Monday, March 22, 2010

Where was a canteloupe

‘To breakfast, where was a canteloupe. Wretched, it being the season’s first.’ So began one of the most popular American columns of a century ago. It was written in the form of a diary, providing a real commentary on the author’s life, but humorously in the style of Samuel Pepys. Its author, the now largely forgotten Franklin Pierce Adams, died 50 years ago today.

Adams was born in Chicago in 1881, and was educated at Armour Scientific Academy and the University of Michigan. He started out selling insurance, but inspired by one of his customers, he began writing humorous verses and published a small volume of poems. He was taken on as a columnist by the Chicago Tribune, but soon moved to work for the New York Evening Mail, where he wrote a column called Always in Good Humor.

In 1914, FPA, as he always signed his columns, switched to the New York Tribune, and his column was retitled, The Conning Tower. Incredibly popular in its early days, the column is said to have launched the careers of several writers (see Wikipedia). Apart from a brief stint during the war when he was assigned to write for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, he remained a columnist for different New York papers until 1941, by which time the resonance of his writing and his popularity had faded away.

Adams is also remembered for being one of the members of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of wits who met for lunch during the 1920s at the Algonquin Hotel. The group included Edna Ferber, George S Kaufman and Dorothy Parker. In the 1940s, FPA found a new role, as a panellist on the popular radio show Information, Please!. He married twice, Minna Schwartze in 1904, and Esther Root, with whom he had four children, in 1925. He died 50 years ago today, on 23 March 1960.

Michael Gilleland’s website has a little more biographical information, but most of this comes from the only good source of information about Adams on the internet, which is Sally Ashley’s book - FPA: The life and times of Franklin Pierce Adams - freely available at Internet Archive (even though it cannot be out of copyright having been published by Beaufort Books as recently as 1986).

And it is in Ashley’s biography that one can find details about a diary Adams wrote for many years. This was not a personal diary, but one written for a column. It is less well remembered, perhaps, than The Conning Tower, but in its day was also very popular. In June 1911, Ashley explains, Adams began a breezy personal memoir written in the style of Samuel Pepys, with the intention of including journal entries within the regular column every other day for a month or so. He named it The Diary of Our Own Samuel Pepys and inserted ‘its first grumpy sentence’ on a Wednesday morning: ‘To breakfast, where was a canteloupe. Wretched, it being the season’s first.’

More from Ashley’s book: ‘At first the paragraphs appeared every few days. . . It was a guileless exercise, boring and fascinating at the same time, sprinkled with old Briticisms like ‘bespeaks’ and ‘betimes’ and ‘betook’. Despite its preciousness, his fans welcomed the account of everyday life as observed by a self-proclaimed ordinary fellow.’ But the diary didn’t stop after a month or two, it was still running in 1922 when he decided to run the Diary regularly just on Saturdays. Ashley says, ‘reading the Diary became a Saturday morning treat in many homes, as much a part of New York City life as the crowded subways it endlessly denounced.’

The Diary went along year after year, Ashley says (although like The Conning Tower in different newspapers) describing FPA’s ups and downs, how he spent his days, whom he saw, the food he ate, the funny things people (including him) said, what he hated, and what he enjoyed. Perhaps, Ashley comments, the Diary’s long popularity came because he never fancied it something more than it was; he evidenced irritation often, and contentment, but rarely outrage and never despair. ‘His concerns were those of a conventionally educated middle-class person, and they reflected the interests and inclinations of his readers. His intellectualism was predictable and mildly liberal, though he preferred describing the menu and the identity of his companions to disclosing the content of serious dinner table discussions.’

In 1935, Simon and Schuster published a very full collection of The Diary of Our Own Samuel Pepys in two volumes. According to Ashley, the reviews were favourable, and the volumes sold more copies than any of his other books, but nowadays they are only of interest to biographers of the Algonquin set and historians, for the topics were too of the moment, the style too precious, and the points of view too narrow.

Here are a few extracts from the diary/column (none of which are dated properly in Ashley’s book).

‘Home, and fashioning some verses, and thence to my barber’s to be trimmed and he asketh me something, and, understanding him not at all, what with his accent of Palermo, I did say, Yes, whereat he took a bottle and poured its contents upon my head, and then I did know it for olive oil, by its odour. And he did rub it into my hair till that I did feel like any head of lettuce and was minded to ask him to pass the salt and vinegar, but did not.’

‘With Mr Theodore Dreiser the great tayle-writer to luncheon, and he tells me of many things that have happened to him in Germany and in England and fills me with a great lust to travel.’

‘To luncheon with Jack Reed the poet and he told me of the four days he was in prison in Paterson, and of the horrible uncleanness, and of one man 80 yrs of age and ill that was imprisoned for six months for begging five cents. Also he told me how great a man is Bill Haywood, and it may be as Jack saith. Also he told me that the Industrial Workers are sorely misjudged and that the tayles in the publick prints of their bloodthirstiness are lies told by the scriveners. And out of it all I wish I did know how to appraise what is true and what is false, but I am too ignorant, and ill-fitted to judge truly.’

‘To dinner, and met Mistress Ida Tarbell, who told me of many ways in which a journal! might be made interesting, and some of her notions not bad neither.’

‘So all day at the office, answering the telephone and riding in the elevators and telling a gentleman from what he called the National Broadcahsting Company that I had no desire to say a few hundred words over the wireless, especially at the price offered, which was nothing. I was what my wife would call rude to him, and what I call ineffectually ironick. Then a fellow . . . came in to ask me whether I was busy, and I said, No, I came to the office to practice penmanship, and he said that I had no reason to insult him, that he wanted only to give me a chance to invest my money in a sound company, so I apologized and said that if he would give me only five minutes to myself I could write a fortune, all of which he could have.’

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