Monday, March 25, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 17: February 12, 1948

This next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-48 newspaper column for the Clinton Courier was written in the teeth of a typically brutal upstate New York winter. It is full of fascinating biographical tidbits -- fascinating, that is, if your are fascinated by JDM’s biography.

Here we learn that one of his favorite books of the season was Ross Lockridge’s huge novel Raintree County, a work never mentioned in later years when the author listed his favorite books. The novel was filmed nine years later and featured, in a supporting role, Rod Taylor, who -- of course -- would go on to inhabit the only big screen incarnation of MacDonald’s Travis McGee.

We also learn that JDM had a literary agent, a female named Marian, who evidently supplanted the “joker” he had initially hired and complained about to editor Babette Rosmond in 1946. “Marian” would herself be supplanted by Cap Shaw, former editor of Black Mask Magazine, although I’ve never been able to discover when that coupling took place.

Finally, there is an interesting bit on the MacDonald’s offspring, Johnny, who later renamed himself Maynard, and who, when young, was nicknamed Pen -- short for pencil. John writes about his son’s nascent artistic ability, somewhat humorously, but with obvious pride. “Pen” was no doubt encouraged and instructed by his artist mother Dorothy. As of this writing he was two months shy of his ninth birthday.

Finally, there is a beautiful coda, another reverie recalling the family’s winter of 1946-47’s stay in Ingram, Texas, a time which obviously made a huge impact on them all. MacDonald mentioned it often in his column, recalled it in The House Guests, and used it as setting in more than one work of fiction.


Having recently finished Ross Lockridge's Raintree County and being very firm in our belief that it is the best novel we have read in five years we were interested in finding out the general reaction to it. Not the critic's reaction.

In Utica, we talked to a lady who handles the loan library for one of the stores. She told us that the first three people who took Raintree County out returned it unread, had given up somewhere along the line.

If it had no suspense, we could understand. If it was all conversation and no action, we could understand.

Maybe the size -- one thousand something pages -- scared them off. When a book is good, we like it to be long.

* * *

Our Friend, the Martian:

He went to the hockey game as we suggested. Apparently nobody noticed him. He looks a good deal like people. At the present time he has gotten himself up as a middle-aged, middle-sized man in a grey overcoat.

We reproduce his report in its entirety:

"Local creatures divide themselves into two groups and conduct mimic warfare on a slippery substance. They carry clubs with which they attempt to kill one another, seldom succeeding. They wear knives strapped to their feet, thus causing them to fall quite often and to run into the wall surrounding the slippery area. The players are surprisingly durable. During this period of warfare, a surprising thing happens. Every few minutes one creature who wears Number 25 hurries down the ice and propels a black wafer into a net. The others apparently watch him do this thing and are powerless to stop him. I do not understand all this. I do not even know why I like it. The creatures who do not play merely sit, shiver and make warlike shouts."

* * *

New Trend in Decorating:

The other day a letter came from our agent in New York and, instead of containing the usual disparaging comments about the deathless prose we have sent her, this letter said that her client, Jesse Stuart, had sent her a picture as drawn by his five-year old daughter. She liked it and decided that it would be nice to decorate her apartment with framed masterworks by the children of all her clients.

The request should have come a year ago. Before the Era of the Horse. Our offspring cannot pick up a pencil nowadays without turning any nearby hunk of paper into a quivering memorial to the Spirit of the Hoss.

We transmitted Marian's request to him and he went into a trance, returning some time later with a profile picture of a horse's head, complaining that the paper wasn't large enough or he would have made it life size. He wondered if we could find him a piece of paper big enough so that he could draw the entire horse, life size. In the picture he considered unsatisfactory, there was a balloon, a la comic strip, coming out of the horse's mouth with the cabalistic sound, "Wheeee". A very happy and contented hoss.

These horses of his have a wild look and teeth. The also seem peculiarly absorbed in the problem of trying to kick themselves in the head.

Next door is a fine friendly horse named Blue Genius. Pen's drawings lack Blue's placidity.

They also lack background. Some time back he did fine pictures in which there were houses, smoke, hillsides and blue mountains in the distance. We reminded him of those old happy days before the hoss. His second attempt had a background. A horse in the foreground and a background composed of horses.

He is anxious to please the agent -- almost as anxious as we are -- and he doubtless considers her to be a woman of intelligence who wants nothing better than a picture of one of his happy horses. If we should try to tell him that maybe she doesn't want a full face or profile of a trusty steed, he will lose all respect for her.

* * *

Winter Scene:

This morning, in the Hill Country of Texas, the doves were sitting in the live oaks, hooting at the dawn. The sun came up bright and hot, and the hills were misted with the grey-blue smoke of burning cedar. When the wind died, you could hear the faroff silver of the bells on the lead goats. In town cafe doors were open, the juke boxes filling the street with the nasal whine of the music of the plains.

* * *

See you next week.

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