Editor George Horace Lorimer accepted Sinclair Lewis’s short story “Nature, Inc.” from The Saturday Evening Post’s “slush pile” of manuscripts in 1915 and began a prolific relationship between the satirical author and the magazine. Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922) brought this kinship to a screeching halt due to its critique of business and the middle class. Lorimer wrote an unkind review of the book, and Lewis was left out of the Post for years to come.
Lewis’s story “The Shrinking Violet,” in his usual style of satire, examines the absurdities of modernist art and a small town’s desperate struggle to prove it is not so provincial.
Published on February 15, 1919
Upper Colfax now has one hundred thousand inhabitants, a traction scandal, two lady portrait painters, a sixteen-story building, and a Mystic Orient Temple with a swami who looks exactly like a wet raincoat and comes from the Himalayan vales of Georgia. But its daintiest entree is the Little Theater. The most extraordinary talent has been discovered. There is a tragedienne whose interpretation of the role of Kathleen ni Houlihan has been compared to Duse, Ethel Barrymore, Mary Pickford and Julian Eltinge.
The Little Theater idea is pervasive. It is not confined to even the nicest set. It is mirrored in the celebrated Upper Colfax sunsets, in the peculiarly dusklike Upper Colfax twilights, and in that splendid plastic memorial, the William Higgins watering trough. But the physical part of the Little Theater hasn’t been so pervasive.
Mrs. Oliphant Ardbiddle, who bottle-feeds all the civic movements that aren’t kidnaped by her rival, Mrs. Andy Sands, wanted to have the Little Theater housed in a striking California mission building, with a Gothic tower filled with the studios of writers, metal workers and art photographers — as soon as there were any writers and artists in town. One of the best friends of the Ardbiddles is a man who is practically an architect, being with an interior decorator in Cleveland, and he calculated that such a temple of the arts wouldn’t cost a cent more than forty thousand dollars.
Mrs. Ardbiddle started campaigning for the fund, and in one year she got pledges for sixty-seven dollars, but then she took up horseback riding.
So the Little Theater rented a nice hall in the Brown Block, in the motor district. Except that the Knights of Thermopylae meet in the hall on Tuesday, and the New Reformed Ancient Order of the Fraternal and Friendly Brotherhood on Thursday, and an igloo of the Elevated and Insured Organization of Excellent Eskimos on Saturday, the Little Theater has the hall to itself — unless one of the affiliated female lodges is giving a basket supper. There is quite a good stage at the back. Mrs. Andy Sands said it wasn’t bigger than a second maid’s clothes closet, but she exaggerated. It is twice as big as a closet.
There was some difficulty in staging the Roman Colosseum on it, but still, as Mabel Tessbury, the scenic genius, pointed out, it’s perfectly wonderful what an absolute illusion of distance you get by two white cheesecloth curtains and an amber flood light, with just a gladiator’s foot sticking out from behind a pillar, R.3E.
Back of the stage is the room used for dressing rooms, props, committee conferences and informal lemonade. The throne of the High Lord of the Blubber Vats of the E.I.E.E. is stored there, and the chairman of Little Theater committees, who is always a chairwoman, sits on that. Cigarettes can conveniently be dropped in the helmet of the Chief Thessalonian of the K. of T. The ladies always smoke cigarettes at the Little Theater committee meetings, to make up for not being allowed to smoke at home. Husbands and brothers have such ridiculous prejudices in Upper Colfax. Not like New York.
We are present at a meeting of the play-reading committee, arid there is trouble down the wind. Miss Bertha Pittelkow has sneaked in something on us. She has been in New York for three weeks, and heard a lecture by a liberal clergyman, and seen the French actors, who are so good that you don’t have to understand French, and she has gone and got artistic.
The committee is about to select the next offering. Mrs. Andy Sands is in the chair; Bertha Pittelkow, having penetrated to the most exciting, dear, wild, wonderful party in a real Washington Square studio, is sitting on the floor; Miss Mabel Tessbury, who inclines to the Oriental in both her art and her voluptuous lines; and is just crazy about Japanese prints and chow mein, reclines on a pile of robes of the K. of T.; and John P. Barto, the insurance man, being the only male present, is standing. The air is electric with ideas.
Then — suddenly — all at once — bing! — the enthusiasm goes smash. It is discovered that no one has read any of the plays they are to discuss.
“I meant to, but I’ve been so busy, my daughter moving, and I had to go down and see that her maid watered the ferns and all,” said Mrs. Andy Sands.
“Well, anyway, we’re sure we want to choose three one-act plays. That’s something settled,” said Mabel Tessbury.
With the cheerfully firm tone she had got in New York, Bertha Pittelkow began: “No, I don’t agree. I think we ought to give a three-act play by J. Bolivar Whipple — ”
“I saw Jenny Canderboom down at the Jolly Jug tea room today, and she is still wearing that same fur coat. It’s getting so mangy, and it barked when it saw me,” said Mrs. Andy.
“Why, I think Jenny is a splendid woman, very bright and pleasing — though I must say my wife can’t help snickering when she sees that imitation pearl necklace of Jenny’s,” protested Mr. Barto.
Bertha continued steadily: “J. Bolivar Whipple is the dernier cri of modernity. He makes Lord Dunsany look like Way Down East. Oh, I wish I could meet him!”
“I tell you one thing,” Mrs. Andy snapped: “Whatever plays we put on we aren’t going to have Emma Duxworth stage them. She makes me sick — the way she insisted on having the table right in the center of the stage, in The Curse of Man, instead of six inches farther to the right. It just spoiled that nice business where the grandmother tries to murder the little girl’s doll.”
Mabel Tessbury, being Emma Duxworth’s rival as scene painter, murmured: “Poor Emma, she means well; but the way she hangs round Eugene Waite and tries to flirt with him, and him engaged — ”
“Well, let’s decide on The Soul of a Bat, by Gurgeleff, for the first one-act play,” Mrs. Andy sailed on. “Even if we haven’t read it we know how splendid his things are — so creepy and horrible.”
“But why — why — why?” wailed Bertha Pittelkow. She grabbed at her hair. She hadn’t exactly had it bobbed in New York, but she had put it up so that it looked bobbed. One glance at her made it obvious that she had an artistic future, whether she finally settled down to her art-jewelry work, or the cello, or batik, or embroidering smocks. “Why do we talk of old-fashioned people like Gurgeleff? J. Bolivar Whipple is the new note. Symbolic. And the new sensitiveness. They say he is a regular Saravon — Savaron — Savonarola, the way he preaches against all these horrid, commercialized, flippant, self-advertising writers. He is one of the rare souls, like Shelley or Hamlet, too fine for his generation.”
“Well, if we do have a three-act play let’s give something that people will enjoy, like In Disguise,” yawned Mrs. Andy. “Mamie said that when they gave it at Miss Pribble’s School everybody laughed so — ”
Bertha groaned. You can tell the temperament of a person by the things she groans at. Now Mr. Barto liked the Little Theater movement — or at least his wife boasted that he did, and certainly he had written seven policies for people he had met in connection with it — but he had never groaned like that over anything except getting a nerve killed in a molar. Bertha groaned, and when she had groaned she wailed “My dear Mrs. Andy, will you never grasp the Little Theater idea? Our purpose is not to amuse schoolgirls and tired business men. We are in the van. We are in our humble way creating the new art of the theater. Whatever we may have done wrong — ”
Mabel Tessbury was standing by the window. In some excitement she announced: “There go Emma and Eugene now, and the sickening way she giggles at everything he says!”
When Emma had been inspected and condemned Bertha repeated parts of her groan, and continued: “Now you take J. Bolivar Whipple’s new one-act symbolic drama, In the Whither. Oh!” She groaned again. They could never tell whether she was enthusiastic when she groaned like that, or whether it was new corsets. “Whipple’s plays are pure symbolism. You know, everything is a symbol of something. Take, for instance, In the Whither. The characters are The Mossy Tree, The Cow Lamentable and The Living Spark. The Tree symbolizes Nature, and the Spark is progress, and the Cow — well, I don’t exactly remember what the cow symbolizes, but — Oh, it’s all so interior!”
Mrs. Andy Sands rose. “Huh! Well, if we have nothing more — I have never heard of your J. Bolivar Whipple, Bertha, so he can’t be much good. When the president of the Anemone Club was staying with us she told us all about the new drama, and she never mentioned the Whipple person.”
Mr. Barto saw a chance to get away. It wasn’t too late for one game of duck pins at the Elks’. He suggested: “We better adjourn, I guess, and complete our work next meeting. I’m glad we’ve made some progress, and decided on a three-acter, Or was it three one-acters? Anyway — good night, girls.” As he shot out through the dark hall he heard Bertha Pittelkow shouting “Rare shrinking soul,” while Mrs. Andy steadily continued, in a putting-on-gloves tone, “And I never expect to hear of J. Bolivar Whipple again.”
From 9 a.m. to 12, Mr. J. Bolivar Whipple wears slippers, a stogie, and a manner fully as literary as the young man who sits in the window above the curb market and insults another young man down on the pavement by twiddling his fingers. During these hours Bolivar does not write symbolic dramas, poem dramas, vorticist dramas, Freudian dramas or any other kind of dramas. He writes serials for Nifty Narratives and other wood-pulp magazines. He signs them “Jack Joliffe.”
After serial publication, the Jack Joliffe tales sell widely in book form. Three hundred thousand have been sold of the fifty-cent reprint of In Disguise — from which the Broadway success was later dramatized.
In Disguise is an excellent train book. This young fellow who was captain of the Yale team — kind of team not designated — goes to New York, is bored by Wall Street, wants the Great Open, takes his brother’s crime on his shoulders, is sent to jail, escapes, goes West, licks the ranch bully and marries the ranchman’s bonny daughter. It is virile, gripping, dramatic, red-blooded, sweet, pure, wholesome, and full of the breath of the open. But it makes Bolivar sick to think of it.
Till noon Bolivar turns out chapters of new versions of this same story, but as the whistle blows he puts on a coat with a belted back and becomes a sensitive soul.
This noon he was unhappy. As he consumed his sensitive luncheon of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, French fried potatoes and deep-dish apple pie, he occasionally roared at his wife, who had limousine upholstery on a flivver chassis.
“What is it, dear? Do you feel the sadness of things?” inquired Mrs. J. Bolivar Whipple.
She is an able woman. For months at a time she stands for Bolivar’s being shrinking and deep.
“No, but — Did you see that idiotic spiel about Percy Snaffle in the Chronicle literary supplement? About his living a hermit life in the Adirondacks? The nerve of his publishers to get out that dope! I’d done the hermit stuff before Percy ever got fired off the staff of the Home and Crochet Magazine. Fact is, he can’t afford New York rents. And that reminds me — there hasn’t been a word of publicity about me for weeks, even with Fingers of Fog just published.”
“Why, deary, there were seven clippings this morning.”
“I know, but — Say, did you see that unspeakable review in the Chicago Thunderbolt? Now you know I never mind an unfavorable review. I’m glad to have my errors pointed out to me. But when a complete ignoramus dares to try to review a symbolic drama! Why, he said Fingers of Fog couldn’t be acted! You know I never boast. I have an absolutely impersonal attitude toward my work. But I will say that Fingers of Fog will someday be seen on Broadway — and that day will mark the dawn of the new era in American dramaturgy. But what I need is — Mind you, I detest vulgar publicity. Why my inner soul should be dragged out for inspection I cannot for the life of me comprehend. But just the same it is necessary to call the attention of the precious folk who understand to the finer new things, and — By golly, we’ll see whether Hitz wants to do a little publicity for me or whether he wants to lose the Jack Joliffe books!”
Bolivar firmly took the Number Five walking stick — the one that combines literary effect with firmness — and caught the bus for the office of his publishers, Hitz, Bemis & Jones.
Mr. Hitz highly esteemed the works of J. Bolivar Whipple. Not the five volumes of symbolic, ethnic and psychoanalytic dramas, however. It is not true, as rival publishers assert, that Mr. Hitz cannot read. He can read easily, and he has actually read one of the ethnic dramas. It’s the one in which the characters are The Anglo-Saxon Strain, The Czecho-Slovak Tendency and Proud Croatian Blood. Mr. Hitz said he liked it.
When a soap manufacturer makes his money out of Old Mother Hubbard’s Merry Monday Laundry Soap but gets his reputation from Esprit de Printemps Savon pour la Milady, the toilet soap is called his “prestige leader.” Bolivar’s dramas were Hitz’s prestige leader. But what paid rent and salaries were Bolivar’s Jack Joliffe stories.
Mr. Hitz’s office is full of atmosphere. It has white paneling and signed photographs of lady authors. In this dainty shrine, Mr. Hitz was holding literary converse. The person who was helping him hold it was Mike McGogarty, who sells the territory from South Bend to Cripple Creek. Mr. McGogarty was begging: “Well, for Pete’s sake, ship him a bunch of the Dollikins Deary series on consignment. There’s a bumper crop of simp females in that town, and he ought to be able to shove off a slew of ’em.”
Mr. Hitz made spirited repartee. “His credit is on the fritz. Remainders, that’s the best he gets. Say, why didn’t you get more reorders on Mrs. Hallygobble’s novels? They’re the best line of heartthrob stuff in America. And — ”
The nimble office girl peeped in, winked at Mr. McGogarty and announced: “J. B. Whipple calling.”
“I bet he wants to see me about Fingers of Fog; and I haven’t even read the darn thing. Have you, Mike?” sighed Mr. Hitz.
“Me? Thank God, I don’t have to read Bolly’s books. I just have to sell ’em.”
“Tell Whipple I’ll see him in a second, Miss Robinsteyn. Shoot me in Mr. Simplestone’s manuscript opinion on Fingers of Fog, and what he wrote about it for the forthcoming catalogue.”
In his original report on the receipt of Fingers of Fog, the editor, Mr. Leonard Simplestone, had written: “I suppose we have to take this, for the sake of the Joliffe books, but it’s worse rot than usual. Can’t give plot, as there isn’t any. Something about a bunch of ghosts. Whipple thinks he can do the mystic wine-of-dreams stuff, but the nearest he gets to it is lemon pop. Overworks words like ethereal, delicate, faint, afar.”
Before publication Mr. Simplestone must have changed his mind. In the note for the new catalogue he generously stated: “Behind the artistry of the style, that cobweb texture from faerie, is an authoritative comprehension of cosmic rhythms. Faint and afar sounds ever through it the voice of the ethereal. But no mere closet drama is this. Its subtlety of thematization makes it peculiarly appropriate to presentation by stage societies and Little Theaters.”
“Hum. I gotcha,” glowed Mr. Hitz as he concealed the report and catalogue proof beneath the pile of correspondence under his left elbow and buzzed to have Bolivar admitted.
He greeted the dramatist with: “Ah, my dear fellow, delighted! This is rather a coincidence! Just last night I was rereading Fingers of Fog. Do you know, there is something — uh — something so delicate and faint and ethereal in it, and the thematization — Lord!”
Bolivar slipped from the expression of a man who wants that check to that of a man presented with a cocktail at a dinner he had expected to be dry. He beamed.
But he resolutely demanded: “Glad you like it. But look here, old man, aren’t you going to do any publicity for it? There ought to be a dandy Sunday story in it. Certainly more interesting than all these society scandals and scientific marvels that all the Sundays use.”
“We’ve been getting out quite a little publicity. Our clip sheet is widely used by literary editors.”
“Huh! This kind of stuff!” Bolivar fished a clipping out of his pocket. “This is from the Kankakee Recorder. You know how the Kankakee book buyers must have stormed the book stores when they read: ‘Mr. and Mrs. J. Bolivar Whipple have spent the summer on Cape Cod, where Mr. Whipple has been at work on a new book.’”
“What is your idea of publicity?”
“Me? My dear man, I have no ideas on such a subject. It is for you business fellows to think of that sort of thing. I hate publicity. This self-advertising that we see on all sides — politicians, evangelists, explorers, authors, actors — it’s highly distasteful to me. Why can’t a man do his honest work and not crow about it? But if you feel that you must do business that way I am reluctantly forced to give my aid. What I’d like to see is a good syndicated Sunday story about my methods of work, with four or five good-sized pictures. That story in about thirty Sunday papers would give people an idea of what we are doing in the new romanticism. Do you see?”
“It’s great to not be commercial,” Mr. Hitz muttered in thick pea-green awe, and added aloud: “I see. I’ll have you talk to Leonard Simplestone.”
Leonard Simplestone is the firm’s publicity man, editor, and writer of advertisements, jackets, slip circulars, catalogues and notes to the trade. He is also the manuscript reader, art editor, new-author snatcher, and the unfortunate who has to see the lady of Southern ancestry with the manuscript volume of poems, and the young woman in her first year of art school with the portfolio of drawings. But chiefly he is the publicity man — which is literary for press agent.
You know about press agents of course. They are large and meaty or slim and George-Cohanesque. They all wear check suits, red ties, cigars in long holders and petroleum-product smiles. They play pool and read nothing but sporting pages. Get that type clearly in mind — then lay it up in the moth balls along with the comic artists’ stock pictures of poets, suffragists, Frenchmen, mothers-in-law and burglars.
For like most press agents Leonard Simplestone is meager, anxious, downy-haired, and dressed in dark clothes which you never notice. He took his Master of Arts degree in Old English at Harvard. He once saw a professional ball game, but he didn’t like it much.
When J. Bolivar Whipple had departed, after a long interview with Simplestone, the press agent took his small, amiable brown hat and went down to the office of the New York Chronicle to see the Sunday editor and the star feature writer, who used to do picture leads for all polite murder trials.
It is a familiar fact that all editors are iron-jawed persons who persecute cubs, and die of cirrhosis of the liver at forty-three. And everybody knows that reporters are beautiful young men who pilot aeroplanes, chat with kings, lick longshoremen, speak nine dialects of Chinese, and always marry the daughters of millionaires.
Naturally, then, when Simplestone’s card was brought in the ferocious Sunday editor was saying to the star reporter: “I did try Brussels sprouts, but I don’t think the Pansy Grove soil is loamy enough for them. I may cut out the garden entirely and keep chickens.”
And the reporter, whose name was Miss Daisy Bunn, made answer: “I wish mamma and I could get a decent cottage cheap next summer, and have a garden.”
Leonard Simplestone greeted them: “Say, folks, you haven’t used any literary interviews in the Sunday for a long while. I got a dandy I think I could get for you. Interested in this new-art theater stuff, Miss Bunn?”
“Oh, yes indeedy! I think it’s just lovely! I wish I could write plays instead of punk news stories,” sighed Miss Bunn.
“You know J. Bolivar Whipple’s junk?”
“I saw one of his plays. I thought it was fascinating. I didn’t know what it meant.”
“Like to interview him?”
“I thought he was sore on publicity? He told a friend of mine he hated it.”
“Well, I’ll tell you. I went to Hitz, and I made him persuade Whipple to consent to an interview, and Whipple said that if some really sympathetic woman did it he would try — ”
The Sunday editor interjected: “Ugh! I’ve been in the newspaper game for thirty-two years, and I’ve heard 9,576 people say they just loathed publicity, and statistics show that 9,574 of them lied. But all right. If Daisy can get this Whipple to say something peppy we’ll run it. Hang that Are Women Naturally Actresses and Untruthful to Their Husbands? story, that we have the line-cut for, on Whipple, Daisy.”
“Oh, you’re so cynical! I love Mr. Whipple’s books,” insisted Miss Bunn.
The editor marveled to Simplestone: “Isn’t Daisy a wonder! She can go on year after year interviewing male dressmakers and scholarly pugilists and politicians who denounce pork, and still believe in ’em; still get up enthusiasm about every new windjammer she has to meet. That’s why she’s so valuable.”
Miss Bunn paid no attention. In her slightly faded eyes was a light of adoration for the delicate, the ethereal, the J. Bolivar Whipple, as she caroled: “What would you interview him about, Mr. Simplestone?”
“I’d ask him about — ” Simplestone looked at the ceiling and ran his tongue along his upper lip while he recalled the exact words Bolivar had confided. “Well, ask him if he doesn’t find the true artist as sensitive as a woman, and if he doesn’t believe in an artist’s living apart from the vulgar world. You might add the boss’ suggestion about women acting all the time. I think those would fit together nicely.”
An hour later, Miss Bunn begged of Bolivar, on the telephone: “Mr. Simplestone said perhaps I could persuade you to let me have just a teeny interview about your artistic aims.”
Bolivar — with a glass of beer and the transmitter in one hand, and a cheese sandwich and the receiver in the other — sighed: “I am dismayed by the enterprise of you charming young ladies of the press — ah yes, so young and so dreadfully charming. I am but a poor old scholar. I cannot think what I could say that would interest you. But to oblige — Huh? Get off the wire, operator! To oblige a lady, and a friend of Mr. Simplestone — Will you come in tomorrow, about five?”
From one-thirty to four Bolivar, in overalls, assisted by his wife, the maid and the nurse, all in aprons, had been setting the stage for the interview.
The baby’s carriage and Brother’s toy car had been removed from the vestibule, and the picture of Cousin Ed’s little ones snatched from the wall over the piano. The handsome vellum set of Secret Scandals and Memoirs of Royalty, which gave the room such a prosperous, unread look, were replaced by volumes of poetry fished out of that trunk in the storeroom that was too good to throw away and not good enough to use for anything except storing other things that were too good to throw away and not good enough to use. With a nail file Bolivar got the tacks out of the back of the frame of Canterbury Cathedral, and slid in over the picture a jolly print of Mskwski’s Study in Ainorous Parallelepipeds.
Bolivar was a thorough artist. He had said to his class in playwriting that a genius was known by his attention to details, and scarcely anyone has said that since Aristotle — or was it Roosevelt? There was no chance of Miss Bunn’s seeing the nursery. They were going to lock the door and conceal their shameful state of happy matrimony. Yet the artist soul took quaint wicked pleasure in removing the boric acid and talcum powder from the shelf in the nursery, and substituting bottles of Benedictine and crème Yvette.
At four the nurse was sent out with the children. Bolivar and his wife conferred on the costume for the hero of the play. Mrs. Whipple favored the gray-and-white monk’s costume which Bolivar had worn at the Masque of the Black Magic at Webster Hall, as giving the impression of a soul passionately devoted to beauty. The maid came in and begged Bolivar to wear his new braided morning coat. The nurse left the children and called up from a drug store to suggest riding clothes. But Bolivar held out for something easy and gorgeous, to symbolize the wonders of uncommercialized imagination. Over Chinese slippers, mouse-colored corduroy trousers, a fawn silk shirt, and a loose silvery-gray tie he draped a dressing gown of heavy rainbow silk.
Then they waited.
In agony they waited. Bolivar smoked nine cigarettes. Mrs. Whipple watched at the window.
“Confound that woman! Isn’t she coming? I thought we had this interview planted for fair. She’s seven minutes late! Isn’t she coming at all?” wailed Bolivar.
The telephone. The enthralling announcement from below: “Miss Bunn calling.”
“Quick! On the job!” cried Mrs. Whipple.
Before she had finished Bolivar was at the grand piano, wrapped in reverie and chords.
He knew two pieces. One was part of the Rosenkavalier; the other was a nocturne which he himself had composed. It was called Douceur de Deux Dieux. He said it always made him melancholy to play his nocturne, and it certainly made other people melancholy. But he had to take a chance on it, because it happened, just today, that he couldn’t remember the Rosenkavalier.
When Miss Bunn bustled from the elevator, her eyes moist with enthusiasm for the splendid interview she was going to do, Mrs. Whipple met her at the door and, with a finger to her lips, observed “Sh-h-h!”
“What is it? He isn’t ill, is he?” squeaked Miss Bunn.
“No, but he is meditating. Reaching out — far out.” From Mrs. Whipple’s gesture the distance he was reaching out could have been gauged as about twelve feet. “Listen! You can hear him playing. The dear soul, he’s been other-world-wandering like that for three hours, now.”
“Did he remember about the interview?”
“No, I’m afraid he’s forgotten it entirely. He is so detached from the details of engagements and the banal routine of mere existence — ”
“Maybe I’d better go away, and try some other day.”
“Oh no! N-n-n-no! He’d be so hurt if he found he had failed a lady.”
The worshiping females of the intellectual harem crept through the gray-and-gold mirror hall into the library, and looked admiringly at the drooping back and flouncing rainbow dressing gown of the master. While his long fingers strayed adown the keys — occasionally missing a key — his head was up, and it is highly probable that in the brown spot in the northwest corner of the ceiling, a souvenir of the time when the bathtub had run over in the apartment above, he saw the gardens of pensive dream.
“Kekah,” said Mrs. Whipple. Or it may have been “Kukuk,” or “Hekeh.” Anyway it was a modest wifely sound between a cough and a shoe squeak.
Bolivar started. His glance slowly came down from the ceiling. The music broke off in a smashing discord.
“Miss Bunn. The Chronicle. The interview you promised,” apologized Mrs. Whipple.
“I,” Bolivar announced, “have been ‘interviewing,’ as you call it, the soul of lost sad things that through the land of forgotten tunes floats on to the carven throne.”
“Oh my!” said Daisy Bunn.
To Mrs. Whipple she whispered: “Perhaps I’d better — ”
She hadn’t a chance. Before she had deprecatingly moved two feet toward the door Mrs. Whipple had maneuvered her into a chair that was hard to get out of, and Bolivar was planted facing her.
He began to talk — long, vague, beautiful, gummy sentences, like honey dripping on the fingers through a hole in the tea biscuit. But Miss Bunn had recovered from her first feminine delight in a regular master. Despite her desire to be literary she was one of the best interviewers in America, and knew too much to let an interviewee spoil things by talking.
Looking at him as impersonally as a ticket agent she interrupted: “Mr. Whipple, don’t you think that if the artist is to interpret life he ought to live apart from the vulgar crowd? Don’t you think he ought to make life a protest against popular standards — for instance, things like these Jack Joliffe books? Don’t you think that his intuition is enough to give him material?”
“Why, uh — ” Bolivar contributed to the interview.
“And don’t you think that there is a peculiar affinity between all artists, even the most masculine ones, and women? And don’t you think that women are naturally actors? Don’t they always dramatize themselves, so that they just can’t live up to the ordinary crude male codes of truth?”
“Why, uh — ” said Bolivar.
Bending forward, not taking a note, Miss Bunn cross-examined him nine times, and nine times was Bolivar permitted to state, “Why, uh — ”
Then she smiled, relaxed, and breathed: “Oh, it’s wonderful, after interviewing a lot of financiers, to hear you reveal your dreams this way!”
Bolivar came out from under the nitrous oxide, and realized that the interview had already been extracted, and absolutely painlessly. But he wanted to get in something about symbols. He insisted on talking about symbols. Miss Bunn didn’t listen. Symbols weren’t in her outline of the interview. She sighed, looked at the tips of her gloves, wondered if she was going to get some tea, and started to go. Bolivar gave the signal. Mrs. Whipple was ready. She exclaimed: “Oh, deary, pardon me for interrupting, but while you two were talking the photographer sent up those pictures you had taken last week.”
“Oh, may I see them? Maybe I could work in some with the interview,” suggested Miss Bunn.
There were only twelve of them, so Bolivar let her take all twelve.
Mr. Andy Sands, of Upper Colfax, was reading the Chicago Sunday paper at breakfast on the glassed-in porch. Andy was a plain citizen who liked eating tobacco and diamond scarfpins and did not like breakfast rooms. He said that they were cold, that he hated violet-painted chairs and wicker cages with pink celluloid birds in them, and that he didn’t care to have the neighbors watch him eat his vittles. But Mrs. Andy had maintained that she couldn’t be a leading member of the Little Theater set unless she had a breakfast room. Andy had compromised on interior-decorated breakfasts on Sundays only.
“Here’s a long spiel about one of your new dramatists,” remarked Andy, and handed to his wife a magazine supplement page headed: “Wizard of the Art Drama Says All Women and Artists are Liars.” It centered about a huge drawing of a lady being a liar — to the great mental agony of her husband — and three pictures of J. Bolivar Whipple: Bolivar dreaming at the mahogany desk with the quill pen; Bolivar coaching the Dance of the Little Good Thoughts for his Vedanta play; Bolivar with the book and the finger to the brow.
Chicago had played up in full the New York Chronicle’s syndicated story.
Mrs. Andy leaped on the interview with sobs of admiration. She broke off reading to gloat: “I always said Whipple is the hope of the American stage. It would be wonderful to give his play, Fingers of Fog, for our next Little Theater program. It says here — ”
Andy bellowed in alarm: “I want you to right now distinctly understand that whatever you give I’m not going to be in it. Me, in this Androcles and the Lion we gave, in a nightshirt and a flower hat!”
Mrs. Andy ignored him. She was baying on the track of culture: “I’ll make them do it! Way they’ve put off choosing a play — disgraceful. Bertha Pittelkow and her silly one-act plays! I wish I’d seen a copy of Fingers of Fog, but — ”
Already she was at the telephone, calling up the other members of the play-reading committee. Andy heard her crying to Mabel Tessbury: “Mr. Whipple is one of those rare souls too fine for their generation. Did you see that splendid piece about him this morning? Oh, my dear! It backs up what I’ve always said. He interprets life. But he lives apart from the vulgar crowd.”
“I wonder if the vulgar crowd will interpret golf this morning?” Mr. Andy was reflecting on the porch. He sneaked in a look at his watch and tried to ooze away.
But Mrs. Andy waylaid him. “I have a wonderful idea! Maybe we could get Mr. Whipple himself to coach us in Fingers of Fog. If we can we’ll invite him to stay here at the house.”
“B-but I’d have to talk to him!” protested Andy.
“Now see here. The Oliphant Ardbiddles have captured every celebrity that’s come to Upper Colfax for months. They entertained the French captain and the English suffragist and the Ohio college president, and John Appleton Hogarth, the lecturer. Mrs. Ardbiddle makes a regular system of it. The minute she hears that somebody really worthwhile is coming she writes to them and invites them to stay at her house. Oh, by the way, have you seen their new garage? It’s a horrid little one, just frame. Well, of course celebrities are glad to stay with her and save hotel bills, and she parades them. So when I make the committee decide on Fingers of Fog you can sit yourself right down and invite Mr. Whipple to come to us. Tomorrow I’ll get a new photograph taken, so when they want it for the social column — ”
The committee didn’t dare approach Bolivar directly. Tactfully, through his publishers, they desired to know if Bolivar could possibly be persuaded to come to Upper Colfax to coach the Little Theater company. They would — er — be glad to pay much — er — remuneration for Mr. Whipple’s valuable time. And if he would consent to honor the home of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew B. Sands —
When he got the message Bolivar shouted at his wife: “Can I be persuaded? Watch me yield! Oh boy! Can you beat this for luck! I was just wondering if I couldn’t get that Upper Colfax bunch to invite me out there. Rich town — big new factories — just the bunch to buy a lot of books if they think the books are fashionable. Maybe they’ll ask me to lecture, at three hundred a throw. Oh, watch me mournfully creep out of my hermitage! But darn it, honey, I’ll have to leave you and the kids here. I’ll have to do the lone-lorn soul. But we’ll all have a nice trip to Atlantic City when papa brings home the bacon. Oh, dum diddle dum, diddle dum, dee, dee!”
Already, upon receipt of the application for acting rights to Fingers of Fog, Bolivar had conferred with Mr. Hitz, the publisher, about the amount they could get out of the Little Theater. And though Leonard Simplestone had signed it Bolivar had dictated the letter to the most important Upper Colfax bookstores suggesting a drive on all of his books in connection with the play. Bolivar had planned a window display with original manuscripts and enlarged photographs of himself, and through the impassioned efforts of Mike McGogarty, the traveling salesman, the somewhat cynical bookseller had been persuaded to accept this generous gift.
On his last visit to the publisher’s office before going Bolivar was taken aside by Mike McGogarty, who suggested: “Say, one thing you ought to do while you’re in Upper Colfax. There’s a town institution called the Pedersen Lecture Foundation. Old fellow named Pedersen left a hundred thousand dollars to pay some lecturer of national rep. to give a course of three lectures a week for one month each winter. It’s a great graft. Reason I know about it — the big book dealer there tells me there’s a big call for the books of whoever is chosen lecturer, so if I were you — ”
Bolivar was indignant at being thought naive. “Look here, McGogarty, as you must know, I’m not interested in money, but do you suppose I was born yesterday? Why do you think I’m so anxious to go to Upper Colfax? Art is all right, but d’you think I’d take two weeks putting on an amateur play for art’s sake? I happen to have met this John Appleton Hogarth, the critic that’s giving the Pedersen lectures this year, and I’m going right out and pinch the job off friend Hogarth. He’s a hunk o’ mud. But it’s not the money, you understand. It’ll give me a rep. among women’s clubs in other towns, and open up lecturing as a side line.”
When Bolivar was not coaching the Little Theater company in Fingers of Fog he was being entertained by the nicest people in Upper Colfax. He had a sound appetite for tea, burnt-cheese sandwiches, and being told by women that they just loved his books — uh, what was the name of that one they loved so much?
He received luncheons, musicales, informal teas at the country club, and theater parties at the very best movies. Mrs. Andy Sands was his hostess and manager. She was radiant. Her only trouble was that one Bertha Pittelkow went round insisting that she had discovered Bolivar. In revenge Mrs. Andy didn’t take Bolivar to Bertha’s exhibit of new-art ironing boards.
Bolivar was interviewed six times. Believing that the best — not publicity, of course, but the best public sympathy with his ideals, could be roused by shocking people, Bolivar asserted to the first lady interviewer that Upper Colfax was not artistic. The men, he said, talked motor cars and business, and never discussed concertos or polychromatic psychotherapy. He implied that in New York no person on any subway train ever discussed anything but concertos and psychotherapy — unless for a moment one drifted into small talk about the ethnology of the Balkans, and the use of the caesura in Greek poetry.
Upper Colfax rose. By telephone, personal calls and letters to the editor the citizens informed the newspaper that they were cultured, artistic, literary and highly conversational. They pointed out that Mabel Tessbury’s picture had been exhibited in Chicago, that five girls from town were now studying music in Boston, and that the retired founder of the laundry trust had a most expensive collection of first editions.
It was disgusting, the way people crowded into Bolivar’s limelight. Everybody who could get interviewed got interviewed. The town was divided. Half of it denounced Bolivar, and half supported him.
Meantime, the leading bookstore was wiring to Hitz, Bemis & Jones for hundred lots of all of Bolivar’s books, and selling them out as fast as it got them.
In the midst of this round of pleasure Bolivar had to endure one agony: He was dragged by Mrs. Andy to hear John Appleton Hogarth, the Pedersen Foundation lecturer, tell Wells, Shaw, Bennett and Compton Mackenzie how differently he would have written their books if he had only written them. Bolivar had to sit and look agreeable while Mr. Hogarth stalked about the platform like a crow in a frosty November field, his master-of-arts robe flapping about his shanks.
The rival masters were introduced afterward. Bolivar and Hogarth had met before, and they didn’t like each other. Now, while the intelligentzia of Upper Colfax watched in awed circles, the maestri were amused and polite and cutting and witty to each other. Bolivar returned to the mansion of Mrs. Andy, and Mr. Hogarth to the palatial residence of Mrs. Oliphant Ardbiddle, and each of them sat up till one informing his hostess how unimportant the other really was.
Even after this it didn’t occur to Mrs. Andy to bestow upon Bolivar the Pedersen lectureship for the coming year. So, regretfully, bravely, he himself took up the battle for reform. During a leisurely Sunday breakfast at the Sandses’ he sputtered: “Shame to think of so important a function as these lectures being intrusted to poor Hogarth.
“To keep the shrine of learning from being polluted I’d almost be willing to take the lectureship myself. I’d give a course on contemporary literature that would be sincere, not merely flippant.”
“Would you really?” Instantly Mrs. Andy saw herself as successor to Mrs. Oliphant Ardbiddle in lion entertaining.
“Well, I don’t quite know. I might consider it. Of course with all my soul-fatiguing creative work — ”
That afternoon, with a bland, perfidious smile and a new round muff, Mrs. Andy called on the six members of the executive committee of the Pedersen Foundation and suggested Bolivar as the next lecturer. They all listened, but they all referred her to the president of the foundation. And the president was Mrs. Ardbiddle.
Mrs. Andy flinched, but by Tuesday she had got up courage to attack Mrs. Ardbiddle, hostess and proprietor of John Appleton Hogarth. She accepted coffee and cakes, she proclaimed that Mrs. Ardbiddle’s husband, children, rugs, coupelet and knowledge of French were the best in town, and implied that only they two were able to elevate the low popular taste of the city. Mrs. Ardbiddle beamed, and called her “dear.”
Then Mrs. Andy shot: “Don’t you think it would be lovely if next year, instead of having the purely critical point of view in the Pedersen lectures, we had more of a glimpse into the creator’s workshop? Bolivar Whip — ”
Mrs. Ardbiddle said caressingly: “My dear, Mr. Hogarth says that back East no one ever heard of Whipple. No! I regard the Pedersen Foundation as a sacred trust. To please you, dear, I’d do anything — except vote for Whipple as next lecturer.”
It was the first of five presentations of Fingers of Fog. The curtain was prepared to rise — providing the janitor of the E.I.O.E.E. Hall should later persuade it to rise — on a forest. It was not like the forests you and I know. It was a symbolist forest. Mabel Tessbury had announced that she was going to defy the bourgeois taste of Upper Colfax and show them what art was.
The back cloth was black. Between them Mabel and Bolivar Whipple had agreed that a black ground symbolized the Far Unheard. On it were nineteen small blue spots, which stood for the Lilted Laugh Incandescent, and two pretty fair-sized red ones, which were the Scarlet Spiders. No spiders were mentioned in the play, but Bolivar said that they were indicated by one of the characters remarking: “Ah, I shiver!” In the middle of the stage — that is, four feet from the back cloth — two limp strips of white cloth dangled from what Mabel called the grid and what the janitor called the ceiling. These strips were trees. And they were the only trees in that forest.
Entirely invisible there was a theatrical tragedy — Mr. Andy Sands, drafted as electrician.
While the season-ticket holders clattered into the hall, tumult rose in the dressing room. Theoretically there were three rooms — men’s dressing room, women’s and prop closet; but as they were divided only by red calico curtains, hooked out of the primary school, things could be heard.
Standing in the midst of grease paint, make-up boxes, crooked mirrors, cigarettes, typed parts, and advance notices of the play from the society columns of the Upper Colfax papers, Bertha Pittelkow, who played the role of the Dolorous Dun One, was being made up by a real dresser hired from the stock theater.
“Oh,” moaned Bertha, “I know I’ll forget my part. Let’s see. Oh! John!”
“Yep?” from a male beyond the curtain.
“When you come R.C. and say: ‘Invisible? Yea, that is the truest visible!’ do I step back — ”
“What do you mean, ‘R.C.’?” grunted Mr. John Barto.
“I’m sure Mr. Whipple never uses such banal expressions,” put in Mrs. Andy Sands.
“Now see here!”
The discussion was drowned in the growing chorus of all the cast: “Now stop fighting!”
“Say, you can’t wear that cerise scarf, Edna. You crab my costume.”
“I told you those trees were too far down stage.”
“What are you putting on my forehead? I don’t want to look like a corpse.”
“Gee, I’m nervous! Anybody got a cigarette?”
“Now for heaven’s sake go tell Andy Sands not to use that bunch light.”
“That isn’t a bunch light, you poor floof; that’s a strip.”
“Well, anyway, tell him to can it or everybody’ll see right through this cheesecloth Mother Hubbard they wished on me. And tell him to fix those dimmers. One of ’em doesn’t work, and the dawn comes on as spotty as Liberty measles.”
“No, I don’t want that Number Two Brown on my chin. It makes me look so old. Huh? Well, I won’t have it. I’m not going to look like the Home for Indigent Relicts of the Clergy!”
The weaving voices rose till they were heard by the audience. Martin Gilhooley’s chauffeur, who had protestingly been made to come on Martin’s ticket, felt recompensed as from the first row he heard Agnes Ardbiddle asserting: “If I’d been Mabel I’d have used a cyclorama and given some decent depth to the stage. Oh dear, this robe is so long! What was the use of my wearing silk stockings?”
Bolivar appeared in the men’s dressing room and wailed: “Everybody in the house can hear you! You’re ruining the anticipatory atmosphere.”
Silence, thick silence. The audience had nothing to do but stare at Mrs. Oliphant Ardbiddle’s party. Mrs. Ardbiddle had given a dinner before the show, and her guests were trying to look unconscious of their bare backs and evening clothes. Then three loud raps. The chauffeur hoped that the raps were the beginning of a roughhouse. He was comparatively untutored in Elizabethan signals for curtain.
The audience could hear the curtain creaking and the janitor of the hall freely stating that he wasn’t supposed to do this extra work, that he guessed he knew as much about curtains as a lot of old hens, and that this curtain rope would work all right anyway if Mrs. Andy Sands hadn’t borrowed it to get her electric hauled out of the mud.
The curtain was up. The audience applauded the scenery, and applauded louder as Mabel Tessbury, making her entrance, turned at the wings to shout back: “Andy! Andy! For the love of Mike, switch off the house lights! … They are too! They’re all on!”
The play was auspiciously begun.
Of that play, of the subtle subtones of the sad September souls, no one could write save J. Bolivar Whipple himself. It is not known that anyone save Bolivar has ever been sure just what any of it was about. The plot seemed to be that a family of ghosts, wandering round and enjoying themselves and working ouija boards and begging the medium to tell pa that “all is well here, Willie is right here with me, and we are so glad you are investigating this great truth”; that such a skipsome company of spooks were in turn haunted by a superspook — a ghost who had died — and were scared to a superdeath.
Like the audience, you may be aided in getting it all plain and clear by a study of the program:
FINGERS OF FOG
A LOGOS IN THREE REACTIONS
PERSONS OF THE DRAMA:
The Dolorous Dun One … Miss Bertha Pittelkow
The Savory Sun One … Mrs John P. Barto
The White Wailing … Mrs. Andrew B. Sands
The Ragtime Ha’nt … Mr. Eugene Waite
The Quintessential Quiet … Miss Mabel Tessbury
The Muddy Mortal … Mr. John P. Barth
The Beyond Azoth … Miss Agnes Ardbiddle
Act I: The Forest Fearful
Act II: The Dissonant Dome
Act III: The Place of Sinewy Soul-Strife
The cynical old reporter of the Observer has often maintained that the play was a farce in which the innocent husband was found wearing the overshoes of the president of the W.C.T.U.; but the program shows that he misunderstood.
As the audience listened to the ghosts discussing whether ghosts were mortals or mortals were ghosts or both of them were but echoes of the voice unseen, the chauffeur in the first row settled down, grabbed his hat for steering wheel, and occasionally, as the play skidded round a particularly sharp S curve, jabbed with his foot at an imaginary clutch. It wasn’t the first time he had endured a long cold ride. The front rows elbowed one another with care. But the back rows were frankly irreverent. They snickered as each ghost began to speak, and when the curtain was down they all coughed.
“Aw, let’s go home,” begged Enrique Cavasso, the popular caterer, after the first act.
“We will not. T’ink of what we paid for the tickets,” sighed his wife.
“Is it as bad as I fancy it is; or did you give me too many cocktails? Lord, if Hogarth were only still in town to parody this!” choked the feature guest of Mrs. Oliphant Ardbiddle’s dinner party.
During the second act four people left.
But with his eye constantly at the peephole Bolivar was delighted. “They are all so quiet — enthralled!”
They were. They were asleep.
As the curtain went down after the second act Bolivar unstraightened his dress tie and was ready for cries of “Author!” But Upper Colfax doesn’t call for authors. By the time Road Company D of a play has reached Upper Colfax the author has already given up his attempt to get another play accepted, and has gone back to the job on the newspaper.
The audience were merely scratching their palms and looking cheerful. There was only one act to get through now.
Bolivar rushed to Mrs. Andy Sands, who was simultaneously repinning her costume as The White Wailing, whitely wailing at Eugene Waite to quit giggling with the young lady who wore overalls and handled props, and snapping at Andy that if it wasn’t too much trouble she re-al-ly hoped he’d connect up the baby spotlight when he finished his doubtless very necessary cigar.
“I — uh — dear lady, do you think they’re going to call for author?” Bolivar implored.
Mrs. Andy looked at him fondly. This was a large moment. A genius had boyishly begged her aid.
“I’ll see that they do,” she said grimly.
“I don’t mean — I mean, the intrusion of the personal on an art form is vulgar, but — If they call shall I — ”
Mrs. Andy turned on Andy: “You hustle out the stage door and sneak in at the back of the audience and shout ‘Author!’ Just — just holler!”
Andy didn’t want to holler Author! He could get all the author he wanted without even whispering. But he was an experienced husband. He recognized those occasional moments when arguments do not go. He galloped out the back door of the hall, yanking an overcoat over his electrician’s jumper as he ran, and appeared behind the back rows blaring: “Author! Author! Author!”
At this clamor the chauffeur in the first row brightened. Maybe there was going to be a roughhouse after all. Anyway here was a chance to make a noise. He bellowed “Author!”
Enrique Cavasso’s position as favorite caterer to the hill set depended on his being popular. It seemed to be the thing to roar “Author!” He roared. The cynical reporter joined in — cynically.
By this time perfectly real, paying, independent members of the audience supposed that there were persons who did like the play and did want to behold the author. They became uneasy. Had they guessed wrong? Was the play actually good, after all? Had they shown themselves lacking in culture? They hastily muttered to one another, “But, after all, the stuff certainly is original,” and took up the fashionable pastime of yammering “Author!” Having yammered they really believed that they wanted to see him.
The low room clanged. The air grew dizzy with the clashing waves of shouting.
Mrs. Andy Sands, ruddy and panting, crawled out at the side of the curtain and held up her hand:
“Our little company is grateful to you, and I’m sure Mr. Whipple must be. But I cannot persuade him to come out. He is — I hope he can’t hear me! — he is one of those rare shrinking souls, too fine for their generation. So we will just have to compel him to take our grateful tribute. And let me seize this chance to make a suggestion: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Mr. Whipple were the next Pedersen Foundation lecturer, and let us know the dear little children of his brain! What do you think about it?”
“Yes!” they thought; and “You bet!” and “That’s the idea!”
One member of the executive committee of the Pedersen Foundation, a mere man and therefore not cultural, was seized with remembrance of how often he had been blandly overruled by Mrs. Oliphant Ardbiddle. He rose and looked with a large rolling dislike at Mrs. Ardbiddle, who had been enjoying telling her admirers how rotten were the technic, manners and morals of J. Bolivar.
He roared to Mrs. Andy: “I think you’re right. Whipple can’t push himself forward — like some lecturers we all know! I shall vote for him for next lecturer! Now all together! Let’s shout, and make old Whip forget his shyness!”
They shouted. Behind the curtain old Whip was preparing to forget it.
Mrs. Ardbiddle had also risen. Her thin smile cut the enthusiasm like a razor. She caroled: “Perhaps you are right. It would be especially nice to have Mr. Whipple lecture about those shy little brain children, the Jack Joliffe books!”
Mrs. Andy glared back. She forgot the audience. She demanded in a tone of private back-fence controversy: “Are you crazy? Bolivar Whipple write the Jack Joliffe books? Are you aware that Joliffe’s books are read by perfectly ordinary people?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Ardbiddle crooned. “And Mr. Whipple is jolly Jack Joliffe. I have here a letter from Mr. Hogarth, who says that Hitz, the publisher, admits — ”
The audience were charmed to see Bertha Pittelkow crawling out beside the curtain to join Mrs. Andy. Bertha was not to appear in the last act, and she had been removing her make-up. She was in an altogether delightful combination of white cheesecloth costume and pink bedroom slippers. The grease paint had been cold-creamed into a wild mauve smear, which covered her face like a displaced sunset.
Bertha was shrieking: “Impossible on the face of it!” The audience, regarding the mauve smear on the face of it, agreed. “Perfectly impossible! Jack Joliffe is neither realistic nor poetic. He doesn’t expose a single evil. Why, he believes that married women ought to stay married! Why-why — why, his books sell!”
“Just the same, I will prove — ” Mrs. Ardbiddle began.
“Haw, haw, haw! Gosh, even I like the Joliffe books!” sounded Mr. Andy Sands at the back.
Mrs. Andy was stung into defiance. “I’ll bring out dear Bolivar! I’ll make him deny this slander!”
She ducked behind the curtain. She was just in time to see the coat tails of J. Bolivar as he fled down the back stairs — forever ruined as the yearners’ delight, as the idol of the lecture platform.
“There’s a train East at eleven-twenty!” Mrs. Andy howled down the stairs after him.
“But you don’t know the real joke,” Mrs. Ardbiddle was saying to her admirers. “Bolivar came to me yesterday and hinted round that if he got the lectureship he’d be willing to stay with me instead of with Mrs. Andy!”
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now