexico. They never made it. They got as far as Ingram, Texas, located in the hill country northwest of San Antonio, fell in love with the surroundings and rented a cheap, off-season cabin on a hillside. Upon their return next spring they discovered that they had lost the lease to their apartment and began looking for another place to live. MacDonald recalled that period in The House Guests:
'"After dreary rounds of overpriced and depressingly gloomy apartments, we decided to buy a house. Believing in our innocence that a small college town might provide a pleasant atmosphere for the writer, we looked extensively around Clinton, New York, near Utica, where Hamilton College is located, and at last found a large and very pleasant house up on the Hill, almost surrounded by college property.'
“The family moved in and John eventually snagged the columnist gig for the local weekly, an eight page tabloid that is still published today. At the same time he continued to produce an amazing amount of product, including fiction for slicks such as Liberty and Esquire, as well as for a large number of pulp magazines. The MacDonalds didn't head south the winter they lived in Clinton, mainly for two reasons: John's column and Dorothy's mother, who was ill and who would die in June of 1948. MacDonald ended the column with the May 27, 1948 issue and, quickly after Rita passed away the family packed and headed south again, this time for Cuernavaca, Mexico. They rented their home to a young couple but they had no intention of ever returning to live in Clinton. The academic and intellectual environment they had hoped to find in the town proved to be little more than constant gossip and bickering about faculty politics, and John himself felt as if he was viewed as some sort of quaint freak. Again, from The House Guests:
'"... it had been a bad choice of environment for us. We had found there many good and pleasant people, but instead of the intellectual stimulation we had anticipated from a college community, we had found a carefully established pecking order, with status often achieved and maintained through the elegancies of entertaining rather than any quality of wit or insight. As far as other outsiders resident down in the village were concerned, Dorothy treasures a ghoulish memory of a Save The Children meeting she attended whereat it was decided that those collage women who wanted to work at this charity but were not quite socially acceptable could be put in some sort of affiliated setup whereby they could work but would not be entitled to attend the teas. She attended no further meetings. We also discovered that we were the unwelcome targets of an avid and undisciplined curiosity. It is a mistake, unless you have an actor's flair and a poseur's inclinations, to be The Writer in a small community. No matter how limpid your normal behavior, how rotarian your tastes and habits, your every move will be examined and so interpreted that it fits the myths the townspeople choose to believe.'
“When the MacDonald's returned from Mexico late in the Summer of 1949, they came back to Clinton only to sell the house and tie up a few loose ends of Rita's estate. When they left that fall they once more headed south, this time to Florida, where they would live for the rest of their lives. John returned to Clinton only vicariously, in 1956 when he set his novel Death Trap in a small town with a college up on a hill, an obvious stand-in for the place he once called home. I've always wondered if the title of that novel had a double meaning for the author.”
Column Number One:
"The time has come," the walrus said... So right here and right now we begin a column which will speak of many things.
On the midway of a carnival the concessionaire spins his big wheel and the pointer stops on a number. We'll pick our items for this column in the same random way. And just like the man behind the wheel, we can put our foot on the lever and stop it just where we want it.
We discussed hiding behind a door and inventing a name to sign to the column. Somehow that seems akin to a window jimmied in the night by a gentleman in a mask.
So if one or both of our two friends stop speaking to us, or if people cross to the opposite side of the street when we approach -- it will be evident that we have said the wrong things.
* * *
Our opinions are not the result of long and constructive thought. They leap upon us from dark corners. On one day we read a profound statement. Three days later it has become our own opinion -- minus the longer words.
We will accept advice and criticism. A column is indeed a wonderful way in which to talk without interruption. We have long envied columnists their air of being lesser deities. Suddenly we have joined the ranks of those who have the impression (delusion, if you wish) that they have something to say. So your mailed comments -- the blunter the better -- will aid the Humility Department.
* * *
A week or so [ago] we pulled a bonehead play and we've been feeling slightly guilty ever since. A pleasant woman came to the door and said that she was taking orders for brooms made by the blind. We took a quick glance at our new broom and told her that we had a new broom, thank you.
She went away and we walked back into the house and leaned against the kitchen sink and wondered why we always find it so easy to say NO at the door. It must be the result of long practice. This time, we said it too quickly.
We have always believed that blindness must demand the highest quality of bravery and nobility in the human spirit. As children we fear the dark. To be in eternal darkness and to be unafraid is a test of the human soul. The blind can be less afraid of life if the work they perform can be sold for material gain. A man or woman who can earn money with his or her hands is not helpless.
And we refused to buy a broom.
A broom would have kept until our shiny, factory-made new one wears out. It would have cost as much as a trip to town to the movies. Or a small supply of cigarettes. Or a book which we have eyes to read.
Sometimes we say no too quickly.
* * *
We have always looked with great suspicion on the published results of the Gallup Polls. This may be because Mr. Gallup has injured our pride by never asking our opinion on national and world affairs. We acquired the habit of sneering and saying, "Bet he never asks anybody anything. Makes it all up out of his head."
But we are converted.
We have talked to a man who has been asked a question. We shook his hand. It was Dick Hughes.
Both Dick and his son were asked the same question: If at the present time you could vote for either Truman or Eisenhower for President, how would you cast your vote?
Dick wouldn't tell us his answer, but that is a minor point. The major point is that we now believe in Mr. Gallup.
* * *
One day seven years ago we found a small brown praying mantis on the sidewalk in Rochester, just in front of the Sibley, Lindsey and Curr Department Store. Since that time the mantis family has been a dead chapter until this summer.
This summer we have had dozens in the yard.
Their ability to swivel their heads around and stare at you seems to give them an incredibly evil look. They are absolutely fearless.
We found an article on the praying mantis. In the book it said they have dispositions to match their looks -- would eat any kind of a bug, including each other.
So we observed selected specimens. We spent several hours crouched in the yard staring at them. They stared right back. Assuming the duties of mess sergeant, we captured a few innocent insects and offered them to the mantis. In all, we offered a grasshopper, a cricket, a small red spider and a juicy-looking caterpillar. No soap. Our mantis stared woodenly at the offerings. The cricket crawled over it and the caterpillar shouldered it out of the way.
It may be that the article was written by a naturalist who had observed some poorly adjusted mantis -- one with paranoid tendencies. Or possibly Clinton is the home of the happy mantis.
At least ours are clean. They lick their elbows and use them to wash their heads. Much like a cat.
Maybe next year the new mantis generation will have the good old fighting spirit. We'll be out looking -- returning stare for stare.
* * *
See you next week.