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Christopher Morley's Bookselling Novels
Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was best known as a novelist during his prime years from the late 1910s to the late 1940s. But novel-writing was only one part of a career in which Morley was always a great promoter of literature and reading.
This world of words was promoted through Morley's newspaper and magazine columns, nonfiction books, and his involvement as a judge with the Book of the Month Club and as an editor of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.
But Morley's best-known salute to the writing and reading life was a pair of novels that he wrote at the beginning of his career about an enthusiastically opinionated bookseller named Roger Mifflin.
The first book, Parnassus on Wheels (1917), describes Mifflin's career as a wandering bookseller who used a horse-dawn carriage to peddle his products from town to town.
In the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop (1919), Mifflin settles into a regular bookshop in Brooklyn, New York. He runs this shop with his wife Helen, whom he met during his travels in Parnassus on Wheels.
A sparkling affection for books comes through in the pages of these two delightfully written novels. They are very educational and entertaining, and you walk away from them with a better appreciation for the faded art of bookselling. Both books have such a flurry of impressions and observations that it's not surprising to hear that many readers have continued to return to their pages.
Morley's background strongly helped prepare him to write these books. His family tree included professors and publishers.
He also spent about four years with the Doubleday, Page & Company publishing company. In Living Authors (1931), Frank Nelson Doubleday said that when Morley "had an enthusiasm for a book and an author he would never let you forget it."
You get the feeling that Roger Mifflin is a surrogate for Morley, who used Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop to gather stray thoughts about the writing and reading life. Mifflin mentions the names of many writers in these two books, and you get a definite sense of Mifflin's (and probably Morley's) favorite and least favorite authors.
My personal copies of these books are an interesting commentary on the book publishing and bookselling business.
My copies of Parnassus on Wheels include:
- A 1925 Modern Library edition.
- A Grosset & Dunlap edition that is copyright 1917 but has a book jacket with titles from much later, including Morley's 1933 novel Swiss Family Manhattan. The back of the jacket mentions that Grosset & Dunlap was reprinting successful novels in "beautifully bound, modestly priced editions."
My copies of The Haunted Bookshop include:
- A 1919 Grosset & Dunlap edition published "By arrangement with Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc." Newspaper advertisements from June 1919 when the book was first published stated that it was published by Doubleday, Page, and Co.
- A 1935 Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. edition.
I also have both books in 1998 Common Reader Editions of the Akadine Press. I saw these books in the Common Reader mail order catalog and jumped at the chance to support this worthy publishing endeavor, which sadly ended in 2006. Both books have affectionate introductions by Common Reader publisher James Mustich, Jr.
I know I'm destined to look for other editions of the books, in part to have an excuse to read them again.
Parnassus on Wheels (1917)
Avid book readers often share their enthusiasm, through book clubs and the Internet. Parnassus on Wheels describes a unique and personal way that a bookseller shared his excitement for books abut 100 years ago.
Roger Mifflin, the main male character in Parnassus on Wheels, travels the countryside with a horse-drawn wagon of books. This wagon is named Parnassus, after Mount Parnassus, a mountain in Greece that has been called the mythical home of literature, poetry, and music. Mifflin tries to educate his potential customers about the joys of reading.
Mifflin first reminded me of Frank Morgan's performance as Professor Marvel in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. Mifflin's horse-drawn wagon and promotional bluster contributed to this mental image.
Mifflin enters the story after the reader has met Helen McGill, the main female character. Mifflin is interested in selling his traveling bookshop to Helen's brother Andrew, who is a writer. Helen ends up buying the wagon herself, and sets off on a journey of discovery and independence. The reader is emotionally pulled into the book by the leap of faith taken by Helen's decision to buy Parnassus.
Although Christopher Morley was just beginning as a novelist when he wrote Parnassus on Wheels, the book has a confident, disciplined tone. It also has a bemused tone that is often used by the characters as a way to deal with unexpected events, as a defense or coping mechanism.
The book has a sharp, melodic rhythm, with many cleverly phrased sentences. Morley had a lifelong love of words, and many unique words and phrases are sprinkled throughout Parnassus on Wheels and the 1919 sequel The Haunted Bookshop. I'm tempted to quote some of these phrases, but it would be much more fun for the reader to discover them in the context of the lively plot.
The world of books and reading are a constant, at times multi-threaded, theme throughout Parnassus on Wheels.
Andrew and Helen McGill inherited a "carload of books" from their uncle, which helped start Andrew on a career in writing on a farm that he and Helen ran. That in turn helped Roger Mifflin decide to try to sell his rolling bookstore to Andrew, so that Mifflin could write a memoir about his life on the road—Literature Among the Farmers.
Morley uses the frame of this plot to tell a philosophical tale that would interest any avid reader, from the parchment and scroll studiers of long ago to the electronic book users of the 21st century.
The novel shows how books and reading can connect people; how a reader can get caught up in another reader's enthusiasm for a particular book. A friendship develops between Helen McGill and Roger Mifflin that reflects Helen's increasing enjoyment of the social world of bookselling as much as any increase in her love for reading.
"The idea of talking about books in a human rather than a literary way is skillfully handled, and therefore, never overworked," read a review of Parnassus on Wheels in the Oct 15. 1917 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. "The salesman seems to know something of everything that was ever written, and very much of many works which the average man never reads. But it is not the disclosure of his knowledge of books that counts, but his way of talking about them to different people."
The Haunted Bookshop (1919)
Like an old sailor who's ready to rest his weary bones on land, Roger Mifflin decided to retire his rolling bookshop Parnassus in favor of a regular store that he's named The Haunted Bookshop (in honor of the many authors who "haunt" a bookstore). He's now settled down in marriage with the former Helen McGill, whom he met in Parnassus on Wheels.
In that brick-and-mortar setting in Brooklyn, Mifflin continues his evangelical mission to promote the joys of reading to as many people as possible. This book includes more of Mifflin's verbal dissertations, which are delivered to:
- A group of booksellers known affectionately as the Corn Cob Club that meets occasionally at The Haunted Bookshop.
- A young woman named Titania Chapman who comes to work in The Haunted Bookshop as a favor to one of the members of the Corn Cob Club. Mifflin decorates Titania's guest room with specially selected books to help induce a love of books into her.
- Mifflin's brother-in-law Andrew McGill, who ended up in possession of the horse-drawn bookselling wagon that was the title character in Parnassus on Wheels.
A lively debate of the Corn Cob Club revolves around the long-running battle between art and commerce. Should booksellers sell people what they want or what the bookseller feels that they need?
The Haunted Bookshop also discusses the value of book advertising, with much of the debate between Mifflin and a young advertising salesman named Aubrey Gilbert who has taken an interest in the pretty Titania Chapman. Mifflin much preferred a personal style of selling that was basically a enthusiastic conversation about books that somehow ended up in a sale.
The Brooklyn setting gives Morley the chance to promote many of his favorite authors by naming the streets around The Haunted Bookshop after different writers, including (William) Wordsworth Avenue, (George) Gissing Street, (William) Hazlitt Street, and (William) McFee Street.
The Haunted Bookshop is about 2/3rds longer than Parnassus on Wheels because of an involved mystery that relates to the recently ended European war (World War I) and Thomas Carlyle's 1845 book about the letters and speeches of Oliver Cromwell. The mystery has the usual number of convenient clues and coincidences, and sometimes crowds out the bookselling theme, but the final resolution of the mystery helps pull together the different threads of the plot.
World War I also plays an important role in the philosophical tone of The Haunted Bookshop. Morley's preface is dated April 28, 1919, so this book was written during the final months of the war (which ended on November 11, 1918) and the first few months of the peace.
Mifflin makes several extended speeches about the war, in which he forcefully denounces the militarism that he feels caused the war. At times, you feel that the personal voice of Morley has taken over. It's similar to Charles Chaplin's speech at the end of the 1940 movie The Great Dictator, where Chaplin seems to go out of character to denounce the totalitarian forces in Europe that helped cause World War II.
In the late 1910s, Morley was writing a lot of essays, and The Haunted Bookshop was an opportunity to write an extended essay about World War I. This desire dovetailed with the war-related details of The Haunted Bookshop, so the war-related comments did not feel out of place in this novel. This mixture of content was typical of Morley, who spent his career bouncing between novels, essays, poetry, and other literary forms.
The Haunted Bookshop (and the adventures of Roger Mifflin) ends on a dramatic note, along with some playfully ironic observations about Mifflin's all-consuming love for books and bookselling.
"The charm of the book is in the philosophy and the comments on life and books made by the shopkeeper," read a review of The Haunted Bookshop in the July 1, 1919 edition of The Indianapolis Star. "Every page tempts to quotation, and as this temptation must be overcome, the alternative is to recommend the reading of the entire volume. It offers choice entertainment."
Tante, Dilly. Living Authors: A Book of Biographies. The H. W. Wilson Company, 1931.