November 28, 2005,
One of the great mysteries of publishing is why some authors, once hugely popular, go out of print and stay there. Take Ruth McKenney, whose comic New Yorker stories about her youthful adventures in Greenwich Village became the 1938 bestseller My Sister Eileen, followed by several sequels, a long-running Broadway play of the same name, a movie starring Rosalind Russell, then the Leonard Bernstein musical Wonderful Town recently a hit Broadway revival. McKenney's story also happens to be a fascinating literary footnote, with a tragic twist: The real-life Eileen died in a car crash in 1940 with Day of the Locust author Nathanael West, just a few months after they were married and four days before My Sister Eileen opened on Broadway.
Ruth and her husband (New Masses editor Richard Bransten, heir to the MJB Coffee fortune), were Hollywood screenwriters and remained loyal Communists even after falling out with the party in the 1940s the Australian writer Christina Stead ruthlessly satirized the pair as proto-limousine liberals in her last novel, I'm Dying Laughing. But McKenney's books, which I first discovered in the library as a teenager, hold up; my favorite is the memoir of her marriage, Love Story, which expands upon many of the old Eileen stories.
Yet her work remains out of print, which frustrated me for years, and I don't think I'm the only one. Peg Bracken, of I Hate to Cook Book and I Hate to Housekeep Book fame, is another writer whose work remains part of the language while her books are no longer part of the market even though Amazon readers clamor for their return and housekeeping books in general have enjoyed something of a revival. But then came the used-book treasure troves Alibris, Bookfinders, Abebooks, et al, and now everything old is new again.
No longer must we book geeks troll dusty old shops (mostly to no avail) for particular sentimental favorites. Several years ago I began to easily find most of McKenney's and Bracken's books online for just a few dollars each, along with those of another out-of-print author I'd often fruitlessly searched for, Judy Van Der Veer. Information about obscure and forgotten writers like Van Der Veer, whose atmospheric tales of ranch life in the San Diego backcountry have been described as "lyrically minimalist" by California state historian Kevin Starr, is another great gift from the Internet.
One Van Der Veer novel, November Grass, was recently reissued as part of Heyday Press's California Legacy Series. What I consider her best, though (because it's the only one with a real plot), is the 1966 children's classic Hold the Rein Free, about two ranch children who steal a thoroughbred mare from her heartless owner. It's still out of print but available used online for as little as a dollar or two, plus shipping. Even rereading this story as an adult I found it such a page-turner that I'm surprised it's never been optioned by Hollywood.
Even when old books do get reissued, there can be something ineffably satifsying about reading them in their original form. Legendary World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle's Brave Men and Here Is Your War finally became available in paperback again a few years ago, but I prefer my old hardback edition of Brave Men, still as moving and immediate as I imagine the original owner, one Winifred Ellsini (her name is inscribed in my copy) found it when she got it for Christmas, 1944.
A bonus is John Steinbeck's hauntingly prophetic description of Pyle who was killed by a Japanese gunner near Okinawa on the torn dustjacket: "His dispatches sound as artless as a letter, but other professionals are not deceived. They know that Ernie Pyle is a great reporter... In his unique way, he is almost sure to be a sort of national conscience. If Ernie Pyle should die tomorrow, as well he may, it would still be a long time before Americans forgot Ernie Pyle's war."
I think Pyle deserves more attention than he gets these days. I've never read any "embedded" report from Iraq that could compare to Pyle's but then he really was up front for years, often digging his own foxholes.
Almost every book you thought you'd never find (to quote from the Alibris ad campaign) can easily be found online now, and often very cheaply too. Over the years I've snapped up Jane Trahey's Life With Mother Superior (the model for the Hayley Mills movie The Trouble With Angels), British humorist Stephen Potter's Oneupmanship series, and a book of A.P. Herbert light verse tracked down just from a few lines I remembered from one of his poems:
I wouldn't say a word against the girl be sure of that;
This last I remember originally from The Fireside Book of Humorous Poetry, which I spent many happy hours reading and rereading in my old junior high school library. I couldn't find a single copy when I first ran an online searched a few years ago, though. Then recently I saw one listed for $1000 ("very rare and scarce") on Alibris, and a few days later a copy for $12.75 showed up on Bookfinders. ("Heavily used ex-library copy," but you'd better believe I snapped that one up.)
I'd hoped my daughter Maia, now 16, would appreciate my childhood favorites as much as I did, but like many fantasies this was not to be she liked these old books but never loved them. Her tastes are different, leaning heavily to grim true tales of triumph over political tyranny; for her birthday one year, she asked for Gulag, by Anne Applebaum. When she was 12, Maia became fascinated with journalist Ruth Gruber, whose memoir about rescuing 1,000 Jews from the Nazis was made into the 2001 TV movie Haven. Gruber, then 90, was still around but her books (I Went to the Soviet Arctic, Exodus 1947, etc.) were not. But no problem I found used copies of them all online.