88. Christopher Morley

88. Christopher Morley

Christopher Morley (1890-1957) is scarcely remembered today, although in his time he was a widely-read journalist and prolific writer of essays and fiction. After his death several newspapers published his last message to his friends:

“Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity.”

His neglect today probably reflects his limitations both as a literary critic—he was, to be honest, more genial than penetrating--and as a writer of fiction. He is remembered by a few as the author of the 1939 novel Kitty Foyle, which was made into a movie with (as I remember) Ginger Rogers playing the part. But what impressed me most when I read him in my early (high-school) years, in the early 1940s, were his recommendations for reading. They were in his 1918 book of essays Shandygaff (the word, typical of those he brought to his readers’ attention, means a mixture of beer and ginger beer), but also in his other writings. It was on Morley’s urging that I read the two George Borrow books, Lavengro and The Romany Rye, about this proto-linguist’s life with the gypsies and learning their language; the great, endlessly entertaining Tristram Shandy; the novels of Thomas Love Peacock; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels With a Donkey; the writings of George Gissing, who never became a favorite of mine--all I remember about him is his report, in his New Grub Street, that the washroom in the British Museum, in his time, had a sign in it reading: FOR CASUAL ABLUTIONS ONLY (Meaning, don’t take baths here, as “street people” of the time evidently did.)

I see, in a biography of Morley on the internet, that he was a close friend of Don Marquis, and that the two of them even collaborated on a book. It may have been Morley who started me on a lifetime devotion to Marquis’s  Archy and Mehitabel, collected from his daily newspaper columns, made up of the writings of Archy the cockroach and featuring his friend the alley cat Mehitabel. I can still quote stretches of this from memory, and my son Benedict recently wrote out, also from memory, and posted on his own website, Archy’s lament beginning “If all the pomes that I have wrote/Were boiled together in a kettle,/ They’d make a meal for every goat/ From Rome to Popocatapetl/ Mexico.” The Archy and Mehitabel books had the considerable added attraction of being illustrated by no less than George Harriman, the creator of Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse. Find them if you can and read them.

Morley doesn’t hold up very well today; I recently bought and reread

The Haunted Bookshop, and stopped short of reading its companion Parnassus On Wheels—both charming proto-thrillers aimed at celebrating booksellers and encouraging reading. (I may have been influenced by them in spending so much of my time, in high school and college years, as a clerk in a bookstore—see R&R no. 57 above.) I can’t remember whether I ever finished his 1925 Thunder On the Left; all I remember from it is the character who confides in someone (I quote from memory): “You know, I’ve never read Lear. That’s because if I should be very ill and close to death, I could say to myself, ‘You can’t die, you haven’t read Lear!’ and I would immediately recover.”  But I can still remember searching out Morley’s books, and books he recommended, in the Berkeley Public Library—located only a few blocks from Berkeley High School, and so easy to stop in on my way home. Christopher Morley introduced me to authors who are now among my favorites, and greatly broadened my reading in this crucial period, and I am still grateful to him for that.


My boys Benedict and Julian point out that in revealing all my favorite old jokes (in R&R no. 85, “My Stock of Old Jokes”), I left out one of their favorites, the one about the near-sighted old lady and the elephant. So, here it is:

A near-sighted old lady looks out her kitchen window and sees, dimly, an elephant that has escaped from the zoo and has wandered into her backyard. She phones the police excitedly to say: “Officer, you have to come quickly! There’s a monster in my backyard!” “All right, lady,” says the bored policeman, who has had calls from her before, “there’s a monster in your backyard. What’s the monster doing?” She answers, “It’s pulling up my bushes with its tail!” “So. the monster is pulling up your bushes with its tail,” says the patient policeman. “What’s it doing then with the bushes?” The old lady thinks for a while, then says “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

(Wait for laughter to die down, then:)

My boys also remind me of two old riddles, of a kind that play upon the sounds of words, so they work best when spoken. I remember only these two; there may have been more:

How is a beehive like a bad potato?

Answer: A beehive is a bee-holder;

              A beholder is a spectator

              And a speck-tater is a bad potato.

How is a piece of binder paper like a lazy dog?

Answer: A piece of binder paper is an ink-lined plane,

              An inclined plane is a slope up,

              And a slow pup is a lazy dog.

There may be still more that I’ve forgotten, but don’t hold your breath waiting.

Add to R&R no. 74. Rokushô-yake: Green Pigment Burns Silk

Later note: A recent book catalog announces a book by John Winter, of the Freer Gallery’s technical laboratory, that I missed until now; it surely includes his information on all the above, and will largely supercede my discussion, being more detailed and more authoritative. It is: John Winter, East Asian Paintings: Materials, Structures, and Deterioration Mechanisms. London, 2008.


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