Tuesday, February 24, 2009

August Derleth Day

Today, 24 February, has just become August Derleth Day in the state of Wisconsin, US, thanks to a proclamation by the state governor, Jim Doyle. The proclamation was made to honour Derleth’s centenary, for he was born exactly 100 years ago. Although a versatile and prolific writer, he is most well remembered for promoting the horror stories of H P Lovecraft. He was also, though, a committed diarist, and published several volumes of diaries.

Here is the proclamation being read out today by Governor Doyle at Sauk City Park Hall (Sauk City being but a village): ‘. . . Whereas August W Derleth, a Wisconsin author born on February 24, 1909 in Sauk City, brought honor and distinction to himself, his community and his state during a lifetime spent in writing and publishing; and whereas, Derleth was educated in Sauk City beginning a writing career at age thirteen, publishing his first story in 1926; and whereas, he entered the University of Wisconsin where he continued writing, and graduated in 1930, after which he was briefly employed in an editorial position out-of-state; and . . .

Whereas, returning to Sauk City in 1931, Derleth embarked on a writing career leading to a contract with Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publication of the first of his Sac Prairie novels depicting the historical evolution of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac; the awarding of a Guggenhein Fellowship in 1938, and the ultimate publication of over 150 books ranging from history, historical novels, biography, poetry, contemporary novels, juvenilia, supernatural fiction and pastiches, marking him as the most prolific writer in Wisconsin history, and . . .

Whereas, Derleth founded Arkham House [a publishing company] . . . devoted to the works of H P Lovecraft and other writers of the macabre . . . and whereas, in 1941, Derleth was appointed literary editor of the Capital Times of Madison, a position he held until 1960, and whereas, Derleth died in 1971 at age 62, leaving behind two children, April Rose and Walden William and the many lives he touched through his works; and whereas, Derleth took continued pride in his Wisconsin roots as evidenced by his writings, his activities in lecturing on American Regional Literature and his Journals exploring the delights of rural Wisconsin,

Now, therefore, I, Jim Doyle, Governor of Wisconsin, do hereby proclaim February 24, 2009, the hundredth anniversary of August Derleth’s birth, as August Derleth Day.’

The long bibliography on Derleth’s Wikipedia page lists five published journals: Village Year: A Sac Prairie Journal (1941); Village Daybook (1947); Countryman’s Journal (1963); Wisconsin Country: A Sac Prairie Journal (1965); and Return to Walden West (1970). But John Howard, who maintains a website called Walden East with lots of information about Derleth, adds two other books with journal extracts: Walden West (1961) and Walden Pond: Homage to Thoreau (1968)

Howard says of Derleth: ‘His journal is full of variety. Even more so than in [his] novels, there is plenty of acute observation of nature: wildlife, plants, the weather and the changing seasons. And the human inhabitants of the region are put under the microscope and analysed. Comedy and tragedy is played out in equal measure, and recorded.’

An analysis of Derleth’s writing and books can be found on the Arkham House website. It says this of Countryman’s Journal: ‘Much of the entertainment results from his comic pictures of townspeople’s eccentricities, such as their colorful speech, and their dry wit. Conversely, the transience of human existence, evident in the many deaths, contrasts with nature’s survival, which he emphasizes by describing nature’s recurring seasonal changes. Derleth also reveals something about himself. He is both gregarious, which made it possible for him to learn much about others, and mildly abrasive, as shown by his running battle with one of the local priests.’

Here are two (undated) extracts from Derleth’s journal provided by the Walden East website:

‘Miss Ilsa Lahman passed: she who has always had delusions of grandeur. . . walking in her characteristic fashion, as if on eggshells, with the appearance of a slight limp: a hitch, actually. When asked what was wrong with Miss Lahman, Jo Merk replied, ‘She got that walking up and down the stairs in her medieval air castles.’ ’

‘Turning over his words in this place where, conceivably, they had taken shape for him, I was made to think of Sac Prairie, where, I suppose, I engage life in somewhat similar circumstances, allowing for a century’s advance in time. . . There are still solitary places in the woods and the marshes around Sac Prairie where, as Thoreau found it at Walden, only a railroad can be seen to remind one of civilization. . .’

Finally, John Howard also provides, on his Walden East website, an interesting article in which he traces how one small incident that happened on a train was not only recorded by Derleth in his journal, but used in his poetry and fiction as well.

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