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Steven Millhauser: Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943 – 1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright

One of my favorite books, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (my review here), was reported by Abebooks as one of the top ten forgotten Pulitzer Prize winning novels.  Most of the books on the list were published between fifty and sixty years ago, but Martin Dressler was published only in 1997.  Perhaps this is not a surprise to Millhauser who once told an interviewer, “I don’t anticipate the Pulitzer will change my life at all.  I dare it to change my life!”  Yet for decades Millhauser has been producing solid work, particularly in the short story form.  I’ve been putting it off for a long time, certain that I would love the book, but I’ve finally read Millhauser’s also-neglected classic Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (1972).

Let me start out by saying that this is quite the strange book — in a beautiful way — this biography by the young Jeffrey Cartwright about his young friend who died the moment he turned 11.  It begins with a brief introductory note by someone named Walter Logan Wright, who first met Jeffrey Cartwright in the sixth grade.  Apparently Jeffrey, at that time, was nothing special and had almost slipped from Wright’s memory when, ten years after their brief acquaintance, he came across this book.  Wright’s introduction serves to blur the spotlight a bit.  The biography, after all, is about Edwin Mullhouse, a young literary genius (according to Jeffrey) who wrote in the short time before his death, Cartoons.  Yet Wright is more interested in the author of the biography, who, still young, has disappeared.

Meanwhile the search for Jeffrey Cartwright continues.  I, for one, hope they never find him.  Edwin’s novel, some will recall, was discovered in 1969 by the daughter of Professor Charles William Thorndike of Harvard: in a children’s library, of all places! . . . Professor Thorndike has called it “a work of undoubted genius,” and he is not a man given to hyperbole.  I myself have sternly resisted the temptation to read Cartoons, knowing full well that the real book, however much a work of genius, can no more match the shape of my expectations that the real Jeffrey could, should he ever materialize.  I shall probably succumb, one sad day.  Meanwhile Edwin’s genius lives undimmed for me in the shining pages that follow.  One can only regret that his work has proved less popular than his life.

 There is a common complaint about this book: the prose is unbelievable; no child could ever write how Jeffrey Cartwright writes.  As an example of this, here is how Jeffrey Cartwright describes Edwin’s Cartoons when he discusses it late in the biography (novel):

If, then, our first reaction upon plunging into Cartoons is that we have entered an unreal world, blissful or boring (as the case may be), gradually we come to feel that we are experiencing nothing less than the real world itself, a world that has been lost to us through habit and inattention, and that we are hereby being taught to repossess.

It’s true: that is not prose typical to a pre-adolescent.  Perhaps it is not even possible for a pre-adolescent.  That sentence becomes, then, a kind of gloss on Edwin Mullhouse the novel.  Somehow Millhauser has managed to create an unbelievable character in Jeffrey Cartwright, who is unbelievably perceptive and sophisticated.  Jeffrey Cartwright has managed to write a biography that, due to his age and experience, is unreal but, somehow because of this, feels very much like the real world, the real mind, however typically inarticulate, of these young struggling boys.  It’s incredible.

Edwin Mullhouse is divided into three parts: “The Early Years: Aug. 1, 1943 – Aug. 1, 1949″; “The Middle Years: Aug. 2, 1949 – Aug. 1, 1952″; and ”The Late Years: Aug. 2, 1952 – Aug. 1, 1954.”  We learn at the beginning, “Edwin Abraham Mullhouse, whose tragic death at 1:06 a.m. on August 1, 1954, deprived America of her most gifted writer, was born at 1:06 a.m. on August 1, 1943, in the shady town of Newfield, Connecticut.”  Jeffrey Cartwright is Edwin’s neighbor, only six months (and three days) older.  Yet Jeffrey’s memories of Edwin go all the way back to his birth (another bit of the unbelievable).  Since Edwin’s birth, they were almost always together, and it seems Jeffrey treated Edwin as a subject even back then, analyzing his verbal development (“Adult speech, Edwin used to say, is ridiculously exclusive.”).

The Early Years is full of interesting looks at Edwin’s personality and perceptions.  He doesn’t, in my opinion, sound that interesting on the outside.  I doubt he’d be much fun, in other words.  Yet Jeffrey Cartwright brings Edwin’s inner self to the surface with insights like this: “It is as if he assumed an earnestness in everyone in the world except himself — as assumption that revealed at once a deep self-disparagement and a subtle contempt for the imagination of his fellowman.”  This is all part of Jeffrey’s goal, “for it is the purpose of this history to trace not the mere outlines of a life but the inner plan, not the external markings but the secret soul.”  With that comes some of the secret tragedy of youth, which is nearly incommunicable to adults.  Edwin’s mother, in particular, frets constantly because she simply cannot understand her son; here is one of her more innocent misunderstandings: “For the rest of her son’s brief life she would be plagued by his love of silence, never understanding that it was intimately related to his love of sound.”

As the book develops, the difference between Edwin and Jeffrey becomes more and more apparent.  Here is an exquisitely written account of a “genius” who doesn’t seem like a genius much of the time.  Rather, Jeffrey comes off as the genius.  Jeffrey addresses this:

I wonder if I have sufficiently emphasized a major theme of this biography.  I refer to Edwin’s naturalness, his distinct lack of what is usually called genius.  He did not begin to speak at two months, or read at two years, or write brilliant stories at the age of three — or four, or five, or six, for the very good reason that he could not write anything but his name until the first grade.  Nor was he lovably slow or backward in any way, with his talent standing against his stupidity like an emblematic lightning flash against a black thunderhead.  No, he was only a normal healthy intelligent American child of the middle of the twentieth century, fascinated by toys and snow.  Oh, he had what may have been an unusually strong attraction for books and words — an attraction amplified, perhaps, by the literary bias of this biography — but my own attraction was equally strong.

Of course, Edwin eventually writes Cartoons (and Jeffrey gives a nice summary), but for the most part he is a typical child, perhaps a bit more withdrawn.  But one this that is special about Edwin is his youth, something Millhauser honors frequently in other works.

The important thing to remember is that everyone resembles Edwin; his gift was simply the stubbornness of his fancy, his unwillingness to give anything up.  In the Late Years, when most of his contemporaries were already being watered down by a dreary round of dull responsibilities and duller pleasures, he alone refused to be diluted, he alone continued to play.  Of course therewas the little matter of genius.  But that is the point precisely.  For what is genius, I ask you, but the capacity to be obsessed?  Every normal child has that capacity; we have all been geniuses, you and I; but sooner or later it is beaten out of us, the glory fades, and by the age of seven most of us are nothing but wretched little adults.

But for Millhauser youth is rarely carefree.  There’s haunting unrequited love worthy of Edgar Allen Poe when Edwin yearns for, and accepts the punishment from, Rose Dorn.  Further, this book is full of death.  We know from the title that Edwin will die, but he is not the only child who will die.  Jeffrey himself has a darkness.  Jealous of Edwin’s relationship with Rose Dorn (after all, it is distracting Edwin from his work), Jeffrey uses his more natural social skills to make sure that the other girls in the class will love him and not Edwin; and if he says he loves them all, how can Edwin show any interest. 

And these girls are rather haunting themselves.  One, named (coincidentally) Rose Black, is reclusive.  Jeffrey writes her a poem:

Roses are red
Violets are blue.
I love a rose.
Do you know who?

Rose has an excellent (and passively pedantic) response:

This rose is black
And full of gloom.
Yet I too love.
Do you know whom?

Remember these are all young children, between eight and ten years old.  It’s sometimes as if we’ve entered into an Edward Gorey book (which I’m all too happy to do).  There’s a carnivalesque horror at times, and that aspect further underscores the burning mind of youth when a cartoon reality is perhaps closer to the truth than what we consider to be real. 

The book constantly teases us about its darkest subject: the death of Edwin, the timing of which is too perfect to be coincidental.  Well, I can say that the book becomes more and more horrifying as it goes on, and it’s a wonder any of us, as magical as it was, survived childhood.

4 thoughts on “Steven Millhauser: Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943 – 1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright

  1. I certainly enjoyed Martin Dressler on your recommendation, but I am inclined to give this one a pass. Millhauser likes to venture into his own version of absurdist/fantasist territory (which is why I think his short stories are so good) but that’s hard to carry off in a full-length novel. Martin Dressler succeeded because it looked at change in New York through that rather quirky lens. From your description and quotes, I just don’t find the central theme here to be strong enough to do that. And maybe I’ve just read too many novels lately featuring sub-teens as central characters (I know I raved about Montana 1948 — perhaps thats why I’d like to avoid that particular conceit for a while.)

  2. Trevor says:

    I’m inclined to agree with you, Kevin: I don’t think you’d enjoy this one nearly as much as I did. It doesn’t necessarily venture into the absurdist/fantastic territory like Martin Dressler did, but the attention the minutest detail to give rise to a carnivalesque feel is certainly here. Many people don’t get on with Millhauser’s exhaustive lists. I think they fit and I loved every word, but I can understand other perspectives.

    Plus, given your experience with youthful narrators . . . (even though this novel is much better than the ones you’re referring to — my guess, anyway :) ).

    I have several of Millhauser’s short story collections and love delving into them from time to time. They are always bizarre, even when dealing with something rather mundane. I think he pulls it off in this novel, but I agree that his strengths lie in the short story form.

  3. Tony S. says:

    I read this book when it first came out in the mid-1970s and was completely bowled over by it. I thought it was wonderful. I’ve spent the next 35 years serching for another Steven Millhauser book I would like as well, but haven’t found any. I wasn’t a big fan of Martin Dresser. Millhauser is a difficult writer.

  4. Shelley says:

    Daring the Pulitzer–you’ve got to admire that.

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