Interior of the Watts Memorial Chapel
Designed by Mary Frazer Watts,
widow of the artist George Frederick Watts

[This piece was written in the form of a letter to Ian Young in 1979. He was asked by Dennis Cooper, of Little Caesar magazine, to guest-edit an issue called "Overlooked & Underrated," which was published eventually in 1981. A decade having passed, it makes sense to re-write and amplify. My friend Gary Knoble was asking just the other day for a compilation of savory texts that the Republican incumbent had never heard of. That's easy. Here it is. JW, July 1989... Addendum, August 1998: Nearly another decade down the drain, so I get to add more titles.]
Dear Ian,
"What a civilization! Nobody even remembers who wrote THE MOON POOL." Often I think of that ultimate lament by Kenneth Rexroth. However, good buddy, I remember that Honest Abe Merritt wrote THE MOON POOL, and I was very turned on by its unique art-deco, sci-fi eroticism back in the ur-sexy days of Flash Gordon and Batman and Robin. (Gosh all hemlock!- to think that Bruce Wayne was such a conspicuous nob-throb to a generation of panting American adolescents. His thick-as-a-plank side-kick and "ward," Dick Grayson, has probably inherited the penthouse suite and the Batmobile by now and spends a lot of time in the leaves on the floor of the Bat Cave with Monica Lewinsky's younger brother, Marvin.)
I'd love to write you a whole book on marvellous caitiff writers who go unread in our dummified times. But, I remain up to my hunkers in chores for the Jargon Society- all that reading and writing that serve to make me internationally unknown, like one had better be these days.
"Of making many books, there is no end." That's in, I believe, Proverbs... "The flesh is sad and I have read all the books." That's Mallarmé. These quotations remind us that each of us has read almost nothing. And why do we read even the little dab that we do? I hope it is for reasons of literary seduction. As the man in the Greek Anthology said so long ago: "WOMEN FOR USE, BOYS FOR PLEASURE, GOATS FOR DELIGHT." Bring on goat-like books!
If you asked the poet Basil Bunting to name the few, world-class masters, he would name you twelve, half of whom you'd never heard of. Viz: Homer, Ferdosi, Manucherhri, Dante, Hafez, Malherbe, Aneirin, Heledd, Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney, Wordsworth... For Basil, that was it. No one in the 20th century, even his great mentor, Ezra Pound, made the Top Dozen.
Who nose from great? as Jimmy Durante used to ask. I know a lot that's "readable" and that will help get a reader through good and bad days and nights. I'll select a few genres and see what I think of, off the top of my head. One thing to mention at the start is that our friend, The Devoted Reader, is going to need the services of a very excellent library system. And then he or she must have civilized sources from which to purchase books. These days the most obliging bookman for used, first-edition, and out-of-print books that I know of in the USA is James Jaffe, PO Box 496, Haverford, PA 19041. Telephone: 610-649-4221. Another enthusiast is Kevin Rita, Brickwalk Bookshop, 966 Farmington Avenue,West Hartford, CT 06019. Telephone: 860-233-1730. For new books it is useful to establish an account with a shop like Chapters, 1512 K Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. Telephone: (202) 347-5495. The excellent owners are Terri Merz and Robin Diener... In England, for new books: John Sandoe, Books, 10 Blacklands Terrace, Sloane Square, London SW3 2SP, England (UK). Telephone: (0171) 589-9473. The contact there is Sean Wyse-Jackson. Many of my contacts in the antiquarian book world have retired, so consult a current directory of good shops at a major municipal library.
Little Caesar being a more or less specialist magazine, let's start with gay writers. Of those with a "delicate Athenian sensibility," as my friend Marius Bewley used to say, there is the uniquely lucid J.R. Ackerley. The books to read first are WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU, MY FATHER AND MYSELF, and LETTERS. His prose style is second to none. When turgidity and the tendency to make too much of what there is out there begin to o'erwhelm me, etc., I sit down and read some Joe Ackerley. Four English novels I have liked lately are LORD DISMISS US, by Michael Campbell; THE SWIMMING-POOL LIBRARY, by Alan Hollinghurst; UNNATURAL RELATIONS, by Mike Seabrook; and the 'odiously funny and delightfully unwholesome' A ROOM IN CHELSEA SQUARE, by Michael Nelson. Kevin Esser is a worthy young American writer. MAD TO BE SAVED is as good a picture of collegiate life in the seventies as I know. STREETBOY DREAMS and SOMETHING LIKE HAPPINESS are two other Esser novels to read. And certainly don't overlook a first novel by the young Arkansas writer, Keith Hale: CLICKING BEAT ON THE BRINK OF NADA. He already commands much of Ackerley's honesty, intimacy, and ease of style. Real warmth. I call your attention to four more recent novels by excellent craftsmen: LANDSCAPE: MEMORY, by Matthew Stadler; AMERICAN STUDIES, by Mark Merlis; THE MAN WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH THE MOON, by Tom Spanbauer (this is a fantastic book!); and MYSTERIOUS SKIN, by Scott Heim.
I undoubtedly show my years and the tastes of my generation when I list the writers I do. Tant pis. I like Sissie Writers! So I like very much Ronald Firbank (a sort of Cambridge-trained Mae West), Denton Welch, and Jocelyn Brooke (THE ORCHID TRILOGY)... As for pedophiles, they mostly write so badly they deserve to eat in hell forever at Colonel Sanders' Pluto-Fried-Chicken franchises. Five exceptions: THE ASBESTOS DIARY, by Casimir Dukahz (whoever that might be); SOME BOYS, by Michael Davidson; GAME-TEXTS, by Erskine Lane; TIME OF OUR DARKNESS (about an Afrikaner gay teacher and a black kid), by Stephen Gray; and that frank and beautifully composed series of journal entries, PUPPIES, by the Californian, John Valentine. I really don't think people like Ed White and David Leavitt are in his class, but, per usual, he lives in a Mendocino coast town and they live where the action is.
As for One-Hand Classix, the genuinely dirty stuff that keeps the polymorphous mind off abominations like Pat Buchanan? NAKED ON MAIN STREET, by Richard Amory. (There was even a rumor around in the seventies that RA was really W.H. Auden, the Lord Teeny-Meat, longing for something long. It somehow seems doubtful.) Also, his LOON TRILOGY is pretty jolly, particularly if read aloud by three or four lecteurs. Belles-lettrists will roll about on the floor... Since my tastes run to the rustic pastorale ("Out on the farm we used/butter," to quote a Gavin Dillard poem), I must confess to admiration for five tales to exercise the most jaded of one-eyed trouser-snakes: LONG TIME COMING, by Louis Stout; ALL TIME HARD, by Charlie Peters; THE CHRONICLES OF FENWAY ACADEMY, by Peter Zupp; THE CHRONICLES OF THE STARCROSS COMPLEX, by Scott Altman; and DO MY THING, by Richard Manbow and Lyn Pederson. Oh, one more: MY LOVER, MY TEACHER, by David Rinkler. Who in the world are these elusive, wretchedly paid scriveners? They have warmed the cockles of thousands of gay guys in dire places like Statesville, North Carolina, where only the seamy news stand just off the town square afforded any of the crumbs of erotic literacy.
Childhood writers? If they were marvellous then, they often turn out to be marvellous now. I continue to abide by OZ, as written by L. Frank Baum and his three successors. THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, by Kenneth Grahame, is still a wonder. (Try to hear it in the BBC radio version read by David Davies.) Don't miss Kipling's JUST SO STORIES; or, OLD MAN ADAM AN' HIS CHILLUN and OLD KING DAVID AN' THE PHILISTINE BOYS, by Roark Bradford. Or, UNCLE REMUS, by Joel Chandler Harris. Something very different: LILITH and PHANTASTES, by George MacDonald... I had enough sense at age 8 to recognize that THE HOBBIT, by Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, was well worth the 29 cents it cost me off the remainder-table in Woodward & Lothrop's Department Store in Washington, DC, in 1938. I re-read his mature trilogy, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, every three years just to make sure I haven't gone Republican or dead in the head. And then, one mustn't forget Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, E. Nesbitt, Hugh Lofting, Hawthorne, A.A. Milne, and Robert Louis Stevenson. And two recent contenders by Richard Adams: THE PLAGUE DOGS and WATERSHIP DOWN (which is definitely not WATERED-DOWN SHIT, as one wag has it). The best fantasy I have read in years are the first two volumes of a trilogy called HIS DARK MATERIALS, by Philip Pullman. They are THE GOLDEN COMPASS and THE SUBTLE KNIFE. Wonderful writing! I have no idea who wrote Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, Don Sturdy, and The Hardy Boys. But, great stuff for budding WASPs, as were the comic books of those dimdaysofyore.
Mysteries?- another genre despised by word-queens and people who stay too long in the bathroom. Every ten years or so I do jigsaw puzzles for a season and then run through a huge diet of whodunnits. Back in the 1970s I devoured all the Lew Archer novels of the late Ross MacDonald. It could be argued that all he did was write the same book over and over (out of some complex Jungian muddle in which the murderer was always the unknown grandson of the incestuous aunt's cousin's mother, etc.), but he is very stylish. Another American I like is Robert B. Parker and his Boston detective, Spenser ("I spell it like the English poet"). K.C. Constantine (rumored to be the alias of some "really good" novelist) is good enough for me. A great character is his police chief, Mario Balzic. The dialogue is terrific; and how about a title like THE MAN WHO LIKED SLOW TOMATOES! Just lately I have run across Jonathan Valin, one of the best of the new breed. Who would have thought a big, butch shamus from Cincinnati named Harry Stoner could be so engaging? Try THE LIME PIT, DEAD LETTER, DAY OF WRATH, and FINAL NOTICE. THE ISAAC QUARTET, by Jerome Charyn is worth chasing down. And a very tough book called DANCING BEAR, by James Crumley.
I am nearly forgetting the excellent Joseph Hansen. He has taken over Raymond Chandler's territory in Southern California and his likeable insurance investigator is big Dave Brandstetter, who happens to be gay but doesn't fret about it. Eight or nine solid books. Hansen wrote in a more unfettered style under the name of James Colton and had to be published by porn merchants: HANG UP is very good, and I remember three others named COCKSURE and KNOWN HOMOSEXUAL and TODD. Someone else who's relatively new in the field is Michael Connelly. Three to read are THE POET, TRUNK MUSIC and BLOOD WORK. Then there are the two richly detailed thrillers set in New York around the turn of the century, THE ALIENIST and THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS, by Caleb Carr.
The English remain very agile at creating detective fiction. Julian Barnes (of FLAUBERT'S PARROT) has written (using the nom de plume Dan Cavanaugh) four or five lively mysteries featuring the bilious, bi-sexual sleuth named Duffy, though he seems more just-plain-gay as the books continue. It is comforting to see that Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers have their equals at work at the moment. (Stevie Smith once told me how much she enjoyed reading Agatha Christie in French translations. The sheer pleasure of it all was enhanced by seeing if they'd say "church mouse" or "church rat.") P.D. James is a bit heavy and urbane in the knowing London way, but her poetry-writing policeman, Adam Dalglish, is a substantial invention, and James is very good. Even superior, it seems to me, is the remarkable Ruth Rendell, and the great news is there are about 30 books, including two or three written under the alias of Barbara Vine, when she is at her most novelistic and stylish. Many of the books feature Chief Inspector Reg Wexford in a town called Kings Markham, near the Sussex Downs. Very good of their kind. But Rendell is amazing when she simply starts diagramming a plot in which people (often very insane) of very different social orders begin to converge and destroy each other. Uncanny and scary stuff. Try her best one, A JUDGMENT IN STONE, in which the horrific murder of a whole family is revealed on page one, and the cause is shown to be a servant's illiteracy, implacably spelled out over the next several hundred pages. Excellent novel writing. THE KILLING DOLL is another chiller. A new contender to watch is Minette Waters, whose four or five titles I don't have at hand.
Horror and the Supernatural? Howard Phillips Lovecraft was my transition from boys' adventure books to the surrealism of Henry Miller and Kenneth Patchen. Nothing wrong with a "third class" writer with a peerless imagination. THE SHADOW OUT OF TIME and THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD are perhaps better than I remember. They stick in the conk. Others that do: THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND, by William Hope Hodgson; THE PURPLE CLOUD, by M.P. Shiel; THE HILL OF DREAMS, by Arthur Machen; and a lot by H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, M.R. James, Saki, Lord Dunsany, E.F. Benson, A.E. Coppard, Walter de la Mare, Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, and Colin Wilson. The two current writers of boogieman prose I like best are Stephen King (The World's Richest Writer, who rivals the Big Mac for style and usability) and the more literate Peter Straub. 'SALEM'S LOT and THE SHINING are first-class books by Mr. King. And, IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW, GHOST STORY, and MYSTERY by Mr. Straub. Two other writers of interest: Whitley Strieber (THE HUNGER, THE WOLFEN) and Robert R. McCammon (MYSTERY WALK). Check your local drugstore.
Letter writers? It's hard to play in the same ballpark with John Keats and Gustave Flaubert, but Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence, and Ezra Pound belong there. I love reading the letters of Edward Lear; the six volumes of the LITTLETON/HART-DAVIS LETTERS (published in the UK by John Murray in London); and THE FARTHEST NORTH OF HUMANNESS (letters by Percy Grainger). Every letter I received from Lorine Niedecker was a benison. And my correspondence from Guy Davenport, Edward Dahlberg, and Ian Hamilton Finlay will end up in books later on.
Autobiography and Biography: LOOKING BACK, by Norman Douglas; MEMOIRS OF A DISAPPOINTED MAN, by W.N.P. Barbellion; RUM, BUM AND CONCERTINA, by George Melly; DANTE CALLED YOU BEATRIX, by Paul Potts; VOICES, by Frederic Prokosch; and BENEATH THE UNDERDOG, by Charles Mingus... Richard Ellmann on Oscar Wilde; Humphrey Carpenter on Auden, Pound, and Tolkien; Gerald Clarke on Truman Capote; Vivian Noakes on Edward Lear; Mark Holloway on Norman Douglas; Victoria Glendinning on Edith Sitwell; John Bird on Percy Grainger; Eric Fenby on Delius; Jan Swafford on Charles Ives; and John Lahr on Joe Orton. Herbert Leibowitz's book on American autobiographies, FABRICATING LIVES, is a winner. A recent book by James Lord, SOME REMARKABLE MEN, is outstanding.
Travel and Reporters of the Natural World? THE TRAVELS OF WILLIAM BARTRAM is one the great 18th-century American books, right up there with Mr. Jefferson. I include it because it has only been re-discovered in the past 50 years. I read anything by John Stewart Collis with attention. This goes for W.H. Hudson, Richard Jeffries, Edgar Anderson, Carl Sauer, and Jaime D'Angulo. THE DIARIES OF FRANCIS KILVERT are marvellous. Geoffrey Grigson's THE ENGLISHMAN'S FLORA is a source book like no other. As is a huge symposium published by the University of Chicago: MAN'S ROLE IN CHANGING THE FACE OF THE EARTH. I am just skimming. If I need to know something specific about my neighbor in the Blue Ridge, the Timber Rattlesnake, I go immediately to Lawrence Klauber's two remarkable volumes... I often go to Henry James' THE AMERICAN SCENE for insights, as I do to a recent book, BLUE HIGHWAYS, by William Least Heat-Moon. What an extraordinary volume. It reminds you that a little bit of America is still here. His second book, PRAIRYERTH, sits on the shelf too big to chew on. Two books by Norman Douglas on the Austrian Vorarlberg are classics: ALONE and TOGETHER; as is TRAVELS WITH A DONKEY, Robert Louis Stevenson's account of his trip across the Cévennes. And not to forget two fine accounts of long walks: A TIME OF GIFTS (from London to Hungary), by Patrick Leigh Fermor; and A WALK THROUGH BRITAIN (from Land's End to John O'Groats), by John Hillaby.
Fiction and Essays? I don't read much of either, but here are books I keep on the shelf and often pick up for another read: THE GREEN CHILD and THE CONTRARY EXPERIENCE, by Herbert Read; BLACK SPRING and THE BOOKS IN MY LIFE, by Henry Miller; THE JOURNAL OF ALBION MOONLIGHT, by Kenneth Patchen; IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN, by William Carlos Williams; STUDIES IN CLASSIC AMERICAN LITERATURE, by D.H. Lawrence; TRACKS IN THE SNOW, by Ruthven Todd; BECAUSE I WAS FLESH and THE SORROWS OF PRIAPUS, by Edward Dahlberg; CALL ME ISHMAEL, by Charles Olson; THE TERRITORY AHEAD, by Wright Morris; A MORE GOODLY COUNTRY, by John Sanford; GENOA, by Paul Metcalf; GOING AWAY, by Clancy Sigal; LOLITA, by Vladimir Nabokov; RIDDLEY WALKER, by Russell Hoban; THE NATURAL MAN, by Ed McClanahan; THE ALBANY TRILOGY, by William Kennedy; THE DEPTFORD TRILOGY, by Robertson Davies; AFFLICTION, by Russell Banks; OUR SOUTHERN HIGHLANDERS, by Horace Kephart; A HANDY GUIDE FOR BEGGARS, by Vachel Lindsay; and AMERICAN FRIED, by Calvin Trillin.
The best novel I have read in years is ON THE BLACK HILL, by Bruce Chatwin. Its simple but visionary style evokes both Samuel Palmer and the eye of the Pre-Raphaelites. It seems a more "exotic" book than IN PATAGONIA, and it's amazing that Chatwin wasn't born in that part of Wales instead of being from Birmingham, England. I still haven't read his THE SONGLINES or UTZ. As for essays, Guy Davenport's THE GEOGRAPHY OF THE IMAGINATION is in a class by itself. And it is always a pleasure to read around in the prose pieces by Kenneth Rexroth and James Laughlin... If you can stand the thought of another tale of growing-up-down-South-abused-by-bad-daddy-and-dirtpoor-too, I know of four powerful memoirs: THE LIARS' CLUB, by Mary Karr; BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, by Dorothy Allison; WINTER BIRDS, by Jim Grimsley; and ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN', by Rick Bragg... Wait, I am forgetting a very interesting writer named E. Annie Proulx. She is one tough hombre. Her books are all distinctive and different in kind. Good dialogue, clear diction, and a rich and curious vocabulary. Read POSTCARDS (the best); THE SHIPPING NEWS; and ACCORDION CRIMES.
Academic and Scholarly Books? A Kentucky matron once accosted Guy Davenport at a horsy occasion in the Blue Grass "Professor Davenport, why you're the most over-educated man I've ever met!" I'd give the lady no qualms at all. I'm real strong on sight and sound, dismissive of intellection, and just about as dumb as a three-dollar dog. Abstract ideas know better than to grope me. Still, I have a brief list: THE POETICS OF SPACE, by Gaston Bachelard; THE ORPHIC VOICE, by Elizabeth Sewell; LIFE AGAINST DEATH, by Norman O. Brown; THE SOCIETY I LIVE IN IS MINE, by Paul Goodman; THE LAW OF CIVILIZATION & DECAY, by Brooks Adams; HOMO LUDENS, by Johan Huizinga; PHALLÓS, by Thorkil Vanggaard; CHRISTIANITY, SOCIAL TOLERANCE, AND HOMOSEXUALITY, by John Boswell; THE STRUCTURE OF EVERYDAY LIFE, by Fernand Braudel; THE POUND ERA, by Hugh Kenner... A little Walter Pater and Walter Benjamin never hurt nobody none. And it doesn't hurt to drag out Pound's ABC OF READING and Zukofsky's A TEST OF POETRY once a year, to remind oneself what the inestimable values of writing can be at their best.
Books of No Particular Category? The two sports that seem to produce the most memorable writing are cricket and baseball. If one bores you, the other will too, lunkheads! The literary authorities on cricket are Nevil Cardus and John Arlott. Had I not spent 25 years trying to figure this game out, I might have tried to fathom FINNEGAN'S WAKE. (I did right.) Baseball, lately, has been beautifully served by Roger Angell and Thomas Boswell. I suppose a life without baseball is still life, but just barely... Some cartoonists amaze me, like R. Crumb, with creations like Angelfood McSpade, Captain Pissgums & His Gay Pirates; and the magazine, Despair Comics. I also have everything I can find by the ineluctable and ineffable Bernie Kliban; and by my most favorite luftmensch of all: Glen Baxter. I mean, we're talking cosmic and kiss my grits if you don't think so. However, from the down-right ridiculous to the demotic sublime, a work that occupies me as much as any is the magisterial ENGLISH DIALECT DICTIONARY (6 big tomes), by the self-taught son of a Yorkshire shepherd, the magnificent Joseph Wright. Have a few drams of malt and spend an evening with this arcanum . Find out what triddlings and daggle-tails are, for starters! You're into big doo-doo, to quote the gentleman named Geor-Gebush.
Poetry? Can you not spare us, Good Lord? Poetry lovers like Martial but don't like Horace. They like Archilochos but don't like Sappho and Her Dykes On Bikes! I hesitate to mention even one poet, but, of recent ones, I'd hate not to have investigated: Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, James Broughton, Philip Whalen, Ronald Johnson, Alfred Starr Hamilton, Russell Edson, Mason Jordan Mason, James Laughlin, J.V. Cunningham, Lorine Niedecker, Basil Bunting, Stevie Smith, Simon Cutts, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Thomas A. Clark, Thomas Meyer, Joel Oppenheimer, Robert Creeley- "they are pearls that were his eyes!"
A hundred other books have been stupidly overlooked. There's nothing quite like stupidity. Keeps you reglur.