Monday, January 21, 2019

The Long Lavender Lament For Literacy

Walter and Jean Shine’s Bibliography-Biography, the sine qua non of bibliographic research into the works of John D MacDonald, was published in late 1980 by the University of Florida’s Patrons of the Libraries. Costing a mere $9, the initial (and, as it turned out, the only) publication run was 500 copies. Yet even that small number of books didn’t sell out and a year later the University was still sitting on quite a few copies. In November 1981 the University’s UF Today magazine published an article on MacDonald, containing interview quotes, info on the JDM Collection at the University, ordering instructions for the Bibliography-Biography, and bits of boilerplate from the the standard JDM biography. I recently found a copy of the article in my collection -- just the article, not the magazine -- titled "The Long Lavender Lament for Literacy," written by one Janie Gould, and I've transcribed it and present it below. Most of MacDonald’s quotes concern the lack of literacy in the young people of the day, thoughts that would later appear in his final work, Reading for Survival.

JDM seems to have been quite prescient on the wages of a non-reading public. I wonder what he would think of today’s cellphone-addicted culture.

Young people who are apathetic or cynical got that way because they are illiterate, says best-selling novelist John D. MacDonald.

"I think their despair and indifference is the product of ignorance, which in turn is the product of being unable to read,” said MacDonald, of Sarasota, author of more than 600 short stories and 70 novels, including the 1977 hit Condominium and the 19-book Travis McGee mystery series. The University of Florida Libraries, repository of his papers, recently published a bibliography on his life and work.

"Young people can read a contract if they have to sign it,” he said. “They can write a letter to Auntie if she's not too particular, but other than that, forget it.

“The only way you can get an appreciation of morality in its broadest sense is through reading philosophy, history and literature. If they don't read, they come away with the idea that, 'Oh dear, the world is corrupt.”

“They haven't the knowledge through reading that nothing has changed to that extent. If you read enough history you know that we live in a time that's so restful it's almost boring.”

Illiteracy isn't confined to the young, MacDonald said. Only six percent of all Americans read anything more than their daily newspaper and what they have to read at work, he said.

“Reading is an effort, because you have to make little pictures in your head. That causes a little electrical discharge, and if you read a long time you can get tired from the effort of constructing those images. It's easier to sit in front of the television set and let somebody make images for you."

The widespread popularity of romance novels isn't a bad sign, MacDonald said. In fact, he said the literary form was born in the fiction of such magazines as Collier's, The Delineator, and Ladies Home Journal during their pre-television heydays.

"When the market dried up, because television took the advertising money, television replaced those stories with daytime soaps. Reading, for a certain percentage of those people, is much more satisfying, and leads to a better conscience, than staring at the television. I don't care what they read, as long as they read."

MacDonald, who began his career writing for pulp magazines, has written everything from science fiction to sports fiction and western fiction. But no love books and no confessions.

"They were just too sticky."

MacDonald has been sending his papers to the University of Florida Libraries since 1956. Housed in the Rare Books Room and available for use by scholars, his collection includes most of his short stories and all of his novels, many in multiple printings and in languages from Norwegian to Spanish.

"We may have the first all the way through the 28th, 29th and 30th printings," said assistant
library director Sam Gowan.

The MacDonald collection contains manuscripts and a fascinating array of correspondence, including hundreds of letters from readers throughout the world.

From a Sarasota woman came this note: "I love mysteries, especially the Fibber McGee.”

From Newark, N.J.: "Dear Monsignor MacDonald, as I insist that my family call you ..."

A California prison inmate wrote this note: “I have, with your help, escaped from San Quentin and Folsom Prisons about 40 times...I have even flown out of my cell with the girl, the gold watch and everything...My work has taken me to all the islands of the Caribbean and to all the plush resort areas of Mexico...(Your work) has given freedom and adventure and excitement to a man who is entombed and has no life of his own.”

MacDonald recently sent the library typewritten manuscripts of the five false starts of his latest Travis McGee novel, Free Fall in Crimson. The manuscripts, of 28 pages, 57 pages, 10 pages, 44 pages and 39 pages, were written and then discarded before MacDonald settled on the beginning he wanted.

"I thought they might be of some interest to the student of writing, and also they illustrated beautifully my problem of trying to find the right starting place," he said.

MacDonald said he decided to deposit his papers in the UF Libraries to show students what writing is all about.

"They think that writing is traveling, cocktail parties and great broads. But what it is is sitting at a desk until you get shortness of breath and varicose veins and all that."

The bibliography, listing contents of the collection along with biographical information on MacDonald and critical essays, was compiled by Jean and Walter Shine of North Palm Beach, and is available for $9 a copy. Checks should be made payable to the Patrons of the UF Libraries, and sent to 217 Library West, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611. Proceeds will help pay for maintenance of the collection and for expansion of collections by other contemporary authors.

A few facts from that bibliography:

  • As a 12-year-old, MacDonald spent a year in bed with a combination of scarlet fever and mastoiditis. “I think that long episode of reading and being read to made a considerable difference in my mental climate,” he said. “I entertained myself by exercises of imagination, and still do.”

  • At the insistence of his father, a corporation executive, MacDonald entered the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, but dropped out in his sophomore year. After working at a series of menial jobs, he earned a bachelor's degree at Syracuse and a master's at Harvard Business School.

  • He is married to the former Dorothy Prentiss, a photographer. Their son Maynard lives in New Zealand with his wife and five children.

  • MacDonald's first piece of fiction, a short story called “Interlude in India," was written to his wife in lieu of a letter while he was stationed in India during World War II. Mrs. MacDonald typed it and submitted it to Story Magazine which bought it for $25.

  • In addition to his novels and short stories, MacDonald has written two books of nonfiction, including No Deadly Drug, about the murder trial of New Jersey physician Carl Coppolino. It was required reading at Harvard Law School.

  • Total worldwide sales of his books are approaching 70 million, or roughly 7,000 copies every day since his first novel appeared in 1950.

The University of Florida eventually stopped offering copies of the Bibliography-Biography for sale and it never saw a second printing. A second edition that was planned by the Shines -- one that I helped do research for -- also never saw the light of day. Years later I would occasionally see copies for sale on eBay for three figures, but those sightings were few and far between. Happily, the University has scanned a copy and it is available for viewing on the web to anyone with a connection.

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