This is a literary string-along to Patti Abbot's FRIDAY'S FORGOTTEN BOOKS series, here.
Last week, I meant to discuss Barbara Hunt's intellectual noir, A Little Night Music, but it was a late scratch because I had just read her other books, giving me a better understanding of her, and I needed some time to put it in perspective, to distance the work from the author.
A good author to study in tandem with Barbara Hunt is Colin Wilson, and a good book to read A Little Night Music in light of, is Colin Wilson's study, The Outsider, which was published nine years later. First, let's examine the novel.
First edition: published by Rineheart & Company, Inc., New York, 1947.
Dustjacket: The title is white in small letters against black. In the dimness, we can see three supports (of Chicago's El, I surmise), dimly illuminated by three lights, possibly the two headlights of a car and a streetlight. The author's name is in blood red, with the banner below in white: "Author of Sea Change." In the night sky above, at the top of the book, there is the blood-red illustration of a rose, looking surreal and out of place, but its significance is that the author gives one of her two main characters the ability to smell death, and it smells like roses. On the black spine, the title is in blood-red and the author's name in white.
From the epigraph: "It is the business of the very few to be independent; it is a privilege of the strong. And whosoever attempts it...enters into a labyrinth...becomes isolated, and is torn piecemeal by some minotaur of conscience..." --Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil
A table of contents shows that there are ten chapters, each carrying a musical title. They are First Theme, Second Theme, Counterpoint, Marching Song: An Interlude, First Theme And Variations, Leitmotif, Second Theme And Variations, Scherzo: An Interlude, Counterpoint, and Fugue.
Barbara Hunt's style here has a good mixture of exposition and dialogue. The book has 244 pages. I tend to prefer large print, and although the print here is not large, I still found it easy to read.
Opening lines: "Gavin MacDowell stood half-way up the ladder, suspended between the ceiling and the floor. He looked down on shafts of dust with the electric light beams shining through them, prismatic. From his situation in the shadowy dimness above it, the dust seemed almost solid, and its opalescent translucency conferred splendor, an exotic quality of mystery, upon the tables of dingy untidily stacked books."
The opening shows MacDowell as a clerk in a used bookstore in post-World War II Chicago. He is sixty-seven years old; he is sick and knows that he will die soon, but he cannot afford to quit his job unless he should sell his own rare book collection. Besides, he loves books and enjoys working with them. He is a man of the middle way, always trying to help people, generous to their faults, compassionate to their suffering.
The opening sentence shows him halfway between the ceiling and the floor, as if suspended in time. In the third paragraph, we read: “He felt the floating sensation he always had when he stood high up on the ladder and moved it, as if he were being borne gently through space, his body light, kindred of the air, his soul expanding softly. There was something ghostlike about it, something marvelous and unreal: the shafts of dust beneath him seemed solid, but his own body did not. It was a strange shifting of values, like the sort of thing that happened to one in dreams.”
We sense in him an everyman bodhisativa or an everyman christ, becoming reconciled to death. He is a widower, his beloved wife, Magda (short for Magdalene?), having “died so that their daughter, Hester, might be born.” In the first chapter, we seem him interacting with customers. One of them is an archetype of materialistic man buying The Art of Salesmanship and How To Win Friends And Influence People. And we see Gavin’s spiritual nature in contrast.
There is also a lot of backstory given on Gavin in the first chapter. His religion is undetermined but we’re told that his dead wife was the daughter of Slavic Jews. Through a flashback to his childhood, we see that Gavin himself was born into a family of Scots weavers. The father died and the mill wants to put 6-year-old Gavin to work as an indentured servant, to grow up in the company. In a beautifully written segment that runs several pages, the author shows the cruelty of laissez-faire capitalism as it once existed. It reminded me of the very similar situation of Kentucky’s coal miners, where once everything they were paid went to the company store, and there was no way out.
In the second chapter, the novel's other main character is introduced, Henry J. Stubbs, a veteran returned from the war who rejects materialism for the life of the mind. There is a very humorous scene where Henry, in a rebellious mood, throws his radio out the window and into the street. He then goes out into the Chicago night and discusses things with the gathering crowd. Henry believes that, through math, he go beyond Einstein and solve death and the riddle of eternity, birth, life, death, and rebirth.
Henry meets Gavin when he takes his rare edition of The Hound of Heaven to the bookstore where Gavin buys it from him. The two then engage in philosophical discussions that continue off and on for the remainder of the book. At times, the dialogue shares the nature of Waiting For Gardot, Sunset Limited, and Dinner At Andres.
Henry's arguments involve a number of philosophers, including Plato and his theory of forms which I encountered again this past week when reading Susan Froderberg's Old Border Road. Henry seems rather crazy, for his sense of reality does not match those around him. He sees others as phonies, as J. D. Salinger's protagonist would say so often later in Catcher in the Rye. He yearns to get behind the facade, and feels alienated in the isolation of his vision.
Some of Henry's arguments in the novel are exactly those which appeared nine years later in the opening chapter of Colin Wilson's The Outsider, published in 1956 to great acclaim. Wilson's non-fiction study is the greater work, of course, a synthesis of ideas from the great philosophers and authors of the preceding century. But its statement was seen at the time, as Kingsley Amis wrote, that "The Outsider is the man who has awakened to the chaos of existence, to the unreality of what the literal-minded take to be reality."
The Outsider was at first praised to the high heavens. Colin Wilson was hailed as the supreme new intellectual of the day. But then it was learned that he had a previous marriage, and was in fact a poor father to his two children. The tide of celebrity quickly turned into a tide of red paranoia. Partly the reaction was anti-intellectual, "anti-egghead," partly it was political, conformist, and anti-communistic, and partly it was an anti-Oedipal reflex in line with the new accusatory buzz words against youth: "juvenile delinquency," "angry young men," and "rebels without causes."
The case against him is detailed here, link, and you can read Colin Wilson's own account of it in his memoir, The Angry Years: A Literary Chronicle. Colin Wilson went on to author over 100 books, yet he never again approached his early popularity. The Outsider: An Inquiry into the Nature of the Sickness of Mankind in the Mid-Twentieth Century remains a formidable work. Many of his other books, including a number of his best novels such as The Philosopher's Stone, were attempts to scientifically explain the occult.
Which brings me back to Barbara Hunt. I think that her novel, A Little Night Music, is a little known gem, as a novel of ideas, as a bibliobook, as a meditation on death, and as a parable of intellectual life in a materialist world. But most of her other books, and apparently her life itself, focused on the occult. She was born in 1906 in Chicago. After a teacher diagnosed her as having a learning disability, she was home-educated by her grandfather, and she later attended the University of Chicago. She spent over a decade in Fall River, Massachusettes, and later wrote a book about mill life there, sympathetic to the workers. So she was about forty years of age when she wrote A Little Night Music.
Thereafter, she used the name Barbara Hunt Watters. She says that she married a chemist who was an astrologer, and she would herself become one of the leading astrologers in Washington, D. C. Some of the capitol's horoscope columnists were said to be her students, link, including Svetlana Godillo, who wrote the astrology column for the Washington Post.
Among Barbara Hunt Watters' other books during this period were An Astrologer Looks at Murder, Horary Astrology and Judgement of Events, and Sex and the Outer Planets, in which she provides charts and readings for the Marquis de Sade, Sigmund Freud, Eugene O'Neill and others. She died after a heart attack in 1984.