Monday, June 20, 2005


Here's a strange book that I found in the bountiful stacks of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's library. (Somewhat less bountiful now that they've begun moving some books to a remote storage facility where they'll be unavailable for browsing.) Avery Glibun; or, Between Two Fires is a novel published in 1867 by Orpheus C. Kerr (a pseudonym for Robert Henry Newell), a political humorist who was popular in his time, but is virtually unread today. Avery Glibun itself must be even more unread; I wonder if there are more than ten people alive today, besides myself, who have read it. The novel is more ambitious than its title would suggest ("a very glib 'un": get it?); in fact it's an obvious imitation of Dickens' later works. (Kerr also wrote an "adaptation" of The Mystery of Edwin Drood "to American scenes, characters, customs, and nomenclature.") There's a child narrator out of Great Expectations; settings that range from the peak of society to the worst slums, and points in between; a complicated plot revolving around a secret from the past and relying heavily on coincidence; and even an attempt at creating a Dickensian character.

As a social satirist of the nouveau riche, Kerr isn't bad, but unfortunately these scenes form only a small part of the book. (The political satire in the book is notable mainly for its extreme anti-Irish stance.) In all other respects, Kerr is far inferior to his model. This is particularly true of his language, which for the most part alternates between the lifeless and the fustian. Still, there are a few good passages. Since very few of the readers of this blog will ever have the opportunity to read Avery Glibun, and probably few of these will have the inclination, I'll quote the best bits here.

The narrator, of himself as a child: "Forbidden ... to exchange views and confidences with others, I at last became moody by habit, and wandered uncomfortably hither and thither within the narrow limits of my liberty, like some odd little word whose whole language afforded no rhyme for it." (31)

From a description of one of the daughters of the nouveau riche playing the piano at a party: "Plump white right hand with a turquoise ring, seeing plump white left hand sprawling luxuriously on the spotless sidewalk, cheerfully challenges it to a little race up the street, and practises two or three false starts as an incitement. The left makes an impatient move to crawl away from its tormentor, which the latter takes for an artful feint. Away gallops the right, and gets near the end of the block before discovering that left is indignantly going the other way. Back it comes, then, on a sharp run, tearing up the pavement here and there on the way and throwing it tempestuously after the unsociable left, which thereupon turns irascibly about and hops rheumatically after the agile wretch. Up a convenient side-street darts the later and bounds gleefully to the top of the first fence; from which it skips tantalizingly to the tops of several others, with a taunting delight not to be borne. Thoroughly in earnest now, and madly exasperated, the left makes a flying leap for the fences; but goes 'way beyond them; at which down scampers right into the main thoroughfare again and rattles zig-zag down-town. More provoked than ever, left bears down in hot chase and quickly brings right to bay, when the tumult becomes frightful and culminative." (50)

"[H]e ... was presently leisuring elegantly down Broadway, at that easy, medium pace between hastening and lounging, which none but your true New Yorker can artistically achieve. In the brilliant lights of the retail and drug stores, he was a figure fit for a ball, -- in the shadows of wholesale stores and dwellings, he was an unexceptionable gentleman out for an evening walk." (201-2)

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