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January 12th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Art, Film, TV, Photography, Fine Printing & Design; Book Biz; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

Glad for Revival of THE REVENANT, a Great Adventure Novel

JANUARY 2016 UPDATE: Readers of this blog may recall my connection to The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, mentioned on this site a year ago in the post below, after I learned the book, originally published in 2002, was about to be reissued by a new publisher, the basis of a major motion picture. I saw the movie last weekend, and found it quite engrossing, even at more than 2 1/2 hours duration. The cinematography is exceptional, the acting quite believable, and the storytelling very powerful. I recall that author Michael Punke was already then having discussions about possible film adaptations, since the Glass story had already once been filmed, as “Man in the Wilderness,” with Richard Harris  and John Huston in 1971. Even so, over the years no film resulted, that until word came last year of the cinematic collaboration between Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s. As the credits rolled following the film last weekend, I saw that the production of course credited the book, though with a proviso I’d not seen before, stating that the movie was “Based in Part on the Novel by Michael Punke.” I imagine the wording was mutually agreed to between the author’s agent and the producers, because the two works do diverge. But I don’t criticize the filmmakers on that score, for as Punke himself wrote in an Historical Note at the end of the novel, the confirmed history surrounding Hugh Glass’s life is scant—little more is known for certain beyond the fact he lived, was a skilled tracker, was mauled by a grizzly bear during an 1823 expedition with the Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company, following which he was left for dead by two of his likely companions, a miscreant named John Fitzgerald and a teenaged Jim Bridger; Bridger ultimately became a much more famous mountain man than Glass, with modern tourist sites in the Mountain West named after him. I’m pleased to see the movie is bringing more attention to the gripping novel, which is a bestseller in the Picador reissue. I’m also pleased to remind people about the book, since as the Obama administration’s Deputy Trade Representative to the WTO in Geneva, Switzerland, Michael Punke is not permitted to directly promote his own commercial interests. I’m happy to stand in for him, then, as relatives of his have been doing at premieres of the movie, which has now garnered many Academy Award nominations.

When I was a retail bookseller with Undercover Books, this is exactly the sort of novel that we would read in advance galleys from the publisher, then order 50 copies, and sell them all in the book’s first month on sale. If you enjoy adventure tales, I recommend you read this one, a gripping survival story based on the life of a real American who traverses a great swath of the inter-mountain west in a quest for justice, less than 20 years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition had opened the region to exploration.


January 2015nant-front.jpg”>Revenant frontthe BN Review recently I was delighted to discover that one of the most engrossing novels I ever edited and published—The Revenant: A Novel of Revengehas been reissued and is being made in to a major movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who recently directed “Birdman.” The novel, by Michael Punke, was published in 2002, when I was an editorial executive at Carroll & Graf. It’s inspired by the epic life and adventures of a historical figure, Hugh Glass. He was a frontiersman and fur trapper who in 1823 was part of a westward expedition spanning what is today Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. While foraging for game, away from the troop, Glass was attacked and severely mauled by a grizzly bear. Grievously wounded and bleeding, with the skin on his back nearly flayed off his torso, Glass was still conscious when his comrades found him. Believing that Glass would surely die soon, the leader of the troop ordered two men to stay with him until he expired, then bury him and catch up to the group. In the midst of this death watch, a band of Indians approached the camp, panicking the two men: they grabbed Glass’s rifle and hunting knife and fled. Deserted, defenseless, and enraged at being abandoned, Glass refuses to succumb to his wounds; he survives, determined to recover his weapons, vowing revenge on the men who left him to die. The novel is beautifully written and reads like a timeless adventure story. Talk about a film adaptation of the novel began years ago, and I’m delighted to see now it’s really happening, and with such a high profile team. Hugh Glass did inspire one earlier film, in 1971, when actor Richard Harris was cast as the Glass figure in “Man in the Wilderness,” a rather lurid and unexceptional movie. Punke’s telling of this epic saga, with Glass crawling and dragging himself across wild terrain until he was again able to walk, has all the elements for a great movie and I’m hopeful that is what the production will lead to.

Punke’s agent Tina Bennett submitted the manuscript to me soon after 9/11, an event and aftermath that I was close to, as the offices of Carroll & Graf and Avalon Publishing Group were only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. As I chronicled on this blog on Sept 11, 2012, in a post titled Remembering 9/11/01—Running Through a Dust Cloud in Lower Manhattan, the exertions of that day left me with nagging leg injuries that persisted for most of the year that followed. In fact, when I attended the book launch for The Revenant, held in Washington, DC, in the summer of 2002, I took the train from NYC using a cane to help me walk on a still-tender ankle.

Though novels don’t often have subtitles or reading lines, I suggested to the author that we use one here. We had quite an evocative title, though the word ‘revenant’ (a being that returns from the dead) was not then and still isn’t a widely familiar term. Glass’s odyssey seeking revenge and justice resonated powerfully with the spirit of the time, so “A Novel of Revenge” seemed the right way to position the book for readers. The publisher reissuing the book now is Picador, part of Macmillan, and I’m glad to see in online listings they’ve chosen to retain the reading line. Interestingly, they’ve reissued the novel in hardcover, not paperback, a somewhat unusual choice for a book published more than a decade ago, though perhaps a sign of the publisher’s confidence in its continuing relevance.

Michael Punke has written two nonfiction books in the years since 2002, both in Western history, Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 and Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West. The book launch for The Revenant was in DC because Punke worked for a law firm there. Among the hosts at the party was a mentor and colleague to Punke, Mickey Kantor, a lawyer involved in international trade who’d served as chair of the Clinton campaign for president in 1992. Punke now works as President Obama’s Deputy United States Trade Representative and US Ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. According to this article in Maxim, his ability to engage in promoting his books is very limited by his sensitive position in the federal government. I’m very glad to know that Michael Punke’s first book is coming back in to print, and that a movie is in the works. We have been in touch occasionally over the past decade, and I’m pleased that I have so much good news to congratulate him about when we’re next in touch. Above is the front and below the back cover of the paperback edition of The Revenant from 2003.Revenant back

 

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December 10th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Art, Photography, Design; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Urban Life & New York City

Appreciating Ruth Gruber’s Lifetime of Humanitarian Activism and Photojournalism, at the JCC til Feb 25

Ruth at JCC, Dec 9, 2014Kyle, Ewan, and I had a great time last night at the opening reception for an exhibit of Ruth Gruber’s photojournalism at the JCC. This is essentially the same exhibit that was mounted in 2012 at the International Center of Photography, the year that Ruth was awarded the ICP’s Infinity Award. If you’re unfamiliar with Ruth’s work, this show is a great way to begin. If you’re not in NYC to go see it, this link will lead you to many of the images. If you’re not familiar with her remarkable career, here’s a primer:

Born in 1911 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Ruth was always precocious. She received her B.A. from NYU at age sixteen; an M.A. in German language and literature from the University of Wisconsin at eighteen; and at twenty was offered a fellowship to participate in an exchange program at the University of Cologne. Early in her studies there, in 1931, she was asked by a professor if she would consider reading the work of Virginia Woolf, and writing a doctoral thesis about her. I’ve imagined that Ruth’s professors must have realized they had this bright female student in their midst, a reader of English and German who could tackle the Englishwoman’s books and write about them, asking themselves when they might again have such an opportunity, especially with the inter-war years—which they turned out to be—increasingly fraught by international peril? Ruth demurred—she had not yet read Woolf’s work, she could afford to be in Cologne only one year, her parents would not let her stay longer, the work would surely take more than a year—but soon, though she hadn’t read any of Woolf’s books when the professors asked her, she said, “I’ll try.” Taping up a picture of Woolf in her room, she undertook to read all of Woolf’s books then published, pondering their meaning and the significance of Woolf’s creative enterprise.

Despite the notoriety that her youthful doctorate brought her (she was heralded in the NY Times as the “World’s Youngest Ph.D.”), the Depression was in full swing and Ruth found little work upon her return to the States. She continued traveling and trying her hand at journalism and photography. In 1935, she was delighted when the thesis on Woolf was published as a book in Germany by the Tauchnitz Press, which had a list of English-language titles, including Woolf’s The Waves. Ruth sent a copy of her thesis to Woolf in London, thus beginning a lengthy correspondence between the two women that culminated in Ruth paying a visit to Woolf at her Bloomsbury home in 1936 or ’37. For more on this period of Ruth’s life, including the meeting between the two women, you can also read my post, Virginia Woolf and Ruth Gruber, Driven to Create as Women her on this blog.

After her experiences in Germany, she won a Fulbright scholarship, which included attending a rally at which Hitler spoke, where the foreign students were seated very near him, she devoted an extended period of independent study to the examination of “women under democracy, fascism, and communism.” She became the first Western journalist to tour the Soviet Arctic, and in 1937 published her second book, I Went to the Soviet Arctic, which she parlayed in to a new career as a public lecturer. In 1940, Ruth continued her association with the peoples of the polar regions when she became a member of the FDR administration, under Interior Secretary Harold Ickes who named her his special field representative for the territory of Alaska. She is doubtless one of the Roosevelt administration’s eldest surviving staffers. She worked for the government off and on during and immediately after WWII, leaving at times to work as a foreign correspondent for the New York Post and the Herald Tribune. In 1944, Ickes assigned Ruth a mission she urged him to give her, that of escorting nearly 1,000 WWII survivors from Naples, Italy, on the Henry Gibbins, a ship that also carried wounded American troops back to the US. In 1947, she was working as a foreign correspondent when she covered the fate of the Exodus ship, and chased its thousands of stateless passengers all over the Mediterranean and central Europe the summer of that year.

To read more about Ruth Gruber’s lifetime of humanitarian activism I recommend any of the six books I published with her, five of which are currently available in new editions from Open Road Integrated Media, whose executives Jane Friedman and Philip Rappaport were also on hand at the JCC. The titles I published with Ruth are 1) Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation, Introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook; 2) Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 WWII Refugees and How They Came to America, which was adapted for a TV movie in 2000 (Foreword by Dava Sobel, author of Longitude, and Ruth’s niece); 3) Raquela: A Woman of Israel, winner of the Jewish Book Award in 1978 (Introduction by novelist Faye Kellerman); 4) Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent (also the title of a documentary on Ruth), Introduction by Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner; 5) Inside of Time: My Journey from Alaska to Israel: My Journey from Alaska to Israel; and 6) Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman.

I have written about Ruth several times on this blog, posts that are all illustrated with photographs by Ruth or of her: 1) Ruth Gruber’s Photojournalism at Soho Photography; 2) My Friend Ruth Gruber, Pioneering Photojournalist; 3) Virginia Woolf and Ruth Gruber, Driven to Create as Women; 4) Celebrating Photojournalist & Author Ruth Gruber’s 102nd Birthday With Her; and 5) Marking Photojournalist Ruth Gruber’s 103rd Birthday. Below are photos I took at last night’s reception, and photos I’ve taken of her book jackets.

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December 1st, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner Book Productions; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

Happy to Be Part of Blurb, Platform Connecting Writers with Quality Editorial Services

Glad to be a collaborator with Blurb, a new Web space where writers can find editors to help them hone their work, and other publishing services, including design. There’s a nice, clean look to editors’ profiles, like mine linked to here, and shown in the screenshot of it below. If you’re an author looking for editorial help, or know a writer who is, please have a look and get in touch.PST Blurb profile

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August 29th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Philip Turner's Books & Writing

Looking for a Laugh

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August 12th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

The Unexpected Joys of Synchronous Reading

I love it when I find unexpected correlations and thematic continuities among the books I’m reading, especially when there are really no circumstantial connections among the authors and the books.

I’m traveling these twelve days (August 7-19) from NYC to St. Louis to Chicago to Cleveland and back to NY, and so have a number of good books with me. First book I finished during the trip was Emily St. John Mandel’s wistful Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel set in a future that might be not too distant from our own, when a deadly flu has driven the world’s inhabitants in to a tenuous existence, with familiar communities splintered and new ones reconstituted around survival, with safety from brigands and cults their paramount goal. Grim as that may sound, it’s really a sweet book as Mandel uses flashbacks to skillful oscillate between the pre- and post-disease worlds, devoting much of the narrative to memorializing things we’d miss from today if the world suddenly fell in to chaos. Amplified music, electric guitars, buying gas at the pump, surfing the Internet, ordering a meal in a restaurant—these are a handful of the quotidian details suddenly subtracted from the lives of her characters. She imagines that surivivors have retrofitted automobiles and trucks so that, in the absence of petrol, they can be pulled by horses. In fact, the symphony/theater troupe at the center of the story moves itself in the Lake Michigan region this way, with musicians and players in tow, and young or vulnerable members stowed in the back, in what I imagine as modified Conestoga wagons supplying cover.

Prior to Mandel’s novel, which will be published next month, I was reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a post-nuclear event novel published in 1957. I met Mandel in July, at a Fall Book preview sponsored by NAIBA, and mentioned Shute’s book, which she told me she hadn’t heard of was. It’s set in Australia, after the Cold War nations have traded atomic bomb attacks, leaving the world above the equatorial line a death zone. An Australian submarine crew is tasked with traveling, submerged beneath the ocean, to assess the radioactivity of the post-incident world and determine if there might be habitable zones elsewhere. Shute’s novel is told in a measured, even laconic style, a bit less literary than Mandel’s. Like her though, he imagined that the inhabitants of his wrecked world would need some mode of land transport, and so they’ve retrofitted their cars and farm vehicle so they can be pulled by horses.

Now it’s not surprising that the authors of two post-apocalyptic novels would each employ common elements, like the retrofitted vehicles. What’s more surprising is when the author of two entirely unrelated books—one historical nonfiction, the other a thriller—share a thematic unity.

While reading Mandel’s novel I’d also been enjoying Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of American’s First Spy Ring, a history of espionage during the Revolutionary War published in 2006 that’s the basis of the current AMC TV series, “Turn,” which I had made one of my #FridayReads last month. It’s fascinating, and using the letters that General Washington’s spies sent to him, covers aspects of American’s war with Britain that are entirely new to me. One of these side stories is how the British army flooded Boston, NY, and Philadelphia with “hundreds of thousands of fake dollars,” counterfeit money they hoped would undermine confidence in Colonial currency, reduce its value, and motivate local populations to avoid using it.

According to Rose, British generals arranged for prolific counterfeiters from English prisons to be released, who were then pressed in to service printing bogus dollars, some of them with their engraving tools and printing presses aboard ships floating in New York harbor. Rose writes that disinformation efforts were undertaken with “Royalist papers like…New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury print[ing] public ‘editorials’ noting, by the by, that ‘there has lately…been a large distribution in the country of counterfeited Continental bills, so admirably executed, as not easily to be discerned from those issued by order of the Congress. This has contributed not a little to lower their value, and will be one effectual bar to their repayment or liquidation.'” Rose even discovered that classified ads were run in some papers, seeking people who would be willing to pass the currency in Colonial cities.

 

While still reading and enjoying Washington’s Spies I was ready for another novel to read, and so browsing in Left Bank Books, St. Louis’s well-known indie bookstore, last weekend, I was delighted to discover that the very first Jack Reacher suspense novel, by Lee Child had been reissued. I love the Reacher novels, an enjoyment that only grew after meeting him at a book party for Valerie Plame’s first novel in October 2013. The only reason I sometimes hesitate in picking up a Reacher novel is that I often can’t recall which ones I’ve already read. But I knew I hadn’t read Child’s inaugural entry, from 1997, so was happy to buy it that day, especially as it included a new preface by Child, explaining how he came to create the character of Jack Reacher, a former MP in the US Army who since leaving the service has lived a rootless life, rambling from town to town, and inevitably, encountering bad guys in his path, harming innocents whom he chooses to protect. It’s called Killing Floor and with lots of leisure time the past week, I’m deep in to it now. The plot centers around Margrave, Georgia, a small town that Reacher drifts in to, idly, in search of the legacy of a bluesman named Blink Blake who his brother Joe, his only living relative, once told him had spent time in Margrave. After only a few hours in town, Reacher is arrested on suspicion of murder, and even though he’s quickly cleared in the case, his sense of moral indignation is aroused when he glimpses all the corrupt things going on in the town, so he sticks around to try and straighten things out.

Imagine my surprise when in my reading I discovered that the rotten underside at the heart of the story is a counterfeiting ring that his brother, a federal agent, had been investigating. At one point, Reacher meets an elderly professor who tells him of his own countefeitiung exploits, though more of the wartime Washington’s Spies sort than the typical criminal kind, bearing more than a passing resemblance to that done by the British against the Colonies: “During the Second World War, young men like…me ended up with strange occupations….Considered more useful in an intelligence role than in combat….We were handed the job of attacking the enemy with economics. We derived a scheme for shattering the Nazi economy with an assault on the value of its paper currency. Our project manufactured hundreds of billions of counterfeit reichsmarks. Spare bombers littered Germany with them. They came down out of the sky like confetti.”

The congruities among historical events described in Alexander Rose’s history of Revolutionary War espionage and Lee Child’s contemporary thriller are pretty striking, aren’t they?

[NB: This post was written in the excellent Blogsy app on my iPad on an Amtrak train traveling from St. Louis to Chicago.]

 

 

 

 

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May 21st, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Canada; Honourary Canadian; Media, Blogging, Internet; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

Taking a Page from Honourary Canadian

As readers of this blog may have noticed, I started a second blog in 2013, called Honourary Canadian: Seeing Canada From Away. After starting this blog in 2011, I was often posting about Canada, and a couple years in, decided to start a second site devoted to Canadian topics, where I’d offer my views of Canada for Canadians and others interested in the country. I aspire to the perspective and the work of Alistair Cooke, who broadcast and wrote knowledgeably and sensitively about America, after moving to the US from England. Like this site, at the new blog I write about Canadian books, publishing, live music, media, and politics, with the cross-cultural perspective of a respectful outsider. I’ve been sharing HC links here from time to time and integrating the two sites one with another, for instance setting up a feed so the latest posts from each site are readily visible and linked to on the other. The two blogs are sort of like siblings, with this one the older brother.

I’m posting here today to let Great Gray Bridge readers know I recently published a new entry at Honourary Canadian called Why I Started This Blog and Call It Honourary Canadian, which explores my lifelong interest in the neighbor to the north. I invite you to read it. It’s a memoiristic piece that chronicles many trips I’ve made in Canada since childhood, beginning with Expo ’67 when I was just twelve years old; authors whose books I’ve read and published; bands I’ve seen live and become friendly with; and reflections on differences between the US and Canada, and the media in both countries. Along with the essay, I’ve included dozens of scenic photographs, book covers, band photos, and scans of letters I received from Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, with whom I had a lengthy correspondence when I ran Undercover Books in the 1980s.

At the top of this entry is a shot of that new post, which will give you a sense of what the new site looks like if you’ve not visited yet. Just as I found a visual touchstone for this blog from a scenic landmark—the George Washington Bridge, aka the Great Gray Bridge, and the little red lighthouse—I found visual inspiration for the new site in a true wonder of the world, the majestic Percé Rock (aka le rocher percé or ‘pierced rock’), a huge rock face on eastern Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, a veritable lobster tail jutting in to the Gulf of St. Lawrence where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Below is a pic of what that post looks like. If you enjoy awe-inspiring scenery, I recommend you check out the whole post, which includes many photos I took during a visit there in 1988. In fact, I invite you to visit Honourary Canadian, and have a look around. 

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April 26th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

#FridayReads, April 25, Robert Palmer’s “Blues & Chaos”

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March 30th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Art, Film, TV, Photography, Fine Printing & Design; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling; Urban Life & New York City

Vivian Maier Was The Real Deal, the Ultra Opposite of Joe Gould

I was stunned by the new documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” which Kyle and I saw yesterday. Below is the trailer, if you haven’t seen it yet, or the film, which was directed by John Maloof, and two of her photographs. He bought a box of her negatives at an auction in 2007. At the time, neither he, nor anyone, yet knew who Maier was, or that she’d been making a photographic record in Chicago where she lived since around 1949.

vm_newsstandVM hands
I continued thinking about the movie all day after walking out of the noon screening. Today, I’m still mulling some major points that struck me. Below is an attempt to corral what I’ve been thinking about the film.

Vivian Maier (1926-2009) embarked on and then sustained over many decades the production of what we can now see as a truly monumental visual and documentary legacy. It’s a microcosmic yet vast history of modern urban America and many Americans, seen through the sensitive eye, lens, and mind of one person, a woman whose work as a nanny somehow allowed her the means and opportunity to conduct this personal journalistic enterprise. Until Maloof’s discovery, the enterprise was completely unknown, yet it was hiding in what amounted to (somewhat plain) sight, in auction houses, storage lockers, and in the records of the families she had worked for over the years. Some of them were still paying storage fees on her property. With impressive industry and inspired sensitivity to Maier’s mission, Maloof has excavated the extant physical record. I’m very thankful to him for doing this, for his open-heartedness and his willingness to plunge in to Maier’s work. In bidding at the fateful auction, he went all the way up to $380 for the box of negatives,* not small change. He said on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show last Friday that when he bid on and won the box he hoped to be able to harvest images from it for a photographic history of Chicago he was organizing for Arcadia Books (the publisher that does city histories). Turned out the pictures weren’t good for the book, and he put them in a closet. But sometime later, he posted more than 100 images on his Flickr page, essentially blogging with them. The reaction was a palpable “Wow” from street photography lovers and has led ultimately to this amazing documentary, which I want to see again.

Thinking more about Maier’s dedication, I’m amazed at how pure her motivation was in producing it all. She created this legacy, even though she never, so far as is known, sought an audience for her work, and had no child, relation, friend, or agent–not a single person–to whom she could leave her work; I wonder if she even had a will. Nor does it seem Maier solicited the interest of another photographer or an institution that might have taken an interest in her archive. Perhaps Maier knew best, not wanting to broach rejection. In the film, Maloof reports on what became a futile attempt to interest MOMA in the work. Even with their storied photographic collection, curated for many years by Peter Galassi, who didn’t retire until 2011, they perfunctorily declined. There ought to be some embarrassment at the museum over this and I think it would be a good thing if an arts journalist with a source at MOMA would seek on-the-record comment from them about their refusal. I concede that everybody makes mistakes–like editors who turned down On the Road and Catcher in the Rye–but it’s best to own up to them when they occur. So, instead of falling in to the hands of a responsible party at the time of Maier’s death in 2009, the hundred thousand negatives, many 8 mm and 16 mm film reels, and cassettes of audio recordings she made with people she interviewed–making her a veritable podcaster, decades before the term was coined–were basically put out to sea, cast adrift, and headed perhaps for a destructive crack-up on the rocky shores of time. That they didn’t suffer shipwreck–or submersion in a landfill–borders on a secular miracle.

I’m also thinking of Maier’s lack of an audience in a personal way, in relation to my own creative output, my two blogs (to be sure, humble by comparison). Here and on Honourary Canadian, I write and share about what interests me, what compels me, and hope that readers will care about these things, too, and appreciate the way I express and present them. I do like knowing that readers are finding items of interest and mutual relevance, though I wouldn’t change what I’m writing about just to gain more readers. It doesn’t matter greatly to me if some pieces aren’t widely read, because I’m also writing for myself, for the clarity of mind that I derive from the effort and experience. Fortunately, I do have readers, and what amounts to my own printing press, the Wordpress blogs themselves. Maier, in this regard, didn’t seek, or at any rate, didn’t have the opportunity to have her work seen by others. Yet, she seems to have hardly flagged or despaired over not having a speck of an audience or appreciation, and no way to get them. This makes what she did all the more singular and remarkable.

On America’s most prolific diarist, Edward Robb Ellis; “Joe Gould’s Secret” by The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell; and Vivian Maier

Readers who follow the books I’ve edited and published over the years may recall my author Edward Robb Ellis (1911-98), whose A Diary of the Century was quite a popular book for me, published in 1995, republished in 2008, still easy to find, still highly recommended. I mention it here because Eddie, as friends knew him, is the writer in my experience with an enterprise most closely analogous to that of Vivian Maier, though interesting distinctions exist between them. He kept a diary longer than anyone in the history of American letters, beginning his enterprise at age 16 during the Christmas vacation of 1927, when he dared a few pals, and himself, to start keeping a diary, and then they’d see who among them could keep it the longest. In his 20s, he also became a newspaper reporter. Basically, Eddie never stopped writing until the year he died. As Pete Hamill observed in his Introduction, Eddie wrote in print for the public, yet also for himself in the diary, which years later he wrote helped him become a more mature, an even happier, person. But even with the diary’s private reflections on intensely personal matters, Eddie also showed an interest in writing for the sake of the future, for posterity; he ultimately wanted the diary to be read by others, in hopes it might enrich the future with useful knowledge and pertinent information on his times–his entries cover the quotidian; the cost of things; which songs were on the hit parade; what movies were shown on a weekend when he worked his part-time job as an usher at the local cinema; along with current events and historic incidents that shook the world. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, which certified Ellis’s achievement in the early 1990s, his diary comprised more than 22,000,000 words, nearly half the length of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, a work with hundreds of contributors, while like Vivian Maier, Eddie created his work entirely on his own.

Ellis’s prodigious achievement was so well known among his fellow journalists that when Diary was published the week after Labor Day in ’95, Eddie scored a rare publicity hat trick: He was invited to appear, and went on all three network morning chat shows all within that week, interviewed by Cokie Roberts, Matt Lauer, and Harry Smith (on ABC, NBC, and CBS respectively) each network overlooking the usual policy they had against booking a guest who’s just been on a competing show. In the last decades of his life, the diary by then grown to many bound leather volumes and associated boxes, Eddie spent much anxious energy contemplating where his magnum opus might end up–he tried deeding it to a number of institutions, but even with the Guinness stamp of approval, there were few willing takers. Fortunately, as I wrote in a Preface to the 2008 paperback reissue of Diary, Eddie’s life work found “a permanent home with the Fales Library of New York University. Indeed, even before the last day of his life–which arrived on Labor Day 1998, so fitting for a man who always called himself a ‘working stiff’–more than five dozen oversize bound volumes were hauled from his Chelsea apartment to the Greenwich Village campus.” I added that I hope to publish another volume of the Ellis Diary someday, for it had been “my privilege to read into those bound volumes of the diary…and I promise the reader that I found no dross there.” A Diary of the Century

While working with Eddie Ellis from 1993-98, bringing out three other books of his, including The Epic of New York City, I came upon Joseph Mitchell’s classic New Yorker profile, “Joe Gould’s Secret.” In it, Mitchell chronicles for the reader his lamentable discovery that a longtime legendary denizen of lower Manhattan, Joe Gould, who for years had purported to be writing a magnum opus/History of the World was ultimately a bluffer, a failure, and a fraud. (In the pretty good movie version Ian Holm plays a grizzled Gould while Stanley Tucci takes on the role of Mitchell, a North Carolina writer working for the magazine.) Working with Eddie, I used to think how lucky I was to be working with a real-life Joe Gould-type, only Eddie was the real McCoy.

But now, thinking once more about Vivian Maier, I can see that unlike the others, she created her magnificent magnum opus without an audience, nor hope for one. By contrast, Gould hoped for adulation from others, though he did little to earn it, while Eddie Ellis, though not creating his work primarily for others, did enjoy praise, and came to see how his diary could be useful to others, and so arranged to share it with the world. But not only did Maier disclaim an audience for herself, she didn’t even claim posthumous credit for her achievement, like say with a “To Be Opened on the Occasion of My Death” letter, with information on where her affects could be found. She just died, and fortunately John Maloof was there to connect with her work. This is all a striking contrast to her male predecessors Gould and Ellis, the former phony, the latter authentic. It leaves me in greater awe of what she accomplished, and all the more appreciative of the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier.”

*I objected to the penultimate paragraph in Manohla Dargis’s NY Times review of the documentary, where she quibbles with the fact that Maloof stands to gain financially as Vivian Maier’s star rises higher. The guy has unearthed this magnificent work, and devoted several years of his life to it, at much expense I’m sure–I hope he does well from it all. Glad to see that art critic Jerry Saltz and I are in agreement on this point, as he wrote this in his New York magazine review of “Finding Vivian Maier”:  “The Times’ otherwise excellent Manohla Dargis churlishly labeled this documentary ‘a feature-length advertisement for Mr. Maloof’s commercial venture as the principal owner of her work.’ This sort of cynical snappishness is cropping up a lot in many critics’ work of late—the idea that if there’s any profit involved, the work must be less pure, less good, more suspect. Whatever: I love this advertisement. Besides: Maloof tried to get MoMA interested in Maier’s work. In the film, he shows us and reads the perfunctory rejection letter he got from the museum. He was on his own. No one else wanted to take on the responsibility of unearthing and bringing to light this truly great artist. History will be grateful to him, and no one should look back cynically at his commitment to Vivian Maier.”
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