Writing is putting thoughts and arguments that are usually complex and multidimensional into a single-dimensional flow. Thoughts about anything of intellectual interest usually go in several directions at once; but writing always has to string one word and one sentence after another. All writing problems boil down to this: choosing which words in which order. You have to make it flow through a single sequence in time.


Structuring is figuring out the sequence in which ideas will emerge. There are two main levels of structure: the micro-structure of word by word within sentences; and the overall macro-structure of the entire argument. The larger structure is determining over what is within it, as structure tends to be set from the outside in. Knowing what the larger structure of your argument is will help you with micro-structuring sentences, but the reverse is not usually true.


The easiest way to work out the structure is to make an outline. This is often the intellectually hardest part of writing, but there are routines you can use to force your way ahead, even when it is very difficult.

Collect your notes in one place. Wherever you jot your ideas—on margins in books, scraps of paper, summaries of things you've read—try to boil these down into major points and get them on one piece of paper. (Or as many pages as necessary; but then you need to re-summarize them, as many times as you need until you can see the whole thing at once.) Then go through it, for instance with a colored pen, and try various sequences (A,B,C; 1,2,3, 3a, 3b, 3c, whatever) until you get one that conveys your argument in a reasonable sequence. You will find yourself collecting similar points together, but also wrestling with contradictions and gaps. This may seem mechanical, but it also is a time that can produce creative ideas.

If you can't find an ideal sequence, or even decide which point to start with, be arbitrary: pick a starting point and go from there. If you can't decide which point comes next, be arbitrary: pick one and string the others after it. All that means is that no one point obviously leads into or dominates the others, and they all have to be treated on the same level. Don't waste time over such quandaries; a crucial factor is getting your argument flowing, and you can't do that by being stalled at choice-points.


When you are actually writing, you will sometimes get stuck. You can't figure out what to say next; the words won't come; you can't decide on the next sentence or the right term. If you are seriously stuck, it is because of a problem in the macro-structure of your argument, not in the surface structure of the sentence itself. You don't know where your argument is going. If I go back and look at the outline—sometimes I'll make a new outline based on what I've written so far—I always find that I got stuck at the point where my outline no longer told me where to go next. Do your revising on the outline. It saves a lot of trouble in rewriting; it's a lot easier to tear up unsatisfactory outlines and start again than to have to do it with unsatisfactory drafts of your paper or book.


If you really know what you're going to say, a written outline may be unnecessary. If you feel that potential flow of sentences ready to pour out, go ahead and write it. But you'll have the outline in your head, and essentially will be saying to yourself: first I'll say this, then that, then.... Of course, the process of writing itself can be creative; you can get new ideas on the fly. But they will be effective ideas only if a structure of argument emerges as you go along. When it happens, consider yourself lucky. When it doesn't (or when it stops), go back to outlining.


An outline may go through several phases: a messy collection of notes and ideas; various ways of getting them in order; and a final outline page reduced to a set of headings in sequence. Some of this will get explicitly transferred into the paper or book itself. But good writing is that which is not cluttered by a lot of pedantic-looking

"I. IA. IA.1 Ia.2 etc." Some of this is useful to guide the reader through (see TRAFFIC below). But it is far better for the structure to be implicit in the writing, than overlaid with these markers. (If you want to see an example of a clumsy use of such markers, look at Oliver Williamson's Markets and Hierarchies: an important and intelligent book, but very unpleasant to read.) These order-markers were useful in getting your argument in sequence, but now the sequence will generally carry itself. Get rid of most of the numbers, letters, and hierarchies of sub-headings. To the extent that such markers are still useful, disguise them as vivid and apt titles for sections of your argument. Retain numbers and letters only in places where you genuinely have to list a series of points that are arbitrarily collected, that have no intrinsic order.


Headings and sub-headings are a good place to make sure the reader gets your point. Don’t waste them on conventional labels like “Introduction” “Summary” “Discussion.” Write like Nietzsche, not like a bureaucrat.


Sections of your argument stand out better when surrounded by some empty space. This is a visual trick to influence the reader's mind. More than that, writing generally improves by adding space within it. Break up your paragraphs when they get too long. Usually this is not hard to do, even if you have to do it arbitrarily. You may think that the thread of a complex argument is being kept together by having it all in the same paragraph, but the effect on the reader tends to be to bury it.

The same thing holds for sentences. When they get too long and complicated, it is almost always better to break it into several sentences. This is not hard to do, even if you have to repeat a subject noun to do it. Bertrand Russell (who was a wonderfully lucid writer) gave this as his one piece of advice on writing: whenever you have to convey something complicated in a sentence, put at least part of it in a separate sentence.

A negative example is Pierre Bourdieu. He has even explicitly defended himself (in the Preface to Distinction) for his inordinately long sentences and paragraphs; he claimed that the complexity and subtlety of his ideas, and all the qualifications they involved, required this form of writing. Don't believe it. Russell, Wittgenstein, and other philosophers have dealt with matters of equal subtlety in lucid (and well-spaced) prose;* and one could certainly rewrite Bourdieu to good intellectual as well as stylistic advantage. Habermas is just as complex as Bourdieu, and better organized; if his writing seems heavy, it is for other reasons, more on the level of the way he expresses his concepts. Erving Goffman was not only well-organized, but also had a light and elegant touch.

* Russell was obviously very good at structure. When you have that skill, you don't have to rewrite much. Russell once quipped: "I have only rewritten once in my life, and the result was so much worse than the first time that I resolved never to do it again."


Writing sentences is not so difficult if you follow the above advice: get the overall structure so you know where you're going in each part of the argument; break up long involved sentences (which will also give you an easier syntax). Inside particular sentences, these points help:

> Use the active voice more than the passive. This is old advice, but still good. But no need to be rigid about it. Do whatever sounds right. Whatever is easiest to write, usually turns out to be easiest to read. (Sartre had a terrible time writing his Critique of Dialectical Reason, and it shows.)

> Try to keep the parts of a verb phrase together, where possible. Get the main action of the sentence into the reader's attention early on, and move the qualifications to the end. This isn't necessarily the way it will first come out in your head, or on paper. Don't worry about it; just get the sentence out and then engage in "word-processing", moving things around to where they fit best. With more experience, rearranging sentences happens faster and faster, and eventually will occur almost before you have it written down.

> The most important thing in getting writing done is the flow. If you notice your sentences need to be broken up, reorganized, etc., but it seems tedious and a side-track to do it now, then don't. You can always do it later, as long as you know what it is you have to do. The hardest part of writing is getting that first draft on paper. Once it's there, you can always fix it.

> If you can't decide which of two words, or two expressions, you want to use, don't get bogged down over the decision. There is no such thing as "the perfect word". When I'm in this situation, I just write both words (both expressions) down, one above (or alongside) the other, and later come back and cross one out. If they're both about the same, then it doesn't make any difference which to choose, so just be arbitrary. Again, with writing experience, the choices happen faster and more easily. Do anything to keep up the flow.


My father-in-law, who was a newspaper editor and columnist, gave this as his one piece of writing advice, and it has always worked. When revising, or just plodding along deciding how to say things, it almost never hurts to cut. If you can't decide whether or not to cut a word, phrase, or paragraph, cut it.


There are two kinds of sentences: substantive sentences, and traffic sentences. Because complex arguments do not necessarily flow in a single sequence of ideas, it is sometimes necessary to stop and explain the order in which you are giving them: in other words, directing verbal traffic. One of the major differences between good and bad writing is that the former uses traffic sentences forthrightly, while the latter avoids them. If there is a problem with the complexity of your exposition, be up-front about it. Let the reader in on the problem: "This topic is complicated because... To unravel it, we have to pull apart these features... I'll take them in the following order..." (An example is Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action. Although Habermas is not a stirring writer, he is clear on the structural level, and he uses traffic sentences well. Student papers, on the other hand, often get balled up for lack of this.)

Summaries are a kind of traffic sentence, but coming at the end of the argument and looking back to where it has gone. This can be useful, but you have to use your judgment as to when the summary is really useful to keep things straight (and especially when it leads into the following part of the argument). Summaries which are too mechanical, or which break up the flow of the argument, really fall under the category of "scaffolding" which should have been taken down.

Questions (including rhetorical questions) can be a graceful way of setting up the flow of what is to come next, or acting as local traffic sentences. Immanuel Wallerstein, who is quite a good writer, organizes a lot of dense material this way. ("The other element involved in banditry was part of the nobility, but again which ones?..." The Modern World System, volume 1, p. 142. "What does our argument add up to so far?..." etc.) Questions tend to give a nice flow to the sentences, and to lighten up heavy indicative exposition.


The use of special technical vocabulary is a matter of taste. Often things can be said more directly without it. Lord Kelvin, the physicist, said that if a theory really has something to say, it should be possible to explain it in words your bartender can understand. That may be exaggerated, but it is usually true for sociology. Some writers, like Bertrand Russell, got a lot of malicious pleasure out of deflating jargon, by defining its meaning in simple terms. (C. Wright Mills once did this in a famous passage on Talcott Parsons.)

But if you write without jargon, bear in mind you are taking a risk. Technical language shows off one's membership in a particular linguistic community, and people who are committed to a professional specialty tend to automatically put down people who don't use their jargon. Whether or not to use jargon is more of a social decision than a stylistic one; it represents different strategies toward the intellectual field. But let’s at least be honest with ourselves about what we are doing. Contemporary neo-Marxists (which includes most of the post-modernist/ post-structuralist/ post-colonialist/ liberationist movements) tend to be bad offenders here. They are among the most jargon-ridden of today's intellectuals, which reflects the fact that they write esoterically for an elitist group of intellectuals. This is a remarkable example of self-deception for movements which regard themselves as anti-elitist and liberating. Marx himself was one hell of a lot better writer (probably because he hung around with Heinrich Heine, the liveliest of all German poets—and because he genuinely wanted people to get the point).


A lot of otherwise competent writers in sociology are flat, because they give us a steady diet of abstractions: heavy nouns and verbs which are really nouns with verb endings. If you have any good metaphors, and any good colloquial turns of speech, this is where they are most needed. But it has to come naturally; artificial metaphors (or old clichés) have the opposite effect from what they are intended to do. If you can't write vividly, too bad; don't try to force it.


One tendency of mediocre writers is to try to be extremely impersonal, never using the word "I". Good style, on the contrary, is quite willing to say "I will come to this later...." Or the word "we:" "So far we have found...." First person pronouns are pretty much necessary in traffic sentences. It is foolish and clumsy to try to avoid personal pronouns when they are the most direct way of making your point. Over-formality is a mark of the semi-literate. (Unfortunately, we find a lot of this among copy-editors and journal reviewers. Dealing with these kind of people is an occupational hazard.)

Exception: starting sentences with “I think…” or “I believe that…” is usually just extra verbiage that will annoy the reader. Go ahead and say what you have to say. If you need to write that way to get the flow of words on paper, okay, but come back at the end and cut out the unnecessary words.

A related problem, common in abstract social science, is to write so as to avoid any active agent in one's sentences at all. For example, George Herbert Mead, Philosophy of the Act, p. lxiv: "The undertaking is to work back from the accepted organization of human perspectives in society to the organization of perspectives in the physical world out of which society arose." Mead was a poor stylist for this and other reasons. Max Weber, by comparison, is structurally a much better writer, even when he is being very abstract.


The difference between mediocre writing and good writing is often just taking the time when you are finished to go back over what you have written, and making corrections. This is the difference between a memorable article or book, and a turgid one; or between an A+ paper and a B+ paper.

Personally, I enjoy re-reading what I have written (unless I’ve done a terrible job of it, which means a lot of work hasn’t been done yet). Even in good writing, there are a lot of things to clean up: typos (leaving them in shows you don’t care what your writing looks like); places where I can say it more sharply with fewer words, or sometimes where something has to be better explained; good ideas I’d like to add, or sometimes where too many things are being said and it’s better to save some of them for another piece. Get rid of anything that sounds like a cliché, unless you’re being sarcastic.

A harder task is places that repeat what I’ve said somewhere else in the same paper. The question then is: do I need to make this point in different contexts? If so, OK. If not, it’s annoying to the reader to read the repetitions. So I flag them all and make a list of where I said this; then figure out where is the best place to introduce it, and cut the others. Some very good writers I know are sloppy in this respect; but this kind of sloppiness can make it hard to get your stuff published. – So why do I enjoy this? As your text gets sharper, it acquires more rhythm. It feels right.


"Writer's block" is a common complaint: you just can't get yourself to start writing. It's basically a matter of getting into the rhythm. If you write every day, it's easier the next day. A lot of writers start off by going over what they wrote the previous day, or their outline, or reading something you want to argue with. But still, you may feel you are starting cold. Just get it going, no matter how. The first words on paper aren't important; you can always come back and cross them out later. Good flow by the writer is the key to good reception by the reader. So keep plugging until you get into a good rhythm, and then throw out the stuff that isn't good.

When I can’t get myself going at the keyboard, I take a pad of paper and scribble out the easiest parts of the argument I can think of, as fast as I can. This is a trick to tell myself, it doesn’t really matter, this is just a preliminary draft. After a while it starts to flow (assuming I don’t have a macro-structure problem where I don’t know what I want to say). Then you’re home free—sort of. After it’s on paper I tell myself, now the rest is just typing it up. That’s not really true, but whenever you get momentum, better expressions and new ideas come easily. Sometimes this will get me into a prolonged writing binge: I feel like I ought to take a break, get a drink of water or something—but, when you’re riding that horse you want to go as far as you can with it.


"Lucidity, force, and ease:" Edmund Wilson, a wonderfully competent writer and critic, singled these out as the great virtues of classic prose. Lucidity is what all the advice about structure is supposed to produce; if you can get the hang of it, and develop a sense of verbal rhythm, the ease will be there too. Where does force come from? The energy of one's writing comes mainly from having something to say. The argument drives itself along, because it is going somewhere.

How do you have something forceful to say? Mainly, by being involved in the intellectual discourse of your field, knowing where the arguments are, and trying to move it forward. Set some high standards for yourself, so that you know in what direction to move.


The way you acquire intellectual and stylistic standards is by being exposed to the best in the people you read. One reason sociologists are often bad writers is because they read so many other sociologists (or philosophers, or economists or statisticians) who are bad writers. For style, don't confine yourself to reading social science. Personally, I think the secret is to read poets—Yeats, Dylan Thomas, whoever you like—in order to pick up your own sense of rhythm. Of course you can't always just read good stylists; often you need to read for content. But whoever you are reading, ask yourself if they are writing well or not. Either way, notice how they are doing it.

A book that breathes the sheer energy of writing is D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature. Lawrence was always an impassioned writer and this book, though really a work of literary criticism, is even more impassioned about writing than he was about sex. Which is saying a lot. You can get a contact high just from reading Lawrence—his energy is contagious.

That’s what you want to aim for: make your energy contagious.


When Vladimir Nabokov finished Lolita in 1953, he couldn’t get a publisher to take it. One called it “pure pornography,” and all feared prosecution. His agent finally placed it with a press in Paris that specialized in pornographic books for visitors to smuggle into English-speaking countries. When it came out in 1955, the sardonic English novelist Graham Greene praised it in a year-end article in the London Sunday Times as one of the best books of the year. Pushback came next year from a rival paper’s reviewer who attacked Greene and called it “sheer unrestrained pornography,” launching the kind of literary disputes that enliven the world of British intellectuals and the sales of English journalists. News of the scandal was picked up by the New York Times Book Review, and other writers chimed in. Suddenly American publishers were competing for publishing rights, followed by foreign publishers seeking translations. When Lolita came out in 1958, it sold 100,000 copies in three weeks-- the fastest-selling novel in twenty years. Stanley Kubrick (just off from making Spartacus) bought the film rights for $150,000 (worth about 10 times that amount in 2018 dollars), and gave Nabokov $40,000 to write the screenplay.

Succès de scandale, for sure. What else? Literary acclaim grew. Modern Library (which published affordable “quality” editions of world classics) ranked Lolita number 4 in a poll for the hundred greatest English-language books of the 20th century, after Ulysses (the unquestioned number 1), The Great Gatsby at number 2, and another Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, at number 3. A French poll in 1999 by Le Monde had Lolita at number 27. Contemporary reviewers were even more enthusiastic.

From England, Kingsley Amis: “the variety, force, and richness of Nabokov’s perceptions have not even the palest rival in modern fiction. To read him is... the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer.”  Daily Mail (London): “He has moulded and manipulated the language with greater dexterity, wit and invention that any author since Shakespeare.”

And America, Time Magazine: “Lolita is a major work of fiction: it is also a shocking book... He has evolved a vivid English style which combines Joycean word play with a Proustian evocation of mood.” The Reporter: “In many ways the most remarkable-- and certainly the most original-- novel written in English during recent years.” Women writers were impressed too. Anita Loos (author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes): “The only sure-fire classic written in my lifetime.” Dorothy Parker called it “a great book.”

What would be the judgment today? Less style points, more focus on the Lolita plot. A bare outline:

A cosmopolitan European gentlemen in his late thirties, haunted by a pubescent love affair long-ago on the Riviera, falls for a twelve-year-old American girl. To get access to her, he marries her widowed mother, who he tries to murder but fails. When she dies in a chance accident, Humbert Humbert takes off with his step-daughter Lolita on a long road trip across America, copulating with her as frequently as possible. Lolita turns out not to be a virgin (having been initiated at summer camp), but a precocious sexpot, and at first she finds Humbert handsome and exotic as the movie stars she is stuck on. Naturally this doesn’t last long, as Lolita becomes bored and Humbert tyrannical trying to keep her away from boys, growing increasingly suspicious as Lolita becomes increasingly evasive. Finally she manages to run off with another older man-- a famous playwright who has been toying with Humbert’s paranoia. Bereaved Humbert settles down in a college town for three years, until he gets a letter asking for money from now 17-year-old Lolita--  married, pregnant, living in poverty, and no longer a romantic nymphet. Humbert learns the identity of his tormentor, stalks him in his mansion, and kills him with a pistol. The novel is framed by a psychiatrist’s report and written in prison as Humbert awaits trial, not for child abuse but for murder.

For what it’s worth, Amazon shows considerable falling off from the book’s once-exalted ranking. The most popular edition of Lolita ranks no. 12,487 among electronic books as of October 2018; relegated to best showings in categories of Literary Satire Fiction (no. 17); Classic British [sic!] Fiction (no. 19); and Classic Coming of Age Fiction [Nabokov would be insulted] (no. 27). There are still a lot of customer reviews (1440), 62% giving it 5 stars; some of the recent reviews are very negative. Are we back in 1953? or where, exactly, in the historic moving arc of literary standards and tastes?

What we need to consider:

[1] Sexual standards change. Sex came out of the closet (in literature and real life) from the 1920s, peaking in the 1960s. A counter-movement set in from the late 1970s onwards, shining spotlights on rape, child abuse and sexual harassment, and coining new terms for the dark side of sex.

[2] Why it was Nabokov who rode the literary sex wave with the most shocking and best written of the closet breakouts.

[3] Nabokov’s 1939 try-out of the Lolita plot, in his Russian novel The Enchanter.

[4] How Nabokov’s much-admired style made Humbert Humbert the only sympathetic character in Lolita.

[5] And finally, not a decision on how great a novel Lolita really is, but what forces determine that historically located phenomenon, a “Great Classic”.

Sexual/literary standards change

Sex was often a topic behind the scenes in respectable novels, but only alluded to, never actually depicted. The Scarlet Letter is about Adultery, but if you don’t know what that means, Hawthorne was not about to show you. There is little or no overt sex in English-language novels after the time of Tom Jones in the 1740s. France had more sex novels -- Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) is all about seduction, but without explicit scenes. Zola wrote Nana (1880) about courtesans (and even did research interviewing them) but stays out of the bedroom and maintains a moralistic tone throughout. Some Russian novels featured prostitutes (usually low-class); in Notes from Underground (1864) Dostoyevski’s narrator humiliates a prostitute, and in Crime and Punishment (1866) a prostitute with a heart-of-gold guides the young killer to redemption. There are no sex scenes in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) nor in Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891); just what they go off to do in darkest East London is only hinted at in horrified tones.

In the 1920s, the literary sex race was on. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) centers on an aristocratic English playgirl with a string of lovers, but sex scenes are limited to abortive embraces in a taxi because the hero has been wounded in the war (had his penis shot off or something). D.H. Lawrence features another war-wounded soldier, whose place is taken by the game-keeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). These are the first blow-by-blow sex scenes in serious literature, the first literary micro-sociology of sex. Hemingway was better at getting sex published than Lawrence, with “the earth moved” scenes in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940); meanwhile Lady Chatterley, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and other explicit celebrations of sex were banned in England and the United States until the early 1960s. Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) was admitted by court decision in 1934, but its sexual content was mostly rather oblique (a few snippets in Molly Bloom’s interior monologue).

Nabokov rides the literary sex wave

Lolita was published and got its literary fame by the same route as Ulysses, Lady Chatterley, Henry Miller et al.-- underground publication in Paris and the buzz of reputation in the avant-garde network. Nabokov took pains to distance himself from his predecessors. In an early apologia (“On a Book Called Lolita,” 1956), he summarizes the rules of the genre he is not emulating:

“...in modern times the term ‘pornography’ connotes mediocrity, commercialism, and certain strict rules of narration. Obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation... In pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages in between must be reduced to brief expositions and explanations that the reader will probably skip... Moreover, the sexual scenes must follow a crescendo line, with new variations, new combinations, new sexes, and a steady increase in the number of participants (in a Sade play they call the gardener in), and therefore the end of the book must be more replete with lewd lore than the first chapters.”  [294-95]

Nabokov goes on to say that the publishers who rejected his manuscript apparently read only the first chapters (which are most focused on Humbert Humbert’s sexual thoughts) and assumed the rest would follow the formula. Nabokov, however, insists that “the nerves of the novel” are personally meaningful bits of writing about imaginary scenes or his own observations of the American landscape while driving around hunting butterflies and “trying to be an American writer.”  [296-97]

Vis-à-vis the high-literary world and its race to go farther into sex than anyone before, Nabokov wants to stay away from the rough-and-tumble of Hemingway and Henry Miller, and his aristocratic taste could not condescend to the lower-middle class milieu of Joyce. Lady Chatterley is more his class level, but (a) Nabokov is against novels with a message; (b) disillusioned war veterans has already been done; (c) if anyone is going to be disillusioned, it is a high-toned Russian exile having to teach literature at an insufferably middle-class American college (the story of Nabokov’s life as well as Humbert Humbert’s).

Every breakthrough writer has to find something new, something that combines shock with redeeming higher purpose (in this case literary style). What we would now call sexual child abuse provides the shock. It was mitigated in the 1950s context: marriages between adults and girls of 12 or 13 were still legal in many American states (rock n’ roller Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin in 1957).  During the course of the novel, Humbert has Lolita sexually when she is age 13-14. As Humbert frequently points out to Lolita when they are on the lam together, if the authorities find out she will be sent to an institution for delinquent girls-- the concept of pure victimhood not yet having been developed. Humbert would expect to go to prison too, for a year or so (aging tennis star Bill Tilden received such a prison term around 1950 for his affairs with teen-age protégés). Sentencing would become much more severe in recent decades. Altogether, the late 1950s was an ideal moment for Nabokov to enter the race. The literary world was primed to acclaim the next big step in literary sex. In Lolita the writing is brilliant but accessible, a golden mean between Joyce’s stylistic labyrinths and Hemingway’s minimalist show-don’t-tell (stylistically Nabokov is the anti-Hemingway, with his narrator constantly commenting on himself). And Lolita is much more filmable than D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller. The 1962 film starring suave James Mason, clutzy mother Shelly Winters, precocious Sue Lyon, and funny-man Peter Sellers did nothing to arouse the censors.

Lolita also is Nabokov’s great career success. In exile from Russia since 1919, he lived in Russian émigré circles in Berlin, the French Riviera, and Paris, while he wrote nine novels in Russian. In the US since 1940, he kept on trying to publish in Russian. If he eventually made it into histories of Russian literature in the Wikipedia era, it was on the strength of his Lolita reputation. It also brought reflected fame to his other main English novel, Pale Fire (1962), which continued the theme of an exiled professor in America, here obsessed with his childhood affairs before becoming king of an idyllic land resembling pre-revolutionary Russia. Above all, the financial success of Lolita and its film enabled him to move back to Europe, where he spent the rest of his life at resorts in France and Switzerland (like the childhood of his fictional Humbert Humbert). It may well be that Nabokov was never in love with pubescent girls; his nostalgia was centered on living on perpetual vacation among the pre-war rich.

Nabokov’s 1939 try-out of the Lolita plot .

Nabokov wrote an early version in Paris, but never published it. The protagonist is a man in his late 30s who sees a 12-year-old girl playing in the park. He marries the girl’s mother to get access to her, expecting the mother to die since she is an invalid. When she doesn’t, he considers poisoning her but fails. Eventually she dies and he takes the girl south to the Riviera. On the way they stop at a provincial hotel; when he touches the sleeping girl, she wakes up screaming, the hotel guests mob him; he runs into the street and is killed by a truck. The main plot tension is his scheming-- getting the sick woman to consider him a suitor; trying to be alone with the girl; planning how to approach her once he has her. His schemes are interrupted by Hitchcock-like hitches, which serve to keep the story in suspense. In the hotel, just as he is getting the girl in bed, there is a knock on the door-- a gendarme wants to question him. It turns out to be a mistaken identity. But he doesn’t know his room number, bumbles around through the dim-lit stairs and corridors, trying the wrong doors. Finally as he starts his caresses, he sees someone else in the room!-- no, it’s the reflection of his striped pajamas in the mirror. And so throughout.

Aside from the truncated plot (a 50 page story versus a 300 page book), there are numerous differences from Lolita. The 12-year-old girl is the same age as Lolita when Humbert Humbert first sees her, but much more childish and sexually innocent. In the park, she is roller-skating and playing hopscotch. Lolita is sun-bathing in her back yard, wearing a bikini and sunglasses. The Enchanter’s girl (she is never given a name) says little, except she would like to go to the beach and learn to swim. Lolita devours movie-fan magazines, chats cynically about boys, and flirts with Humbert, her mother’s summer lodger. Nabokov observed a real difference between European adolescents, who in the 1930s and later were still treated like children under the eyes of nursemaids, and American kids who by the 1950s had acquired the label “teenagers” with their own culture, pop music, and closed-off-from-parents social life. The reception of Lolita in 1958 was of a piece with the furor over juvenile delinquency, street gangs, and West Side Story (also 1958).

The “nymphet” theme is there in The Enchanter, if not the term. The anonymous middle-aged bachelor is smitten by girls on the cusp on puberty, a look that he knows is ephemeral, due to pass away by age 17 or 20, or even on-rushing 14. Young women become less delicate and more banal; full-grown women are just widening bodies. This is reiterated at length by Humbert Humbert, who finds Lolita’s mother cow-like.

Lolita almost immediately gives us the backstory. Humbert remembers himself at 13, summering on the Riviera and falling in love with the daughter of family friends, a girl named Annabel (echoes of Edgar Allen Poe) who is a few months younger and the archetype of the nymphet. Their sexual liaisons out of sight of their elders are abortive, and before the next season she dies of typhus in Corfu. So the grown-up Humbert never marries, finds prostitutes gross, undergoes more exile until his life lights up when he sees Lolita: “But that mimosa grove-- the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since-- until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.” [12-13]

He goes on to explain about nymphets: “When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on that same enchanted island of time; but today, in September 1952, after twenty-nine years have elapsed, I think I can distinguish in her the initial fateful elf in my life... Soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.” [15]

In The Enchanter there is no backstory, Riviera luxury hotels or anything else. The bare-bones plot-- a man who loves nymphets, marries one’s mother to get to her; but it comes out badly in the end-- is artfully crafted into  Lolita.

The mothers are different too. “...a tall, pale, broad-hipped lady with a hairless wart near a nostril of her bulbous nose” (Enchanter, 15).   The pursuer has to scheme and play-act to pretend he finds in her some vestige of attractiveness; and the prospect of consummating their marriage sexually fills him with disgust: “it was perfectly clear that he (little Gulliver) would be unable to tackle those broad bones, those multiple caverns, the bulky velvet, the formless anklebones, the repulsively listing conformation of her ponderous pelvis, not to mention the rancid emanations of her wilted skin and the as yet undisclosed miracles of surgery... here his imagination was left hanging on barbed wire.” (30)

Lolita’s mother, on the other hand: “I think I had better describe her right away, to get it over with. The poor lady was in her middle thirties, she had a shiny forehead, plucked eyebrows and quite simple but not unattractive features of the type that may be defined as a weak solution of Marlene Dietrich.” (Lolita, 33) Humbert finds her gauche and pretentious, stuck in the utterly middle-class world (before such women had careers) of book club and bridge club “or any other deadly conventionality.” Charlotte Haze, unlike her 1939 Paris counterpart, actively pursues her daughter’s would-be lover, and the plot tension in this part of the book is chiefly about Humbert fending her off while keeping her sufficiently happy not to be suspicious. Here he has an ally in Lolita, who likes defying her mother and finds Humbert refreshingly different from her callow age-mates. This develops into mother-daughter rivalry, with Charlotte planning to get Lolita out of the way at summer camp, and then off permanently to boarding school. In The Enchanter, the widow is a self-centered invalid, claiming the privilege of not being bothered by her daughter, who she finds too noisy to have around her apartment, and keeps her boarded with a couple in a provincial town. In Lolita, all this is more pleasant to read about, more comic, and more dramatic than in The Enchanter. Charlotte gets hold of her husband’s secret diary, reads about his designs on Lolita and his real opinion of herself. Humbert reads Charlotte’s shocked/angry note, tries to compose an explanation (just a novel I’m writing) when the neighbour knocks on the door-- his wife has been killed by a car as she was crossing the street to post the tell-all letters in the mailbox.

The Enchanter has no memorable personalities. No one in the story even has a name. The protagonist is simply “he,” the widow is “the old woman” (age 42) and then, since he cannot bring himself to think of her as his wife, simply “that person.” The object of his obsession is merely “the girl.” The narrator sticks entirely to the protagonist’s point of view, with passages of inner dialogue or its paraphrase. The writing has its passages of eloquence and clever word-play (judging from the translation by Nabokov’s son from Russian into English), but this doesn’t rub off on the protagonist, unlike in Lolita, where Humbert Humbert’s first-person account makes Nabokov’s light-touch wordplay into a feature of the character himself. The “enchanter” is polite and respectable on the surface, but his inner thoughts are largely dour, with none of the jokes and self-ironicizing that makes Humbert the most attractive person in the book.

The “enchanter” doesn’t seem very enchanting. Only in the last chapter do we learn what the title is meant to convey. This is his self-image, engaged in schemes to bring the girl under his spell, getting her accustomed to step-fatherly affection, until:

“We shall live far away, now in the hills, now by the sea, in a hothouse warmth where savage-like nudity will automatically become habitual, perfectly alone (no servants!), seeing no one, just the two of us in an eternal nursery and thus any remaining sense of shame will be dealt its final blow. There will be constant merriment, pranks, morning kisses, tussles on the shared bed, a single, huge sponge shedding its tears on four shoulders, squirting with laughter amid four legs... During the first two years or so the captive would be ignorant... of the puppet-master’s panting... He would have to be particularly cautious, not to let her go anywhere alone, make frequent changes of domicile, keep a sharp eye out lest she make friends with other children or have occasion to start chatting with the woman from the greengrocer’s or the char, for there was no telling what impudent elf might fly from the lips of enchanted innocence... And yet, for what could one possibly reproach the enchanter!

“He knew he would find sufficient delights in her so as not to disenchant her prematurely... He knew he would make no attempt on her virginity in the tightest and pinkest sense of the term until the evolution of their caresses had ascended a certain invisible step.”  (42-44)

So he thinks on his train ride to pick her up and take her south. Finally, after a series of petty interruptions, he is in the hotel room, lying down beside her:

“So. The hour he had deliriously desired for a full quarter century had finally come, yet it was shackled, even cooled by the cloud of his bliss. The flow and ebb of her light-colored robe, mingling with revelations of her beauty, still quivered before his eyes, intricately rippled as if seen through cut glass. He simply could not find the focal point of business, did not know where to begin, what one could touch, and how, within the realm of her repose, in order to savor this hour to the fullest. So.” (54)

Descending even more into micro-detail:

“The stuffy air and his excitement were growing unbearable. He slightly loosened his pajama drawstring, which had been cutting into his belly... Then, starting little by little to cast his spell, he began passing his magic wand above her body, almost touching the skin, torturing himself with her attraction, her visible proximity, the fantastic confrontation permitted by the slumber of this naked girl, whom he was measuring, as it were, with an enchanted yardstick...

“...slowly, with bated breath, he was inching closer and then, coordinating all his movements, he began molding himself to her, testing the fit... A spring apprehensively yielded under his side; his right elbow, cautiously cracking, sought a support; his sight was clouded by a secret concentration... He felt the flame of her shapely thigh, felt that he could restrain himself no longer, that nothing mattered now, and, as the sweetness came to a boil between his wooly tufts and her hip, how joyously his life was emancipated and reduced to the simplicity of paradise-- and having barely time to think, ‘No, I beg you, don’t take it away!” he saw that she was fully awake and looking wild-eyed at his rearing nudity.

“For an instant, in the hiatus of a syncope, he also saw how it appeared to her: some monstrosity, some ghastly disease... She was looking and screaming, but the enchanter did not hear her screams; he was deafened by his own horror, kneeling, catching at the folds, snatching at the drawstring, trying to stop it, hide it, snapping with his oblique spasm, as senseless as pounding in place of music, senselessly discharging molten wax, to stop it or conceal it...

“How she rolled from the bed, how she was shrieking now, how the lamp scampered off in its red cowl, what a thundering came from outside the window, shattering, destroying the night, demolishing everything, everything... ‘Be quiet, it’s nothing bad, it’s just a kind of game, it happens sometimes, just be quiet,’ he implored, middle-aged and sweaty...” (56-57)

Then the pounding on the door, the mob in the hall, escape down the stairs, out into the street where the trucks rolled down hill, finding one opportunely to throw himself under. “...and the film of life had burst.” [59]

In every respect, Nabokov made Lolita a more attractive book than The Enchanter. No wonder he tried to trash the early manuscript and even his first attempts at a reworking. Each time it was rescued by his wife. Did she sense it was the key to their future?

The oddest thing about The Enchanter was that Nabokov wrote it in autumn 1939, just after Stalin and Hitler joined to invade Poland. Falling back on sheer escapism? Nabokov as an adult was apolitical (even though, or perhaps because, his father was a reformist party leader, journalist and sometime official in various Russian governments, who was killed in Germany in a fight among exile factions in 1922). (If I can intrude a telling irrelevancy, Nabokov’s next literary project after his father was shot was a Russian translation of Alice in Wonderland.) In Lolita, the one mention of external events is when summarizing his prior life, Humbert says: “the gloom of yet another World War had settled upon the globe when, after a winter of ennui and pneumonia in Portugal, I at last reached the States.” (28-9)  Nabokov’s protagonists are too self-absorbed to be interested in anything else.  

Style creates sympathy

“They kissed, undressed, and smoked a cigarette. I got ready to climb down. At that moment I felt the ladder sliding away under me. I tried to grab hold of the window, but it gave way. The ladder fell with a crash and there I was, dangling in the air. Suddenly the whole apartment exploded with alarm. Everyone came running...”  [114]

“Pink veins glimmered in the white stone of the portal, and above it columns as thin as candles. The organ fell silent and then burst into a laughter of bass notes. The church was filled with light, filled with dancing rays, columns of air, and a cool exaltation...” [287]

“His hatred followed me through forests and over rivers. I felt it on my hide and shuddered. He nailed his bloodshot eyes on my path...” [346]

“Someone’s horse neighs softly like a pining woman, and the cannonade, falling silent, lies down to sleep on the black, wet earth.  Only one window is ablaze in a faraway street. It cuts through the gloom of the autumn night like an exhilarated searchlight, flashing, drenched with rain... I can still hear the sound of water. The rain is continuing to stutter, bubble, and moan on the roofs. The wind grabs the rain and shoves it to the side. The light of the room has dimmed by half. A man rises from the bench, splicing the dim glimmer of the moon...” [339-40]

“I took the manuscript home with me and cut swaths through the translation. When a phrase is born, it is both good and bad at the same time. The secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernable. One’s fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And then the key must be turned once, not twice.” [445]

Nabokov?  No. It’s another Russian, Nabokov’s contemporary, five years older Isaac Babel. One might have guessed from the mention of “cannonade” in the fourth excerpt that these are Babel’s Red Army stories from the 1920s, while Nabokov was traversing southern Russia on the Whites’ side of the front and on into exile. But the first excerpt, from “The Bathroom Window” is set in a brothel in Petersburg (Nabokov’s home town), a story that got Babel prosecuted for obscenity in 1917. The last excerpt is again Petersburg in 1916, about translating literature from French into Russian, and both its message and its tone are closely aligned with Nabokov’s thought processes. I am not claiming that Nabokov was influenced by Babel. But that he read some of these stories is quite likely; Babel himself went back and forth between Russia and Paris in the late 20s and early 30s, and it would not be hard to find intermediate network links between them-- except for a big difference in social class between the writers. And in politics, of course; 19-year-old Nabokov considered enlisting in the White Army, then thought better of it-- otherwise the two writers could have shot each other.

What is more to the point is that startling metaphors and figures of speech were in vogue in avant-garde Russian writing in the early 20th century, and sophisticated analysis of literary effects was being done by Russian theorists such as Viktor Shlavsky and Roman Jakobson. This sophistication reached the West via France, where it transmuted in the 1950s into structuralism. Nabokov took the Russian stream, not of theory but of practice, to America.

In Lolita, Nabokov’s writing hits a new peak and never lets down. Every line is a bon mot, every sentence beautiful, alive, compelling. Even banalities are rendered gracefully.

“...the little diary which I now propose to reel off (much as a spy delivers by heart the contents of the note he has swallowed) covers most of June.” [37]

“At first, I planned to take a degree in psychiatry as so many manqué talents do; but I was even more manqué than that; a peculiar exhaustion, I am so oppressed, doctor, set in; and I switched to English literature, where so many frustrated poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds.” [13] 

There is hardly a pedestrian sentence in the book, but you never feel it’s overdone, nor do the verbal acrobatics distract from the movement of the story. Hold on-- what movement? -- since not a lot happens in the ordinary sense of the word. More the other way around-- Nabokov’s sentences are the movement of the story.

“In the course of the sun-shot moment when my glance slithered over the kneeling child (her eyes blinking over those stern dark spectacles-- the little Herr Doktor who was to cure me of all my aches) while I passed by her in my adult disguise (a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood), the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty, and these I checked against the features of my dead bride. A little later, of course, she, this nouvelle, this Lolita, my Lolita, was to eclipse completely her prototype. All I want to stress is that my discovery of her was a fatal consequence of that ‘princedom by the sea’ in my tortured past. Everything between the two events was but a series of gropings and blunders and false rudiments of joy.” [36]

How does he do it? A salad of word-play, alliteration, American colloquialisms (Nabokov showing off his mastery of yet another tongue), shifts in rhythm and cadence-- now mellifluous, now abrupt. Acres and acres of long run-on sentences, constructed out of parenthetical interpolations; but the piling-on of clever phrases never feels confusing or overwrought. You the reader never lose track of where you are (unlike, for instance, reading Joyce);* the bouncing tropes are in the service of vivid word-painting, the pyrotechnics keep you in the picture. A combination indeed of word-magic and realism.

* Nabokov was not given to footnotes in Lolita,  but here we can mention that he wrote to Joyce in 1933 offering to translate Ulysses into Russian. In 1937, Joyce attended a Nabokov reading; and the two met in 1938 in Paris.

It holds together because the long sentences full of self-interruptions perfectly match the narrator’s character. And that is what drives the plot: not so much what Humbert Humbert does but his ironic self-reflections on what he has done and plans to do.

By keeping his own voice in the foreground, Humbert manages to be the only sympathetic character in the novel. He travels around a country full of people who are crass, ugly, dismal, uncool, unsophisticated and tasteless. The only person in Lolita who is cool, upbeat, fun, a good guy to be around, is Humbert Humbert (the pseudo-Nabokov). Both author and protagonist are Euro-snobs, disdainful of Americans. Probably this is why there is relatively little dialogue in considerable stretches of the book, since only Humbert can talk in an interesting manner. When other characters speak, the effect is almost entirely satirical, such as when Nabokov parodies the headmistress of the girl’s school Lolita attends.

Perhaps we should add Lolita as a dominant character. She gets a certain amount of clipped dialogue, allowing Nabakov to show off his perfect ear for the teenage idiom. She is very unlike “the girl” in The Enchanter, flirting with Humbert and even initiating sex with him in their initial hotel-room scene. The rest of the book is a struggle of wills between them, which Lolita wins.

Humbert/Nabokov is attractive because of his word-magic. (Was the author conscious of vindicating at least that residue of The Magician ?) The endlessly dancing sentences convey us inside the mind of a light-footed, all-angles-considering, gracefully quick-witted consciousness. He is endlessly self-ironicizing but not self-alienated. Being in Humbert’s presence is never a downer although what happens in his life is.

Here it is worth peeling away Nabokov’s style to get at a bare-bones account of what happens as Lolita winds down.

Lolita as tragedy

Lolita is tragedy, not in the vulgar newsmedia use of the word to mean whenever anyone gets killed, but in the high literary sense. It is even classic tragedy: a hero with great qualities (in this case, a magical style) and a fatal flaw, treading towards downfall with inevitable destiny-laden steps.

As soon as Humbert has Lolita, things start going downhill. Taste mismatches: European high culture vs. coca cola, hamburgers, and movie magazines. Humbert is getting plenty of sex, but he has to pay for it with a continuous stream of bribes, candy, clothes; even money (3 cents a day, which she wheedles up to 15 cents) for her allowance, “under condition she fulfill her basic obligations... [while she] managed to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, and even four bucks.” [172]  Lolita chafing at the bit is a constant source of anxiety, as Humbert becomes increasingly paranoid about any contact she has with boys. This leads to a certain amount of comedy, as school officials complain to Humbert about being too strict and old-fashioned with her. Paranoia takes on a dimension of reality as neighbours grow suspicious and her girlfriends cast knowing looks. Their intermittent quarrels grow worse as Lolita protests about being denied her teenage freedom and resorts to ruses and lying about everyday trivialities. Humbert finds himself resorting to force, from twisting her wrists to slapping her face. [192, 212] Everyone has mutated into their opposite; Lolita recapitulating Humbert’s furtiveness in his clandestine courtship days; Humbert repeating the harshness of Lolita’s mother during their siege of rivalry:

“ ‘Just slap her hard if she interferes with your scholarly meditations.’ ” Charlotte Haze says, finding Lolita putting her hands over Humbert’s eyes from behind as he sits reading a book. [51] 

Finally Humbert escapes with Lolita into an endless, year-long auto trip, where paranoia approaches hallucination as he thinks they are being followed by another car. When Lolita is hospitalized, she manages to escape, allegedly picked up by her uncle. Humbert hires detectives but can never find her. We skip three years to the denouement: he gets a letter from her, telling him she is married and asking for money. This Humbert willingly provides, and in return gets the satisfaction of finding out who took her from him: the famous playwright/screenwriter Quilty, whom Lolita had a crush on for years-- Humbert not being the only mature man she preferred to adolescent boys. Quilty took her to a dude ranch in New Mexico, surrounded by hipsters, drug-using carousers, the Hollywood scene.  Another irony: Humbert’s old-world culture is out-bid by the trendy edge of American life.* Quilty takes none of this as seriously as Humbert, tries out Lolita for the casting couch, offering to get her a movie part. She willingly slept with Quilty but resisted being in a pornographic movie, leaving the dude ranch to enter a downward spiral of dish-washing in restaurants and marrying a workingclass guy. Humbert goes off to avenge himself on Quilty (“before I drove to wherever the beast’s lair was-- and then pulled the pistol’s foreskin back, and then enjoyed the orgasm of the crushed trigger.”) [258] Lolita dies in childbirth. Humbert Humbert dies in prison of heart failure.

* Quilty is the only character besides Humbert who gets to talk at length, in the 10 page section near the end where Humbert tries to torment him before shooting him. Quilty displays a range of rhetoric rivaling Nabokov’s-- perhaps a parodied American counterpart.

Tragedy elevates, purging pity and fear, Aristotle said. Shakespeare’s tragedies are elevating in just that sense; Faulkner’s too.  Can we say this about Lolita ?

What makes a Great Classic?

Simple answer: surviving the test of time. In the history of philosophy, one does not become canonical in the generation after one’s death. There is often a dip in reputation; the real test is 100 or more years later, as the names remembered from the past are winnowed out. Similar processes operate in the history of art. As yet there is no systematic study of these reputational time-patterns for literary writers. Nabokov died in 1977, and now (the late 2010s) is about the time when past fame no longer counts; there has to be something in it people still want to read. Moralistic attacks on literature (which is to say, external to literary criteria) are fairly common in the history of literature. By the same token, books famous for moving-the-boundaries-of-what-can-be-said may not outlive their shock value.

Do standards of what constitutes literature-- internal to the world of serious readers-- change historically to such a degree that one-time classics become outmoded? It happens, although not very often. Literature of the Renaissance period, with its allegories and symbolism, stopped being appealing by the 1700s. We can’t rule out a similar repudiation in the future of the whole realist and psychological (AKA “romantic”) literature of the past three centuries. But our theorizing about literary reception and production has not advanced enough to speculate about what kinds of social changes would make this happen. Come back in a hundred years or so, and we’ll see.


Vladimir Nabokov. Novels 1955-62.  Library of America. Includes detailed chronology of Nabokov’s life.

Vladimir Nabokov. The Enchanter.  1986. translated by Dmitri Nabokov.

Isaac Babel. Collected Stories. 2002.  Originally published 1913-1938.

Peter Steiner. Russian Formalism. 1984. Cornell Univ. Press

Eric Schneider. Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York. 1999. Princeton Univ. Press.

Randall Collins. The Sociology of Philosophies. A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. 1998.


Sam Spade is the most famous movie detective, and The Maltese Falcon is the greatest writing by Dashiell Hammett, who created the modern detective story. But there was a long road leading to Sam Spade from Hammett’s stories of the 1920s, when he leveraged his experience as an operative for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency into a series of pulp-magazine stories telling what it’s really like on the ground.

The Pinkerton Agency was a big, bureaucratic, nation-wide organization. Its agents were cogs in the machine, drawing on each other for information and assistance to track down criminals. They were more FBI than Private Eye. They worked closely with the local police. Their operatives were the opposite of the lone-wolf detective in the mold of Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who were constantly in trouble with the cops. The road to The Maltese Falcon  had to turn allies into antagonists; eventually the PI genre would generate half its plot tension from heavy-handed intrusions by the police.

From the outset, Hammett’s detective is a hard-boiled tough guy, at home with underworld slang, who knows how to give it out and take a beating in a fight. He is laconic and lacking in personality in other respects. This had to change, to arrive at the cynical/romantic detective sparring verbally with glamorous women and sometimes falling for them. Hammett’s Continental Op is essentially sexless as well as emotionless, like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and the like. Spade and Marlowe become a different breed of cat.


The Pinkerton/Continental Detective Agency: a bureaucratic team

When the Continental Op is on a case, he has plenty of backup. When he wants somebody shadowed, he calls on an office-full of agents to watch a home for a week, even renting nearby apartments with good vantage point. (Even today, this would by an expensive stakeout by the FBI, usually reserved for Mafia investigations.) The Continental Op checks out suspects’ alibis and tracks their movements by telegraphing his company’s offices around the country. When he wants to identify someone, he can wire for photographs from the company’s archive. He can even get fingerprints, and have them analyzed for whether they have been altered. (One of Hammett’s early stories hinges on a suspect who created fake fingerprint by coating his fingers with gelatin and pressing them onto an engraving of someone else’s prints.)  The Continental Op runs down information by using organizational bureaucracy whoever runs it; when he knows a suspect has taken a taxi, he sends a team of operatives to the taxi company’s office to go through the records and find where the suspect was driven. All the implausible sleuthing done by Sherlock Holmes as an individual working alone-- tracing a cigarette stub through his own private collection of every kind of tobacco, and finding these cigarettes are specially made, by a tobacconist in Holmes’ file, for only three people-- is carried out by the Continental Op’s  team. Eventually, these methods of tracing suspects would become standard procedure in police bureaucracies.


Cops as allies

Far from being rivals of the cops, the Pinkerton/Continental Agency works closely with them. The police routinely call them with information and invite them to accompany them to the scene of a  crime or a body discovered. The Continental Op drops in on the police to discuss the progress of a case they are both working on. In later films, the viewer assumes that Spade or Marlowe just have personal friends among the police who occasionally tip them off; but  the Pinkertons always coordinated with the police. On the whole, their work was less dramatic than the detective-story murders: bank fraud, jewel robberies, embezzlement and blackmail were their chief line of work; and these could involve far-ranging movements of persons or loot around the country, so that the nation-wide range of the Pinkertons provided a larger resource than any local police department. The Pinkertons had the first national fingerprint file, and archives of criminals’ photos and descriptions.* The police looked up to the Pinkertons and welcomed their cooperation.  The Continental Op can count on them to lay a police dragnet around all traffic out of Los Angeles, when he is testing the alibi of a suspect. They also accept his request to release a suspect from jail so that shadowing her might lead to other suspects.

*The FBI scientific crime detection laboratory, established in 1932, began to coordinate fingerprint and photo files from police departments around the country.


Cops liked the Pinkertons to do their dirty work for them, roughing up suspects or killing them. Oversight of police methods was weak, but even so what the Pinkertons did was completely off the books. This was especially so in the area of labor struggles, where the Pinkertons had been employed as strike breakers and labor spies, dating back to bloody confrontations in the 1880s. Their action went beyond fighting with union picket lines and escorting strike-breaking workers into a plant. They shadowed labor organizers (especially from radical organizations like the International Workers of the World), beat them up and sometimes crippled or killed them. They posed as union men to stir up disputes, act as agents provocateurs, and finger the militants. In Red Harvest, the Continental Op follows this pattern, drawing on Hammett’s own experience as a strike-breaker, plus reports of a murderous struggle at a copper mining town in Montana in 1917.  In a town where everybody is on the take one way or the other, the Op succeeds in making the leaders of different factions suspicious of each other, in effect accomplishing his assignment by instigating (and taking part in) a long series of murders.

The police welcomed the Pinkertons/Continentals for operating outside the law more effectively than they could within the law. Of course, most of their cases were routine-- bank fraud and the like-- where the private agency simply provided more resources. It would be writers like Hammett who spiced up their stories with a dramatic back-and-forth of violence.


The essence of detective work: shadowing, reporting, record-checking

In an early story (1924), the Continental Op says:  “Ninety-nine percent of detective work is a patient collecting of details-- and your details must be got as nearly first-hand as possible, regardless of who else has worked the territory before you.” [Op.110]  (He means here that he can see things the cops overlook.)

“A good motto for the detective business is, ‘When in doubt, shadow ‘em.’”  He goes on to give four rules for shadowing: “Keep behind your suspect as much as possible; never try to hide from him; act in a natural manner no matter what happens; and never meet his eye.” [Op.89-90]

The Continental Op can call on a whole team of accomplished shadowers. One of them has the information down to a laconic formula:  “Made him,” he reported. “Thirty or thirty-two. Five, six. Hundred, thirty. Sandy hair, complexion. Blue eye. thin face, some skin off. Rat. Lives dump in Seventh Street.”  [Op.405]

The Op does plenty of shadowing of his own; and Dashiell Hammett himself, during his years with the Pinkertons was regarded as an excellent shadower, even though he was over six feet tall (unusual for the time). The shadower also has to report what he sees; a concise description, addresses, times when people were present or went somewhere else. The Op writes up his reports for the local office, and calls on reports by other agents as he builds his investigation.

This is the essence of bureaucracy. In Max Weber’s famous summary of the characteristic of bureaucracy in world history, these elements stand out: a bureaucracy makes written reports, keeps them in files, and uses them as the basis for its actions. Bureaucrats’ reputation as paper-pushers is justified, but Weber underlined its effectiveness: keeping records is the only way to coordinate a large number of people, and to bring rational calculation to bear on figuring out what is a pattern and how to deal with it. The Continental Op glamorizes bureaucracy, when records are created by stealthy surveillance and their subjects are possible murderers.


The Dashiell Hammett brand

Hammett’s years with the Pinkertons were the origins of his writing style. This would become the hallmark of the Hammett brand.


Concise, vivid descriptions and wise-guy comments

At or near the opening of a story, Hammett describes an important character who sets in motion the plot. His descriptions are the kind of things he did in his shadowing reports: giving height, shape of face, coloring, distinctive body carriage-- all the things that enable a shadower to keep tabs on his target, as well as clueing in another agent who would take over surveillance.

“He was a big balloon of a man, in a green plaid suit that didn’t make him look any smaller than he was. His tie was a gaudy thing, mostly of yellow, with a big diamond set in the center of it, and there were more stones on his pudgy hands. Spongy fat blurred his features, making it impossible for his round purplish face to ever hold any other expression than the discontented hoggishness that was habitual to it.”  [Op.108]

“I sized up the amateur while he strained his neck peeping at Ledwick. He was small, this sleuth, and scrawny and frail. His most noticeable feature was his nose-- a limp organ that twitched nervously all the time. His clothes were old and shabby, and he himself was somewhere in his fifties.” [Op.92]

Surroundings are significant introductions to their owners:

“While I waited for him I looked around the room, deciding that the dull orange rug under my feet was probably genuinely Oriental and truly ancient, that the carved walnut furniture hadn’t been ground out by machinery, and that the Japanese prints on the walls hadn’t been selected by a puritan.” [Op.631]

Other than when he describing people, Hammett is a minimalist writer, clear and clean, having shaved away all excess verbiage. This is a main reason why his stories move along so rapidly-- and why critics recognized him as a distinctly modern writer, even comparing him to Hemingway. But in his descriptions Hammett is very un-Hemingway. This emphasis comes from his training in writing shadowing reports-- a writing apprenticeship of five years. Hammett no doubt enhanced his descriptions beyond his early practice-- in effect, his first step towards creating his own brand. One gets an initial idea of what kind of person is hiring the detective (quite possibly for hidden motives); the description is the first clue.

They also give a sense of the Continental Op’s character. On the whole, the detective is laconic in his speech; and since he is also the first-person narrator, the same style pervades the entire story. The Op keeps his emotions to himself; better yet, he prefers not to have any emotions, he is just doing his job.* His clipped utterances convey a tinge of cynicism, and this is enhanced by the wise-guy remarks he often smuggles into his personal descriptions. Most writers’ descriptions are bland, just setting the scene before getting into the action (a reason why Hemingway avoids them); but Hammett’s episodic portraits convey a moral judgment, and a sardonic wit. We don’t learn much about the Op as a character, but he is a master of the wise-crack. He doesn’t engage in repartée, but in his mind he looks down on the people he deals with.**

* “This lawyer was bound upon getting me worked up; and I like my jobs to be simply jobs-- emotions are nuisances during business hours.” [Op.98]

** People he likes are usually cops.: “... his freckles climbing up his face, to make room for his grin.” [Op.419]


The Op also conveys his easy familiarity with slang, sprinkling his narrative with underworld expressions. This is part of the hard-boiled character that Hammett is credited with inventing. He didn’t start the literary movement conveying the speech of ordinary people of the lower classes. This had been done previously by writers like Twain, Bret Harte, and Kipling. Such writing could be verbose, showing off, or mocking the speaker. Stephen Crane’s Maggie, A Girl of the Streets  (1983) is so full of lower-class dialect and phonetic spellings that it is tedious to read. Hammett inserts a mere razor-cut of slang here and there, following his tactic of never impeding the flow of the story.

There is an unintended consequence of Hammett’s word-portraits. Every person has a particular type of nose-- straight, thick, hooked, up-turned;  a shape of the head:  narrow, broad-cheeked, round, oval-- and Hammett’s training made him sensitive to all the little things that combine to make someone look distinctive. In writing his stories and novels, Hammett was at pains to set off his characters from each other, both by descriptions and by making up unusual names; and his most important characters usually get an over-the-top description.  (The Op himself is never described, except we learn that he is short and heavy, reversing Hammett’s own appearance, tall and thin.) This tendency to portray exaggerated, even grotesque persons is one of the things that appealed to Hollywood in filming his novels.

This reaches a climax in The Maltese Falcon, where all the bad guys are extremes: the Fat Man (Sydney Greenstreet’s character) who resembles the “big balloon of a man” quoted above, except that he wears the pompous morning dress (tail-coat, cravat, spats) of the old-fashioned British upper class. Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), the dandy with foppish manners, a  carnation in his lapel, and a perfumed handkerchief in his wallet. Wilmer, the diminutive gun-man, who talks tough (and shoots people cold-bloodedly) but who barely comes up to Humphrey Bogart’s shoulder. Why have a tiny gun-man instead of a more plausible strong-armed hoodlum? Just breaking the pattern and thereby being memorable. Visually-oriented Hollywood used the same set of actors (Greenstreet, Lorre, Elisha Cook, Bogart) in other classic film noir. It is also a reason why The Maltese Falcon is fun rather than threatening: its bad guys are too grotesque to be real.*

* All the killings happen off screen, and the one real thug in the story, Thursby, is never seen or even described.


Micro-observations and emotional domination

The Op is an excellent observer of other people-- not just what they look like, but the little signals they give off.

“I paused at the door of the Figgs’ room, until my ear told me that they were sleeping. At Mrs. Gallaway’s door I had to wait several minutes before she sighed and turned in bed. Barbra Caywood ws breathing deeply and strongly, with the regularity of a young animal whose sleep is without disturbing dreams. The invalid’s breath came to me with the evenness of slumber and the rasping of the pneumonia convalescent.” [Op.79]

“She talked for five minutes straight, the words fairly sizzling from between her hard lips; but the words themselves didn’t mean anything. She was talking for time-- talking while she tried to hit upon the safest attitude to assume.” [Op.97]

“The Whosis Kid let go of the woman and took three slow steps back from her. His eyes were dead circles without any color you could name-- the dull eyes of a man whose nerves quit functioning in the face of excitement.” [Op.240]

“I was puzzled. The Dummy’s yellowish eyes should have showed the pinpoint pupils of the heroin addict. They didn’t. The pupils were normal. That didn’t mean he was off the stuff-- he had put cocaine into them to distend them to normal. The puzzle was-- why? He wasn’t usually particular enough about his appearance to go to that trouble.” [Op.306]

The detective sees through people’s motives by quickly recognizing the clues they are giving off about what they are trying to accomplish. He is like a Goffman-inspired sociologist, who sees the impressions people are trying to convey and what effort they have to put into the performance. In The Maltese Falcon, Brigid O’Shaughnessy plays at being naive, nervous, helpless, overwhelmed; but Sam Spade is having none of it. “You’re not going to go around poking at the fire and straightening up the room again, are you?” [Novel.438]

The result is the detective always dominates the interaction.   He sets the rhythm, and refuses to let the other side take charge. He listens when he is getting information, but when he is getting nowhere he quickly pulls the plug. He is a skilled practitioner of emotional domination, which micro-sociology characterizes as: taking the initiative, feeling confidence and energy, and imposes one’s timing on the other. * If possible, he pushes the other person into passively going along. If he meets stone-walled resistance, he writes off the encounter for another time. But in Hammett’s narratives, he almost always dominates: generally more verbally than physically. (The Op is a tough fighter, but Hammett realistically shows when he is overmatched and has to take a beating.)

* Research with audio and video recordings shows EDOM is based in the fractional micro-seconds of talking and bodily movements. [Collins 2004]


In this sense, his detective-characters are charismatic, in the small encounters of everyday life. Sam Spade is the most dominant of them, which is why he is the most famous hero/anti-hero.


Never trust first appearances: plot twists and final de-briefing scene

Hammett never rests with a single mystery pursued to its solution. His stories almost always feature an unexpected plot reversal. What the detective’s problem seems to be at first turns out to be covering up something else. And this is not just the conventional whodunnit shifting back and forth among suspects, but the very nature of the crime turns out to be different. A suicide appears to be blackmail but investigation opens a backlog of deceptions and murders; a kidnapping turns out to be a scam; a suspect confesses to a murder he didn’t commit, but that’s not the end of it.

A consequence is that the last part of every story has to give a retrospective explanation of what really happened. These de-briefing scenes tend to be artificial and anticlimactic. Often the captured crook will spill out all the details, even if he is on the way to the electric chair. Or the detective explains his solution to an interested audience. In the Thin Man films, this takes the form of gathering the dramatis personae together while the sleuth explains what everyone did. This concluding letdown is a price of the writer’s clever plot-twists. It would carry over to Raymond Chandler’s similarly constructed mysteries.


Hammett’s steps as a writer

Hammett broke into Black Mask  in October 1923, and published a total of 9 stories, all featuring the Continental Op, over the next 9 months. Within another year he had published 6 more. Black Mask was a cheap-paper (“pulp”) magazine published as a pot-boiler by a respectable New York publishing house.  Hammett got in on his credentials as an ex-Pinkerton detective, and the magazine played him up as a new kind of detective writer, and soon had him at the top of their stable. Through early 1926 (i.e. a period of two and a half years) he published a total of 21 stories; then his short story production declined, with only 7 more stories as his work in this genre petered out in 1930. Hammett wasn’t slowing down, but shifting to longer works, turning his detective tales into novels. In the transition period, he was publishing his novels in serialized form in Black Mask. “The Cleansing of Poisonville” was serialized in 4 installments over the winter of 1927-8, and published as a novel, Red Harvest, in 1929.  Novels paid much better than stories (royalties instead of by-the-word), and generated more fame and critical recognition.

How does one turn short stories into novels? By making them longer, more complex, more characters, more plot twists. The early stories of 1923-4 were very condensed, averaging 6,000 words; then more than doubled to 14,000 words. Hammett also began to link stories together, carrying over into sequels with overlapping characters. An early story was bare-bones. The longer stories added more scenes, more wise-cracks, more clever word-portraits. * Hammett started with the laconic style from his Pinkerton shadowing reports, and built his trademark by expanding. He kept a careful balance; just enough additional wording, without losing the clipped, tight-lipped tone. Hammett was a meticulous rather than an inspired writer, honing his sentences and revising carefully. It was also an instance (perhaps rare enough)  where good editors made useful criticism and suggestions. At least at the beginning, there was something of a team quality to Hammett’s creativity.

* We see the same thing a decade later when Raymond Chandler revised his short stories into novels: generally, combining several unrelated stories, and thereby making for a serpentine plot structure. Comparing the original stories with the later novel, we see Chandler revising his word-portraits and wise-cracks, always in the direction of making them longer.


Hammett also began to make his stories more exotic, even far-fetched and fantastic. His best work is known for its San Francisco atmosphere, but Hammett in the mid-1920s also had the Continental Op traveling to a fictional Balkan state to stave off a revolution; to a gambling house in Tijuana complete with an auto chase in the desert; an Arizona cowboy town where rival ranch-hands have a grudge fight and the Op has to prove he can ride a bucking bronco. He experiments with expanding his repertoire by veering into clichés might be considered trial-and-error learning. There are country mansions with plots hinging on rich invalids and inheritances. An especially far-fetched plot (“The Gutting of Couffignal”) involves an island off the California coast inhabited by rich people; a gang using military weapons cuts off the bridge to the mainland and loots the entire town, until the Op (who was called there to guard some pricey wedding presents) shows his own military prowess to overcome an armored car. The twist is that a former Russian general who lives on the island engineered the whole thing.

Even the San Francisco setting was turned fantastic in “The Big Knock-Over” [1927]. The Op notices that the city saloons are full of famous criminals from all over the country, and people are murdered for knowing what is going on. It turns out that a huge criminal coalition has been organized to close off the main downtown streets, with gunners at every corner keeping back the cops, while the biggest banks in the city are robbed. Everybody has minute instructions about their part in the operation, logistics, getaway cars and all. The Op can do nothing to stop it; but this is a long story (with a linked sequel), and it transpires that the ad hoc mega-gang has been double-crossed by a mastermind who made off with the loot, and this is where the Op makes his inroads. His word portraits have a  workout giving distinguishing features to Itchy Maker, Bluepoint Vance, The Shivering Kid, Alphabet Shorty McCoy, Toby the Lugs et al., leaving the whole thing with the tone of caricature. Hammett’s on-the-job learning must have convinced him there was nothing more to do in this direction, since at this time he was beginning to write serialized novels that stayed closer to his forte as insider to the detective business.


The private eye parts company with the cops

The Continental Op was an organization man working in tandem with the police. Perhaps because some of the Op’s more fantastic adventures had him off on his own, without his usual organizational backup, Hammett began to imagine what he could do if they cops became one of the obstacles. The turning point is a late story, “The Main Death” [June 1927]. A women reports her husband was killed in a home robbery while holding a large amount of cash. The Op tracks the robbers and offers to let them get away without telling the police, if they give him all the money. They think he is shaking them down. But the Op knows there is no murder case against them, since the only person who could testify to the killing won’t do it. Why not? Because he made the wife admit that her husband commited suicide; she made up the story to keep the life insurance from being canceled. The Op is no longer the straight-laced company man; he is breaking its rules and its code of ethics, showing more human sympathy, and keeping his manuevers to himself. He is acquring depth as a character, and even showing some emotions on the job.


Adding sex

The Op’s career to this point has been almost completely sexless. He deals with plenty of women, all of whom he treats with disdain. His rich clients have wives much younger than themselves, beautiful and stylish women whom the Op tacitly regards as bimbos. The Op is impervious to them.

When his editor told him to introduce more sex appeal, Hammett wrote “The Girl with the Silver Eyes” [1924] which has the following in a linked story: “A white face beneath a bobbed mass of red-colored hair. Smoke-gray eyes that were set too far apart for trustworthiness-- though not for beauty-- laughed at me, exposing the edges of little sharp animal-teeth. She was beautiful, as beautiful as the devil, and twice as dangerous... She laughed at me-- a fat man all trussed up with red plush rope, and with the corner of a green cushion in my mouth... Her smoke-gray eyes lost their merriment and became hard and calculating.” [Op.126] She goes through further disguises and plot twists, but the Op was wary from the outset.

Not until Sam Spade do we get a detective who has a sex life. Hammett makes him a lady-killer.


Culminating in The Maltese Falcon

All these trends come together in  The Maltese Falcon. Hammett is back in his city of mystery and fog, San Francisco. He has a new detective, tall and handsome-- since there is going to be a sex-centered plot, the Continental Op had to be replaced. The word-portraits are longer and fancier, but their characters are worthy of it. The wise-cracks are no longer in these snippets, but delivered by Sam Spade himself. We no longer have a first-person narrative, and as you will recall, the attitudes of the laconic Op came through his sardonic tags in describing what people looked like. Now the detective’s major characteristic is to talk and act like a wise-guy. He pushes emotional dominance to a main feature of the plot. No one every pushed the Continental Op around, but Spade is a verbal aggressor, keeping his opponents off balance by cutting them off.

            “The fat man bunched his lips, raised his eyebrows, and cocked his head a little to the left. “You see,” he said blandly, “I must tell you what I know, but you will not tell me what you know. That is hardly equitable, sir. No, no, I do not think we can do business along those lines.”

            Spade’s face became pale and hard. He spoke rapidly in a low furious voice: “Think again and think fast. I told that punk of yours that you’d have to talk to me before you got through. I’ll tell you now that you’ll do your talking today or you are through. What are you wasting my time for? ... God damn you! Maybe you could have got along me if you’d kept clear of me. You can’t now. Not in San Francisco. You’ll come in or you’ll get out-- and you’ll do it today.’

            He turned and with angry heedlessness tossed his glass at the table. The glass struck the wood, burst apart, and splashed its contents and glittering fragments over the table and floor...

            The fat man said tolerantly: “Well, sir, I must say you have a most violent temper.”

            “Temper?” Spade laughed crazily... He held out a long arm that ended in a thick forefinger pointing at the fat man’s belly. His angry voice filled the room. “Think it over and think like hell. You’ve got til five-thirty to do it in. Then you’re either in or out, for keeps.” [Novel.483-4]

Sam Spade is almost the opposite of an organization man. He still has a friend among the cops, Sergeant Tom Polhaus, who helps him from time to time, especially at the outset where he calls Spade to the scene of his partner’s murder. But the cops play another role in the drama, adding to the suspense. A thought-experiment: remove all the scenes where the cops interfere and what have we got left?

-- After Spade gets home from viewing the body, Polhaus and his boss, Lieutenant Dundy, pay a late-night call at his apartment. They inform him that Spade is himself a suspect of killing Thursby, the man who is believed to have killed Spade’s partner Miles Archer. This plot tension of Spade being charged with one murder or another continues to the end of the book.

-- Joel Cairo and Brigid O’Shaughnessy are starting to reveal their past connection and distrust at Spade’s apartment, when the cops arrive again, wanting to interrogate him about his affair with his dead partner’s wife. Spade blocks them from entering, but the noise of Cairo and Brigid fighting inside gives the cops reason to come in. Now they are suspicious of everybody, but Spade palms them off with a ridiculous story that they were only mocking the cops with a make-believe fight, and no one is preferring charges against anyone. The cops pick up Cairo anyway for a grilling, but Brigid comes even more under Spade’s protection as he tells the cops she is one of his operatives.

-- Spade talks to his sleazy lawyer/fixer and gets called in to the District Attorney’s office. The D.A. tells Spade he could be charged as an accomplice for concealing information about a murderer. The police think Thursby’s old enemies are involved because of his role in a welshed gambling debt. Spade gets angry and high-handed again; but he knows the cops are sniffing around the trail that would lead to Brigid who once was involved with Thursby in some caper in the Orient.

-- The final scene, in Spade’s apartment, after the black bird is delivered and turns out to be a fake. The fat man, Cairo and Wilmer all take it on the lam, and Spade calls the cops. Before they arrive, Spades tells Brigid, she had better come clean.

“Spade, face to face with her, very close to her, tall, big-boned and thick-muscled, coldly smiling, hard of jaw and eye, said: “They’ll talk when they’re nailed-- about us. We’re sitting on dynamite. Give me all of it-- fast. Gutman sent you and Cairo to Constantinople?”  [Novel.575]

In the over-all plot structure, this is the inevitable debriefing scene, that always features at the end of a Hammett story explaining what really went on-- the back-story that has been covered up by the mystery the detective has been trying to solve. Mostly this de-briefing is an boring anticlimax. But not here: For one thing, there is a twist. Spade gets out of her the truth, that she was the one who killed Miles Archer. And Spade then counts all the reasons why, if he protects her from the police, she would have something on him that would hang over their relationship forever. He sums up:

            “And eighth-- but that’s enough. All those on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”

            “You know,” she whispered, “whether you love me or not.”...

            She put her face  up to his face. Her mouth was slightly open with lips a little thrust out. She whispered: “If you loved me you’d need nothing more on that side.”

            Spade set the edges of his teeth together and said through them: “I won’t play the sap for you.”

            She put her mouth to his, slowly, her arms around him, and came into his arms. She was in his arms when the door-bell rang.  [Novel.582-3]

The film closes even better with a shot of Brigid going down in the elevator with the cops, the sliding grill closing like the bars of a cell.

Remove these scenes, and what remains? Spade with Wonderly/Brigid; Spade with the gunman Wilmer, and bits with Cairo; Spade with Gutman and eventually the whole gang. Hammett would have to contrive some other way of bringing out the back story, and conveying the tension that is driving Spade. This could be done, but most dramatic, confrontational scenes-- the most theatrical-- would be lost.

The Maltese Falcon has much less physical action, and very little on-stage violence, compared to Hammett’s stories and earlier novels. The scene-by-scene drama happens almost entirely in Spade’s verbal tussels over emotional domination. And it is a superior piece of dramatic writing for that. The Maltese Falcon  has Hammett’s trademark plot twists. Initial appearances are deceptive; Miss Wonderly’s series of cover stories are quickly seen through. (“Oh, that,” said Spade lightly. “We didn’t exactly believe your story.” ... “We believed your two hundred dollars.”) [Novel.416]  It takes a while to unravel that these people are connected together, that they are all looking or waiting for something, and so on.*

* The germ of the plot is in a 1926 story, “Creeping Siamese,” about a couple who had found a treasure of gems in Burma, doubled-crossed their partner when escaping across the Pacific to San Francisco, and then are threatened with murder when the old partner finally reappears. This is the back-story, which the Continental Op learns after investigating their initial cover story for hiring a detective for protection. Two years later Hammett started writing The Maltese Falcon.


The Op gets his twists of revelation by investigation: shadowing, checking records, having violent encounters along the way. The Maltese Falcon moves forward in another way: Sam Spade sits in his office, and someone comes in; a gunman follows him on the street or sits in a hotel lobby. This itself is a reversal: the shadow-methods of the Op and his organization now appear on the side of the enemy. In a sense, Spade cracks the case by happenstance. That is to say, Hammett is pulling the strings of the plot, rather than moving it by the actions of the energetic Op. This might seem contrived if we had a moment to stop and think; but the dramatic scenes are so good -- and the characters are so amusing (such as Cairo/Peter Lorre holding up Spade to search his office)-- that the pace carries us along without a let-up.


A serial, a novel, three film versions: at last a classic

Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon during fall 1928; serialized it in Black Mask during fall and winter 1929; published the novel in February 1930, to excellent sales and star reviews. By June, he had sold the movie rights to Warner Brothers. But here the trail wanders off. He had already sold the movie rights to Red Harvest in 1929, and a not-very-good film was released by Warner Brothers in 1930 under the title Roadhouse Nights, which tells us something about the trouble Hollywood would have in figuring out how to present Hammett’s work. By May 1931, the first Maltese Falcon film was released, starring a gangster-type actor, Ricardo Cortez. It did not do well. There was enough interest in Hammett-- who had now become famous, and was doing script work in Hollywood-- to make a second version in 1936. It was now called Satan Met a Lady, and had A-list casting with Bettie Davis in the female lead. This too failed. But Hammett was in demand; his next novel, The Glass Key, was filmed in 1935, and again in 1942 (in a version that launched the careers of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake). Hammett’s final novel, The Thin Man, was released by MGM in 1934, with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Hammett’s  detective couple, Nick and Nora Charles. It was so popular that five Thin Man sequels followed from 1936 to 1947.

Someone in Warner Brothers finally figured out that Hammett’s best book could make a successful movie. The secret, it turns out, was to not screw around with revising and adapting it. The 1941  The Maltese Falcon  follows the book almost exactly-- unusual for Hollywood. If you watch the film with the book in hand, you will see almost every line of dialogue is in the book. There are some cuts; some dialogue is shortened; a few scenes are omitted (mostly the undramatic ones, plus, as we shall see, all the explicit sex scenes). There are of course no word-portraits, but the characters are depicted on screen almost exactly as Hammett described them-- Gutman, Cairo, Wilmer, Brigid. The only exception is Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. This seems ironic, since it was the movie that launched Bogart to stardom. The other candidate for Bogart’s best film, Casablanca, [1942, again Warner Brothers] was made on the heels of The Maltese Falcon and using it as a model.

A clue to why Satan Met a Lady was a flop, and the 1941 Maltese Falcon an instant classic, can be found in the opening lines of Hammett’s novel.

            “Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, V.  His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down-- from high flat temples-- to a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.” [Novel.391]

Satan Met A Lady quite literally takes off from this word-portrait of Sam Spade. The role was given to Warren William, a tall, bony, aquiline actor who played in comedies and musicals. The problem is he is not at all a tough guy, and he plays Sam Spade as a comedy-romantic role, as a supercilious fop and a smiling clown, which is exactly what a Hammett detective hero is not. The physical byplay is close to slapstick, ruining even those spoken lines that come from Hammett. To make matters worse, the scene is shifted away from San Francisco; the black bird becomes Roland’s horn; the Fat Man becomes a matronly Fat Lady; Wilmer the diminutive gunman becomes a slovenly thug; the Peter Lorre part turns into a tall, broad-shouldered Englishman  with an “I say, old chap” accent and an umbrella. Bettie Davis is sassy, pulls a gun on people, and makes a defiant speech when pseudo-Spade turns her over to the police. There is even a happy ending as ps.-Spade goes off with his dizzy-dame secretary.

This was Hollywood mix-and-match: since they didn’t want to repeat the 1931 film (which played it closer to the book), they changed as many thing as they could. Where Bogart is super-cool, Mary Astor is fragile/treacherous, Sydney Greenstreet the archetype of the upper-class epicurean, and Peter Lorre uniquely precious-and-sinister, the 1936 rendition manages to turn memorable characters and scenes pedestrian and silly.

Hollywood had some excuse for trying to play up the comedy/romantic side of Hammett. At that time, by far his most successful film was the Nick and Nora Charles combination in the Thin Man, already being remade over at MGM. The gentleman-detective Nick Charles is debonair, childishly playful especially when he is tipsy (a running joke in the films), always good-humored and never very tough, neither physically violent nor verbally contentious. Why not play it this way, and see if any of the William Powell/Myrna Loy halo might rub off on Warren William et al?

The Maltese Falcon was a transitional book for Hammett. If we compare the book (unchanged since 1929) to the 1941 film, we can see where the ambiguities were and how the film-makers created a sharper image by cuts.

Hammett was at a point in his career where he wanted to make his detective a more complicated and emotional character with a libido. Hammett went overboard making Spade emotional, mostly in the direction of being belligerent and angry. The film tones this down. Compare the endings of the scene quoted above, where Spade walks out on Gutman and slams the door. The novel:

            “Spade rode down from Gutman’s floor in an elevator. His lips were dry and rough in a face otherwise pale and damp. When he took out his handkerchief to wipe his face he saw his hand trembling. He grinned at it and said, “Whew! so loudly that the elevator operator turned his head over his shoulder and asked: “Sir?” [Novel.488]

In the film, Bogart in the hotel corridor claps his hands and laughs.  It had all been a performance to emotionally dominate his opponent. Bogart’s Spade is cool and self-controlled all the time. Hammett’s Spade is more realistic (people in violent confrontations usually have a hang-over period of feeling tense, until the adrenaline wears off), but this undermines his hero image.

Hammett’s Spade is also more brutal to Brigid. In the penultimate scene where the conspirators and Spade are waiting for the black bird to be delivered, Gutman gives Spade an envelope with ten $1000 bills. In the film, Spade counts the money again later and accuses Gutman of having palmed one of the bills. “Do you want to say so or do you want to stand for a frisk?” [Gutman:] “Stand for--?” [Spade:] “You’re going to admit it, or I’m going to search you. There’s no third way.” Gutman takes out a crumpled bill and says, “I must have my little joke every now and then.” These lines are both in the book [Novel.566] and the film. But what precedes this episode in the book has been cut from the film:

In the book, Gutman is the one who points out there are only nine $1000 bills in the envelope, and implies with a gesture that Brigid is the one who stole the missing $1000. Spade takes her into the bathroom and demands that she strip.

            “She... whispered: “I did not take that bill, Sam.”

            “I didn’t think you did,” he said, “but I’ve got to know. Take your clothes off.”

            “Won’t you take my word for it?”

            “No. Take your clothes off.”

            “I won’t.”

            “All right. We’ll go back in the other room and I’ll have them taken off.”

            She stepped back with a hand to her mouth. Her eyes were round and horrified. “You would?” she asked through her fingers.

            “I will,” he said. “I’ve got to know what happened to that bill and I’m not going to be held up by anybody’s maidenly modesty.”

            “Oh, it isn’t that.” She came close to him and put her hands on his chest again. “I’m not ashamed to be naked before you, but-- can’t you see-- not like this. Can’t you see that if you make me you’ll-- you’ll be killing something?”

            He did not raise his voice. “I don’t know anything about that. I’ve got to know what happened to that bill. Take them off.”

            She looked at his unblinking yellow-grey eyes and her face became pink and then white again. She drew herself up tall and began to undress. He sat on the side of the bathtub watching her and the open door.... She removed her clothes swiftly, without fumbling, letting them fall on the floor around her feet. When she was naked she stepped back from her clothing and stood looking at him. In her mien was pride without defiance or embarrassment.

            ... He picked up each piece and examined it with fingers as well as eyes. He did not find the thousand-dollar bill. When he had finished he stood up holding her clothes out in his hands to her. “Thanks,” he said. “Now I know.” [Novel.565]

Also cut from the film was a segment from the earlier scene when Brigid remains in Spade’s apartment after Cairo and the police have gone. In the film, Spade interrogates her, and she admits to being a liar. Sam: “Was there any truth in that yarn?” Brigid: “Some. Not very much.” Sam: “We’ve got all night. I’ll make some more coffee and we’ll try again.”

What gets cut is what happens next in the book:

“She put her hands up to Spade’s cheeks, put her open mouth hard against his mouth, her body flat against his body. Spade’s arms were around her, holding her to him, muscles bulging his blue sleeves, a hand cradling her head, its fingers half lost among red hair, a hand moving groping fingers over her slim back. His eyes burned yellowly.” [Novel.467]  END OF CHAPTER.

The next chapter begins with Spade waking up with both of them undressed in his bed. He leaves her sleeping, takes her key from her pocket, and goes out to search her apartment. He doesn’t find anything, but besides seeking information, his action (when he conceals from Brigid) has the effect that she finds out when she goes home that someone has broken into her apartment. This scares her into coming back to Spade’s office, where he arranges for her to stay somewhere else to be safe-- and where he can find her. The film leaves out the part where he makes a mess of her apartment, revealing Spade being both manipulative and possessive.

The film censors their having had sex. Also cut are the lines when Spade first visits Brigid’s apartment and she pleads for her help, now that she knows Joel Cairo is also looking for the black bird:

             “I’ve thrown myself on your mercy, told you that without your help I’m utterly lost. What else is there?”  She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: “Can I buy you with my body?”

            Their faces were inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: “I’ll think it over.” His face was hard and furious.” [Novel.439]

Other sex scenes were also cut from the film. After Spade acquires the black bird from the dying sea captain, he gets a telephone call purporting to be from Brigid at Gutman’s hotel--in danger. When Spade arrives, neither Brigid nor the fat man is there, but his daughter is: “a small fair-haired girl in a shimmering yellow dressing gown” who appears to have been drugged:

            “He caught her as she swayed. Her body arched back over his arm and her head droppped straight back so that her short fair hair hung down her scalp and her slender throat was a firm curve from chin to chest.

            She twisted convulsively around in his arms and caught at one of his hands with both of hers. He pulled her hand away quickly and looked at it. Across its back was a thin red scratch an inch and a half or more in length.

            “What the hell?” he growled and examined her hands. Her left hand was empty. In her right hand, when he forced it open, lay a three-inch jade-headed steel bouquet-pin. “What the hell?” he growled again and held the pin up in front of her eyes.

            When she saw the pin she whimpered and opened her dressing gown. She pushed aside the cream-colored pajama-coat under it and showed him her body below her left breast-- white flesh criss-crossed with thin red lines, dotted with tiny red dots, where the pin had scratched and punctured it.” [Novel.533]

The girl regains consciousness enough to tell him she scratched her chest to keep awake long enough to deliver a message from Brigid when he arrived. This sends Spade on a wild-goose chase to the suburbs; and when he returns and calls the hotel, he finds that no one is in the Gutman suite; a doctor had been called about a sick girl but that must have been a practical joker. This bit of sado-pornography would have been ultra-taboo in a film during the Code era. Cutting it also tones down the impression the book gives that Spade is finding sexual titillation all over the place.

Also omitted in the portrayal of Joel Cairo as a homosexual. In the showdown scene waiting for the black bird, Spade convinces Gutman that they have to offer the police a fall guy to blame the murders on. They finally agree on Wilmer, who gets disarmed of his pistols and knocked out by Spade.

At this point we learn that Wilmer is a boy with long eyelashes. Cairo sits beside Wilmer, stroking and whispering to him:

“Cairo, still muttering in the boy’s ear, had put his arm around the boy’s shoulders again. Suddenly the boy pushed his arm away and turned on the sofa to face the Levantine. The boy’s face held disgust and anger. He made a fist of one small hand and struck Cairo’s mouth with it. Cairo cried out as a woman might have cried and drew back to the very end of the sofa. He took a silk handkerchief from his pocket and put it to his mouth. It came away dashed with blood. He put it to his mouth once more and looked reproachfully at the boy. The boy snarled, “Keep away from me,” and put his face between his hands again... Cairo’s cry had brought Brigid O’Shaughnessy to the door. Spade, grinning at her, jerked a thumb at the sofa and told her: “The course of true love.”  [Novel.567-8]


Three Women

Sexually, the plot revolves around a jealous triangle of three women. All three appear in the beginning and the conclusion, like bookends.  First of all we meet Effie, Spade’s secretary. She is described as “a lanky sunburned girl” and we are constantly reminded that her face is boyish. Effie is plainly in love with Sam, who casually calls her “darling” and “angel” and relies on her to man the office through any emergency and do a little sleuthing of her own. Effie is really his office wife. She sits on his desk, rolls his hand-made cigarettes for him. “She licked it, smoothed it, twisted its ends, and placed it betwen Spade’s lips. He said, “Thanks, honey,” put an arm around her slim waist and rested his cheek wearily against her hip, shutting her eyes.” [Novel.411]  The very first page, Effie ushers in Miss Wonderly, with the words: “You’ll want to see her anyway. She’s a knockout.”

Effie knows where she stands in Spade’s affections. She isn’t jealous of Wonderly/ O’Shaughnessy, obviously out of her league. Who she doesn’t like is Iva, Miles Archer’s wife, who pushes herself on Spade whenever she has the opportunity. The first thing Spade does after he sees Archer’s dead body is to phone Effie, to break the news to Iva and keep her away from him. Iva is always bursting in, and in fact she admits to calling the police and telling them to go to Spade’s apartment after she sees him enter the building with Brigid. This is how Iva and Sam get along:

            “She was a blonde woman of a few more years than thirty. Her facial prettiness was perhaps five years past its best moment. Her body for all its sturdiness was finely modeled and exquisite. She wore black clothes from hat to shoes. They had an impromptu air... Iva came quickly to him, raising her sad face for his kiss. Her arms were around him before his held her, When they had kissed he made a little movement as if to release her, but she pressed her face to his chest and began sobbing. He stroked her round back, saying “Poor darling.” His voice was tender. His eyes, squinting at the desk that had been his partner’s, across the room from his own, were angry. He drew his lips back over his teeth in an impatient grimace and turned his chin aside to avoid contact with the crown of her hat.” [Novel.409]

But Brigid O’Shaughnessy has the center of attention whenever she appears, and becomes Spade’s obsession (both professionally and otherwise) for the bulk of the story. For Spade, Iva is an unwelcome intrusion; and Effie is his principal ally on this front.

This is Brigid’s entrance:

            “A voice said, “Thank you,” so softly that only the purest articulation made the words intelligible, and a young woman came through the doorway. She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt blue eyes that were both shy and probing. She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes... White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.” [Novel.391]

In the jealous triangle, Effie hates Iva, Iva hates Brigid, and Brigid is oblivious to the other two. Effie’s attitude towards Brigid is unexpected, but at least it balances: a negative of a negative is a positive. And Effie is so loyal to Sam that she roots for him in his love affairs too. This sets up a surprise conclusion-- which is definitely not in the film.

The film, as we know, ends with Brigid descending in the elevator cell on her way to the gallows. The book adds one more brief scene. It is Monday morning, and Effie if reading the newspaper when Spade arrives.

            “Is that-- what the papers have-- right?”  she asked...

            Her girl’s brown eyes were peculiarly enlarged and there was a queer twist  to her mouth. She stood beside him, staring down at him.

            He raised his head, grinned, and said mockingly: “So much for your woman’s intution.”

            Her voice was a queer as the expression on her face. “You did that, Sam, to her?”

            ...He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. “She did kill Miles, angel,” he said gently, “offhand, like that.” He snapped the fingers of his other hand.

            She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know-- I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now-- not now.”

            Spade’s face became as pale as his collar.

            The corridor-door’s knob rattled. Effie Perine turned quickly and went to the outer office, shutting the door behind her. When she came in again she shut it behind her.

            She said in a small flat voice: “Iva is here.”

            Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly.  “Yes,” he said and shivered. “Well, show her in.” [Novel.584-5]

Full circle: on the first page of the book, after Effie announces Miss Wonderly, Spade said: “Shoo her in, darling. Shoo her in.” [Novel.391]

Yes, the book is more complicated than the film. More morally complicated too. But that is too much for a movie. There were a  number of strategic cuts in the climactic scene between Spade and Brigid. In the book, Spade keeps harping on his strategic concern that there has to be a fall guy, somebody to pin the murders on to satisfy the police. If he’s still worried about the cops suspecting him (an aspect that is much more prominent throughout the book than the movie), he is ready to sacrifice Brigid as the fall guy. He conveys a contagious sense of fear:

            “He looked at the watch on his wrist. “The police will be blowing in any minute now and we’re sitting on dynamite. Talk!”

            “She put the back of a hand to her forehead. “Oh, why do you accuse me of such a terrible--?”

            “Will you stop it?” he demanded in a low impatient voice. “This isn’t the spot for the schoolgirl act. Listen to me. The pair of us are sitting under the gallows.”

Well, not really the pair of them; mainly her. But Spade engages in both moral and physical intimidation: “He took hold of her wrists and made her stand up straight in front of him. “Talk!”  [Novel.577]

            More cut lines: “You came into my bed to stop me asking questions.”

            ... She put a hand on his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t help me me then,” she whispered, “but don’t hurt me. Let me go  away now.”

            “No,” he said. “I’m sunk if I haven’t got you to hand over to the police when they come. That’s the only thing that can keep me from going down with the others.”

            “You won’t do that for me?”

            “I won’t play the sap for you.” [Novel.580-1]

Only the last line was retained.

The film ending is shorter, cleaner, and more of a romantic tragedy. The limitations of the film medium took Hammett’s overly-ambitious, or not quite manageable piece of complexity, and turned in into an all-time classic. 


Hammett’s career arc:  frenzied work pace, projects in all directions, declining creativity

Writing The Maltese Falcon in 1928 was the apex of Hammett’s writing career. He had been working at the craft for 5 years and was 34 years old. Before that he had a 5-year stint with the Pinkertons. He started working even earlier, from age 14 as office boy, newspaper hawker, dock worker, and salesman for his father’s failing businesses in Baltimore. His downwardly mobile family was like Dickens’ father being sent to debtors’ prison and the boy to a child-labor factory, giving the unexpected advantage of knowing much more about the underside of the world than merely school-trained authors.

For 4 years, Hammett wrote stories. As he made them longer and more complicated, he began experimenting with novels. Already in 1925 he started one called “The Secret Emperor” which sounds like one of his exotic-locale adventures.  By mid-1927 he was making the transition to novels. Things would grow increasingly hectic.


Overlaps: Red Harvest; The Dain Curse; Maltese Falcon

After serializing The Cleansing of Poisonville over the winter of 1927-28, Hammett began working with a literary publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, in February 1928, to turn it into a novel. Blanche Knopf, the publisher’s wife, worked closely with the manuscript during the spring, toning down the violence. At the same time, he was working on another series of linked stories, The Dain Curse, which he completed in June. By December, he had completed his third major project of the year, The Maltese Falcon.

The books are all different. Red Harvest is the most violent of Hammett’s works, set in a mining town, where the Op goes far beyond his instructions in breaking the law.

The Dain Curse is a classic San Francisco locale, about a mystical Oriental cult in a labyrinthine building, where spoiled rich youth and trophy wives see occult visions which are really caused by drugs piped into their rooms through ventilation pipes, giving Hammett the opportunity to describe the sensations of drug experience. This remains a typical Op story.

The Maltese Falcon is where Hammett abandons the Op as a lead character for someone both angry and sexy.

The three novels (published in February 1929, July 1929, and February 1930) sold increasingly well, with favorable reviews. By the time The Maltese Falcon came out, Hammett was famous. Movie rights to all three were sold almost immediately.


Overlaps: The Glass Key, The Thin Man, Hollywood and New York

Just before fame hit, Hammett was working on another novel, The Glass Key, which he began in fall 1929 and finished in 1930. Published in 1931, it too had good reviews and sales, and movies rights were quickly signed. Meanwhile Hammett moved to Hollywood. He contracted in early 1931 to write a second Sam Spade film, but his script was rejected. In the summer, he turned to another project, and wrote 65 pages of a novel called The Thin Man, but put the project aside when he moved to New York. By fall 1932, he was working on a new version of The Thin Man, which he finished in May 1933. The book was published in January 1934; MGM had already snapped it up and brought out the film in June, to tremendous success.

Thematically, his work is now all over the map. The Glass Key is about an Eastern city resembling Baltimore, run by a political boss who shakes down contributors for campaign funds, rakes off city contracts, and protects Prohibition-era speakeasies and gambling houses. The plot is the boss decides to back a Reform candidate, because he falls in love with his beautiful daughter. The boss also finds out his own daughter is shacking up with the reformer’s playboy son, and soon afterwards the boy’s corpse is found on the street. All this is seen through the eyes of a political fixer, Ned Beaumont, who tells the boss he is making a big mistake in upsetting a well-functioning racket. Bereft of police protection, gangsters push back, and threaten to pin the boy’s murder on the boss, using publicity from a newspaper that is in hock to the mob. Beaumont isn’t a detective nor a very heroic or ethical person, but he does risk his life while pretending to go in with the gangsters, to find out who is leaking information about the killing. There are some mystery-like twists and surprises in the story, and Beaumont ends up with the girl.

The Glass Key is an offshoot of the  Maltese Falcon manner, but even more cynical, except for the romantic ending. But there are no memorably grotesque or exotic characters, no astounding confrontation scenes, and no one is very sympathetic. It did OK as a book and a movie, but Hammett may well have felt there was nothing more for him to do in that direction-- especially since it was looking backwards towards his distant past.  But now he was partying with the rich and famous in Hollywood and New York. One can conjecture that Nick Charles is himself, surrounded by reporters wherever he goes, drinking merrily, tossing off urbane remarks to admirers, retired from detective work but still solving (fictional) murders on the side.


Too many distractions: fame, drinking, partying, sex, politics

The Thin Man series of films had a life of its own. Hammett was periodically in Hollywood, working on the sequels, but he was becoming increasingly unreliable, and most of what got filmed was by other writers. Hammett was no longer getting new work done. He failed to deliver a promised new novel to Knopf in 1936; crapped out on another novel contract in 1938, and again in 1939. The titles: “My Brother Felix” and “There Was a Young Man” seem to be off in new directions from anything he had done before;* Hammett had been a meticulous writer, and he probably felt they just weren’t up to the mark. His movie treatments were often tardy and his contracts suspended, his scenarios for Thin Man sequels rejected.  In 1939, MGM canceled his writing contract.

* especially compared to his snappy early titles: “Crooked Souls,” “Slippery Fingers,” “Bodies Piled Up,” [1923], “Zigzags of Treachery,” [1924], “The Scorched Face,” “Corkscrew” [1925].


Hammett would to live to 1961, dying at age 66. But his creativity had long since petered out. What happened?  Some of it was sheer distraction. By the time he became famous in 1930, he was surrounded by other literary stars. He drank heavily at an endless round of parties on both coasts. He had affairs with numerous women-- among them on-the-make playwright Lillian Hellman, whose plays Hammett revised and collaborated on. He became involved in politics, signing petitions and appearing at Writers Congresses and anti-Fascist rallies in the 1930s, elected president of the League of American Writers, and active in Communist-front organizations.

It would be too easy to say this was just another writer who drank too much. He was pulled in too many directions. His main-- if not too reliable-- source of income was movie treatments for the Thin Man series and whatever else he could convince his admirers to float; but this would have pulled his head in conflicting directions:  Nick and Nora were candyland, where nothing very bad or very realistic ever intrudes (even the police don’t threaten to impede their investigations; the criminals are old friends of Nick, who brag about the times he sent them up the river; and their city, at least, has no hint of corruption). This must have grated with his episodic attempts at popularizing Sam Spade (as a radio show, as a comic strip, etc.). And his left-wing political activities must have made his literary and film work seem hypocritical, and vice versa.

Good writing, especially of any great length, requires sustained concentration, a prerequisite for getting the flow that is the personal experience of creativity.  Hammett in 1928 and 1929 could devote himself for 3 months at a time to turning out a book. Later he no longer had the uninterrupted time, the energy, or the focus. His five novels are increasingly different from each other. The first two were in a groove, a natural trajectory of his Continental Op materials.* The Maltese Falcon combines  hard-boiled with real-life ambiguity about sex and love. The Glass Key drops the exotic facade to reveal ordinary dirty politics. The Thin Man turns the detective genre into pure sugar. Unable to start a new trajectory, and unable to continue with the old ones, Hammett was paralyzed as a creative writer.

* The Dain Curse expands a 1925 story, “The Scorched Face,” about rich young women in a drug cult, which blackmails them with photos taken during their orgies. The blackmail/ pornography idea here became the hook for Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep.


Raymond Chandler occupies the Sam Spade niche

But the development was not lost. Hammett’s best techniques were picked up by Raymond Chandler.

Chandler was 6 years older than Hammett (born in 1888 rather than 1894), but he got a later start as a writer. Chandler grew up mostly in England, saw combat in World War I, and worked in Los Angeles in the 1920s as bookeeper, financial auditor, and executive for an oil company. The discovery of oil in Southern California set off a boom of companies drilling wells, a fever of investment and their scandals; Chandler launched his upward career in the company by uncovering embezzlement.  By 1930, when Chandler was fired for heavy drinking, he had seen a lot of life in America’s fastest growing city and its revolution in social manners.

Looking around for a way to make a living, Chandler decided on writing. He schooled himself for what would sell. He started studying pulp magazines in 1930, and published his first story in 1933-- also in Black Mask. With his conservative English education, he decided to learn American English as if it were a foreign language. That meant especially its idioms and its slang-- no longer just part of the underworld, but percolating upwards in the American cultural democracy.

Chandler came into detective writing at just the time Hammett stopped. Chandler followed the same early path: short stories, then combining and expanding them into full-length novels. The first was The Big Sleep (1939) when Chandler was 51 years old. Biological age is less important for a writer than experience learning the craft. It took 6 years for Chandler to publish his first novel, the same as Hammett.

Chandler copied the Hammett brand. A hard-boiled detective inured to violence. This is Sam Spade resurrected, with no trace of the old organizational Op. Skilled at sizing up a situation from micro-observations, and a sardonic way of dominating people or at least holding them at bay.

The swift-moving plot, with minimal prose distractions. Vivid word-portraits, enlivened by wise-cracks.  Short, punchy titles: Farewell, My Lovely; Trouble is My Business; The High Window; Killer in the Rain.

Plots that twist far from their starting place when a client visits Philip Marlowe’s office-- whether it be a femme fatale, a squeamish female hick from the Midwest, or a moose-sized ex-con. And Chandler has Hammett’s structural weakness, the final reckoning in a scene where the detective has to explain who did what and who killed who and why. (Some of Chandler’s plots are so full of surprising episodes that experts say there are still ends left dangling.)

Cops sticking their nose in, threatening Marlowe,  putting him through the third degree and into a holding cell. Fighting through this is a much bigger deal in Chandler than in Hammett, and it underlines a bitterness in his lone-wolf character.

And there is a lot more sex. There are underworld molls now married to millionaires, rich daughters who do drugs, run up gambling debts at illegal casinos, and pose for pornographic pictures. There is more of a good girl/ bad girl contrast, with Marlowe being more of a romantic than Spade; he likes the tough good-girls who venture out into the underworld with him, flirty but self-possessed.

And more corruption. Here Chandler follows the lead of The Glass Key. It is taken for granted that the D.A. does everything with an eye for elections, that the police take payoffs to protect illegal gambling and drugs. Chandler particularly has it in for medical doctors. They run fake clinics that are really fronts for drug-peddling; Marlowe is drugged out and locked up in one of them in Murder, My Sweet. When he goes out checking lists of doctors in search of a lead, he finds doctors who get through the day on doses of heroin, and others who are ready to commit or cover up murder. The whole world is corrupt. And this gives a particular tone to his classic locale, Los Angeles in the 30s and 40s. It is la-la-land, sun-drenched casualness replacing formal clothes, formal manners, and old-fashioned ethics.

Chandler’s writing career stayed on track where Hammett’s spun apart, by sticking to the techniques and settings that worked. He goes on writing novels and  stories, at a slow, meticulous pace, through the 1940s and 1950s, a total of 7 novels in 20 years. He has no burn-out, no diffusion of his energies, no confusion about what kind of book he wants to write next.

He even survives Hollywood. Many of the top writers of the time were employed as script writers: Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Hammett, Chandler.  Most of these accomplished nothing-- even when they were adapting their own novels, the resulting film was worse or better than the original irrespective of their input. The exception is Chandler. He too hated the work regimen, writing regular hours on the studio lot, aware that everything could be changed by a director, and other writers could rewrite the script, sometimes multiple times. Yet Chandler wrote one of the greatest film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), about a crooked insurance salesman and his boss, the claims investigator (i.e. detective) who sees through everything. A conniving blonde is the bad seed, but the real drama is between the two men, almost an office married couple, building facades and tearing them down across an office desk. In the final scene, when a dying Fred MacMurray tells Edward G. Robinson, “I love you too”, it is reminiscent of the scene where Sam Spade says to his loyal secretary, “You’re a good man, sister.” Heart-breaking moments in the sea of hardboiled operatives.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon


Dashiell Hammett. 2017. The Big Book of the Continental Op. Vintage Crime.   [page references to this volume thus: Op.xxx]

Dashiell Hammett. 1999. Hammett: Complete Novels. The Library of America. [page references to this volume thus: Novel.xxx]

Raymond Chandler. 1950. Trouble is My Business. (short story collection)

Nathan Ward. 2015. The Lost Detective. Becoming Dashiell Hammett.  Bloomsbury Publishing.

Tom Williams. 2012. A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler. Chicago Review Press.

Randall Collins. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains.  Princeton Univ. Press.


Hugh Hefner died September 27, 2017, but mass market sex magazines died fifteen years earlier. Hefner created an industry, like Steve Jobs. That doesn’t mean he was a lone genius. Innovation in magazines or films or any other kind of popular culture is similar to creativity in other fields. Sex may be the topic but how it gets presented comes from what happens when networks spin off, experienced personnel circulate, and rivals imitate and jockey for position with each other. A good way to trace this process is the field of men’s magazines from the 1950s through the 80s when it had huge circulation and made big fortunes. An entry point into the network is Hugh Hefner and Playboy Magazine.

Road map:

Similarities and networks between Esquire and Playboy

Life-spans of US magazines and generational die-offs

Evolution in the men’s magazine niche

Sex work markets

Tie-ins between sex magazines and film

Summary of sex models’ career patterns

Two dimensions of porn: How much sex; Beauty / wealth

Who made the big fortunes in sex?

Does creativity work the same way in all fields?


Similarities and networks between Esquire and Playboy

Hefner worked for Esquire Magazine before he started Playboy in 1953. Esquire was the elite men’s magazine of its time, publishing a mixture of men’s fashion, short stories by famous writers, and sex mostly in the form of cartoons by pin-up artists of the 1940s. Playboy followed the same format. Its main innovation was adding a glossy color photo of  semi-nude women. This was a detachable centerfold fold-out, that could be hung up like World War II pin-ups or the calendars that followed. This would evolve.

For the outset, look at Esquire at the end of the 1940s and early 50s, with Playboy overlapping:

Logo:  Since its origin in 1934, Esquire always featured on its cover a cartoon figure of a balding, pop-eyed gentleman. Playboy created a similarly light-hearted logo, a rabbit dressed in tuxedo or other tweedy/debonair clothes. The bunny, of course, “breeds like a rabbit.”  Esquire was an honorific title for a wealthy gentleman, although depicted humorously as a “sugar daddy” or “dirty old man.”

Esquire covers 1934-1951

Esquire covers 1934-1951

Esquire 1951, Playboy 1955

Esquire 1951, Playboy 1955

Some of Playboy’s early covers were close imitations of an Esquire cover. Here they depict the dating game, Playboy’s looking surprisingly like a women’s romance magazine:

Esquire 1952, Playboy 1956

Esquire 1952, Playboy 1956

Fashion and upscale consumption:  Esquire’s content from the beginning was very fashion-oriented. Playboy updated to current styles and new products. When long-playing, high-fidelity records came on the market in the late 1950s, Playboy ran photos of well-dressed party scenes featuring records and hi-fi equipment:

May 1959 Playmate of the Month posed at a record party

May 1959 Playmate of the Month posed at a record party

And sometimes undressed, tripping out on music and wine:

July 1959 Playmate Yvette Vickers listening to jazz

July 1959 Playmate Yvette Vickers listening to jazz

Modern jazz had been around since the late 40s, but was an esoteric scene and fell into the background in the mid-50s with the explosion of popular rock ‘n roll.  Hefner pushed jazz as a more adult and upscale version of hipness, featuring regular jazz reviews and sponsoring jazz festivals. Since jazz musicians were heavily black, Hefner’s parties became a beacon for social integration at the time of the civil rights movement-- and gave legitimacy while the magazine was moving the nudity frontier.

Literature:  It became something of a joke to say that you read a men’s magazine for the articles. But in fact Esquire was one of the chief literary magazines of its day, publishing Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and André Gide.  Playboy carried on, publishing short stories by the new generation-- Ian Fleming, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike; sci-fi writers like Arthur Clarke; feminists Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood.  Esquire kept pace with Playboy for a while on the sex front, but as nude photos became more prominent, Esquire switched course and in the 1960s became the exponent of so-called “New Journalism” blending reportage and first-person fiction techniques by writers like Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Tim O’Brien. The magazines were dividing into separate niches.

Cartoons and pin-ups:  But not yet in the mid-50s. Esquire had been running risqué cartoons for years. Now they morphed into Playboy’s photographic version of the same scenes:

1954 Esquire cartoon; 1955 Playboy centerfold

1954 Esquire cartoon; 1955 Playboy centerfold

In the 1940s, Esquire regularly carried sexy pin-up art by famous artists Alberto Vargas and George Petty. Up through the late 1950s, it produced an annual calendar, with a pin-up for each month.  Playboy continued to feature not only sexy cartoons but some of the same artists:

1954 Esquire calendar; 1971 Playboy pin-up art by Varga

1954 Esquire calendar; 1971 Playboy pin-up art by Varga

It was the pin-up connection that created Playboy’s sensational debut in December 1953. In a later interview, Hefner said everyone had heard about Marilyn Monroe’s nude calendar, but no one had seen it. It had been shot in 1949 when she was a bit-part actress, and printed by a company that made hang-up calendars carrying custom-made local advertisements. By 1952 Marilyn was a rising star with a buzz about her early nudity. Hefner found out that her photos were owned by a calendar company in the outskirts of Chicago, and talked them into selling the rights for $500 (about $4500 in today’s dollars).  Playboy’s first issue, with Marilyn as centerfold, sold out at 50,000 copies. Her career as a sex star rocketed, as did Playboy’s reputation-- the following issues selling even better as distribution expanded.

1946 Varga pin-up in Esquire calendar; 1953 Monroe centerfold

1946 Varga pin-up in Esquire calendar; 1953 Monroe centerfold

There were network connections on both sides. Marilyn’s pose-- torso in profile, arm up, head back as if gazing out over her bare armpit-- is virtually the same as Vargas’ pin-up from 1946. Tom Kelley, the Hollywood photographer who did the shoot with Marilyn in 1949 had no doubt seen Vargas’ work.  Marilyn posed extensively both for photographers and pin-up artists in her early career:

Marilyn posing for Earl Moran pin-up

Marilyn posing for Earl Moran pin-up

Marilyn had even posed for  a 2-page color photo in Esquire in 1951. (Playboy’s centerfolds would be 3-page.) But it attracted no particular attention; it wasn’t nude, the color wasn’t particularly good, and there was no publicity build-up around it. When Hefner’s turn came, he made a point of telling wholesalers and distributers nationally that “some of the guys from Esquire had stayed behind and were creating this great new magazine” (2003 interview) and that it would include the Marilyn Monroe calendar pictures.

Esquire 1951 photo of Marilyn

Esquire 1951 photo of Marilyn

So how did Hefner know how to locate the original rights? He had been working for Esquire in promotion, but quit when the magazine headquarters moved from Chicago to New York. Hefner became circulation manager for Chicago companies that produced a variety of magazines, including art photography and men’s magazines. These gave him the crucial links-- the big hurdle for any new product being distribution. But what did he have to sell? The same grapevine brought him the info that rights to the Monroe calendar were owned by a local company. This too was not an accident, as many of the notable pin-up artists of the time worked in Chicago, and the main distributers of calendars were in the same part of the country. Hefner came up at the heart of a dense network. And he started early, producing a high school magazine about movies and radio shows, and editing a college humor magazine at University of Illinois.


Such were the ingredients that came together at Chicago at the turn of the 1950s: a publishing center for many national magazines; a center for magazine and pin-up artists and calendar publishers; a famous men’s magazine, Esquire, that had successfully fought government censorship over semi-nude pin-ups, and whose employees included some ready to go in a new direction.

1946 trial: Attorney for U.S. Post Office asks Methodist bishop for opinion about obscenity of Vargas pin-up

1946 trial: Attorney for U.S. Post Office asks Methodist bishop for opinion about obscenity of Vargas pin-up

The public atmosphere was changing. The Kinsey reports, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, came out in 1949 (reviewed by Hefner in his college magazine), with the second volume Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953.  It was becoming legitimate to talk about sex.

One more factor coincided in the mix: color photography was starting to come into its own. News and art photographers had used black and white since the beginning of the 20th century; as in movies, color photography was expensive and the colors were garish and unnatural. Printing on glossy paper was expensive. (Pin-up calendars used cheap paper.) For technical reasons, even pin-up artists like Gil Elvgren who took color photos of the model referred to them in order to do his painting, which in turn would sell as pin-ups but also for advertisements (like Coca-Cola) and for mainstream magazine covers. By the mid-1950s, it was feasible for Playboy to print a glossy color fold-out, but too expensive to have more than one full-size color photo per issue. The rest of Playmate of the Month feature (on the back side of the fold-out) would consist of black-and-white photos-- in Hefner’s marketing ploy, these were not sexual but showed her in ordinary scenes such as a college girl. As the 60s wore on, color photography became less expensive, and the quality improved to where it could out-do the best black-and-white photographs. The number of photo features in Playboy began to increase. This would be a major point of competition when it faced a new set of rivals in the 1970s.

Life-spans of US magazines and generational die-offs

Magazines are born; the successful ones expand, reach a peak, and eventually decline and disappear. The beginning and end points tend to cluster, implying something external is happening to the entire field at particular historical moments.

S general interest magazines timeline

S general interest magazines timeline

The big mass-circulation magazines clustered in two generations. Collier’s Magazine and  Saturday Evening Post started in the late 1800s, and rose to over 1 million per issue in the beginning of the 20th century. Up through the 1930s they competed over the top position at close to 3 million. Both had famous artists doing their covers and illustrations (Norman Rockwell at Saturday Evening Post; Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl pin-up, at Collier’s). Famous writers provided short stories or serialized their novels-- Sherlock Holmes stories, Jack London, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, later Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger; humor from Ring Lardner and P.J. Wodehouse; science fiction from Ray Bradbury; mysteries from Agatha Christie; cartoonists like Charles Addams and Bill Mauldin. Winston Churchill reported on World War I, Hemingway on WWII. After the war these family magazines started losing money and readers, and closed in the late 1950s and 60s.

In the mid-1930s came another burst: Esquire in 1933, Life in 1936, Look in 1937. The latter two were photojournalism, with large staffs of photographers covering news, entertainment celebrities, and human interest, publishing weekly in black-and-white. In the 1940s and early 50s Life boomed to 13.5 million. Its close imitator Look lagged behind but in the 1960s both leveled out around 8 million. Losing advertisers and readers, their circulation were still an impressive 5.5 - 6.5 million when they closed down in the early 1970s.

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In a separate category was Reader’s Digest, a monthly that excerpted books and other magazines. It started slowly in the 1920s, but by the 1980s led all magazines at around 18 million, and was still on top as it declined in the 1990s and went bankrupt in 2009 with a still impressive 5.5 million. Reader’s Digest was immune to generational trends, buffered by sampling what others were publishing at the time, which made it into a kind of index fund of the publishing business.

The dying off of Collier’s and Saturday Evening Post was widely attributed to television becoming almost universal during the 50s. (TV also brought the demise of national radio networks and their comedy and drama shows. This in turn freed up radio for independent stations, which now promoted rock ‘n roll and the youth culture of the late 50s and 60s.) Despite TV, the second wave of  magazines, the photojournalism founded in the mid-30s, did well into the 60s, before collapsing in the early 70s. The outburst of men’s sex magazines in the early 70s coincides with this dying off. The new men’s mags were photo magazines too, except in color instead of black-and-white; and with a decidedly different kind of appeal than family magazines. *

* The older men’s magazines like True, Argosy, and Stag were about hunting, fishing, and outdoor life.   That “male” world was declining, as farms disappeared and population became increasingly urban and college-educated. 


The decline of Collier’s and Saturday Evening Post reflected a shift in public ethos. The latter’s conservative politics and glorification of old fashioned small-town lifestyle attracted a diminishing number of readers. Popular authors moved to other magazines (like Esquire), and the older magazines economized by publishing more on current events (bringing them into competition with news magazines) and replacing artists’ illustrations with photos for covers and advertisements. This is the same as the shift away from pin-ups and cartoons in men’s magazines; underlying both was less the growth of TV than the maturing techniques of color photography and color printing.

Collapse of the big photojournalism magazines also came from being caught in a cultural transition. Life see-sawed as it lost revenue, publishing articles in the late 60s describing LSD and the psychedelic youth culture, but this alienated their conservative readers and advertisers. It also had trouble covering the civil rights movement, the assassinations and riots of the mid-60s onwards, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Exposés offended traditionalists accustomed to the uniform patriotism of World War II and its aftermath. Damned if you print and damned if you don’t, either way photojournalism lost.

The failing magazines still had quite respectable circulation while they went into financial crisis; some, like Life and Look, went out with closing numbers above the peak of virtually all magazines in U.S. history. In a business where advertising is the income difference-maker, gross numbers are less important than any downward trend. Ad agencies are above all a network of the buzz, driven by crowd-following emotional flows, and are the first to desert a sinking ship.


Evolution in the men’s magazine niche

Among the generational births and die-offs, Playboy is an anomaly, starting in 1953 during a trough for other successful start-ups. But we can see it as a spinoff and continuation of Esquire, of the mid-1930s generation. For a while they share the same sex-plus-literature-plus-lifestyle niche, but in the 60s Esquire becomes the hot center of current literary movements, while Playboy becomes a sex mag. Esquire dying in 1977 (to be sold and later reinvented in various forms) fits the die-off pattern of the older generation magazines.

Hefner made his way cautiously through the 1950s, while a sexual revolution was slowly building up. One sign was the growing divorce rate: by the 1960s half of all marriages were ending in divorce. The Kinsey Reports revealed that even earlier a substantial portion of Americans had sex before marriage, although they kept it hidden. Sex was separating from marriage. Sex was already much looser in Europe, especially in Scandinavia. Erotic literature was published in Paris, even when people had to sneak it through customs into English-speaking countries. Around 1960 censorship relaxed and Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer were published in the US. Hemingway had already published his “the earth moved” sex scene, and James Baldwin had written about homosexual and interracial love. In this respect, mass magazines were the last medium to join the sexual revolution.

In 1959 Hefner set up the first Playboy Club, where cocktail waitresses wore bunny costumes (basically a one-piece bathing suit), and launched a late-night TV show starring himself with a array of cool guests. He began to cultivate a public image, surrounded by his Bunnies and Playmates, wearing three-piece suits, smoking a pipe, and flying in a fur-lined plane. (Was this what Jane Fonda was satirizing with her fur-lined space-craft in the Brigitte Bardot-inspired 1968 film, Barbarella?)

Hefner with Bunnies and girlfriend: 1966, 1970

Hefner with Bunnies and girlfriend: 1966, 1970

Through the 1960s, Playboy gradually showed more nudity. A capsule summary of the progression is illustrated by the annual New Year’s covers, in which the Playboy rabbit displayed Playmate shots of the year as an art gallery.  The first such cover in 1956 showed the rabbit looking at a real art gallery, basically of Renoir-era nudes. Having implied that it is all a matter of high (European) art, Hefner went on to equate it to his centerfold art.

Playboy annual art gallery covers: 1956, 1958

Playboy annual art gallery covers: 1956, 1958

Over the next two decades, there was progressively less coyness, cover-up, and tease. Leaving this aside for the moment, notice what happens to the Playboy rabbit.  In 1968 he is still wearing a tuxedo-- proper evening dress. By 1971, he wears a cross between an old-fashioned smoking jacket and lounging pajamas:

Playboy gallery covers: 1968, 1971

Playboy gallery covers: 1968, 1971

By 1973 the necktie is gone, and the rabbit is wearing a gold chain, open-necked shirt and jacket-- the lounge lizard look. In 1977-- the last time Playboy ran its annual gallery or had a full-sized rabbit on the cover-- he looks like a mafia-type stud.

Playboy gallery covers: 1973, 1977

Playboy gallery covers: 1973, 1977

What happened during the late 60s and 70s was informalization.  Old-fashioned formal clothing disappeared. Being casual and counter-cultural became the high status look, then the new normal. Hefner’s image of the playboy-- the old Esquire man-about-town, the millionaire with the sports car and the yacht-- was superseded. Not that rich people weren’t still there, but they struggled like everyone else to keep up with the fashion change. More than a fashion change, it was a change in social manners and prestige-- looking like a rebel was the thing to be, even if everyone else jumped onto the same rebel trip. In fact, the first move in the style rebellion might have been started by women. The mini-skirt of the late 1960s was a way to flaunt convention, and to shock prudish old ladies as well as conservative men:

Topless bathing, mini-skirt, and disapproving looks: late 1960s

Topless bathing, mini-skirt, and disapproving looks: late 1960s

This may be a reason why young women in the second-wave feminist movement, challenging convention by wearing tight jeans, living in hippie communes and flashing nudity at rock concerts, threw themselves at first into the outburst of public eroticism.  Probably the most widespread taboo to be broken during the years 1968-71 was living together without being married. This used to be called “living in sin” and before 1950 it could get you blackballed by the kind of people who read the Saturday Evening Post. But the change to what became called cohabiting was accepted with amazing speed. Sociologists figured out it was similar to being married in most respects except these couples didn’t have children, and they broke up even faster than the rising divorce rate. The new pattern was serial monogamy; young middle-class people had sex with a number of partners but usually just one for each period of time. A few short-lived communes tried to practice free love, but those quickly broke up over jealousy. Within a few years cohabiting couples were accepted by their relatives and everyone else as the new normal.

The ramifications of this sexual revolution would go on into following decades. Until the 70s, children born out of wedlock were called “illegitimate”, and this was considered the biggest of all scandals. But the taboo was already broken in Scandinavia, with its socialist welfare for unemployed women and their children. Gradually middle class white women started having children on their own; in the lower classes, both white and black, this was already common but now it affected the majority of children born. The practice was legitimated by the radical feminist movement (although not initiated by them-- they were just adding an ideological reason for an existing trend). The movement for openly gay sex and gay partnering extended the sequence of liberalizations in the 80s and 90s.

In this atmosphere, it is not too surprising that sex magazines of the 1970s were breaking taboo after taboo of what could be displayed in photos. Who knows where it would end?

US sex magazines timeline and circulation

US sex magazines timeline and circulation

Playboy’s monthly circulation had risen to 4 million by the end of the 1960s. A British magazine, Penthouse, decided to enter the US market in 1969, after its owner Bob Guccione discovered that he was outselling Playboy among American troops in Vietnam. Within a year Penthouse was selling over 1 million and rocketed to 3 million by 1972.

Journalists started referring to the contest as the “Pubic Wars” in a pun on the Punic Wars between ancient Rome and Carthage. Up to that time, the borderline between nudity and obscenity was considered to be whether the photo showed pubic hair. Penthouse began to encroach on this zone, at first with coy shots in mirrors, strategically placed flowers or towels, side-angle views, by 1972 arriving at full frontal nudity. Closely following suit, Playboy was surging in the competition. In late 1972, it sold 7.2 million copies-- the second highest circulation of any American magazine of any kind except TV Guide.

By 1973, competition shifted downward. Legs started spreading for the camera, pubic hair led to outer labia. Penthouse photographers became known for soft focus shots, showing what might be obscene through blurred lenses and shadows. Guccione had been an aspiring painter, from an Italian family in Brooklyn; he had tried painting in Italy, then became a cartoonist and eventually editor of an American weekly newspaper in London. He hooked up with the sex market when he married a former dancer from a London strip club, who ran a business selling pin-ups. In 1965 Guccione started Penthouse, using London club workers and models, and recruiting uninhibited Scandinavians and Continentals. Lacking funds to hire professional photographers, he taught himself photography, using classic painting techniques of lighting and shadows and modeling himself on Degas.

Penthouse intruded into Playboy’s niche, with beautiful photographs, luxury settings made lush with flowers and feminine fashion. Hefner claimed that Guccione had lifted the title from his TV show, Playboy Penthouse. There was a change in emphasis. Playboy’s centerfold shots-- initially the only full-color nudes in an issue-- were done in a studio, with elaborate lighting, luxury backdrops, beautiful hair-dos and clothing. On the whole, they were smiling faces, a wholesome look designed to contrast with cheap pornography. Any bodily flaws-- not just pubic hair-- were carefully airbrushed away. Hefner had said from the outset his aim was to show nice girls have sex lives too.* The black-and-white photos surrounding the centerfold illustrated this by shots of the model in everyday life, even pictures with her family while growing up.  Penthouse, in contrast, was about sex all the time, showing each model in a set of color photos, usually in an erotic (or auto-erotic) reverie. The typical Playboy model was statuesque, strikingly beautiful, with large and shapely breasts and perfect figure. Penthouse models, especially before the magazine became rich, were less stunning but looked artistically erotic through the combination of lush photo technique and pushing the pubic frontier.

* The classic good girl/bad girl contrast ran throughout the business of photography, literature and film. Marilyn Monroe was initially type-cast by Hollywood as a bad girl (The Asphalt Jungle, Don’t Bother to Knock, Niagara). Her breakout came when she started getting roles as a dumb blonde (neither of which she actually was), sexy but good-hearted (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, and the late, neglected film, The Prince and the Showgirl). The “girl next door” cliché popularized by Hefner was essentially the good girl type.


Playboy now was going the same route. Both magazines started showing couples making love, the men always very handsome and fit and elite, in exotic locations and costumes. Some were stills from film, some celebrity couples. Combined with shadows and soft focus, couples sequences made the photos more erotic while leaving the genitals covered because the bodies were in the way. By 1973, men’s penises were being shown (although erections would be taboo for another decade). Lesbian sex photos also became popular in both Penthouse and Playboy, sometimes showing oral sex but at a distance and obscured by the position of the bodies. Playboy tended to make its female duos playful and to bill them as sisters (keeping up its nice-girl theme).  Using the same formula, in 1973 Penthouse launched a women’s magazine, Viva, while a Playboy imitator launched Playgirl, mixing fashion with male nudity. These never proved financially successful.

As the market became increasingly erotic, Playboy worried about keeping its clean-cut image, and decided to launch an edgier magazine to appeal to younger readers. The plan was it would protect Playboy from going down the path where Penthouse was heading, while giving access to its revenue. Oui was launched in 1972 as an American version of the French magazine Lui, combining French content with recycled Playmates in more revealing poses. Oui was an immediate success, jumping to 1 million. But the rest of the plan did not work out. Oui never made a profit on the large amounts invested; it didn’t take market share from Penthouse, which kept on growing; and it didn’t protect Playboy from being pulled into the Penthouse path.

Competition was becoming multi-sided, as more magazines entered the US market. Also in 1972, Gallery was launched. It was virtually a clone of Playboy, published in Chicago, in a building right across the street. The owner even copied Hefner’s  mansion and lavish lifestyle. It also had a celebrity tie-in, the co-owner being  F. Lee Bailey, a famous criminal lawyer who defended the Boston Strangler and later O.J. Simpson. Gallery was soon  overwhelmed with expenses and was sold in early 1974; it survived in a modest niche, and prospered in the 1990s in the beauty/luxury slot when other magazines were turning to hard-core and quirky sex variations. More fatefully, the Gallery start-up attracted the attention of Larry Flynt, a working-class type who owned a string of strip club bars in Ohio, patronized by factory workers going off shift. Flynt already had a cheap black-and-white newsletter carrying photos of strippers at his clubs; and its circulation was growing in the sex-charged atmosphere. His potential investment in Gallery did not pan out, so Flynt started his own magazine in summer 1974, Hustler.

By this time, Penthouse and Oui (and less frequently Playboy) were publishing photos that showed women with their legs spread and less air-brushing and shadows between them.* Flynt brazenly advertised his new magazine as showing fully lit, real women rather than retouched images, including “showing pink” -- labia in a state of arousal.  Advertisers stayed away, but Flynt had plenty of cash flow from his profitable clubs; it was even an advantage since advertisers could exert no pressure on what he published.

* Playboy showed more in feature articles such as reviewing sex in cinema (including X-rated films), and “The Year in Sex” showing nude night clubs, beauty contests, and nude beaches. It thought it could get away with this because the photos were small rather than full page, “news” rather than original content, while the iconic centerfold remained conservative by comparison.


The first 12 months were a rocky beginning. Hustler could not afford good quality paper or photography, and its models although sexually explicit were not particularly attractive. Flynt aimed for a working-class atmosphere without luxury settings, although as he got more money, he would waver back and forth imitating Penthouse. By spring 1975, Hustler was running out of money and almost folded. From a friend in the porn business, he heard about paparazzi photos taken with a telephone lens of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sun-bathing in the nude, showing her pubic hair. Flynt bought the photos for $18,000 (about $85,000 today) and published them in his July issue. It sold a million copies and created a media flurry. Flynt had replicated what Hefner had done with the Marilyn Monroe calendar in December 1953. Flynt was suddenly rich, and Hustler was on its way to a peak circulation of 3 million at the end of the 1970s.

The booming sex market attracted more magazines, growing to as many as 40 competitors. Most successful of the new entrants was Club, another British magazine that entered the US market in 1975.  Its publisher Paul Raymond ran a Paris-style nightclub in London while ripping off the Playboy bunny motif. He had plenty of photo material from his British clubs and magazines, while saving money by cutting down on the articles and literature that Hefner and Guccione bought to keep up their image. Club would become 4th or 5th in circulation behind the big three sex mags.  Club pushed the others by expanding to four or more nude photo features per issue, with plenty of crotch hair and open labia.

An even more blatant way of testing public acceptability was Hustler’s monthly “Beaver Hunt,” a contest in which readers sent in nude photos of girlfriends and wives (and sometimes of themselves). In 1977 Gallery started a similar contest called “The Girl Next Door ” with the winner getting $500 ($2000 in today’s dollars) for a full-length layout, and a chance at the yearly Grand Prize of $5000 ($20,000). Hustler offered $50 ($200) for a published picture, $750-1000 ($3-4000) for a pictorial. Neither magazine had any lack of entries pushing the boundaries of genital display.

Playboy was riding high with 7.2 million sales of its November 1972 issue. But the peak was passed, and by spring 1973 its circulation had declined to 6.7 million. By 1977, Playboy and Penthouse were tied at 4.5 million, the former falling, the latter approaching its peak. (A single issue of Penthouse in September 1985 sold 5.4 million copies, containing old nude photos of the current Miss America, made earlier in her life.) By the 1980s, everyone was declining. Playboy held on better than the others, with 4.2 million in 1985, number 11 on the list of best-selling US magazines, just below Time Magazine, and ahead of Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Sports Illustrated. The same year Penthouse was number 14, at 3.2 million.

In the 1980s, virtually all the sex magazines were losing advertising. Most now carried nothing but ads for phone sex services. Through the 1990s, they relied on the old formula of pushing the edge: now erections, close-ups of oral sex, intercourse with explicit penetration, even pissing shots. It was a vicious circle. The more extreme they became, the less advertising they got; their circulations declined; they tried for something even more sensational. Long before the Internet and its plethora of free sex sites, they were caught in a spiral downward.

The nearest to an exception was Playboy, whose circulation was still a respectable 3.1 million in 2004-- enough to be number 18 on the list of national magazines, only a few slots below Time.  Playboy’s moment of crisis came early. In 1975, it published a cover with a woman-- not nude-- but her legs spread in what would be a pornographic pose, and her hand in her shorts while eating popcorn. Ostensibly it went along with a feature on sex in the movies.

Playboy’s executives had worried about the cover. Now they were concerned that retail chains might refuse to display the magazine. This was a warning shot for Playboy, which shifted back to more conservative covers, although its inside pages continued, with some wavering, to keep not too far behind Penthouse. But it had reached a frontier beyond which it would rarely go: essentially the crotch-tease shots of Penthouse (and Playboy itself) around 1973. Into the 1980s and 90s Playboy published very beautiful women topless or in leg shots like old-fashioned cheese-cake, avoiding the labia shots that filled rival magazines. Advertising held up, running the same ads for liquor, cigarettes, and music equipment that Playboy had since the 60s (and that Penthouse once had-- but never Hustler).

By the 1990s and early 2000s, Penthouse was keeping itself going by selling Special Editions consisting of models from previous years. Essentially without ads, they kept expenses down by recycling their photo archives. By the late 90s, Playboy was doing the same thing.


Sex-work markets

One reason all the magazines had tended to converge on a similar erotic edge was because their personnel circulated between them.  Top photographers worked for several magazines. Jeff Dunas, a master of the Penthouse style of diffused-light romantic pornography, left to become chief photographer for Oui, in the rival Playboy stable. Playboy photographer Suze Randall, who would get her models in the mood by stripping along with them during a photo shoot, moved to Hustler and contributed photos of herself made with a remote camera cord;  later she worked for Penthouse.  Some photographers, especially in Europe, would sell pictures from the same photo shoot to different magazines by giving the model different names. Particularly as the photos became more erotic, the bolder models would move from Playboy to Penthouse, and vice versa, as well as appearing in the now-numerous British magazines, and the foreign-language editions that both magazines sold throughout Europe.

Playboy photographers Bunny Yeager (left, 1968); Suze Randall (right, 1976)

Playboy photographers Bunny Yeager (left, 1968); Suze Randall (right, 1976)

Some photographers started out in women’s high fashion magazines, doing advertisements, covers and “editorials” (photo features). Stan Malinowski, whose photos and covers appeared in Vogue and Cosmopolitan, worked for Playboy and Penthouse in the 60s through the 80s. * The publisher of Lui (French predecessor to Oui) began as a fashion photographer, moved successively to radio, music producer, publisher of music magazines, and finally a sex mag. Helmut Newton, a photographer for Vogue and other international magazines, brought out a book of very pubic (but arty) black-and-white photos in 1982-- a sign of the hyper-sexual atmosphere at the end of the 70s. Such cross-overs help explain why photos in women’s fashion magazines in the 80s and 90s started looking like pornographic poses, using the cover-up devices of men’s magazines from the mid-70s.

* Malinowski also did the Opium perfume ads of the 1980s, early in the period of “heroin chic.”

High-fashion advertisements: 1995, 2004

High-fashion advertisements: 1995, 2004

How did sex-content producers get women to pose in a less-than-honorable but high-visibility job? How is best answered, where did they recruit their models?  From the network of adjacent types of sex work. If we define “sex work” as selling sexual attraction for money, the field includes not just prostitutes and porn actors but cocktail waitresses, fashion models, actors, singers, dancers and showgirls; and these connected with networks in theatre, night clubs, film, entertainment production and publicity. It was a community that normalized sex work for at least part of the spectrum, facilitating gradual transition from one type of sex work to the next. *

* Marilyn Monroe, out of work in Hollywood in the late 1940s when her bit-part film contracts were not renewed, sometimes traded sex for meals, temporarily at the prostitution end of the sex-work spectrum.  A 1996 Penthouse Pet had been a prostitute in the early 90s in a (legal) brothel in Nevada, after starting out as a bikini-clad model at NASCAR races.


A grocery checkout clerk moved to London to try out for a job in the Playboy Club as a Bunny. The club manager took nude photos of her and sent them to Hefner, who flew her to Chicago. She became Playboy’s first full frontal nude centerfold in 1971, alternating as girlfriend to both Hefner and her London boss and eventually marrying the latter. Another Bunny at the same club became girlfriend of a famous disk jockey and later an American singer, and posed in 1971 Penthouse for a crotch-tease pubic shot.  Penthouse’s earliest pubic bush shot was provided by a fashion model married to photographer Clive McLean, who later went on to work for Hustler. In 1975, a Playboy Books editor working on a collection with staff photographer Pompeo Posar (a former colleague of Salvador Dali), posed for him in the most explicit crotch shot Playboy would run.

Some came from low-paying jobs. A Swedish woman with a 40-24-36 figure, working as a nurse at London hospital, posed for Penthouse in 1973 with legs spread in broad daylight on a deserted beach. Her picture was carried in subscription ads with her bright red bathing suit rolled down to her waist. Suze Randall was another London nurse who answered an ad for nude modeling, then decided to become a photographer after discovering she wasn’t making a lot more money dancing in clubs. She was 30 years old when she made the big time working for Playboy.

Penthouse often got breakthrough photos to move through the stages of the Pubic Wars by using hard-core porn actresses, under different names and dialing back from what they did on screen. Playboy followed the same strategy in auxiliary features on famous porn stars Marilyn Chambers and Linda Lovelace. Deborah Clearbranch moved from rural Georgia to California “trying to break into movies,” became a topless go-go dancer and provided Penthouse with its first spread-legs crotch shot. Next year she posed for brand-new Hustler with a black man with a huge penis (probably a porn film performer himself). The pictorial got Larry Flynt shot by a segregationist. She changed her name to Desirée Cousteau and made hard-core films into the 80s.

Some women moved from theatre into sex modeling. Demi Moore acted on Broadway, posed for the cover of Oui and (under an assumed name) for a layout in a European sex magazine in 1981 before getting the squeaky-clean TV role on the Demi Moore show. Lori Wagner acted on Broadway, posed under an assumed name in boundary-breaking shots for Penthouse in 1975, then quit her Broadway gig to fly to Rome for a part in Caligula. She lost most of her speaking lines but got a passionate lesbian oral sex scene. Hostile reaction to the film effectively ended her career. Her co-star Anneka di Lorenzo struggled to get into mainstream film, but her notoriety closed her out. She had been Penthouse Pet of the Year in 1975, leading the way through a series of Punic War stages. “How famous do I want to be?” she said. “Let’s just say I’m going to be the sexiest woman in the world.” [IMDB bio]

The big sex magazines claimed their models appeared in their own pages exclusively, but in fact the most daring ones circulated among Playboy, Penthouse, Oui and others. Early photos in British publications like Mayfair and Page Three didn’t count, since these were considered minor league.

Models for sex photos were often badly paid (Marilyn Monroe got $50 (about $500 today) for her 1949 nude shots; photographer Tom Kelley got $500 ($5000); Hefner parlayed it into millions. Fifty years later, a Playboy Playmate of the Month got $25,000, and a chance for $100,000 as Playmate of the Year. At the extreme end of the spectrum, Guccione paid Joanne Latham 70,000 pounds (about $600,000 today) because he wanted someone exceptional for Penthouse’s Tenth Anniversary issue in 1979. Latham was a busty Brit who was currently the subject of a media frenzy in England, repeatedly appearing as the Sun newspaper’s Page Three Girl, and pursued by many magazines. Guiccione no doubt got carried away by the English buzz, and he was bidding against Playboy at the height of Penthouse’s circulation and income.

Sex photos in major magazines held out prospects. Few models made it to the top, but those who did publicized the possibility of rapid ascent. In this respect, sex modeling was like fashion modeling, where large numbers of beautiful young women congregated in Manhattan or London, attending runway tryouts and casting calls. Ashley Mears’ book describes how aspiring models lived off hand-outs and rent subsidies from agents, and in return were expected to provide publicity and atmosphere at glitzy restaurants and clubs-- by being there on display, and ceremonially carrying in huge bottles of champagne when the establishment was entertaining a “whale” on a big expense account. Competition was especially high since models tend to rapidly age out of their beauty peak, both in fashion and in Playboy style. But even if one’s career never took off, they had a period of adventure near the center of the action.

Not all models were from the lower classes. In England, some of Penthouse’s boldest models were from the aristocracy, attracted not by money but by membership in the hip elite of the 70s, centered on drugs and antinomian self-presentation generally (AKA the counter-culture). One was Sigmund Freud’s granddaughter.

Some sex models moved to the other side of the camera. British model Joanie Allum married a photographer and became a photographer herself, working for Club, Mayfair, Gallery and others, with a knack for making fairly ordinary women look highly erotic. Bob Guccione’s wife, Kathy Keeton, went from being a club stripper, to Penthouse’s first advertising manager, to running the entire business while Guccione concentrated on the photography. Husband/wife teams were prominent in the sex business. Tom Kelley’s wife made up Marilyn Monroe for her 1949 shoot, arranging the red drape background while Tom took the photos from a 10-ft. ladder.  In 1973 Playboy photographer Russ Meyer posed his wife, actress Edy Williams,  in a famous spread-legs swimming pool shot.

Erotic sequences of celebrity couples making love, prominent during the breakout period of the mid-70s, featured people like an Andy Warhol “star” with girlfriend;  a TV action-series star with wife; a former Swiss ski champion with his actress wife. Sometimes it was a comeback in a declining career: a dancer from West Side Story in the 1950s, Hollywood film in the 1960s, doing a couples shoot to show he still had it at age 40. A 15-year old actress in 1965 in The Sound of Music appeared nude in Playboy in 1973 to try to change her image.

Some sex models moved up because of the access it gave to high-level dating markets.  Attending parties and publicity events with celebrity athletes, movie people, and the glitzy elite, led sometimes to meeting film producers and lining up jobs; sometimes to acquiring boyfriends and husbands. A 1972 Playmate became girlfriend to a noted British stage director. Playboy’s receptionist married a Chicago Bears quarterback whom she met during her nude photo shoot. Playmate of the Year 1993 Anna Nicole Smith married an aging Texas millionaire, after meeting at a nightclub performance; this would touch off an inheritance battle with his 60-year-old children. Melania Trump was the most successful at the marriage route; starting as a fashion model in Europe and New York, with a bit of nude photographs, before marrying a real estate developer, boxing promoter, and TV reality show host.

A few sex models made it through to become mainstream film or TV stars. Marilyn Monroe, of course; Playmates Stella Stevens, Dollie Reed, Barbara Edwards and others. English actress Helen Mirren posed for Oui early in her career, and had a speaking role in Guccione’s orgiastic film Caligula (1979); this did not prevent her from later playing Queen Elizabeth II. Playboy had film celebrities in their pictorials as much as possible, although their nude shots were generally rather modest. Jayne Mansfield appeared in Playboy in 1955, part of her campaign to challenge Marilyn as the great bosomy sex star. It was the right strategy; Jayne’s next films made her famous. Established stars joined the procession. Brigitte Bardot posed in 1958; Raquel Welch in 1979 in a bikini bottom, but kept her arms crossed over her breasts. Madonna posed nude in 1985, which was in her repertoire anyway. Posing had become an accepted part of Hollywood publicity.

The last big star to come up this way was Pamela Anderson. She got her start with a Playboy cover in 1989 and Playmate of the Month layout in 1990, preceding her career role in Baywatch, 1992-1997. She was discovered when stadium video cameras spotted her in the crowd at a Canadian League Football game wearing a beer company’s T-shirt, and flashed her on the Jumbotron screen. Signed by a modeling agency, she moved to L.A. and had two breast-enhancement operations.* Even as a film star, sex mag photos for Pamela were not a one-and-done; she kept appearing for covers and features in Playboy and Penthouse through the 90s and later, leveraging her stardom in both directions.

* There was also a lot of cosmetic surgery in Hollywood in the 1940s. Marilyn Monroe had her hairline changed and went from  strawberry-brunette to golden blonde before her career took off.

Norma Jean Dougherty in 1945 before going blonde

Norma Jean Dougherty in 1945 before going blonde

Symbiosis between sex mags and film

Film stardom is the career allure of sex work. The San Fernando valley, just outside Hollywood, was the center for porn films, because of the glut of models and actors. For a long time, porn films were very low-budget, since they could not be shown in theatres, and made small income from rentals and sales for private showings. L.A. was also a center for “glamour” photographs of the stars, sold to tourists as well fan magazines. This was the backdrop for the surge of pin-ups for troops during WWII, continued in calendars for hanging in male places like barbershops and garages. As we have seen, photographers and artists and their models traveled between mainstream advertising and national magazines, film publicity, and men’s sex magazines.

The sexual revolution in visuals was helped along by an economic crisis of the film industry. In the 1960s, film audiences had dropped to less than half the 1950s level (and still further below the 1940s peak). Half the movie theatres in America had closed. The number of films made fell to an all-time low. This was a reaction to the coming of TV in the 1950s. For a time Hollywood staved it off by concentrating on big blockbuster films, based on Broadway musicals and classic novels (The Sound of Music; Ben-Hur) all done in overpowering Technicolor (early TV being black-and-white). A side-effect was to eliminate other genres, like film noir and serious dramas that came across well in atmospheric black-and-white. The die-out paralleled the disappearance of magazines carrying literary short stories and serialized novels.

Starting in the 60s, the major studios became targets for take-overs by corporations, perpetually thereafter churning through a series of mergers and realignments. The family dynasties that controlled the major studios disappeared, giving way to independent producers who used the studios mainly for distribution. The Motion Picture Code, set up in 1934 under religious pressure, had censored sex and violence on the screen and required evil always to be punished in the end. It was replaced in 1968 by a rating system, ranging from G for general audiences, M for mature audiences, and X for no one under 16. This brought a huge difference in how films were made. The Code office reviewed film scripts in advance and demanded changes; the rating system merely labeled finished films, leaving choice to the discretion of audiences and parents.

More sexually explicit films had already been coming in from Europe in the 1950s, undermining the code. The Graduate, which somehow made it through the Code office at the end of its tenure in 1967, depicted a young man having affairs simultaneously with his girlfriend and her mother. It was the surprise hit of the year. It contained a scene where middle-aged Anne Bancroft seduces Dustin Hoffman by opening her legs at him in a most unlady-like way. With the Code gone, it was followed by even more erotic films like Clockwork Orange (1971), about a gang of British rapists, directed by Stanley Kubrick. (The star of this film, Malcolm McDowell, would go on to play the title role in Guccione’s Penthouse production, Caligula.)

Mrs. Robinson’s come-on in  The Graduate , 1967; 2004 Fashion ad

Mrs. Robinson’s come-on in The Graduate, 1967; 2004 Fashion ad

The way was open for sex to merge with mainstream films, as well as to exploit its own niche. Playboy photographer Russ Meyer had already pioneered this path, with underground cult films like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! in 1963 (big busted go-go dancers driving around in fast sports cars and beating up men); in 1970, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (featuring former Playmates, set in the Hollywood drug scene). X-rated films became an advertising come-on, attracting buzz and a rush of audiences to theatres showing pornographic films. The first big hit was Deep Throat (1972), with a plot line about a woman (Linda Lovelace) who had her clitoris in her throat. The title became notorious as a nickname for the government official who secretly leaked information about the Nixon administration during the Watergate scandal of 1973. Audiences also rushed to see Behind the Green Door (1974) because it starred Marilyn Chambers, who had been widely viewed on TV advertising Ivory Snow detergent.*

* The title came from a popular song (“Don’t know what they’re doing, but they laugh a lot, behind the green door...”). The film also included an Oakland Raider lineman as bouncer.


Hollywood came out of its economic difficulties in the 1970s. Rotating stars between sex magazines and movies was increasingly legitimate. It was in this less restrictive atmosphere about visual taboos that the pornographic revolution of the sex magazines took place.

The introduction of video cassettes in the 1980s furthered the trend. Played in the privacy of the home, explicit porn of any kind could be viewed, along with the entire spectrum of films. This would play its part both in the normalization of visual sex, but also the decline of sex magazines at the turn of the century.


Summary of sex models’ career patterns

Altogether, 484 women were Penthouse Pets between 1969 and 2009. Of these, 80 were noted for something else besides their magazine appearances. The percentage rose steadily from 8% in the 1970s, to 26% in the early 2000s. The main area of career success was film, TV and video.

Usually they started in B-movies, horror films and sex comedies. Aside from Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson, the biggest success was probably 1974 Playboy cover girl Debbie Shelton. A former Miss USA and Miss Universe runner-up, she appeared in multiple episodes of Dallas  in the 1980s. A 1973 Penthouse Pet was in Jaws (1975) as a nude swimmer who gets eaten by the shark. Playmate of the Year 1973 Cyndi Wood played more or less herself in Apocalypse Now entertaining soldiers in Vietnam. Other models played opposite Burt Reynolds and Sylvester Stallone, appeared on Magnum P.I. or in Batman.

A much more typical post-photo career was soft-core films and videos, often proceeding to hard-core porn.  Even models from more respectable Playboy went this route:  Terri Weigel, a centerfold in 1986, went on to Penthouse in 1992 and to star in porn films.  By the 90s and early 2000s, porn film performers were a major source of recruitment for magazine photos, and vice versa.

Very few made the reverse route from porn to mainstream. Ironically, the most successful of these was Traci Lords. She was an early-developing teenager, who got a fake driver’s license showing she was 22 when she was only 15, dropped out of high school, answered a newspaper ad for a modeling agency, and posed in the mid-1980s when open genital shots were the fashion. After a number of minor magazines, she was in Penthouse in 1984, and acted in pornographic movies. In 1986-- when she was 18 and finally legal-- news got out about her underage photos and films, resulting in a huge scandal, criminal charges against the producers, and retraction of a great deal of material from the market. Traci now went to acting school, and began performing mainstream films. In the 1990s and 2000s she recorded a breakthrough music album and had many roles in TV series. Her success illustrates the Hollywood line “It doesn’t matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right.” But this is not generally true for work in porn; more likely Traci benefitted from sentimental support for going straight and getting a second chance.

A half-dozen sex models made the transition to management, mainly by directing porn films and sometimes producing them.


Other common patterns:

A large number of Pets and Playmates got their start as beauty contest winners.

A few started as athletes: Pamela Anderson was a gym instructor. Penthouse’s 1993 Pet of the Year was a six foot one inch athlete who danced in a Las Vegas chorus line (where tall women were preferred). She eventually married the producer of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  The 2000 Pet of the Year was a professional gymnast, a member of the Czech national team; she took her own initiative in sending nude photos to Penthouse. (Sex workers of all kinds moved to the West after the collapse of the Communist bloc, where such work was often admired rather than stigmatized.)  

Some trained as ballet dancers: Joanne Latham, who shifted from TV commercials to a huge payout from Penthouse in 1980. Delia Sheppard danced in Denmark and Paris (where she did fashion modeling for Dior); after injuring her back, she became a Las Vegas showgirl, a Penthouse Pet in 1988,  and broke into mainstream film and TV. (We could add Bridget Bardot, who got her break via ballet in the late 1940s.) Ballet was also the entry point for French model Christine Haydar, who did a highly erotic shoot for Penthouse in 1977 photographed by her husband; the couple moved to Turkey where she became a top film star.

Some came from the hippie milieu. Oui in 1975 featured a German actress and film-maker who lived in a Munich commune of five women and one man; she eventually became a yoga teacher. The same year, Penthouse featured a Munich photographer who was simultaneously Professor of Fine Arts and member of a rock band. He and his wife (subject of the photos), moved to Hollywood, where they did portraits of rock stars, pictures for men’s magazines and advertisements for corporate clients. His wife now styles herself High Priestess of alternative lifestyles, healing arts, and sacred sites of elves and fairies. An English woman who pushed the Pubic Wars frontier for Penthouse in 1972  was a screamer for Rod Stewart’s band. Anneka di Lorenzo started in L.A. as a rock-band groupie.

Most famous of the hippie background was Tera Patrick, whose Thai mother married a US soldier in Vietnam, returning to Thailand while Tera was raised in San Francisco by her hippie father. At age 14 she signed with a Japanese modeling agency, and spent two years in Tokyo, having sex with the photographer and getting addicted to Valium. Her father brought her back to the US, where after college she went back into modeling because she needed money. She became a Penthouse Pet in 2000, going on to features in Playboy and many other sex magazines while making hundreds of porn videos. She married a fellow porn actor and then a Hollywood special effects artist. Crossing over to the business side, she created a talent agency, a video production company, lines of clothing and herbal products. 

Some came to bad ends. In the 70s several Penthouse Pets died of drug overdoses. A 1989 Pet made a career in British TV, but was subject of stories at age 33 that she was homeless and addicted. A 1998 Penthouse Pet of the Year was later arrested for assault on her husband, and sent to prison for tax fraud. After release, she became a kindergarten teacher.

1980 Playboy Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratton was murdered by her jealous boyfriend. She had sold ice cream at a Dairy Queen in Vancouver when she was hustled by a car show promoter, who sent nude photos of her to a Playboy competition. Hefner put her up in the Playboy Mansion guest dorm, and got her parts in films and TV, aiming to make her a big star. The boyfriend stalked her, took her earnings, and got her to marry him while on tour in Las Vegas. When she filed for divorce, he killed her and committed suicide.

Many just disappeared back into ordinary life. Exquisitely beautiful Lilian Müller, discovered by Suze Randall (and effectively launching her photography career), appeared on three Playboy covers in the 1970s. Eventually she became a local celebrity in Norway as a motivational speaker. A 1974 Penthouse Pet, discovered during a film casting call in Sweden, made soft-core films for a couple of years, but unable to break into mainstream, she opened a jeans shop and retired to private life. Joanne Latham, presumably after spending her money, became a yoga teacher. The statuesque Penthouse Pet of the Year 1997 made Penthouse videos, moved back to Missouri and opened a tattoo and piercing parlor. The 1998 Pet of the Year did advertising tours for Kia, moved home and married a pharmacist.


Two dimensions of porn: How much sex; Beauty/wealth

We may be inclined to think that the direction of innovation in an cultural field is always towards the increasingly edgy. Breaking with existing standards and taboos creates attention, initially a succès de scandale, which then becomes normal and is outdone by something further. Pierre Bourdieu asserted this as the principle of development in art fields, illustrated by the scandals of the early Impressionists. But this does not accurately describe the history of visual sex markets.

Pornography existed in the era of painting (back to the 1700s at least) and in photography (dirty postcards of the early 1900s).  These showed erections, oral sex both cunnilingus and fellatio, intercourse with penetration, even pissing. Essentially these included all the variants and perversions that sex mags were pushing as their circulation declined in the late 1980s and 90s.  The extreme edge was the same throughout; what changed was what could be shown in public.

What concentrating on edginess leaves out is another dimension: how beautiful the images are, which in turn relates to how much money and cultural capital the producers have.

Cheap porn mags existed in the 1940s and 50s, printed on cheap paper, with grainy black-and-white images. They were shot on cheap sets, often in motel rooms, and the models were rarely beauties. The main exception were professional  strip-club performers (Lily St. Cyr, Tempest Storm, Sheree North), but here the principle tended to apply: the better-known names showed less flesh, confining themselves to their stage routines (at most topless dances and G-string teases). There was an inverse relation between how much sex shown and how much beauty. It was a vicious circle: underground markets with limited sales and income meant inability to hire the best models and photographers, and to market an attractive product. It was edgy but it didn’t move the field.

As public tolerance changed in the era of mass circulation men’s magazines, both dimensions-- how much sex and how much beauty-- were for a while being traversed. Hefner’s Playboy in the 1950s explicitly aimed to counter the low-quality porn image. As his revenue increased into the 1960s, he emphasized beautiful models, in beautiful settings and (to the extent they wore them) clothes; carefully and elaborately photographed in lengthy studio sessions with attention to lighting and retouching; printed on glossy paper in the best color. (This explains why for the early decades Playboy had only one glossy photo set per issue.)

Penthouse entered the market led by an editor coming from a background in classical painting, who transposed art techniques into photography. He simultaneously pushed the sexual edge: taking off from existing images of bare breasts and buttocks, to showing pubic hair, crotches, genitals in various stages of arousal, sexual acts with self and others. Initially Penthouse models were less beautiful than Playboy’s, but made up for it by combining luxurious settings, artistic photography, plus the leading edge of sexual display. At its height of popularity, Penthouse was moving on both dimensions, followed by its imitators depending on how much money they had.

A side-dimension was arty nudes, which both Penthouse and intermittently Playboy in extra features used as protective legitimation. Art nudes could be recognized (if the accompanying text didn’t tell you) by unrealistic color tints, abundance of form-shaping shadows, surrealism and bizarre props. The effect of arty nudes was generally neither beautiful in the sense of pretty, nor erotic. Some photographers following contemporary art movements used deliberately ugly models or effects (as in paintings by Lucian Freud).  Nevertheless, I would include art nudes in the beauty/wealth dimension, since the common denominator here is high cultural capital in Bourdieu’s sense. Above all, art was the link to traditional respectability and immunity from legal prosecution.

Hustler sought out a distinctive niche, both by pushing the edge of the genital frontier, and by repudiating the fantasy upper-class, luxury image of both Playboy and Penthouse. Nevertheless, Hustler featured beautiful women when it could afford them. Mainly, it rejected high cultural capital (AKA “good taste”).

Playboy, like Esquire before it, sold the combination of beauty, wealth, and tasteful sex. The upper-class/ tasteful components were devalued with the antinomian/ informalization trend of the 1970s and 80s. Nevertheless, Hefner stuck to his mission. By the end of the 70s, Playboy ceased to follow Penthouse in high-profile genital shots. Nor did Penthouse follow Hustler in the low-taste route. For over 10 years, Penthouse had a fairly stable market, without pushing further on the sexual edge, working out the erotic and aesthetic possibilities of techniques accumulated over past years. Playboy’s mix of old-fashioned pin-up poses and modest pubic shots kept up high circulation longer than any other magazines. It was the sexual edge-pushers who lost market share most severely in the 1990s.


Who made the big fortunes in sex?

At the peak of his career at Penthouse in the early 1980s, Bob Guccione was listed in Forbes  400 richest persons in America, at about $400 million ($1.6 billion today). Hugh Hefner was a multi-millionaire since the late 1950s, owning a huge Chicago mansion, and buying Playboy Mansion West in L.A. in 1971 as revenue approached its peak. Larry Flynt first became a millionaire in 1975, and by 2014 had about $500 million-- the figure came out in October 2017 when he offered $10 million in a full-page newspaper ad to anyone producing information leading to impeachment of President Trump.

These fortunes did not necessarily last. Guccione went bankrupt in 2003, in debt for over $25 million dollars. He was largely self-financing, and always took big risks with his money.

In the early 1960s, unable to attract investors for his Penthouse start-up, Guccione decided do it himself. Thereafter he would never take on co-investors or partners. He came from a small business entrepreneurial background. His parents were Sicilian immigrants to New York; his father the accountant for a small factory owned by his wife’s brother. Later, when Penthouse became a $140 million per year operation, he ran it like a family business: his father as treasurer; sister, daughters and son for office manager, circulation and marketing, with his wife unofficially overseeing everything. As circulation rocketed in the 70s, Guccione bought adjacent townhouses in Manhattan and razed them to build a nine-story mansion, the largest private residence in New York City, importing Italian architects to do the marble and create a atmosphere of Caesaresque grand luxury. Completed, the house cost $5 million a year to maintain. He filled it with a $60 million art collection ranging from Botticelli to Van Gogh to Picasso.

Guccione started a Penthouse Club in London in 1970, but lost its casino license the next year. Unfazed, he built the Penthouse Adriatic Club in Yugoslavia (a cheap-labor Communist country then opening to the West), and flew in Penthouse Pets. It went bankrupt within a year, after Guccione had sunk $45 million of his own money ($225 million today).

Ambitious to have his own movie studio, he invested in Hollywood films (including Roman Polanski’s Chinatown ). In 1976 he launched the first-ever big-budget X-rated porn film, Caligula. Gore Vidal was commissioned to write the screenplay, actors John Guilgud and Peter O’Toole had major speaking roles, along with Penthouse Pets for the sex scenes. It took three years to complete, at the cost of $17 million to Guccione (about $85 million today). But distributers refused to show it, so Guccione rented a Manhattan theatre to show it himself. He grossed $20 million, for a modest profit.

Meanwhile he bought an Atlantic City property and proceeded to build a hotel/casino. But he was unable to get a license, lenders backed out of financing, and by 1980 construction stalled. It sat empty until bought by Donald Trump in 1993. Guccione lost $145-160 million.

Thinking still bigger, in the early 1980s Guccione funded a research laboratory in San Diego, hiring 80 nuclear physicists to produce the world’s first nuclear fusion reactor. It was to be the solution to the world’s fossil fuel crisis and clean air. It lost $20 million.

In 1985, things started to go seriously wrong. The IRS claimed $45 million back taxes, forcing him to sell the casino and close the nuclear-fusion lab. Guccione also had spent a lot of money over the years on new magazines: Viva in 1973, running nude males and fashion for women (closed in 1979 with a dearth of advertisements); Omni, a science and science-fiction magazine, in 1978; Longevity, a health magazine dedicated to the quest to live forever; these closed in 1996, having lost $100 million. Loans to support his magazines built up heavy debts in the 1990s. In 1993 Guccione tried to finance his way out, selling $80 million in bonds on his holding company, to be repaid at 10% interest in 7 years. It turned out to be a risky gamble when the markets collapsed in 2000.  Guccione had to sell his art collection, put up as collateral for tide-over loans.

The last straw was the coming of the Internet in the late 1990s, providing plenty of free sex photo sites, on top of sex on cable and pay-per-view TV. Penthouse sales plummeted to 600,000, and Guccione’s role at playing Caesar (Augustus? Nero?) was over.

Hefner was also a big spender, once he had the money. He started Playboy with $8000 (about $70,000 today) in personal loans from family and friends, including his brother who worked in television. At first he did everything himself. Like Guccione, he found that professional photographers were too expensive, so the first year Playboy ran nude photos bought through the grapevine. The Playboy Clubs, which Hefner started in 1959, did not actually make a profit. But they gave prestige and publicity, with the Bunny outfits creating an iconic presence, establishing Playboy and Hefner himself in the celebrity circuit (and also providing more of a continuous career path for sex models than a rare photo shoot). Clubs of this sort were imitated by all the major players in the sex entertainment field, and became a basis for networks recruiting new sex models. But Playboy Clubs lost out as center city locations deteriorated when commerce moved to suburban malls; most of their income came from the London club, which had a casino. Playboy hotels, records, movies and books rarely made money. Spinoff magazines were money sinks, and Oui was sold off in 1981.

Playboy’s circulation continued fairly strong (compared to all other magazines) in the 1990s. But in 2000 the company’s value started to fall, from $1 billion to $185 million in 2010. Hefner took the company private and held on until his death in 2017. By this time it was making most of its income from licensing rather than Playboy itself.

Larry Flynt came from a lower class background than Hefner and Guccione. Using his savings from serving in the Navy, in 1965 he bought his mother’s bar in Dayton, Ohio for $1800. He upgraded it and starting taking in $1000 a week, which he used to buy two more bars. Upgrading again, in 1968 he opened the Hustler Club, with nude hostess dancers. Soon he had eight clubs in Ohio cities, each grossing $250,000-$500,000 a year (altogether, $10-20 million today). Building on a publicity newsletter, he began publishing black-and-white photos of the dancers in 1972. By putting off paying sales taxes on his clubs, he funded his Hustler Magazine start-up. After a rocky start, his $18,000 investment in nude photos of Jackie Kennedy Onassis put Hustler on the map and made him rich.

Flynt leveraged the fame of Playboy and Penthouse by announcing he would take the revolution in sexual explicitness well beyond them. Rivalry with established competitors not only created new contents; it also was a deliberate move to draw attention to oneself as a new niche in a recognized field. Guccione had done the same thing when he brought Penthouse to America in 1969, taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times declaring “We’re going rabbit hunting.”

Flynt’s campaign for publicity had another moment at the center of  sensational attention. In 1977, while Flynt was on trial in Georgia for obscenity, he was shot by a white southerner enraged at a photo sequence Hustler had published showing a black man with a white woman. Flynt ended up permanently in a wheelchair, while Hustler’s position as the number three-selling sex mag was assured.

Flynt turned out to be a better businessman than Guccione or Hefner. He had a clear eye for losing operations. In his early years in Ohio, he closed down an unprofitable vending machine business. Staying closer to his home field, he created several spinoff magazines of Hustler in specialized sex markets, but shut down the experiments when they didn’t pay their way. His privately owned holding company, set up in 1976, included publishing as well as distribution. Monitoring his ventures closely and living a relatively modest life-style, Flynt kept overhead down and anticipated the decline of print pornography by licensing the Hustler name. Branding rights kept his company solid from the late 90s onwards, leaving Flynt as the richest of the big three magazine owners.

He may have been outdone by the comparatively unknown Paul Raymond. An Englishman of Hefner’s age (thus 5 years older than Guccione and 17 years older than Flynt), Raymond began as a small-time carney operator and street entertainer. In the late 1950s, he started one of the first legal strip clubs in London, mixing Parisian dance revues with Playboy look-alike Bunny waitresses. In the 70s he purchased theatres and produced sex comedies, reinvesting in property in Soho, London’s entertainment center, as well as posh districts elsewhere. Raymond’s early efforts at adult magazines failed, but in the 70s he followed Guccione’s example by bringing his Brit-filled Club magazines to the US. He went on to buy Mayfair and most of the other leading sex magazines in Britain. At the time of his death in 2008 he was worth 650 million pounds or a billion dollars. Most of this was from real estate while property values soared.

So how is money made in the sex business? The female models and performers are the lowest paid (though information is lacking about the pay of male strippers). Women did better if they moved into photography or management at successful sex magazines. * They did particularly well if they played their opportunities on the marriage market (as Kathy Keeton did with Guccione, and a series of Playmates did with Hefner). A select few made it through the intense competition to become highly paid film and TV stars. Even here, top actors make less than big film producers-- a pattern paralleled in sex magazines.

* Dawn Steel moved from secretary to merchandising director at Playboy, to running the Star Wars merchandising, to head of Paramount Pictures. Anna Wintour started as fashion editor for Penthouse’s Viva spinoff, and became editor-in-chief of Vogue.


The underlying mechanism is that beautiful bodies are more perishable than images recorded of them. A brief photo-shoot results in sales that depend on how widely the product is marketed. Fame as sex stars in the dishonored porn economy do not parley into very lucrative careers; and turn-over of top photo models is very rapid, the longer careers covering 5 or 6 years at most. Fame in the mainstream mass entertainment world can last longer, but least so as a sex star. Marilyn Monroe drank and drugged herself to death when she felt her looks were going at age 36 (having been a top star for 9 years, since she was 27). Jayne Mansfield’s movie star career lasted only 2 years, although she rode her fame on the night-club circuit for another decade. (She famously said, “Is it possible to go back to being a starlet?”)

The top money competition was among the men. They made money by closely monitoring their rivals; concentrating on access to the most willing models and the best photographers. Hefner and Guccione both began with experience in periodical distribution. Flynt and Paul Raymond began by expanding their sex-oriented clubs and managing their own publicity. All of them were essentially self-financed, which kept profits from being eaten up by financial professionals, and gave them a free hand without someone looking over their shoulder concerned with mainstream respectability. But they lost money when they ventured into areas they did not know well (casinos, hotels, nuclear power, or magazines that had nothing to do with sex). Guccione shows that following one’s own personal interests, when flush with new-found money, results in keeping pet projects going even when they become a drain. Paul Raymond (and for that matter another fringe-player in such markets, Donald Trump) did best because they combined glitz with a concentration on booming real estate.


Does creativity work the same way in all fields?

Let us define creativity as successful innovation. It’s not enough to have the idea, people have to carry it through to realization. This is not merely an individual process.

Is the creative process the same in all fields? Tracing networks of scientists and philosophers, we have found the most successful were protégés of the eminent thinkers and researchers of the previous generation. They also honed their creativity by rivalry with their contemporaries, keeping up with the latest techniques personally or by close intermediaries. Shakespeare began as an actor in the same networks who performed early hits by Marlowe and Kyd, and learned playwriting by collaborating in theatre companies that spun off from each other. Later an actor in Shakespeare’s troupe, Ben Jonson, spun off to become the success story of the following generation.

In the business world of high tech, Steve Jobs collected the most creative contacts in Silicon Valley, and lured many away to work for Apple. He wormed out of Xerox the bit-mapping technique that turned personal computers from typewriters into touchable/ clickable screen images. This in turn was snapped up by Steve’s sometime collaborator Bill Gates, who made Microsoft into a giant by switching alliances to the old-guard enemy, IBM.

The formula for innovative entrepreneurs thus includes: apprentice-like contacts with the leaders of the previous generation.  Spinning off new organizations using new techniques. Keeping close contact with your rivals,  imitating/stealing from them; hiring their personnel; and shaping a niche that is close enough to reflect their halo of fame, but distinct enough to make your own identity.

Is the path to success the same in every field? (Does it work in all branches of business? in politics?? in the military??)  The only way to find out is to investigate, field by field. The research on all of these has not yet been done. But this is what it looks like:

The sex entertainment field probably generalizes to other fields of popular entertainment.

The basic processes of creativity have been operating throughout history for scientists and intellectuals-- this is where the network patterns were discovered.

Business entrepreneurs again fit the checklist. But as French sociologist Michel Villette emphasizes, stalking your rivals, keeping up potentially treacherous contact with them, and stepping in at moments of weakness to take over their assets is particularly prominent in business.

Politics and social movements fit the general pattern to an extent, operating as networks of niche-seeking rivals creating the field of political issues. But politics is a field where outsiders from beyond the established networks are most frequent, probably because politics and social movements are intrinsically contentious; and they aggressively attempt to promote generational die-off of incumbent power-holders.

Stay tuned as research progresses.


Carlye Adler and Hugh Hefner. Interview, Sept. 1, 2003. Fortune Small Business

John Colapinto. “The Twilight of Bob Guccione.” Rolling Stone,  April 1, 2004.

Venus Revealed: The Pubic Wars. Parts 1-13 (1953-1981). posted Oct. 16, 2008 - Nov. 1, 2016.  venusobservations.blogspotcom

Wikipedia articles on specific magazines, publishers and models.

IMDB biographies.

Charles Martignette and Louis Meisel. 1996. The Great American Pin-Up.

Francis Smilby, 1981.  Stolen Sweets: The Cover Girls of Yesteryear. 

Robert Sklar. 1993.  Film. An International History of the Medium.

Edward O. Laumann et. al. 1994.  The Social Organization of Sexuality.

Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz. 1983.  American Couples.

Lewis Yablonsky. 1968. The Hippie Trip.

Ben Zablocki.  1980. Alienation and Charisma. A Study of Contemporary American Communes.

David Halle. 1984.  America’s Working Man.

David Grazian. 2008.  On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife.

Ashley Mears. 2011. Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model.


on creativity and careers:   

Pierre Bourdieu. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production.

Randall Collins. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies.

--  “Shakespeare’s self-creating networks.”

-- and Maren McConnell. 2016. Napoleon Never Slept. Maren.ink.

Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot. 2009. From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero.


All creativity, even the most famous, can be explained. To call it genius is just rhetoric, a way of evading explanation. Shakespeare, like everyone else, had to go through the process of getting it done.  That means day by day, in a sequence of years that started when he wasn’t a genius, and built up as he did the things that made his reputation. There were times when it didn’t click and the products weren’t so great.  This is our material to analyze.

In The Sociology of Philosophies, I used the micro-sociological method to analyze philosophers and mathematicians: both where creativity happens, and the kinds of things that get created. Two key ingredients are networks and internalized techniques.

Being creative is having the techniques to make something that becomes famous. Where do the techniques come from? In part, they come from the network-- one’s immediate predecessors, collaborators and rivals. In part-- because to become creative on your own is to make new techniques. This is done by combining techniques from the past, or reversing some into their opposite, thus creating new effects. Close acquaintance with the network of previous creators is important because you need to internalize their techniques, until you can roll with them, generating a flow of emotional energy. This internal process is what outsiders can’t see and what impresses them as overpowering genius. And it is why the most creative persons come out of a network of other creative persons.

I will give several examples of Shakespeare’s techniques for writing plays, and how he built, not only on predecessors’ work, but on his own previous plays.



I. Shakespeare’s techniques for transforming earlier plays into new plays

Creativity by reversal and recombination

Shakespeare enters the playwright network

From simple to complex villain to self-destructive tragic hero

Early success in the blood-and-gore market

Promoting the subplot: creating complex characters on the border of comedy

Shakespeare the text-searching scholar

How Shakespeare could write a bad play

II. The networks that launched Shakespeare

How Shakespeare became a great poet

The actor/playwright network

Chronology of Shakespeare’s and contemporaries’ plays

I. Shakespeare’s techniques for transforming earlier plays into new plays

Creativity by reversal and recombination

Two of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Hamlet and Macbeth, have the same basic plot: A king is killed, the murderer takes his place, the king’s son seeks revenge and finally kills the usurper. Macbeth is written about five years after Hamlet, for the new monarch from Scotland, James I. For this command performance, Shakespeare takes his previous best play and reverses several basic elements.  Hamlet is presented from the point of view of the son, Macbeth from the point of view of the murderer. The character Macbeth is like Claudius, if the scene where the King is praying for his sins is magnified into an entire play about guilt. The character of the avenging son shifts drastically, from the moody Hamlet to the bland character of Malcolm, who gets defocused by shifting away from his side of the story.

The other major plot devices remain the same: bracketing the story with the supernatural (the ghost in Hamlet, the witches in Macbeth); a revelation scene where the murderer freaks out guiltily in front of his court. And the power of psychological drama that Shakespeare has discovered with Hamlet-- the complexity of his self-examination, the self-doubts and torments-- are shifted over to Macbeth and his wife, who now get the famous soliloquies: “To be or not to be…” becomes “Out, damned spot!”  and “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” 

Ghosts had been used before. Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy has the ghost of a murdered man on stage throughout the play, but he does not communicate with anyone but the audience. Shakespeare uses ghosts (Hamlet’s father; the murdered Banquo) to bring out the protagonist’s inner voices. Ghosts become a visible means to depict on stage the drama going on inside someone’s mind. Whether Shakespeare consciously intended his ghosts for this purpose is dubious; he was just working his way forward rearranging his materials. When he hit on something that generated more dramatic scenes, including the new psychological dimension, he used it again.

Shakespeare doesn’t invent everything anew; he rearranges key elements to generate new effects.  The basic plot of virtually every play Shakespeare wrote can be traced to a previous source, historical narrative, story or earlier play. The main elements of Hamlet-- the murder, the ghost and the assumed madness as a strategy for revenge-- already existed and had been staged as recently as 1594. The device of a play-within-a-play that confirms Claudius’s guilt comes from the most famous early Elizabethan drama, The Spanish Tragedy (1587), but there the play-within-a-play provides cover while the revengers stab the murderers to death.  Shakespeare takes the device in a new direction by shifting the dramatic emphasis and the timing. By having Hamlet delay and equivocate with himself, Shakespeare develops a new form of plot tension. This too is a reversal of a previously dominant style, the blood-and-thunder tragedies of non-stop treachery and carnage. This element isn’t discarded but displaced to the end: a matter of rearrangement.

Another innovation on the Hamlet story is to weave in a subplot. As everyone knows now, a subplot provides comic relief and suspense by retarding the main action; compare  Shakespeare's early plays like Henry VI  or Titus Andronicus to see what non-stop, single-file action felt like without it. Hamlet is as structurally satisfying as a Wagnerian musical climax because the subplot eventually merges with the main plot and drives it towards its conclusion. Hamlet equivocates, pretends madness, gets proof of guilt, but fails to kill Claudius. Now what? The play is stuck, except that Polonius, who has been the main comic relief, gets himself killed as a busy-body snooper. Since he has been interfering with his daughter Ophelia’s affair with Hamlet, this murder drives her to her death, and her hot-head brother Laertes returns to challenge Hamlet in the comic-then-dramatic graveyard scene. The Polonius-Ophelia-Laertes subplot is not in Shakespeare’s sources, but it is the key structural innovation. Other plot elements in the second half of Hamlet are banal:  the stock devices of a letter with instructions to execute someone, the chance boarding of a pirate ship, and the mixup of swords, poisons and drinks that brings the action to a conventionally bloody end.

Shakespeare is not above using tired old devices. Othello still hinges on dropping handkerchiefs. Think of Shakespeare rushing onward into each new play,  rearranging available materials, some old, some his own invention. At the time of Hamlet, further moves remain to be taken. Shakespeare is more thoroughly innovative 5-6 years later with the ending of Lear. His sources provide a happy ending, but Shakespeare now knows the power of a tragic ending as the destination of an inner character conflict. Lear is like a transformation of Titus Andronicus, his first big hit, into a psychologically sophisticated version. 

Creativity by reversal and recombination is a main process of innovation in the history of philosophy and mathematics.  Invention by negating one element and recombining the rest is a technique for discovery. That means that discovery and creativity is not mysterious. Once you see how to do it, you can keep on doing it by applying it to further materials.

Shakespeare enters the playwright chain

Step backwards now to about 1590. A no-longer-young actor, with 5 years or so of experience in London theatre, joins with his colleagues in writing plays. Histories of the kings of England have recently been published; “tragical histories of the death of kings” reverberate well on the stage, as Marlowe proved with Tamburlane (1587) and Edward II  (1592). Shakespeare goes to the same material and the same techniques. His first such venture (apparently a joint production, like a typical Hollywood rewriting confabulation), Henry VI, is a blow-by-blow account of the War of the Roses, so long that it takes up three separate plays. There is a lot of material, conspiracies, rebellions, battles, trumpet flourishes and grand speeches. The trouble is there is so much of it that plot tension lags; and there are so many characters that none stand out, especially since none of them drives the plot.

In fact Henry VI part 1 had promising materials, much of it being devoted to the story of Joan of Arc (here called Joan la Pucelle). This could be great psychological and political drama, and Shakespeare includes all the famous historic scenes like Joan picking out the Dauphin hiding among his courtiers and Joan facing her captors who are going to burn her at the stake. But the French are the bad guys and the focus is on the English heroes. So Joan gets depicted as at best a fool deluded by her voices and at worse an actual witch; and contrary to historic sources she is depicted as a foul-mouthed slattern cursing her captors-- standard English propaganda but hardly insightful psychology of a spiritual charismatic leader. With better technique this material could have been a tragedy of Saint Joan (which George Bernard Shaw wrote 300 years later), but Shakespeare (or whoever wrote this part) passed up the opportunity to make a great play out of one of the most famous women in history. Proof that having great raw material is not enough to make a great play.

The Henry VI mini-series only comes alive in the very last act of Part 3. We have just gone through the climactic battle of the War of the Roses, when one of the numerous characters, Richard of Gloucester steps to the front of the stage and delivers the first truly dramatic soliloquy in these plays.* He tells the audience his intention, not to let his elder brothers reign, but to eliminate them one by one until he is on the throne. One might tab Richard as the stock character of the plotting villain, but next play, Richard III, has a radically different structure and focus. Virtually the same soliloquy resumes-- “Now is the summer of our discontent--” but Richard starts analyzing himself, blaming his physical deformity, despising the courtiers and joys of peace. Has Shakespeare discovered psychology? More likely he has figured out that simplifying the plot and focusing on the villain’s point of view is more dramatically effective than nonstop violence and loud declamatory speeches. With this structure, psychological complexity had to grow.

* There is one other long soliloquy in the three plays: one act before Richard’s soliloquy,  King Henry VI,  a timid figure, muses on the battlefield that he would rather live the life of a shepherd, delivering many lines in the idealized conventions of pastoral poetry. He witnesses a son who has killed his father, and a father who has killed his son, a contrived and maudlin depiction of the civil war, to which the king gives chorus-like comments. The scene has an artificial masque-like quality, although it gives the first hint of inwardness in these plays. Richard’s soliloquy takes it much further.

In the early plays, a scene often ends with one character remaining on stage and explaining what he will do next. These are not soliloquies in the psychological sense, but devices to inform the audience about offstage action between scenes. Since the theatre stage had no curtain, breaks between one scene and another were announced this way, as well as changes of venue.  Sometimes a major character speaks of his secret plotting that he will put into action. Richard is not the only schemer in these plays (Henry VI part 2  is full of them); what is new is the self-analysis.  The convention of speaking directly to the audience morphs into a device for revealing the psychology of inner dialogue.

From simple to complex villains to self-destructive protagonists

Richard III  is the biggest single step in Shakespeare’s playwriting career. He has a model that he will vary and recombine into his greatest tragedies. He has learned to make complex villain-centered drama.

The result is a series of dramas where the prime mover of action, and the most impressive character, is the villain.  The Merchant of Venice (about 1595)  is a remake of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1590), but Shylock is a much more memorable figure than Marlowe’s Barabas. He is more villainous: instead of political treachery of selling out his city, he makes the infamous pound-of-flesh contract for a loan. But also he gets to plead eloquently for his humanity: “Hath not a Jew eyes?  ... If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” The contract dispute allows Shakespeare to build a new plot twist around Portia as the lady lawyer. Once Shylock has been bested in court, he disappears from the stage, leaving the last part of the play rather flat, relying on clichéd devices like rival suitors with tricks about disguises and tests of lovers’ fidelity.  Like an experiment, it proves that such villains are the centers of emotional energy, dominating both the other characters and the audience. The famous actors of the Elizabethan stage-- Edward Alleyn and Richard Burbage-- played the juicy parts, like Barabas,  Richard III and Shylock.

Shakespeare does it again with the villain-centered dramas of Macbeth and his wife, and Othello’s secret nemesis, his lieutenant Iago. Othello is structurally a descendant of Richard III , stripped down even further to a few characters, giving it the dramatic concentration that lets it become the most successful Shakespeare-based opera. Othello is an imposing masculine figure and is given wonderful poetic lines, but he is essentially a pawn of Iago, who contrives the plot like an on-stage director. Iago’s character is an extension of Richard, delivering a series of self-scrutinizing soliloquies that leave his motivations mysterious, even to himself. 

The most complex figures are the tragic protagonists who are their own worst enemy, Hamlet and Lear. Hence they tend to be regarded by intellectuals as Shakespeare’s most serious plays. They also fit the classic Greek theory that the greatest catharsis comes from witnessing the fate of heroes with a fatal flaw. King Lear in particular can be regarded as a drama of self-discovery, and some have judged it Shakespeare’s greatest achievement.

Generations of critics have analyzed these characters as if they were real people, whose psychological complexities are exposed for us to understand. Is it paradoxical that no one agrees on what drives Hamlet, or Iago, or Lear?  Here is a sociological interpretation that none of the psychological interpreters will like: These are not real persons, whom Shakespeare observed or intuited, but characters developed in the process of writing a series of plays. Why can’t Hamlet kill the king? Because if he kills him in Act 3, the play is over; its main plot device is finding reasons to delay. Hamlet’s character is generated in the process of writing the play. The device of the dramatic self-regarding soliloquy that Shakespeare pioneered with Richard III, enables him to have Hamlet speak wonderfully poetic speeches to himself.

It is not at all clear that persons like Hamlet existed before; but as literature resembling Shakespeare’s propagated downstream, real people (or some of them) modeled themselves on this kind of endless self-reflection.*   Not all life is an imitation of literature, of course, but some of the processes are analogous. Shakespeare created newer and more interesting drama by making villains more complex, then more self-conscious; reaching a point where it is no longer necessary to have bad guys drive the plot, when the good guys create dramatic tension for themselves.  Out in the so-called real world, one of the things modernity means is social life gets more complicated, and individuals become more self-conscious as their thoughts reflect more points of view circulating through their tangled networks. Shakespeare is not at all modern in most things (more like a relic of waning feudalism), but he made striking jumps in recombination and reflection on literary techniques. He created complex literary personalities in the same way that social history creates more complex people.

*T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock: “Do I dare to eat a peach? I will wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think they will sing to me...” Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:  “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix...” And plenty of real-life beatniks, punks, and antinomian rebels who practice negation and sardonic reflection as their social niche.


An early success in the blood-and-gore market

The big successes of the theatre market in the years when Shakespeare was an apprentice actor were Kyd and Marlowe. Marlowe wrote flamboyant scenes: especially famous were Tamburlaine cracking his whip over conquered kings pulling his chariot; or Faustus inviting the devil into his study. But his plots are often jumbles, lacking plot tension and petering out in the later acts. Marlowe was a better dramatic poet than a playwright. Enter Shakespeare.

Titus Andronicus must have been written around the same time as the collaborative work Henry VI,  but it was under Shakespeare’s name and made his reputation by 1592 as “the only Shake-scene” with a “Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide” (parodying a line from Henry VI part 3).   It was extremely popular throughout Shakespeare’s life (as was Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy) which tells something about contemporary taste; for us, its interest is in showing how he would change to create his signature style.

Titus is non-stop atrocity and violence all the way through.  It begins with a brawl between two sons of the dead Roman Emperor over the succession. Victorious General Titus, just back from the wars, decides for the older brother, who rewards him by announcing he’ll marry Titus’s daughter. The losing brother declares No! she is betrothed to him, and carries her off, aided by Titus’s own sons. For their disobedience, Titus kills one of his sons. The new Emperor then changes his mind and declares he will marry the Queen of the Goths, whom Titus has brought back captive. The new Queen-Empress urges Titus and the Emperor to reconcile-- but in an aside she reveals it is all a ruse to get rid of Titus and his sons in due time.  She has another motive of revenge, since Titus has just had her son hacked to death as revenge for the sons he has lost in the Goth wars. Score for the first scene: one son killed by father, another son executed after his mother had pleaded for his life.

In the following Acts, we witness: the Queen’s remaining two sons, egged on by her secret lover, rape Titus’s daughter. They also kill her fiancée (the Emperor’s brother) and by a forged letter, turn the blame on two of Titus’s sons. To add insult to injury, they offer to have the “murderers” pardoned if Titus will sacrifice his own hand; he does, but they send back his sons’ severed heads with his rejected hand. The rapists/murderers had cut off the girl’s hands and tongue to keep her from naming them, but she finds a way to convey the story by pointing it out in a book with her stumps. Titus now counter-attacks by stirring up the Goths to attack Rome; while he personally captures the Queen’s sons, cuts their throats, pours out their blood and grinds their bones to make a pie for her to eat. He then invites everyone who is still alive to dinner, at which: Titus stabs his own daughter-- because he can’t stand the sight of her mutilation; stabs the Queen; and is killed by the Emperor, who is killed by Titus’s last surviving son. By the end of the play, 12 of 14 principal players are dead and 6 have been mutilated or tortured. Most of this is shown onstage, and the off-stage atrocities are vividly recounted and the bodies (or body-parts) displayed.

The tone throughout is what we would see today as a grade-B horror movie, but with passages of recognizably Shakespearean verse. In one scene, there is a lugubrious quarrel between Titus, his brother, and his son over which of them will have the honour of cutting off his hand to save the others. After the bad guys have thrown back the severed heads and hand, and the daughter arrives to show off her stumps, they swear revenge and we get the following:

TITUS:  Come brother, take a head,

And in this hand the other will I bear.

And Lavinia...

Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.

... Let’s kiss and part, for we have much to do.

This may well be the most tasteless scene of all time. Shakespeare has demonstrated his ability to shock. He has gone beyond Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and the most ringing bombast of Marlowe and Lyly.* Audiences loved it. Why does Shakespeare now change his style? Probably because he recognized he couldn’t outdo himself in that direction. The action in Titus Andronicus has no turning point; it is just one atrocity after another, punctuated by bombastic laments. In his further plays Shakespeare slows it down and establishes a more interesting pace and deeper dramatic effects.

*  The goriest part of Kyd’s play is where Hieronimo bites out his tongue to keep from talking under torture; while his imprisoned daughter writes a letter in her own blood.  The play also features a series of hangings, stabbings, suicides, and burning at the stake. Several characters go mad on stage when they learn what is happening. Toned-down versions of such mad scenes are used by Shakespeare with Ophelia and Lear.

I have already noted how in the sequence between the end of Henry VI Part 3 and Richard III, Shakespeare modified the conventional soliloquy from the task of scene-setting and clueing-in the audience about the plot direction, to inner psychological drama. Thereafter Shakespeare’s characters acquire depth and complexity. They certainly lack this in Titus Andronicus. The characters just move around according to the needs of the plot, changing their trajectories without real motivation. Titus’s towering rage in Act I when he kills his son gives way to accepting the new status quo, and ends the Act by inviting everyone to go hunting with him. Why? just a convenient way of getting everyone dispersed in the countryside where the next scenes of rape and murder can happen. The Queen’s two sons are about to fight each other over their love of Lavinia, but they are easily persuaded to jointly rape and mutilate her. The Queen decides to visit Titus disguised as the mythical figure Revenge, which serves no purpose except to reprise a famous scene from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, and for Titus to have the opportunity to kill her two sons who have accompanied her, also in supposed mythical disguises. The Queen suggests the idea of inviting everyone to dinner, although she has nothing to gain by it. And so on. Her evil lover, a Moor, contrives the worst dirty tricks; when he speaks out in his own voice, it is just to vaunt his diabolism-- he is a conventional devil-figure. Titus gets some speeches where he can pour out Shakespeare’s poetry expressing lament and revenge, but merely as the kind of declamatory rhetoric that leading actors loved to deliver.

Shakespeare could change his style because he had other directions to pursue. Some of these techniques came from comedy, which he was also writing and performing at the time. Titus has no subplot, just the continuous escalating of atrocities from one side to the other. This is one reason why the emotional level, although intense, is monotonous. By the time of Romeo and Juliet (about 3 years later) Shakespeare builds suspense by intruding low-comedy characters into the tragedy, as well as having his main characters engage in the word-play of wit and repartee. This also makes the tragic characters more likeable or at least more impressive (like Hamlet and Romeo), which they definitely are not in Titus. Most of Shakespeare’s predecessors in writing tragedy stayed strictly in that genre; his combination with comedy (which he apprenticed in by adapting old plays like Comedy of Errors from Plautus) gave him techniques for making a new kind of tragedy.

Titus Andronicus is skillful at what it set out to do, assuming that was to overtake the number one hit (Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy) at its own game. By the standards of pacing in comedies, it is clumsy. It doesn’t even handle its own horrific conclusion for maximum effect. After everyone is dead, there is a long anticlimax of 130 lines during which Roman officials explain what has happened and choose Titus’s remaining son as Emperor. This rounds out the play, considering that it started with a quarrel over choosing the Emperor, but it is in the wrong emotional tone; no one sounds shocked, no one expresses a real reaction to what has happened. Compare the ending of Hamlet, where the stage is similarly littered with bodies: a brief recognition of the inexpressible; the rest is silence.

Promoting the subplot: creating complex characters on the border of comedy

Let us go back to Henry VI, before Shakespeare acquired his own technique. In Part 1 there is a minor character, Sir John Fastolfe, who is a coward and a buffoon. He has no subplot of his own, but he does provide a bit of comic relief. When Shakespeare recognizes the importance of subplots in his serious plays (probably transposing the devices of plot complication in comedies), he turns this character into Sir John Falstaff. This happens in Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V, which are a prequel to the Henry VI-Richard III sequence. Shakespeare’s English history plays have the Hollywood quality that once you are onto something, keep the franchise going. Henry V was the father of Henry VI, which is where we came in. But the Falstaff series, written in the mid-to-late 1590s, before Shakespeare concentrates on his dramatic psychological tragedies, show another advance in technique.

There is a lot of tumultuous history and famous battles, but he slims down the military/political plot. Instead, he relies on the subplot, which is now the braggart-buffoon-merry prankster Falstaff with his young buddy, Prince Hal. This proved to be so popular that Queen Elizabeth called for a further play about “the fat knight,” which became The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Shakespeare is adopting the low-life layer of light comedy into the aristocratic high politics of the history plays. Having done so opens up a further move: Prince Hal grows up, becomes King Henry V, and leaves his old midnight playmate behind. It is poignant; comedy too becomes humanized. Henry V and Hamlet are created about the same time, around 1599-1601. From now on, Shakespeare has all the tools for constructing his most mature characters.

Shakespeare the text-searching scholar

Shakespeare works almost entirely with pre-existing materials. The creativity of his plays are in the combinations. Macbeth combines two different murders from Scottish history, together with Shakespeare’s own devices from HamletKing Lear is a combination of plot and subplot from legendary history with fragments from an English translation of Italian romances. In creating a new play, Shakespeare begins by scanning possible texts and forming them into a new gestalt. His method involves much reading-- or more likely skimming-- the available literature. He relies heavily on compilations-- Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (1587); a 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives; Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, a melange of tales within tales from Italian sources (published 1590 and 1598).

To appreciate Shakespeare, just read his sources. Shakespeare extracted plot lines he could make into scenes, adding dramatic dialogue-- for instance, Julius Caesar  follows Plutarch fairly closely, but Mark Antony’s famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen! Lend me your ears!” speech is Shakespeare’s invention, and it becomes the turning point of the play. It took a professional eye to cull from a morass of materials the parts he could combine into maximally concentrated drama.  Shakespeare’s creative skill was to discern what the original writers could not.

We imagine Shakespeare at the Mermaid tavern, writing out parts for his acting company to perform, drinking and engaging in exchanges of wit. Even more important must have been the withdrawn part of his life, where he borrowed texts, pored over them, and extracted materials he could use. He gets successively better at this: compare the straight-forward rendering of chronicled battles and rebellions in the strung-out Henry VI series, with the surgical extractions that go into Lear.

Shakespeare makes himself into an accomplished scholar. He knows what is published; he keeps up with the book market. And he scans it professionally, from his own point of view. He is no pedant of a scholar; but a creative one, the creativity residing in a vision of what to look for.  Becoming a great writer, in this regard, is concomitantly a task of becoming a great reader.

Piecing together King Lear

Shakespeare takes the main plot of King Lear from Holinshed, about the division of his kingdom among his daughters. For a subplot, he locates a story in Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia about a king who has two sons, a good son of legitimate birth, the other an evil bastard who first turns the father against his brother, then deprives the king of everything, including his eyes. Here are extracts from the first 3 pages:  It was in the kingdome of Galacia, the season being (as in the depth of winter) very cold, and as then sodainely growne to so extreame and foule a storme, that never any winter (I thinke) brought foorth a fowler child: so that the Princes were even compelled by the haile, that the pride of the winde blew into their faces, to seeke some shrowding place within a certaine hollow rocke offering it unto them, they made it their shield against the tempests furie.  And so staying there, till the violence thereof was passed, they heard the speach of a couple, who not perceiving them (being hidde within that rude canapy) helde a straunge and pitifull disputation...

 There they perceaved an aged man, and a young, scarcely come to the age of a man, both poorely arayed, extreamely weather-beaten; the olde man blinde, the young man leading him...

[The son speaks first:] This old man (whom I leade) was lately rightfull Prince of this countrie of Paphlagonia, by the hard-harted ungratefulnes of a sonne of his, deprived, not only of his kingdome... but of his sight, the riches which Nature graunts to the poorest creatures. Whereby, & by other his unnaturall dealings, he hath bin driven to such griefe, as even now he would have had me to have led him to the toppe of this rocke, thence to cast himselfe headlong to death...

His father began to speake, Ah my sonne (said he) how evill an Historian you, that leave out the chiefe knotte of all the discourse? my wickednes, my wickednes... I was carried by a bastarde sonne of mine (if at least I be bounde to beleeve the words of that base woman my concubine, his mother) first to mislike, then to hate, lastly to destroy, to doo my best to destroy, this sonne (I thinke you thinke) undeserving destruction.

What waies he used to bring me to it, if I should tell you, I should tediously trouble you with as much poysonous hypocrisie, desperate fraude, smoothe malice, hidden ambition, & smiling envie, as in any living person could be harbored. But I list it not, no remembrance, (no, of naughtines) delights me, but mine own... But the conclusion is, that I gave order to some servants of mine, whom I thought as apte for such charities as my selfe, to leade him out into a forrest, & there to kill him.

But those theeves (better natured to my sonne then my selfe) spared his life, letting him goe, to learne to live poorely: which he did, giving himselfe to be a private souldier,  in a countrie here by. But as he was redy to be greatly advaunced for some noble peeces of service which he did, he hearde newes of me: who (dronke in my affection to that unlawfull and unnaturall sonne of mine) suffered my self so to be governed by him, that all favors and punishments passed by him, all offices, and places of importance, distributed to his favourites; so that ere I was aware, I had left my self nothing but the name of a King: which he shortly wearie of too, with many indignities (if any thing may be called an indignity, which was laid upon me) threw me out of my seat, and put out my eyes; and then (proud in his tyrannie) let me goe, nether imprisoning, nor killing me: but rather delighting to make me feele my miserie; miserie indeed, if ever there were any; full of wretchednes, fuller of disgrace, and fullest of guiltines.

Sidney's narrative then goes on to tell how the Princes, after hearing this story, fought off a troop of soldiers led by the bastard son who are pursing the father; then other knights ride to the aid of the bastard; still others happen along to support the deposed king, with further battles until the king recovers his power and puts his good son on the throne. And the knights ride forth for further adventures.

Shakespeare pulls out three main plot elements: the good and evil brothers (who become Edgar and Edmund, sons of Lear's supporter the Earl of Gloucester, whose degradation parallels Lear's at the hands of his evil daughters); the expression of guilt by the deposed King (which Shakespeare transfers to Lear, giving King Lear the humanistic depth that became so admired by critics); and the scene in a storm, where the loyal son prevents his father from committing suicide by jumping from a rock. Shakespeare's task is to turn this summary narrative into scenes and dialogue. The only scene Sidney actually presents is the storm, but this is merely a backdrop where the wretched victims can tell their story. Shakespeare uses it as the play's dramatic peak in Act 3 Scene 2, where Lear is cast out on the moor:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks...

Crack nature's molds, all germens spill at once

That make ingrateful man.

The storm is also where the main plot and subplot merge, when Lear encounters Edgar, on the run and disguised as a madman (an improvement on Sidney, who had the good son disguised as a soldier). A series of poignant scenes follow, as the arrogant Lear humbles himself and for the first time in his life takes pity on someone else-- who in turn becomes his champion who will bring about the downfall of the evil-doers.

We get a sense of Shakespeare as the text-searching reader, scanning for things he can use.  He locates the 600 words I have extracted here, out of Sidney's 3600 word chapter, itself submerged in a compilation of dozens of such stories over hundreds of pages. From bare summary--"What waies he used to bring me to it...with as much poysonous hypocrisie, desperate fraude, smoothe malice, hidden ambition, & smiling envie..." Shakespeare creates actual incidents on the stage, gives them a pace and rhythm totally lacking in Sidney, as well as a series of dramatic situations his actors can exploit. Probably what first caught Shakespeare's eye was the deposed king blaming himself ("the chiefe knotte of all the discourse.. my wickednes, my wickednes..."), an unusual note in stories of knightly exploits; and the dramatic stage-setting of the storm ("compelled by the haile, that the pride of the winde blew in their faces" ). What makes these into elements of high tragedy is provided by Shakespeare's now-considerable technique.

Crafting Macbeth

Creating Macbeth was an easier task of scholarship than many other plays, since Holinshed’s Chronicles of Scotland  already has an eye for dramatic incidents. Several key elements of Macbeth  are clearly presented: Makbeth and Banquo, generals of King Duncane against foreign invaders andrebellions of Scottish nobles, encounter three weird sisters who prophecy their futures. Shakespeare uses their words almost literally (“All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis” etc). And later, after Makbeth is king, a witch gives him confidence by telling him he would never “be slaine by a man borne of woman” nor vanquished “till the wood of Bernane came to the castell of Dunsinane.” It is a riddle, whose answer we get later in Holinshed, that a man (Makduffe) born by Caesarian section is not born of woman, and the army attacking Dunsinane covers itself with boughs from Birnam wood. All this Shakespeare uses nearly verbatim. But Scottish history was full of kings being murdered by rebellious lords, often with good cause such as resisting taxation or revenging slain kinsmen. Shakespeare extracts and combines several instances: King Duff’s murder when lodging in the castle of Donwald, who carries it out by getting the king’s servants drunk, sending his own servants in to do the killing, while establishes his alibi by hanging out all night with the castle watch, and then going into a frenzy of killing the drunken servants. Shakespeare transfers this incident to Macbeth’s rebellion against King Duncan. Holinshed just says briefly that Makbeth and his friends-- including Banquo-- killed Duncane (presumably in battle), whereupon Makbeth had himself proclaimed king.

By combining the two narratives (Donwald murdering King Duff, Makbeth killing King Duncane), Shakespeare gets to use the weird sisters and the prophecies. And he makes the murder of the king much more dramatic, by having it happen by an elaborate plot at night in Macbeth’s castle. Having Macbeth and his wife do the bloody work themselves makes for further dramatic scenes of obsessive guilt and hallucination. Since there were rebellions going on much of the time in 11th century Scotland, killing a king to replace him with another would be nothing special-- just another version of the War of the Roses events that march through Henry VI.  Makbeth’s murder of Banquo is in Holinshed, but Shakespeare invents the banquet scene where Macbeth is frightened by Banquo’s ghost, borrowing from his own dramatic turning point in Hamlet at the play-within-a-play.

Where there is good dialogue and dramatic confrontation, Shakespeare lifts it; where there are plot elements that can structure the action, he discerns them even if the original author did not.  To call it plagiarism is to fail to understand that recombining and recontextualizing is the major technique of creativity. Yet the translators and compilers deserve a place in the sequence creating Shakespeare; without them, it could not have been done.

How Shakespeare could write a bad play

Dramatic materials do not guarantee literary creativity. Shakespeare blew it with Joan of Arc, and his late collaborative play, Henry VIII, was mediocre, even though his subject was the most colourful of all English kings. Shakespeare’s effort to dramatize the Iliad, in Troilus and Cressida was no great success, even though he wrote it at the height of his skills, in the yearsaround 1600-1602, between Julius Caesar and Hamlet  on one side, and Othello and Lear on the other. The flip side of the creative process is revealed by analyzing why a writer who clearly has the technical skills also sometimes produces failures.

Is it just that Troilus is a deliberately anti-heroic play? Recent critics hold that it was written to satirize wars, warriors, and the heroic conventions generally. But in Shakespeare’s retelling of the Iliad, it is only the Greek heroes Achilles and Ajax who are portrayed as buffoons. Hector, the Trojan champion, is presented as a courtly knight; and Troilus the Trojan prince as a youth who grows up to become the conventional warrior hero.

The weakness of Troilus is in the under-development of the Troilus-and-Cressida love story. They rarely show much of the psychological depth that makes Hamlet and Macbeth  famous (there is only one flash of introspection, in Act V scene 2, Troilus’s outburst after he overhears Cressida jilt him). Obviously Shakespeare knew how to portray inner conflict; he just didn’t provide it for these characters. The real problem is in how the plot lines are structured, that makes the Troilus-and-Cressida love story (the lovers are are separated because she is traded to the Greeks in a prisoner swap) a minor, mechanical feature of the play. Shakespeare follows his usual device of alternating sub-plots, but the time devoted to each is disproportionate, and the T-and-C plot virtually disappears for long stretches of the play, depriving the action of plot tension. Where Romeo and Juliet-- which Troilus superficially resembles-- moves along at breakneck speed, Troilus and Cressida is slow all the way through. In Shakespeare’s most powerful plays, the subplots merge and culminate in a tremendous climax; in Troilus they never connect.

Shakespeare does not fail for lack of skill. His verse writing is still at its peak; Troilus just has unusually long stretches of prose, obviously meant to be deflating and humorous. If the problem is structural, this can be understood from how Shakespeare worked. His method of creativity also reveals why sometimes the result was not a success.

The key to Shakespeare’s technique was to search out promising plots and characters, and transform them into something new and distinctive. In the case of Troilus, he takes for his sources the two most famous narrative poets among his predecessors: Homer and Chaucer. By 1600, Shakespeare is certainly aware that he is being regarded as the modern rival to the greatest of all time. So how is he going to rewrite the Iliad, the most famous piece of world literature?

Troilus, in fact, does present the entire plot of the Iliad, from Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon, to the death of Patrocles and Achilles’ revenge on Hector. But Shakespeare was not merely going to imitate Homer.  True, Shakespeare sometimes closely followed his sources. He repeated the main incidents from Plutarch’s history in writingJulius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.  But Plutarch did not write poetry, nor provide hardly any dialogue, whereas these are Homer’s celebrated accomplishments. Thus the most famous lines in Caesar’s assassination—“Et tu, Bruté!” and Antony’s funeral address-- are Shakespeare’s invention. But for the Iliad, Shakespeare had to avoid using Homer’s words. He solves this by changing the main characters, his usual device of reversal and recombination.

So Shakespeare takes Homer’s central character, Achilles, and changes him from a proud, lofty figure into a buffoon, devoted to pleasure and clowning around.  Homer’s Achilles is the epitome of the tragic hero, noble in his fatal flaw of dignity and pride. Shakespeare’s Achilles does not withdraw from combat because he has been insulted by Agamemnon, but because he is frivolous and cowardly. Shakespeare brings him down even further by pairing him with another Homeric champion, Ajax, who is even stupider and also lazes around without fighting. So Shakespeare invents the plot line that Agamemnon, Ulysses and the other Greek leaders strategize how to get their two missing heroes back into action by arranging a duel with Hector, trying to build up jealousy between them. Shakespeare’s Achilles, far from being self-contained and brooding, is hyper-sensitive to what other people think of him; he wants to be noticed and is shamed when the Greek leaders casually pass him by in a deliberately off-hand manner. (Oh hi, Achilles, didn’t see you there. No time to chat.) By the time the plot action gets going in Act IV, Achilles has forgotten his feud with Agamemnon and is hanging around with the other Greeks, meeting Hector and other Trojans for courtly visits and hosting dinner parties.

The result is a long, rather boring plot line of the Greek leaders scheming, making dinner invitations, and engaging in knightly protocol with the Trojans. The ferocious berserker warriors depicted by Homer are transformed into very conventional courtly knights, who exchange compliments and fight duels, not to the death but just as a form of jousting. None of this generates any plot tension, but it takes up most of the action on stage. Finally, Homer’s plot comes back in a flurry at the end of Act V (taking up 175 lines of this 3500-line play-- about 5% of the whole): battle scenes in which Patroclus is killed, Achilles fights Hector, and finally Hector is killed. Shakespeare leaves out the emotional climax of the Iliad, when Achilles in his anger desecrates Hector’s corpse by refusing to give it back to his family for burial; and King Priam comes to beg for it, finally bringing Achilles to the realization of what it is to be truly noble. Instead, Shakespeare has Achilles fail to defeat Hector in single combat, so instead Achilles gets his troops to surround and kill him after the end of battle when Hector has taken off his own armor. So Achilles takes false credit for his victory, and is just a slob all the way to the end.

Yes, it’s really different than Homer, but it isn’t dramatic, interesting, or even memorable. As an effort to rewrite the Iliad,  it is a failure. Could the play be saved by the other plot line?

Shakespeare decided to frame or decenter the Iliad story by combining it with the plot line from Chaucer’sTroilus and Cressida. This was Chaucer’s most accomplished narrative poem, but its weakness, for a stage play, gives Shakespeare the opportunity to lift its characters and action straightforwardly.  Chaucer’s poem does not have much action or plot tension. Cressida learns she is going to be sent away in a prisoner exchange; Troilus suggests they elope but she points out it wouldn’t be very practical during a war. Instead Cressida promises to deceive her father once she has arrived in the Greek camp, and to escape back to Troy. But once there, she realizes her plan was unrealistic, and accepts a Greek hero as a lover. Troilus gets the message and that’s it, ends cursing his ill Fortune.

Shakespeare fleshes out this meager plot line by elaborating the characters. Pandarus the go-between is turned into an obscene comic character, who tends to overshadow the lovers, and makes the word “pandering” the most famous thing to come out of this play. Cressida, who is a rather practical person in Chaucer and his earlier source, Boccaccio, acts quite differently in the few scenes Shakespeare gives her. When first introduced in Act I, Cressida talks in bawdy innuendo (as if this is the low-life subplot); later, when the lovers finally come together in a night scene (Act III), she sounds like Juliet; but in Act IV and V, in the Greek camp, she flirts and exchanges kisses with everyone, and plays both coy and romantic with her Greek lover. It is unclear what character Shakespeare intended her to be. She is intermittently the bawdiest of Shakespeare’s heroines, a combination of Juliet and her nurse; she changes suddenly and with no apparent motivation between adjacent appearances. Perhaps Shakespeare decided to script her for light comedy, which implies that for him the Troilus-and-Cressida plot was just comic relief from the Iliad plot. The trouble is both plot lines end up feeling like subplots for the other. Neither has any dramatic momentum; and although some of the scenes come off, the whole falls flat.

So how could Shakespeare, at the top of his game, write a bad play? By tinkering with a masterpiece fully as strong as his own best creations. He could make the Iliad different, but he couldn’t make it better. Troilus is billed as a tragedy, but it plays like a comedy, except it isn't funny.  In the medium of the stage play, where pacing all-important, messing around with the dramatic elements is fatal. 

Troilus and Cressida was rarely performed, during Shakespeare's lifetime or later. It is among the few Shakespeare plays never filmed. Given the ambitious project, it was Shakespeare's biggest flop.

II.  The Networks that Launched Shakespeare

How Shakespeare became a great poet

Shakespeare’s creativity as a poet was a big part of his success as a playwright, since his network wrote plays in verse. Shakespeare not only wrote the best plays but the best poetry; and the power of his dramatic scenes, especially the great soliloquies, hinge on their poetry. If he is already a leading dramatist at the time of Richard III-- in the early/mid 1590s--- and soon after in Romeo and Juliet, he has his poetic technique fully worked out. He could go it alone as a poet, as he did during 1593-4 when the theatres were closed, when he wrote his Sonnets and Venus and Adonis. The two kinds of techniques may have come at the same time, although they are not the same;  Shakespeare kept on innovating as a playwright while his poetic style had already hit its high plateau.

Shakespeare’s skill as a poet came fairly early. How did he get it? As an actor in the first years of his career, Shakespeare must have memorized a great deal of verse. He could probably think in verse, talk to himself in verse. After a while he would get to the point of being able to say anything extemporaneously in the verse rhythms used in plays. Shakespeare acquired great facility with the poetic style of his contemporaries in the same way as the 20th century song-writer, Irving Berlin—as a street performer and singing waiter from age 13 to 23, he knew all the popular songs by repetition before writing his first hit song.*   For both Shakespeare and Berlin, their early careers involved the most intimate process of internalizing what the rest of the field did, by performing it constantly.**

* Berlin started even younger, as a newspaper hawker shouting out catchy headlines.  And a new medium was opening up: phonographs that could play a 4-minute song were just appearing at the time of young Irving’s street-apprenticeship, 1901-13. Once launched in the new song recording business, he went on to compose 1200 songs, of which several dozen were hits. He could literally write a song overnight by staying up and grinding it out.

** A similar process is shown in Jooyoung Lee’s ethnography of rappers improvising in street-corner competitions in Los Angeles. Some aspiring rap artists practice in their daily lives by trying to say everything in rhyme.

So our first answer is that Shakespeare acquires great facility with the poetic style of his contemporaries. How does he go beyond them? Which means: when? by what steps?  

Shakespeare's life is undocumented from 1585, when he was 21 and still in Stratford-on-Avon, until 1592 when his success in London theatre was noted. He did not necessarily start his acting career in London. There were wandering troupes of players performing at country houses-- in fact these preceded the rise of public theatre in London in the 1580s. Near Stratford, there had been performances in 1575 at Kenilworth Castle, when Queen Elizabeth visited her current favorite, the handsome Earl of Leicester. There were days and nights of outdoor pageantry, the gardens full of costumes, mime and song, and reciting of poetic verses. The eleven-year-old Shakespeare could well have been among the gathering of local onlookers with his father. (Quennell 23-5) Traveling players are featured in Shakespeare's early play, The Taming of the Shrew, which is depicted as a play-within-a-play performed at a country house near Warwick-- a few miles from Stratford. And of course the traveling players in Hamlet. Since such players focused on country houses, joining such a band (perhaps temporarily at first) would have been simultaneously a way to learn the actor's craft and to meet aristocratic patrons.          

Shakespeare’s poetry resembles his predecessors’.  Sir Philip Sidney, around 1580, turned traditional slow-moving six-beat verse into iambic pentameter, popularizing the sonnet, and opening the way for the ringing five-beat line of Marlowe’s plays. Shakespeare knows the new poetry intimately, both through his network contacts and by memorizing and performing this kind of verse. His greatest poetry is in his plays because the new kinds of characters and situations he developed gave his poetic technique more subtle and dramatic materials to put into spoken lines.

Shakespeare’s aristocratic patrons formed his poetry. His Stratford neighbour, Fulke Greville, himself a well-known poet, was a friend of Sir Philip Sidney, the poetic innovator who popularized the sonnet sequence. Sidney died young, and his poems circulated by hand; at the center of the circle was his former mistress, the beautiful sister of the Earl of Essex, a patroness of literary men. Another of Essex’s friends was Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, the object of Shakespeare’s own sonnet sequence. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, patterned on Sidney’s, circulated in the elite literary network even more effectively than by publication, which did not occur until 1609.  In the network of patrons and poets (below) we see that Shakespeare was two links away from Sidney, via two different connections, and would have heard a great deal about him and probably seen his not-yet-printed poems.

Shakespeare’s network: aristocratic patrons and poets

Shakespeare’s network: aristocratic patrons and poets

During the 1593-4 season when the theatres were closed, Shakespeare likely visited country houses of his patrons and their friends, where he was inducted into the network circulating handwritten poems. This was a medium of “publication” used by all the famous English poets from Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 1520s through John Donne in the early 1600s. The network would have been both informative and motivating, with gentlemen-courtiers acquiring reputations as wits, and pushing the boundaries of witticisms through new devices. The entire network hit its peak density in the 1590s, when a considerable number of top poets (as judged by posterity) were writing.  By the time of Donne the march of verbal cleverness had generated complex poems even beyond Shakespeare’s.

The actor/playwright network

Shakespeare acquired his skills from two networks: his aristocratic poetry-loving patrons; and his fellow actors,  playwrights, and business associates. Edward Alleyn played the flamboyant, over-the-top roles that made Elizabethan theatre a sensation from 1587 on: Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, and The Jew of Malta.  Before Shakespeare rose to prominence, there was already a playwright-actor nexus, each feeding on the other in building the new style. Alleyn, along with Shakespeare’s fellow-actor in the great tragic parts, Richard Burbage, were theatrical entrepreneurs. Failing in negotiations to unite the two leading companies (the Lord Admiral’s Men, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men), they formed rival companies, with Shakespeare as a principal share-holder of the latter.  Marlowe and Kyd (who at one time were roommates) both wrote for an earlier troupe, Lord Strange’s men; and Shakespeare’s Henry VI  and Titus Andronicus were performed under Strange’s patronage.  The most famous comic actor, William Kempe, was both in Strange’s company and Shakespeare’s, contributing to his string of successful comedies, and vice versa. The networks of actors and playwrights intertwine; Shakespeare’s company performed both his own plays and those of others, launching the early successes of Ben Jonson in the late 1590s.

Shakespeare’s network: actors and playwrights

Shakespeare’s network: actors and playwrights




As we see in the network of actors and playwrights, Shakespeare had a 2-link tie to Marlowe through several intermediaries, and collaborated with Kyd in the early 1590s on minor plays,*  and with several writers on the Henry VI series, before striking off on his own.

* Besides Edward III, co-written by Kyd with Shakespeare, many scholars believe Kyd wrote an early King Leir and a Hamlet. These essentially followed the older sources, and lacked Shakespeare’s innovations in character and subplot. But our concern is not to establish priority. If these attributions are true, Shakespeare’s connection to the literary network via Kyd gave him even more impetus towards his greatest plays.

Burbage played the titles roles in Hieronimo (another name for The Spanish Tragedy, revived several times in the 1590s), as well as Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, and Lear. Shakespeare probably chose plots and created roles to feature Burbage, just as he did for Kempe, the star attractions of their theatre company. This is not just an incidental fact; actors were the carriers and inheritors of techniques from earlier pioneers like Kyd and Marlowe. In the same way, Shakespeare’s younger fellow-actors learned by acting in his plays, before striking off on their own. Ben Jonson was an actor for several years (reputedly also playing Hieronimo) before he began writing his distinctive contemporary comedies based on his theory of humours; Shakespeare acted in one of them in 1598. The network continued to propagate itself.

Shakespeare’s role-models died as he was acquiring his own techniques: Sidney in 1586, Marlowe in 1593, Kyd in 1594, leaving a vacuum to step into. The network, passing along its techniques to those best energized to develop them, is truly the actor on the literary stage. My title should be: How Shakespeare’s network, internalized in Shakespeare, created Shakespeare.

Loose ends:

I have not addressed the creative innovations of Shakespeare’s comedies. This will be the subject of a further post.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon

Chronology of Shakespeare’s and contemporaries’ plays

c.1587 Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedie (most popular play of Elizabethan era; frequently revived)

1587 Marlowe, Tamburlaine, part 1

1588 Marlowe, Tamburlaine, part 2

c.1588 Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

c.1590 Marlowe, The Jew of Malta

1588-94 The Comedy of Errors

1589-94 Two Gentlemen of Verona

1589-94 Titus Andronicus (probably with collaborator)

1589-92 Henry VI, parts 1, 2, and 3 (multiple collaborators)

1592 Marlowe, Edward II

1592-3 Edward III (majority of text by Kyd)

1592-3 Richard III

1593-4 The Taming of the Shrew

1593-6 Love’s Labour’s Lost

1593-4: London theatres closed for months during plague

Shakespeare composed and circulated Venus and Adonis (1592-3),

The Rape of Lucrece (1593-4), Sonnets (1593-1600)

1594 Lord Chamberlain’s Men, theatrical company formed with Shakespeare as share-holder, along with actors formerly performing Kyd and Marlowe plays

1594-6 Romeo and Juliet

1594-7 Merchant of Venice

1595 Richard II

1595-6 Midsummer Night’s Dream

1596-7 King John

1596-7 Henry IV, part 1

1597 Merry Wives of Windsor

1597-8 Henry IV, part 2

1598-99 Henry V

1598-99 Much Ado About Nothing

1598 Shakespeare acts in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour

1599 Julius Caesar

1599-1600 As You Like It

1599-1600 Twelfth Night

1600-1 Hamlet

1600-2 Troilus and Cressida

1602-5 All’s Well That Ends Well

1603-4 Othello

1603-4 Measure for Measure

1605-6 King Lear

1605-6 Macbeth

1606-7 Antony and Cleopatra

1606 Ben Jonson, Volpone

1606 Thomas Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy

1605-8 Timon of Athens (possible collaboration with Middleton)

1607-8 Coriolanus

1607-8 Pericles, Prince of Tyre (partly by Shakespeare)

1609-10 Cymbeline

1609-11 The Winter’s Tale

1611 The Tempest

1612-13 Henry VIII (with collaborator)

1612-13 Cardenio (Fletcher and Shakespeare; lost play based on a chapter in Don Quixote)

1613 Two Noble Kinsmen (Fletcher and Shakespeare)



Randall Collins. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies.

William Marling. 2016. Gatekeepers: The Emergence of World Literature and the 1960s.

Peter Quennell. 1963. Shakespeare: A Biography.

Alan Posener. 2001. William Shakespeare.

William Farnham. 1970. “Introduction” to Hamlet.

Kenneth Muir. 1984. “Introduction” to Macbeth.

Stephen Orgel. 1999. “Introduction” to King Lear.

Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine (eds.) 2007. Troilus and Cressida.

Charles Nicholl. 1992. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe.

Susan Doran. 2008. The Tudor Chronicles, 1485-1603.

Lawrence Stone. 1967. The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641.

Jooyoung Lee. 2016. Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central.

Wikipedia articles on particular plays and sources.


Classic fantasy is a cross-over: children’s literature for adults too. Star examples of the category are the Alice in Wonderland books (1865 and 1871), the Wizard of Oz books (1900-20), the films made of both (1939, 1951), the cartoon films Yellow Submarine (1968) and Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away (2001). All are parts of an ongoing sequence, which is how classic fantasy gets created.

How did Lewis Carroll go about writing Through the Looking Glass, after writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? By transforming the earlier book into the later. The materials that made up Alice get used again, with different variants and characters. The first book’s plot action -- to the extent that it has a continuous plot-- is driven by playing cards come to life; the second book makes each chapter a move in a giant chess-game. In Wonderland, Alice grows larger and smaller; in Looking Glass, Alice experiences reversals in space and time; for instance, since she is in a mirror universe, she can never get somewhere by walking straight toward it, but must go in the opposite direction. Other elements, such as Alice’s frustrating conversations with the fantastic characters she meets, continue through both books. The later text is made by reversing and recombining devices from the earlier text.

All books are sequels to something. An author can write another book; new books can be created by new authors using previous authors’ devices. I will proceed on the plan that there is no real difference in the methods of creative recombination used when an author creates a sequel to a successful book, or when an author creates a successful sequel to someone else’s books. There must be millions of readers who started out to imitate a classic book; but we don’t know much about the failures outside the few that succeeded. In self-sequels, we have the advantage that a famous author will have followers who dig up their lesser and failed works as well.

Why care about minor failures when we can focus on the great works? Because both were produced by a similar creative process. Comparisons illuminate causes. We can trace how Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland but also Sylvie and Bruno; and why L. Frank Baum was a long-term success at Oz books, not at Oz films, nor his other fantasy books. We hold constant the author and social setting, and isolate the technique of making a success in the fantasy classic niche.

Generic features

The classic crossover fantasy genre uses these devices:

An alternative universe or magic garden, entered by a portal from the ordinary world. Alice goes down a rabbit hole or through the mirror over the mantlepiece; Dorothy’s house is carried away in a tornado; the Beatles are picked up from Liverpool in a yellow submarine; Miyazaki’s child-heroine goes through a tunnel into an abandoned theme park. The Chronicles of Narnia start when a child pushes through the clothes at the back of the closet.

The magic portal is a modern device; traditional fairy tales just start in the enchanted world, and their protagonists live there happily ever after instead of returning to an ordinary home. In the era of religion when magical ritual was practiced daily, there was no banal ordinary world from which to leave. Banality came with the disenchantment of the world by commerce and bureaucracy that defines modernity. It also created a platform for portals to an alternative universe.

A naive child protagonist, especially a little girl. This sets up the possibility of cross-over effects, where the mature reader can see things in the text that the protagonist does not understand. The writer can play around with spacey philosophical concepts, like time speeding up or going backwards.

Quasi-meaningful humorous nonsense. Lewis Carroll likes to use verbal misunderstandings, nonsense words or verse. Films can do nonsense in images, like direction signs pointing every way at once (used in both the 1951 Alice and in Yellow Submarine).



A picaresque plot line: a series of discrete adventures strung together by the protagonist on a journey. Picaresque is a very old plot form, going back to the Odyssey and the Voyage of the Argonauts. It is convenient for packaging a collection of older myths and characters. The picaresque structure of classic fantasy makes the genre especially inviting to repackaging earlier classics-- a central method by which each new version is created.

Other major literary forms are not picaresque: tragedies are a compact web of characters tied by strong emotions-- just the opposite of the light and carefree tone of children’s classics.* Situation comedies, too, tend to be in the real world and play on a repeatedly interacting web of characters. Picaresque is especially suited for fantasy; introducing more complex character interaction into it is usually a way to make it fail-- as we shall see from Lewis Carroll’s failed efforts.

* A naive child protagonist also rules out sex in the plot. There is a slight love-interest in Spirited Away, between the heroine and her boy-ally (who is also a dragon, thereby cutting out erotic possibilities, unless you wanted to get really kinky). This isn’t bowdlerizing, but the ingredients of the genre. In Yellow Submarine, all the named characters are male; John’s erotic fantasy “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is very tame and subject to other interpretations. Spirited Away is set in a pre-modern bathhouse; this is modeled on the luxury brothels of the Yoshiwara district of pre-modern Edo, but there is no hint of prostitution in the film version.


If you lived in 1860, or 1900, or 1965, or 2000+, how would you create a new fantasy classic? By following these generic techniques, adding new materials, and recombining.

Upstream from Lewis Carroll

How did Charles Dodgson, Oxford mathematics lecturer, create the first Alice book? By telling a story to three little girls rowing a boat through the neighbouring countryside. The story must have begun by imagining a rabbit in the nearby meadow, dressed like a human, holding a watch and disappearing into a rabbit-hole that turns into a deep well, with more adventures at the bottom. It took Dodgson almost two-and-a-half years to complete the book, adding episodes later on like the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Tea Party. Presumably he expanded the dialogue, with its double-leveled nonsensical repartee, and wrote verses that parody older children’s rhymes.

Like most successful creators, he was already in a network of important people: the Pre-Raphaelite painters; high-society persons who provided unwitting material and spread his reputation; a writer of children’s fairy-tales who acted as a sounding board; links to a prestigious publisher. *  Looking for an illustrator, he enlisted John Tenniel, the political cartoonist for Punch, England’s leading satirical magazine -- guaranteeing an adult cross-over.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was no casual production, but heavily worked-over.

* C.S. Lewis, who wrote the Narnia series (1950-56), and his friend J.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit  and The Lord of the Rings series (1937, 1954-5) were, like Dodgson, Oxford Fellows. Cross-over fantasy became something of a local specialty in this network.


What was the literary upstream that Dodgson/Carroll could draw upon in 1862-4?

Most immediately, Edward Lear, whose Book of Nonsense came out in 1846, when Dodgson was 14 years old. The book was very popular, a break-out book for the genre. It contained the kind of materials that young Dodgson would use in family entertainments, and in poems he published in magazines for children in the 1850s.  The 1840s  were the decade literary nonsense took off in Europe, especially in Germany, considered  at the time the center of avant-garde intellectual life. In 1844 Heinrich Heine, Germany’s most popular poet, published “Symbolik des Unsinns” --  “symbolism of non-sense”. In 1848, Ludwig Eichrodt set off a wave of humorous cartoon-illustrated poem sequences; followed in 1865 by Wilhelm Busch, an artist-turned-cartoonist who wrote the wildly popular bad-boy poem-stories Max und Moritz. German philosophy, science and literature were very much in the English eye, and not only because Queen Victoria had married a German prince. The middle-class publishing market was exploding as schooling expanded; children’s literature became simultaneously more child-centered rather than a vehicle for adult moralizing, and more sophisticated, with an ironic tone that appealed also to adults.

This ironic-reflexive turn built on the older generation of children’s poems, which it recycled through parodies, generally much more palatable and amusing than the originals. Lewis Carroll’s technique, in each chapter where Alice meets an odd character, is to have someone recite a poem, which invariably would be familiar verse turned on its head. Carroll mainly does this in chapters where not much physical action is happening  (like falling down the rabbit hole or playing croquet); his standard method in the static chapters is conversation at cross-purposes, plus reciting poems. This replicated a popular domestic entertainment in Victorian households, in an era before recordings or electronic media of any kind, when children of Alice’s age were trained to memorize verses for such occasions. Carroll simultaneously makes fun of  polite manners (literally making it more fun), and of the contents of older children’s literature.

Thus the caterpillar makes Alice recite “Old Father William” (a poem by Robert Southey originally published in an Evangelical Christian magazine, and full of pious platitudes); Alice’s version comes out garbled, replacing the adult voice with what henceforth could be called “childishness.” The larger movement shared by Edward Lear, Wilhelm Busch, and Lewis Carroll, is part of the modern invention of childhood. *

* Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes were first published in the 1780s. Many of them originated as satirical political poems for adults, before being transformed into purely children's entertainment. Humpty Dumpty, for instance, refers to a battle in the War of the Roses. These rhymes became part of Carroll’s upstream poetic capital.


The next chapter, a visit to a kitchen where a Duchess is sneezing and nursing a baby, features a lullaby that involves shaking the baby rather than soothing it:

Speak roughly to your little boy,

            And beat him when he sneezes:

He only does it to annoy,

            Because he knows it teases.

The baby howls and the adults join in the chorus:

            Wow! Wow! Wow!

The satire (of a poem called “Speak gently to your little boy”) is certainly on the adults here, although the edge is taken off when the baby is transformed into a little pig that wanders away. The Duchess is the first really negative character in the book; she reappears later, both in person and as the prototype of the Queen of Hearts. This is the formula for the genre: the villains are (more or less human) adults, the protagonists children, their helpers transformed animals or magical creatures, plus silly quasi-adults.

How semi-meaningful nonsense poems are constructed

These examples are made nonsensical by changing some words into their opposites. A more advanced form of nonsense is “Jabberwocky,” which Carroll introduces at the end of the first chapter of Through the Looking Glass. Alice has found a book which she can’t read, until she holds it up to the mirror so the direction of the letters is reversed.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

            Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

            And the mome raths outgrabe.

How does one create successful nonsense, that is, nonsense that is enjoyable? By partial transformation, making it semi-meaningful.  The first stanza, without the strange words, would read:

Twas [adverb], and the [adjective] [plural noun]

            Did [verb] and [verb]  in the [noun] :

All [adjective] were the [plural noun],

            And the [adjective] [plural noun] [verb].

The poem is obviously English, with conventional grammar; even the nonsense words follow standard forms for plurals, for instance. And the elements of the nonsense words are English syllables-- not Japanese or some other language-- so that the reader can call up word associations for something like “mimsy.” The poem is further structured by its lively four-beat rhythm and its easy rhyme scheme, which the nonsense words strictly follow.

Half the words in the first stanza are nonsense, but it gets easier in the other stanzas. The next stanza, for instance,

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

            The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

            The frumious Bandersnatch!

-- has only four nonsense words, and three of them are obviously names of fantasy animals (supported by the accompanying drawing). The fourth, “frumious” is anybody’s guess, but on the whole the rest of the poem is easy to follow, mostly English with a smattering of nonsense words to give a whimsical tone to a rather conventional dragon-slaying story.

A nonsense poem is not something to decipher. It has no intended meaning. The author’s intentional work of constructing it is to make just these kind of substitutions in an otherwise strict poetic frame. Much of its appeal is its word-music. Compare a straight version, Shelley’s To Night:

Swiftly walk over the western wave,

            Spirit of Night!

Our of the misty eastern cave

Where all the long and lone daylight

Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear

That make thee terrible and dear

            Swift be thy flight!

Shelley makes more sense than Jabberwocky, but it is mostly mood, blended with the word-music. The all-out nonsense poem creates its pleasure out of silly distortions that fit the word-music anyhow.

Nonsense literature depends on using strict forms into which on-the-edge-of-meaning nonsense can be inserted. This implies it is easier to write successful nonsense poems by altering very formal verse than it would be in loose modernist poetry. Would a nonsense version of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland be appealing to anyone? At most, to a very esoteric audience of specialists. Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, downstream in this technical tradition, tends to prove the point.

Creating episodes

Carroll creates one episode after another using the same formula. Alice encounters an odd character-- a mouse her own size, a caterpillar smoking a hookah, a frog dressed as a footman, a cat that floats in the air, a duchess, a pack of live playing cards; in the sequel, flowers that talk, nursery rhyme characters like Tweedledum and Tweedledee or Humpty Dumpty, chess pieces come alive.

They converse at cross-purposes. Alice always tries to be polite and mind her manners as she has been taught, but it never goes well. To the Mouse she tries to make conversation about her pet cat and gets an outraged response. The Caterpillar answers all her efforts abruptly: “I don’t see.”  “It isn’t.” “Who are you?” When Alice tries to explain, “one doesn’t like changing so often, you know.” The caterpillar responds “I don’t know.”  Figures of speech are taken literally. When Alice tries to get the attention of the frog footman with “How am I to get in?” he answers, “Are you to get in at all? That’s the first question, you know.”

            “It was, no doubt: only Alice did not like to be told so. ‘It’s really dreadful,’ she muttered to herself, ‘the way all these creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!’

            The footman goes on: "‘I shall sit here, on and off, for days and days.’

            “ ‘But what am I to do?”’ said Alice.

            “ ‘Anything you like,’ said the footman.

            “ ‘Oh, there’s no use talking to him,’ said Alice desperately: ‘he’s perfectly idiotic!’ And she opened the door and went in.”

And so it goes. Alice keeps on trying to be polite, gets snappish replies, and loses her temper a bit. The Mad Tea Party ends:

            “ ‘Really, now you ask me,” said Alice, very much confused, ‘I don’t think---’

            “ ‘Then you shouldn’t talk,’ said the Hatter.

            “This piece of rudeness was more than Alice could bear: she got up in great disgust, and walked off.”

It gets worse. She meets the Queen of Hearts, with her constant refrain “Off with their heads!” In Through the Looking Glass, Alice starts off in a beautiful flower garden, where the flowers criticize her manners and appearance. Finally Alice says, “If you don’t hold your tongues, I’ll pick you!” Tweedledee and Tweedledum answer most of her efforts with “Nohow!” and “Contrariwise.” Humpty Dumpty contradicts whatever she says.

            “ ‘Don’t stand chattering to yourself like that,” Humpty Dumpty said, ‘but tell me your name and your business.’

            “ ‘My name is Alice, but---”

            “ ‘It’s a stupid name enough!’ Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. ‘What does it mean?’

            “ ‘Must a name mean something?’ Alice asked doubtfully.

            “ ‘Of course it must,’ Humpty Dumpty said.”

At the end of the chess game, when Alice reaches the last square and is promoted to Queen, the plot tension of the story is over. Carroll winds up with a final episode: the White Queen and the Red Queen refuse to recognize her as another Queen (“ ‘Speak when you’re spoken to!’ the Red Queen interrupted her.”) until she has passed “the proper examination.”  This becomes a parody of school quiz: “ ‘Can you do division? Divide a loaf with a knife-- what’s the answer to that?’ ” Alice gets everything wrong. When the chess Queens invite each other to a dinner-party Alice is giving, Alice objects that she should be the one doing the inviting, and the Red Queen replies “ ‘I daresay you’ve not had many lessons in manners yet!’ ”  She finds a door marked “Queen Alice,” but the frog footman (reprising the earlier version) is very unhelpful:

            “ ‘To answer the door?’ he said. “What’s it been asking you?’

            “ ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said.

            “ ‘I speaks English, doesn’t I?’ the Frog went on. ‘Or are you deaf? What did it ask you?’

            “ ‘Nothing!” Alice said impatiently. ‘I’ve been knocking at it!’

            “ ‘Shouldn’t do that--’ the Frog muttered. ‘Wexes it, you know.’ Then he went up and gave the door a kick with one of his great feet. ‘You let it alone,” he panted out, ‘and it’ll let you alone, you know.’ ”

The dinner party is a grand ensemble of animals, birds and flowers. The two Queens flank Alice at the table and shout orders.

            “ ‘You look a little shy: let me introduce you to that leg of mutton,’ said the Red Queen. ‘Alice---Mutton: Mutton---Alice.’ The leg of mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice.

            “ ‘May I give you a slice?’ she said, taking up the knife and fork.

            “ ‘Certainly not,’ the Red Queen said very decidedly: ‘it isn’t etiquette to cut any one you’ve been introduced to. Remove the joint!’ And the waiters carried if off.”

Alice is hungry and defies the Red Queen by cutting a slice of the pudding.

            “ ‘What impertinence!” said the Pudding. ‘I wonder how you’d like it, if I were to cut a slice out of you , you creature!’ *

            “ ‘Make a remark,’ said the Red Queen: ‘it’s ridiculous to leave all the conversation to the pudding!’ ”

* This is repeated in Wizard of Oz, when a tree resists having its apples picked, retorting, “How would you like it if someone pulled something off you?”


The dinner turns into a version of the Mad Tea Party, with the guests lying on the table and the food and dishes walking around. So Alice ends the story just as she does at the end of Wonderland, standing up and shaking everything off, and then waking up.

Each episode combines conversational etiquette that fails through the interlocutors’ rudeness, wordplay, deliberate misunderstandings of figurative expressions and multiple meanings. This would likely become annoying to the reader except that Carroll lightens it with parodies and puzzles.

Here the deeper level of these books comes in. For instance, midway through Looking Glass,  Alice goes into a shady woods where nothing has a name. She can’t think of her own name, except  “ ‘L, I know it begins with L!’ ” She meets a Fawn but it can’t tell her what it is called either: “ ‘I’ll tell you, if you come a little further on,’ the Fawn said. ‘I can’t remember here.’ ”

Dodgson/Carroll, the Oxford logician, creates his most memorable lines for adult readers in this way. Humpty Dumpty: “ ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean-- neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master-- that’s all.’ ”

Carroll’s formula throughout is to transform familiar things into fantasy objects. This is undoubtedly how he created the first version of his tale to the girls on a picnic. The rabbit they see in the meadow becomes dressed up and acts like a human; when Alice falls down the rabbit hole it is meant to take a long time, so he describes things she sees on the walls as she falls: cupboards, book-shelves, maps and pictures; she takes a jar of Orange Marmalade and puts it back.  These are rooms in an upper-middle class home; the beautiful garden that she tries to reach is one of the Fellows’ gardens hidden behind college gates and reserved for College Fellows like Dodgson. 

On the whole, these are beautiful settings of a leisure society, with even an aristocratic side when Duchesses and Queens come in. They are the chief villains moving the plot (the upper-middle class looking upwards with a critical eye at the declining monarchy). All the activities are polite middle class pastimes-- tea parties, lawn croquet, conversation, poem recitations, cards and chess games, formal dinners and speeches. It is a very nice world, probably above the social experience of most readers. In reality this familiar world is somewhat boring; the fantasy transformation makes it delightful.

Dodgson/Carroll creates his ideas, episode by episode, by taking things in his own familiar environment-- the meadow, the garden, children reciting poems in family parlors-- and applying his transformations: English-speaking non-humans, failed etiquette, double-meaning conversations, and parodies of past children’s literature.

Alice in Wonderland is more memorable than Through the Looking Glass.  He launches his first effort with the device of growing smaller and larger, and then repeats each half a dozen times altogether; this supplies more dramatic action than in the later book; and it leads naturally to the denouement where full-size Alice can declare “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

The chess game provides little plot tension, and the second book’s episodes tend to recapitulate the devices of the first. But the pair of books were crucial in supporting each other’s reception. Alice in Wonderland was well received, but it didn’t become a children’s classic-- nor an adult cross-over -- until after Through the Looking Glass was published 6 years later. With less action, it focused attention more on the embedded philosophical puzzles. As often happens, one great book makes another great-- the formulation does not beg the question, if one thinks of the feedback processes by which literary reputations are made.


Lewis Carroll’s failures

One sequel was a great success. Lewis Carroll tried for another, and failed. Between Alice (1865) and Looking Glass (1871) he wrote a couple of short stories (1867) about fairy characters called Sylvie and Bruno. But he kept this material separate when he produced Looking Glass as a pure sequel to Alice. By 1874 he was projecting a longer book called Sylvie and Bruno, but was unable to complete it until 1889, by which time it was so long that he had to split it into two volumes, the second appearing in 1894. Alice, which took 2.5 years to write, was a great publishing success; Sylvie and Bruno, which took 20 years, was not. Not surprisingly, since the first flowed better and was carefully crafted, whereas the latter was a struggle. Of course, Rev. Dodgson still had his day job, and published on advanced topics from the world of German mathematics during these years; but that was true in his Alice years as well.

Why did Sylvie and Bruno fail? It violated the rules of the fantasy classic genre listed above.

(1) An alternative universe entered by a portal from the ordinary world.  In Sylvie and Bruno, there are at least two alternative worlds: Outland, which resembles an Oxford college; and Fairyland, a true magic garden. There is also a real world, with a plot involving a sick man, a doctor, and an aristocratic lady and the choices she goes through in getting married. The story line switches among these worlds numerous times: when the narrator (the sick man) falls asleep and dreams an alternative world (making explicit the framing device that Carroll used at the end of both Alice books); sometimes he dreams a song, containing a character who knows a portal into a magic garden; sometimes the narrator travels on a train from London to the countryside, where he reaches some fairy-land destination (a device used in the Harry Potter  stories.)  Favored characters can also enter Fairyland by an Ivory Door in a professor’s study, and by other transformations.

Outland is a place where the head of the College, here called the “Warden”, is overthrown in a plot by subordinate college officials called the “Chancellor” and the “Sub-Warden.” This is a satire on academic politics; C.P. Snow (who was a Fellow of a Cambridge college) wrote a straight version in The Masters (1951).  The ousted Warden is the father of Sylvie and Bruno; they all get promoted into fairy characters when they are in Fairyland (where the Warden is the Monarch). This gives a two-layer ranking of imaginary characters who sometimes become fairy characters. Dodgson/Carroll was still squeezing his Alice  materials, since the real-life Alice was the daughter of his own College head.

The failure of Sylvie and Bruno  points up something that was only implicit when I listed the generic features above. An alternative universe from the ordinary world needs to be a binary; too many different worlds, and too many portals connecting them, is psychologically unsatisfying for the audience. As I argued in the case of Jabberwocky, successful nonsense poetry needs to insert its nonsense into a strict frame.

(2) A naive child protagonist. In Sylvie and Bruno,  there is a major child character (Sylvie), although she isn’t very naive; and she only intermittently appears. Much of the story is told from the point of view of the narrator, a real-life adult, who not only dreams part of the story but also travels around in several of the worlds. Without a naive protagonist, the possibility is eliminated of having things happen “over her head” that an outside audience can see in more sophisticated perspective. Instead, there is much more explicit discussing and explaining, which ruins the light touch and eliminates much of the humor.

(3) Quasi-meaningful humorous nonsense.  Carroll continues to provide material of this sort; for instance one of the professors has invented a time-travel machine, leading to paradoxes about time reversal. [Carroll wrote this only a few years before H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) used the same device more successfully by constructing the entire plot around it.]  Unlike the Alice books, here the nonsense episodes are not linked to non-human characters, talking animals, birds, insects, flowers, and nursery rhyme characters, but are conveyed by conversations among adult humans.

Some of the clever nonsense is successful: a series of maps of increasing scale, so that a map becomes as big as the land it depicts; a government in which thousands of monarchs rule over a single subject instead of vice versa. The adults’ stories satirize academic reforms then going on in Oxbridge: giving scholarships to outstanding students leads to college competing for them and eventually chasing students in the street to give them money. Another story satirizes a professor whose lectures no one can understand; so his students memorize his lectures and repeat them to their own students when they become professors, ending up with a profession teaching something that no one understands. This sounds like a reaction to German Idealist philosophy, which in the 1870s and 80s dominated Oxford philosophy, notably under T.H. Green and F. H. Bradley. 

Parts of Sylvie and Bruno  thus resemble the more sophisticated parts of Gulliver’s Travels,  but they cease being cross-over fantasy for children and adults.

(4) A  picaresque  plot line. Some of Sylvie and Bruno  is picaresque wanderings, but the book’s failure brings out a hidden point: picaresque strings unrelated episodes together because a single character’s travels holds them on a  thread. This is the pattern for Odysseus, Don Quixote, Gulliver, and Alice. But Sylvie and Bruno  follows too many lead characters,  removing the psychological unity of the picaresque.

(5) The failure of Sylvie and Bruno  brings to light another principle of classic cross-over fantasy: avoiding direct or prolonged treatment of serious themes. Sylvie and Bruno intrudes these into both plot and conversations. The real-world characters have marriage engagements, but they break up over serious issues like disagreement over religious beliefs. Fantasy, when it does have love interest, makes the obstacles simple and magical, as in Sleeping  Beauty and Cinderella . Fantasy may allow a magic sickness, which ends with a magic cure; Sylvie and Bruno  has a real-life epidemic and a heroic doctor who sacrifices his life to treat its victims.

It also features morality tales:  a boy caught stealing apples;  a drunken workman, reformed by Sylvie who gets him to give up drinking and take home his wages to his wife. She is not a very fun fairy. (Not at all like Peter Pan, a successful sequel in this genre in 1904, about a boy who refuses to grow up.) And there are lengthy discussions, both in the real world and the fantasy worlds, of topics like whether animals have souls, what people will do in the afterlife, how the Sabbath should be celebrated, what circumstances make sins more serious, the morality of charity bazaars, and the flaws of socialism.

How could Carroll, so careful an author in Alice, write a book so ill-organized and un-pruned? He explains in the preface that he had been collecting materials for many years-- clever ideas, satires, dialogues, strange inventions. He was involved in doctrinal controversies in the Church and political controversies at the University. And he wanted to put it all together into a novel.

Dodgson/Carroll’s own creativeness got him into trouble. He was a continuously inventive person, thinking up new machines and games, writing poems and stories, collecting drawers full of fragments. Many authors collect such material in their notebooks; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notes became famous when they were published after his death. Dodgson/Carroll was an intellectual hoarder or pack-rat, and his treasury of scraps grew over the years to the point where two substantial volumes could contain them only clumsily. *

* The two volumes of Sylvie and Bruno  are four times as long as Alice in Wonderland.


Downstream from Alice: the Oz books

In 1900, L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, to big national sales and critical admiration. Four years later, he repeated the success with The Land of Oz. The original Oz book was a one-shot deal and Baum did not plan for it to be a series. He saw the book as a springboard to his lifetime ambition for a theatrical career, by making The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a musical.  It took two years before he got a production, which played first in Chicago and intermittently on Broadway during 1903-04.  The play was oriented to adults, dropping the witches and magic, shifting the plot to political struggles around the Wizard, and adding contemporary political parodies.  But an outpouring of letters from children convinced Baum to keep the children’s book concept going, no doubt prodded by the relative failure of his other enterprises.

This would be the pattern throughout the remaining 20 years of his life; every time he wanted to quit and concentrate on something else, market pressures kept returning him to his one big source of audience appeal. Baum produced a total of 13 Oz books, and after he died in 1919, his publisher had other writers continue the series,  bringing out a new Oz book every year through 1952. It was the archetypal sequel franchise. The question is, not just why the original Wizard of Oz was successful, but why it was perhaps the greatest sequel machine of all time.

The Land of Oz,  as the subtitle says-- The Further Adventures of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman -- featured the most popular characters in the original;  the actors who played them in the stage production became famous. Neither the protagonist Dorothy, nor the Wizard, are what drive the sequels. The Wizard is gone at the end of the first volume, exposed as a mountebank who returns to Nebraska in his balloon; the protagonist in the new adventure is a boy named Tip. The generic features remain, of course: an alternative world which transforms features of the ordinary world; a naive child protagonist who has picaresque adventures; plot tension provided by evil adults (in this case Mombi, an old witch who is like a wicked stepmother to Tip at the beginning of the story); adventures always turning out happily because of the timely discovery of magic powers and the aid of new creatures brought to life (of which the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman are the archetypes).

In this first sequel, Tip constructs a pumpkin-head man and brings him to life by stealing Mombi’s magic powder; then brings a wooden saw-horse to life to carry them; then a flying machine cobbled together out of a pair of high-backed sofas, an elk’s head, and some decorative palm fronds for wings. This was very timely in 1904, the year after the Wright Brothers’ first flight in December 1903, although flying machines had been an inventor’s craze for the past decade. The common denominator of the method is to take found objects of everyday life (scarecrow, pumpkin/jack o’lantern, sawhorse, the household furnishings that make up the flying Gump) and bring them to life. Baum combines this with an adventure plot line, essentially a series of crises or cliff-hangers (in this book, literally, when the Gump crashes in a cliffside birds’ nest), from which the growing crew of adventurers escapes by another turn of magic creativity.

Baum (and his successor) would use this formula throughout the later books. For instance, in Ozma of Oz  (1907), the child protagonist visits the land of the Wheelers, who are half-human/half bicycle.

The Oz stories have much less of the paradoxical, two-level dialogue by which Lewis Carroll constructs his successive episodes. Carroll’s humanized animals and nursery story creatures do not accompany Alice on her travels, but are largely one-episode appearances in which she has a nonsensical conversation. Baum’s dialogue is mostly about the problems the traveling crew are facing at each juncture, but there are occasional flashes of Alice-like devices. In one predicament, they find a secret compartment with three magic wishing pills, but its formula is to count to 17 by two’s.  The characters discuss how this is impossible, since 17 is an odd number; until one of them suggests starting at 1, and going 3-5-7-etc.-until 17. Tip takes one of the pills, but it gives him such bad stomach pains that he wishes he hadn’t taken the pill; so now the three pills are back in the box. This leads to a discussion about whether Tip really could have had a pain, since he didn’t really take one of the three pills. This is essentially a riff on the time-reversal paradoxes in Through the Looking Glass. 

A new character, Mr. H.M. (Highly Magnified) Woggle-Bug, T. E. (Thoroughly Educated) is the precursor to the Yellow Submarine’s Jeremy Hilary Boob, Ph.D. (which Ringo pronounces, phud). Both begin by presenting their card.  They are well-educated intellectuals, full of esoteric and pretentious language. The Woggle-Bug is also a version of the original Wizard of Oz, and continues the satire on education at the end of the first book, where the Wizard solves the Scarecrow’s request for a brain by giving him a university diploma. What makes the Woggle-Bug most memorable (in addition to the way he is drawn-- a bug walking upright on its hind legs, dressed in cutaway tailcoat, striped vest, and top hat-- an echo of the White Rabbit) is how he is created: a tiny bug whom a school teacher has magnified and projected onto a screen; when the teacher’s attention is distracted, the bug walks off the screen, in the size of a human child. There is more of this playing with scientific experiments in the Yellow Submarine.

The larger plot-tension of the story is driven by a revolution, carried out by an army of girls, led by General Jinjur. They are a feminist army, declaring that men have ruled things too long while women do all the work at home; and they succeed in overthrowing the King of Oz (who is now the Scarecrow, supported by an Army consisting of one old man with long whiskers and an unloaded gun). The girls are armed with knitting needles, plus their well-founded expectation that no one would hurt a girl. They proceed to carry out a revolution, which consists of prying out the jewels of the Emerald City so they can wear them, while the men now do all the housework. Baum is making literary capital out of current events; he was closely associated with his wife’s mother, a leader of the Women’s Suffrage movement. Although his parody of the movement is none too favorable, his books throughout often show girls doing men’s jobs. General Jinjur’s revolution is overthrown by another army of girls, led by Queen Glinda the Good Witch, this time carrying real weapons.

The book ends up with a discussion of who should have the throne of Oz. The Wizard had gone back to Omaha in his balloon; the previous ruler disappeared. They discover there was a descendent, a girl named Ozma, but the witch Mombi had transformed her into some other shape so she couldn’t be discovered. Eventually, after a trial of rival magic between Glinda and Mombi, the latter confesses that Ozma has been transformed into a boy: in fact it is Tip.

Tip at first is horrified to hear this, since he does not want to be transformed into a girl. His friends assert they will continue to like him just as much, and he undergoes the transformation into a beautiful princess with sparkling jewels (depicted on the last page of the book). This is a rather astounding ending, given that it was 100 years before the transgender movement became popular. It had no political significance; it was just a clever device for ending the book, and with a boffo effect, outdoing all the other magical transformations that moved the plot along. The book is innocently non-sexual; apparently the audience loved it, for the demand for Oz books accelerated. Ozma of Oz would soon have her own book, in 1907.*

* The formula is spelled out pretty clearly in the subtitle: Ozma of Oz Tells More About Dorothy and the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, also about the New Characters-- the Hungry Tiger, the Nome King, Tiktok and the Yellow Hen.


L. Frank Baum’s failures: what made the difference?

Baum had been writing plays and musicals and acting in them ever since he was a child-- the same era of home entertainment as Lear and Dodgson with household poetry recitations. Baum was born in 1856, and grew up consuming the children’s literature of  these predecessors. His father was a successful entrepreneur in many businesses, and Frank also had the entrepreneurial style from an early age; in his teens he ran a stamp collectors’ magazine; a stamp dealership; sold fireworks; in his 20s he published a trade journal for breeders of prize poultry. His father underwrote his theatre, and Frank wrote advertising for his aunt who was both an actress and founder of an Oratory School. None of his enterprises took off; and his father’s oil business went under. At age 32, Baum moved to a frontier town in the Dakota Territory (not yet a state), where he ran an unsuccessful store and edited a newspaper. Moving to Chicago, he became a newspaper reporter, and edited a magazine of ideas for advertising agencies, specializing on store window displays, and published a book about clothing dummies in 1900, the same year as The Wizard of Oz.

Baum’s first venture into children’s books came in 1897, with Mother Goose in Prose. Retelling meant elaborating the original rhymes into narrative and dialogue; in effect, this was what Lewis Carroll did when he constructed the culminating action of Alice in Wonderland from a few stanzas about the Knave of Hearts who stole the tarts from the Queen. Baum was 41 years old at the time of his first success, after a lifetime of eclectic projects. Following the groove, in 1899 Baum brought out Father Goose,  consisting of nonsense poems in the Edward Lear/ Lewis  Carroll tradition. It topped the sales charts for children’s books, so in 1900 Baum and his illustrator launched his own version of a trip to Wonderland, starting in Kansas and resembling the western United States.

Alice becomes Dorothy; the Red Queen becomes the Wicked Witch of the West with an army of flying monkeys instead of playing cards. The most innovative character, the Wizard of Oz, is Baum satirizing his own professional life of huckstering. Dorothy arrives in Oz via a tornado, receives magic shoes to protect her, recruits three clownish companions, and proceeds on a series of picaresque adventures. High points are the Emerald City itself, green and glittering with jewels; and the geography of Oz, divided into four kingdoms each with its own omnipresent color and reigning good or evil Witch. The geography would become a principle dimension for further sequels; although Baum never provides a map (as Tolkien did for his enchanted lands), the Oz alternative universe acquired a familiar shape for its readers, as each book added new places to its borders. For the first Oz book, Baum borrows a device from classic hero tales: an ordeal that Dorothy and her companions must undertake-- to steal the magic power of the Wicked Witch of the West-- before the Wizard will tell Dorothy the secret of how to return home to Kansas. After many adventures, she does; with a presumably final note that there’s no place like home.

The book again topped the best-seller list for children, but Baum did not sense what market niche he was in. He persisted in trying to produce plays. Tired of Oz, or not recognizing its appeal, he wrote a number of other children’s fantasy books: Dot and Tot of Merryland (already in 1901 on the heels of the Wizard of Oz success), Queen Zixi of Ix, Adventures of Santa Claus (another effort at a spin-off  on the formula of his Father Goose), and others, none of which sold well. Sheer market demand for more about Oz-- above all its geography and tradition-- pulled him into sequels. The musicals he financed-- both follow-ups to his one big Wizard of Oz  hit, and other ventures as a Broadway producer-- lost money. (One of the flops was meant to be a musical starring the Woggle-Bug.) In 1908, his traveling show simulating a trip to Oz combining short film clips, live actors, and his own Chattauqua-style lecture, almost bankrupted him. True enough, the period around 1908-1914 was when the film industry was shaping up, and it was unclear how short soundless films were going to develop; Baum was combining existing modes of entertainment he had grown up with, but which would be supplanted by movie theatre chains he had not foreseen.

In 1914 (when Baum was 58), he started his own film studio; but even its name-- The Oz Film Manufacturing Company-- did not make it successful and it folded after a few years. The early film industry appealed mainly to adults, with its dialogue boards and relatively slow-moving action. It would take the advent of talkies, background music, and animated cartoons in the late 1920s to create a sustainable children’s film market. By 1939, of course, The Wizard of Oz became an epoch-making film, using switches between black-and-white and color to highlight the transition between the ordinary world and the marvelous alternative universe; and being one of  the first full-length features in garish Technicolor was a perfect match for the color-laden land of Oz.  Already in 1906 Baum attempted to set up an Oz amusement park; this precursor to Disneyland (which opened 50 years later, in 1955) never got off the ground, hampered by his many failing business ventures. Baum was a promoter and entrepreneur in many areas; but having the concept was not enough to pull it off. Only in the Oz books, where his ideas could be quickly and inexpensively realized in print, and where collaboration involved only a favorite illustrator, could Baum make his skills pay off.

Altogether L. Frank Baum wrote 55 novels, hundreds of poems, and numerous film scripts. He had no shortage of inventive ideas. It takes more than inventiveness to create a beloved classic. The Oz books enterprise, if not Baum himself, recognized this; his publishers (who had acquired the royalty rights during one of Baum’s periodic financial crises) made sure that the winning formula kept being applied, for 30 years after his death.


Film Era  Cross-over Sequels

The switch from books to films was no drastic change. From Alice  onwards, successful cross-over novels had illustrations so that fantasy creatures did not have to be left to the imagination. The 1951 Alice  eliminated the talkier episodes, verbal conundrums, and poem parodies and played up the most colourful scenes. All the classic fantasy films were the brightest and most vivid of their time. Film-making and sound-production technologies got better over time, one element in creating new effects within the genre. But new technologies succeed only in combination with the basic devices for constructing cross-over fantasy.


Song lyrics into film script: The Yellow Submarine

Immediately upstream from the 1968 film were the Beatles. Neither film script nor production was their doing; even their voices were those of professional actors. The Beatles’ input consisted of four new songs, plus some voiceless sound tracks by their studio music producer, George Martin, who was responsible for the innovative electronic effects of the Beatles’ sound.  Otherwise the film writers chose existing Beatles hits, and scripted the film around the “We all live in a Yellow Submarine” song of 1966 and the nostalgic "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1967).  The film is a sequel, an adaptation of what could be constructed from the Beatles’ music and image, and above all, from their lyrics.

In their generation, the Beatles were the most literary of pop song writers, and had the broadest range of musical knowledge. This was the era of transition from  45 rpm singles to LP albums with 6 or more songs per side.  The Beatles’ breadth of musical styles came out gradually, as their immense popularity and two albums per year gave them opportunity to mix in new styles. *

* They were also one of the first groups to write their own songs and lyrics. Professional Tin Pan Alley song-writers since the record business developed in the early 1900s were rarely the performers, and the separation held up through most 1950s rock n’ roll. The Beatles began by adapting existing rock n’ roll songs to their electric instrument-playing quartet, but their popularity took off when they wrote their own material. This rapidly became the pattern for rock musicians.

Early Beatles hits had minimalist lyrics, the songs mainly carried by the all-electric-guitar sound, replacing the saxophones and horns of 1950s American rock n’ roll. American lyrics were mostly hyperbole or sheer hopped-up jitterbugging;  (Little Richard: Gonna have some fun tonight, Everything’ll be alright, Gonna have some fun, Have some fun toni-i-i-i-ght [held through 5 beats]; Jerry Lee Lewis: Come on over baby, Whole lot a shakin’ going on [repeat, repeat...]. 

I Want to Hold Your Hand (1962), the Beatles’ first hit, is an upbeat screamer of teeny-bopper love; but Please Please Me (the same year) and Love Me Do (also 1962) have the flippant conciseness of Lennon and McCarthy’s lyrics. Their titles give a hint of verbal cleverness that straight-forward American songs lacked: A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Eight Days a Week (1964), The Night Before (1965), Got to Get You Into My Life (1966), Hello Goodbye (1967).*   

* This is on display in Lennon’s two books of cynical nonsense stories, In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965)  -- British equivalent of the American expression, to throw a monkey wrench [spanner] in the machine. 

Lennon and McCartney were finding a stream of material by casting an ironic eye on the daily lives of teens. I’m Looking Through You (1965), Ticket to Ride (1965),  She Said She Said (1965), and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (1966) are songs about teenage complaints and break-ups, hardly original topics but treated with a irony and the bouncy music that makes them trademark Beatles songs. 

They were also adding a serious vein: Poignant short stories are compressed into lyrics like She’s Leaving Home (1967):

Wednesday morning at five o’clock, as the day begins,

Silently closing her bedroom door,

Leaving the note that she hoped would say more.

She goes downstairs to the kitchen, clutching her handkerchief.

Quietly turning the back door key,

Stepping outside she is free.

Father snores as his wife gets into her dressing gown.

Picks up the letter that’s lying there.

Standing alone at the top of the stairs.

She cries and breaks down to her husband,

“Daddy, our baby’s gone!”

“Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly?

How could she do this to me?”

-- all this over the strumming chord changes and the band repeating softly in the background

We gave her most of our lives... Bye, bye..

Already in 1964 there was that great departure for rock music, Eleanor Rigby, where the jaunty bluesy music is played by a string quartet:

Eleanor Rigby,

Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been,

Lives in a dream---

Waits at the window,

Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door,

Who is it for?

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

Eleanor Rigby

Died in the church and was buried along with her name.

Nobody came.

Father McKenzie,

Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave,

No one was saved.

All the lonely people...

This existentialist bleakness, echoing Samuel Beckett plays but relieved by the tenderness of the tone, is chosen for background music when the Yellow Submarine first arrives in Liverpool, a blip of colour across gray photographic stills of the industrial city. A basic ingredient of putting together the movie, surely.

Childhood fantasy now teeters on the portal to the alternative universe, half held back in the ordinary world. Downstream from Lewis Carroll, a riff on Mother Goose is in Cry Baby Cry (1968):

The King of Marigold was in the kitchen

Cooking breakfast for the Queen.

The Queen was in the parlour

Playing piano for the children of the King.

Cry, baby, cry, make your mother sigh,

She’s old enough to know better,

So cry baby cry.

The Duchess of Kirkaldy, always smiling

And arriving late for tea.

The Duke was having problems,

With a message at the local Bird and Bee.

Although it is not in the film, this song expresses the Beatles’ mentality at the time. Another echo of the nursery, from the mother’s point of view,  is Lady Madonna (1968), sung above a piano boogie-woogie, with a Thirties dance band for the breaks:

Lady Madonna, children at your feet,

Wonder how you manage to make ends meet.

Who finds the money when you pay the rent?

Did you think that money was heaven sent?

Friday night arrives without a suitcase,

Sunday morning, creeping like a nun.

Monday’s child has learned to tie his bootlace.

See how they run----

Lady Madonna, lying on the bed,

Listen to the music playing in your head.

Tuesday afternoon is never-ending,

Wednesday morning papers didn’t come.

Thursday night your stockings needed mending,

See how they run---

(echoing the nursery rhyme, Three Blind Mice)

Such were the ingredients; now the movie:

Yellow Submarine is a trip to an alternative universe of sounds as well as visuals. It begins with classical music, played as orchestral background during the Blue Meanies’ attack on Pepperland,  featuring a string quarter that gets bonked into grey cardboard silence. The Yellow Submarine makes its escape while we hear the title song played by a traditional brass band (sketching music history here, early jazz having come from syncopated marching bands).  Reaching Liverpool, we are still in the classical string quartet of Eleanor Rigby. Not until we get inside the Beatles’ fabulous mansion-- outwardly a bleak-looking warehouse-- does full colour take over. 

The opening sequence expands on the opening of the 1939 Wizard of Oz, where the scenes in Kansas are in black-and-white, and Dorothy lands in Oz in a blaze of Technicolor. Inside, contemporary pop music comes on only in snatches, as the Beatles marshal themselves to the rescue. It is more than 20 minutes into the film before, the Yellow Submarine under way, the Beatles’ up-beat sound takes over. And of course, when they reach Pepperland, what little plot is left consists of recovering their instruments and destroying the Blue Meanies’ spell simply by playing their irresistible music (“Nothing is Beatle-proof,” John says).

The Blue Meanies hate music, just as the older generation of musical taste attacked  the new rock n’ roll music of the mid-1950s. (It emerged in the U.S. on independent radio stations, as the networks abandoned radio for TV; a favorite item of consumption in the rise of a modern youth culture during the push to keep working-class teenagers in high school instead of going to work; and the concomitant appearance of youth gangs (for whom the term “juvenile delinquents” was coined), who flaunted jive music and sometimes had their own singers.) The battle for rock n’ roll was finally won by the Beatles, who won over the older generation (not incidentally because they were white, clean-cut, clever and literate, and quoted older music-- in contrast to the black and hillbilly/ rural white singers of American rock n’ roll). The struggle of taste-generations is softened in the film: the Blue Meanies hate all music, even classical, although it is rock music that vanquishes them.

The Beatles stretch the formula for cross-over children’s fantasy, since they are not little girls, nor naive. John Lennon even remarks on similarities to their experience in Einstein’s relativity and Joyce’s Ulysses. The lack is remedied by adding the Nowhere Man, a satirical portrait of an Oxford intellectual, who knows everything but is inept in real life. The Boob becomes the most lovable character in the film, along with Ringo, who is always pulling levers and pushing the wrong buttons, creating the mini-crises that enliven the plot. Not having a naive protagonist eliminates the two-level humor and irony of the Alice  novels, but an equivalent is in the new cartoon effects.

Yellow Submarine was a big shift from prior animated films, both visually and musically. The most ambitious full-length cartoon Fantasia (1940) featured Mickey Mouse characters accompanying a classical orchestra repertoire. Disney’s children’s films up through the 1950s-- including  Alice--   have a sweet, syrupy orchestral background and feature songs that sound like Broadway musicals. These were explicitly children’s films, done at a time when youth music did not yet exist.

The Yellow Submarine was produced 15 years before desk-top computers, but a huge crew of  200 animation artists pioneered what would later become computer-animation effects. Sleeping Beauty (1959), the most lavishly and colorfully drawn of its predecessors, took 6 years to produce with a then unprecedented staff of artists; Yellow Submarine  took 11 months. The sea the submarine travels through is made up of background stills, assembled out of collages of multi-colored strips, with fish-collages moving across the foreground.

The limited animation of the characters is made into a virtue. When the Beatles arrive in Nowhere Land and meet Jeremy Boob, they walk forward leaving a shadow-collage of flowers and fanciful psychedelic shapes behind them; and at the windup of the sequence, the film is played backwards so that the Beatles absorb their own shadow-trail.

Psychedelic art (initially in posters for San Francisco rock concerts) was a revival of Paris advertising posters like Mucha at the turn of the 20th century. Another ingredient in the Yellow Submarine is surrealist art of the 1920s and 30s. When Captain Fred first arrives at the Beatles’ mansion, he finds himself inside a vast hall of doors-- a reprise of Alice at the bottom of the rabbit hole. When a character enters a door, we see what happens in the vacant hall left behind:* strange objects scoot from one room to another, a circus strongman with barbells, an arm, an umbrella, a giant snail, Toulouse-Lautrec spinning a top with an elephant. 

* This mini-sequence plays with a long-standing philosophical question: what does the world look like when no one is looking at it? John Lennon’s “It’s all in the mind” comment is George Berkeley’s idealist philosophy.  Another philosophical sight-joke is Ringo’s car, which keeps changing the colors of its body and wheels when George asks him to identify it; the contemporary philosopher Strawson raised similar questions about the identity of objects: if a car has most or all of its parts replaced, is it still the same car?

These are essentially surrealist images, especially Max Ernst’s collages made in the 1930s from 19th century magazine advertisements. We will see them again in the Sea of Monsters and in Pepperland, where the emblematic clasped hands of LOVE are right out of Max Ernst, and the guided missile-like glove is a sinister version of an old-fashioned advertising hand-pointer.**

** Surrealists assembled art from existing images or found objects, taking the collage technique of the cubists a step further. Surrealists rediscovered L. Frank Baum’s technique of creating an alternative universe by bringing everyday objects to life, except surrealists were aiming at a hyper-sophisticated audience of Paris intellectuals.

Surrealist art provides the model for the animated creatures of the under-sea voyage, such as brightly colored fish swimming with human arms.

In the Sea of Monsters, the submarine gets into a stomping contest with a pair of Kinky Boot Beasts-- another Max Ernst conception:

Like Alice, the plunge into the alternative universe comes with repeated transformations of self. Clocks start going backwards and the Beatles shrink as they grow younger.

“What a curious feeling!” said Alice. “I must be shutting up like a telescope.” ... she waited a few minutes to see if she was going to shrink any further: she felt a little nervous about this; “for it might end, you know,” said Alice to herself, “in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?” And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.”

Captain Fred comments, "If we keep going backwards at this rate, we’ll disappear up our own existence." Managing to reverse the arms of the clock so that time speeds up, the Beatles find themselves with cascading beards visibly aging  into “senile delinquents”. As usual, the Beatles apply their music-magic, singing about aging, a virtually unprecedented topic for anyone but themselves:

When I’m Sixty Four (1967), treats a topic that earlier love songs had rarely approached more closely than Gershwin's (1938) Our Love is Here to Stay  “Not for a year, But forever and a day...”

When I get older, losing my hair,

Many years from now,

Will you still be sending me a valentine,

Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

If I’d been out till quarter to three,

Would you lock the door?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,

When I’m sixty-four?

This is used in the film as the Beatles pass through the Sea of Time, ending up with a sequence of images played at exactly one per second, introduced by the title board: “SIXTY-FOUR YEARS is 33,661,440 minutes, and ONE MINUTE is a long time”-- and the numbers count themselves on the screen in bright cartoony caricatures of 1, 2, 3 through 64 which shows two old people kissing. This is the phenomenology of experienced time vis-à-vis clock time in as visceral a demonstration as Bergson could wish.  The hip audience could connect it with Timothy Leary and Baba Ram Dass on tripping out into the here-and-now.

Now we are in spacey-land, the humorous semi-meaningful nonsense of Alice and Oz mutated into visual-philosophical trips.  The next scene is nothing but images of the Beatles’ heads against a black space, while we hear “Only a Northern Song” (newly written for the film by George Harrison):

If you’re listening to this song

You may think the chords are going wrong.

But they’re not,

He just wrote it like that.

When you’re listening late at night,

You may think the band are not quite right.

But they are,

They just play it like that.

It doesn’t really matter what chords I play,

What words I say,

Or time of day it is,

‘Cause it’s only a Northern Song.

If you think the harmony

Is a little dark and out of key.

You’re correct,

There’s nobody there.

Northern Songs was the company that copyrighted Beatles songs.  This was in-group knowledge, but that is hardly the point. The music is electronically distorted, not just the chord changes but wavering organ strains and deliberately inserted static; meanwhile the screen shows images of the sound waves from an oscilloscope, bright flashes spanning the black space between the ears of the four Beatles’ heads; then the oscilloscope waves rotate sideways, in an early version of computer-assisted design, to create forms never seen on the screen before. (A similar technique-- slit-screen photography-- was seen the same year in the spacey climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey,  a film that hip audiences liked to watch while on LSD.) George’s lyrics may sound weird but they tell us straightforwardly what the Beatles are doing at this phase in their musical career: trying new musical variants and verbal combinations to see what they sound like. This is Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poetry, transferred into a new medium with vivid sensory dimensions, a literal cross-over of sight and sound.

The Sea of Monsters includes sight gags and melodrama, but is most notable for a further philosophical twist. Among the various monsters the most deadly is the Vacuum Monster (a combination of man, cat, and vacuum cleaner), who sucks up other creatures through his long tube-snout. After a chase, the Yellow Submarine itself is sucked in. End of film? No-- the Vacuum Monster, having sucked in all the other monsters, breaks frame by grabbing a corner of the picture and sucking the entire visual screen into itself. Alone in empty space, he sees his own tail wagging, turns and sucks it in-- thereby placing his whole body inside himself. Whereupon, pop!-- the Yellow Submarine is released back into reality. Mathematical logician Lewis Carroll would have appreciated the visual play on the theory of sets containing sets (here, the equivalent of putting a computer file into itself).

More spaciness. The Beatles reach the Head Lands, consisting of human heads with the brain cavity exposed, showing their thoughts in bright-colored images. John, who thinks about sex, then sings Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, a head trip of LSD-like images melting into each other. Then the Sea of Holes, a surrealist design in black-and-white, with computer-design-like effects of shifting and self-mirroring planes of perspective, the whole thing vibrating along with the crescendoing sound, until, pop! again-- they have precipitated out of this metaphysical warp and find themselves on their feet in Pepperland.

The battle with the Blue Meanies brings the level down a notch. Since nothing can resist the Beatles, they can’t lose the battle. A little suspense is provided by sneaking into the bandshell to find musical instruments. In a scene reminiscent of the 1939 Wizard of Oz, the Beatles join a marching file of enemy soldiers (in this case, Apple Bonkers) by disguising themselves as one of them. The battle is mostly notable for its political resonance. The anti-war movement against the Vietnam War was at its height; the Blue Meanies have Nazi overtones, but their weapons are clown-shaped nuclear bombs. The homing-missile glove is virtually an American flag, red-white-and-blue modified into a sleeve of red-and-yellow stripes.

An anti-war movement winning a violent battle is self-contradictory (although that is a real-life conundrum in the demonstrations and riots of 1967-68), but the film has the perfect answer. “All You Need is Love” is the slogan, sung during this part of the film, plus the power of music: Blue Meanies’ machine guns start shooting flowers, and the chief Blue Meanie ends up with a rose on his nose. Flower power, all right, unmistakably a version of demonstrations at the Pentagon and elsewhere in 1967 when hippie girls put flowers in the barrels of soldiers’ guns. But too much seriousness is poison for a cross-over fantasy, and it is kept low key as the film ends in a psychedelic poster-tableau of former enemies entwined in reconciliation.


Recombining Classics,  Japanese-style

Hayao Miyazaki rode the Japanese wave of world-popular manga comic books and anime film in the 1980s. His apprenticeship, starting in the 1960s, was in cheap-labor Japanese animation for American children’s TV cartoons, moving on to publish manga such as a comic book Puss in Boots. (His early path is like L. Frank Baum re-doing Mother Goose and Santa Claus in a new medium.) After 20 years of absorbing Western popular culture and the rapidly improving Japanese film techniques, Miyazaki began turning his manga into full-length feature anime. After another 20 years of weaving between sentimental children’s films, retro-European historical adventures and science-fiction settings, always visually dazzling, Miyazaki at age 60 produced a fairly explicit sequel to Alice in Wonderland in Japanese guise.

The alternative world in Miyazaki’s Spirited  Away is a pre-modern bathhouse, where the gods of ancient Japan come to relax. It is luxurious on a scale reminiscent of the Yoshiwara pleasure district of Edo, with a certain amount of historical anachronisms such as a boiler room, train tracks, and telephone. Most of all it is a trip to the past-- for the audience; for its protagonist, a ten-year-old girl of the 1990s, it is sudden immersion in old-fashioned manners. She starts out as a spoiled, bored, mopey, impolite child in sloppy-casual Western clothes, indulged by her parents; to survive, she must perform old-fashioned etiquette and obedience to superiors.

Driving the plot tension, Chihiro’s parents have been transformed into pigs (Circe-like) while over-eating in an abandoned theme park inhabited by ghosts. She can only rescue them by getting a job at the bathhouse, where all the creatures are hostile to humans. At first everything is frightening. The guests look like monsters, strange cloak-shaped blobs with ancient Japanese masks for faces; some look like animals-- giant chicks, an enormous walking walrus that shares an elevator with Chihiro; the kitchen staff and male attendants are frogs and fishes standing upright (a combination of Alice  and surrealist images). The waitresses are women in geisha robes, presumably ghosts, since they object to Chihiro’s human smell. Chihiro’s place is assigned among the cleaning-maids, a rough-talking bunch. She is given the hardest tasks, like scrubbing floors with a wet rag, and finds she can’t keep up with other maids scurrying in tandem across the floor.

In the magic-helper tradition, she acquires friends. At the outset, a handsome teenage boy, Haku, tells her what she must do to rescue her parents, and gives her a pill that stops her from becoming transparent like a ghost. She seeks a job from the boiler-room engineer, an old man with spider-like multiple arms that stretch like rubber to reach anything in the room; he is gruff at first but eventually takes her side after she has shown she can work. She is assigned to one of the cleaning-maids, who treats her with slangy working-class brusqueness, but shows her the ropes on the most onerous tasks, cleaning out a huge, filthy bathtub full of slime. The ordeals on her picaresque path are less the conversational conundrums of Alice or the life-threatening witches and monsters of Oz and Yellow Submarine, but the grubbiest aspects of ordinary working life.

The villain of the story is Yubaba, the old crone who owns the bathhouse, a witch who transforms herself into a crow to fly off during the day when the bathhouse is asleep (vampire theme). Yubaba makes Chihiro sign a contract of utter servitude, under the threat of being transformed into a pig and served up in the kitchen. Yubaba’s chief magic power is the ability to take away people’s names. In one of the spaciest scenes of the film, she sweeps her hand over Chihiro’s signature-- written as a column of Japanese characters-- leaving only a single syllable, so that she is now called Sen. Later Haku explains that if you forget your real name, you are totally in the witch’s power. Haku himself does not know his real name, and is under contract to Yubaba as an assistant with some magic powers. At the conclusion of the story, Chihiro/Sen finds Haku’s real name and releases him from the spell.

Yubaba is the Wicked Witch of Oz and the fairy tales, and visiting her is frightening at first. But whenever she is about to do something horrible to Sen, she is distracted by her crying baby. This baby is a giant, who looks like a sumo wrestler, inhabits a luxurious nursery, and is even more spoiled that Chihiro was by her parents. The baby is completely self-centered and demanding, and not only wails but is capable of destroying his surroundings. (These scenes look like a outgrowth of the Alice  episode with the Duchess and crying baby who turns into a pig.) Yubaba shows another side, the ultra-indulgent grandmother. This is a psychologically more realistic way of solving a major problem of fantasy adventure-- the evil character must be powerful, but must have some weakness so that the hero can escape its dangers.

This is Miyazaki’s new twist: making the fantasy world psychologically real, and thereby producing less violent solutions than most action-adventure (or pre-modern fairy tales). The action of Spirited Away is thus much less violent than his other films like Princess Mononoke  or Porco Rosso.

Sen gets through each episode by making friends out of unpropitious starts. In the boiler room, the furnace is fed by a crew of insect-like creatures who carry coal lumps bigger than themselves; when one of them falls down, squashed by its load, she manages to haul it to the furnace herself. This makes the rest of the coal-carriers all fall down and pretend to be squashed, leaving the work to Sen. They are driven back to work by the engineer, who threatens to magically turn them back into soot; but in future episodes they become her helpers.

In her work as cleaning-maid, Sen is thrown into the middle of two successive crises that threaten the bathhouse. A huge shapeless guest, dripping brown slime, wallows its way into the bathhouse and fouls its halls. It is a stink-spirit, and all the attendants hold their noses and fruitlessly try to keep it out. Sen is given the job of bathing it in a huge tub.  Under the bathwater she manages to find a thorn stuck in the monster’s side; then the entire team of bathhouse workers, directed by Yubaba as cheer-leader, pull on a rope and finally extricate the contents of the bloated monster: a huge accumulation of trash and debris found at the bottom of a river. The stink-spirit transforms into a beautiful silver dragon, writhes dazzlingly making dragon-shapes in the air, and zooms out of the bathhouse, having left Sen a magic pill as a reward. This would be more familiar in East-Asian mythology, where dragons are supposed to be water-spirits, who manifest themselves as rivers and clouds. The ecological pollution theme is one of Miyazaki’s favorites, used in his previous films (above all Nausicaä, 1984), here combined with traditional dragon lore. Since Sen has already seen that Haku, when he flies off on mysterious errands, also takes a dragon form, there is a hint of what we are going to find out about Haku.

The second crisis revolves around a character called No-Face. This is a tall cloaked humanoid, all black except for a black-and-white mask face frozen in a sorrowful expression. When we first see No-Face, he is alone of the bridge outside the bathhouse, in a pose reminiscent of  Munch’s The Scream.

As a spirit of sadness, he is banned from admittance. Sen takes pity on him and lets him in through a sliding screen. No-Face is the ultimate geek; he holds out his hand pathetically and can make no conversation other than feeble grunts. But he has magic powers; when the frog-official refuses to let Sen have the token needed to order scented water from the boiler-room, No-Face turns invisible and steals a handful of them for her. This provides a bit a magic-induced help that gets her started on cleaning the filthy tub, and solving the stink-spirit crisis.

Once inside the bathhouse, No-Face uses his magic to make himself popular: he creates gold nuggets for the attendants, who rush eagerly to feed him delicacies. This turns into a reprise of the opening scene where Chihiro’s parents cram themselves with goodies and turn into pigs. Now No-Face develops a huge mouth-- not in his face mask but in his belly (like the Snapping Turks in Yellow Submarine); he grows bloated with food, and eats any of the attendants whose service is not abject enough. He has also acquired a voice, a bullying and demanding one-- except when he talks to Sen, reverting to his halting pathetic grunts. No-Face has now become gigantic and is making more or less the same mess in the bathhouse as the stink-spirit; Yubaba and the others urgently call for Sen to help again. He offers Sen piles of gold, but she refuses. As a last resort, she gives No-Face part of the magic pill she had gotten from the stink-spirit-- she was saving it to rescue her parents, but this seems more urgent. Can’t Buy Me Love is the theme here; No-Face shrinks back down to his original form and leaves the bathhouse in peace, even regurgitating the frog/people he has swallowed.

The plot starts to tie up. Haku has returned in his dragon-shape, injured and bleeding, from some mysterious struggle; and she rushes to rescue him. Sen, seeking for Haku in Yubaba’s penthouse apartment, is caught by the baby who threatens to break her apart if she won’t play with him; Yubaba appears, but turns out to be another witch, Yubaba’s identical sister and rival Zeniba, who transforms the baby into a tiny mouse (who henceforward accompanies Sen), while leaving a fake baby in the nursery. Sen goes on a ghostly train-ride to Zeniba’s house, where she expects to make amends for Haku’s magic thefts; No-Face pathetically follows her, and she uses up her magical tickets to get him on the train. It is plain everyday life in early 20th century Japan, with a late 20th century girl sitting beside her sad tag-along friend.  At Zeniba’s hut (a Grimm fairy-tale cottage), her apology is accepted, and she learns that the spell on Haku has already been lifted-- Sen’s love triumphs over magic (All You Need is Love). As she flies back on the Haku-dragon, she recognizes him as a river she fell into as a child, and tells him his river name. He transforms back into a boy, and they fall marvelously through a beautiful blue sky, hand in hand, to the bathhouse. No-Face even gets a home with Zeniba.

The film is about what it is like to be Japanese: all-out, high-effort but meticulous work; repetitive politeness-- bowing, chanting out welcomes, ritually apologizing for failures. (We also see the backstage, beneath the hierarchy, where workers among themselves are abrupt rather than polite.) Above all, dedication to the work-team, all efforts together for the common task.  By the end of the film, Sen is popular with everyone. The bathhouse staff cheers her as Yubaba puts her through a last ordeal to save her parents from being slaughtered as pigs. In the end, the only bad guy is Yubaba, but Sen calls her Granny. It is a film of redemption, like Yellow Submarine, except there it only applies to the Blue Meanies-- under the power of the Beatles’ music, and not too convincingly.

Spirited  Away, like Yellow  Submarine, is a nostalgia trip: to the pre-war period, with deeper roots in Japan’s mythological past. (Pepperland, before the Meanie conquest, is Edwardian England, depicted idyllically in graceful, stylishly dressed cut-outs.) By the 1990s, Japan was not only the technological marvel of the global world, but losing its social forms to American-style casualness. No wonder Sen’s self-transformation and rediscovery of Japan made it the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time.

Spirited  Away builds on all its predecessors. Sen falls down a long rickety flight of stairs to the boiler room, a more frightening version of down the rabbit hole; she walks through interludes with the cartoon-beautiful Haku in brilliant flower fields reminiscent of the 1951 Alice. On a deeper level, both No-Face (who might well be called No-Name), and the central metaphysical magic of bondage by being deprived of one’s true name, are sophisticated spin-offs of Lewis Carroll’s playing with the logical meaning of names, and the murkiness of passing through the No Name Woods.

The pair of good and bad witches and the contests between magic powers reprise Oz.  The bathhouse of monsters is a descendent of the brightly-colored Sea of Monsters, by a later generation of film animation. Cartooning has gotten better, showing more facial expressions and body gestures. Chihiro/Sen is more psychologically realistic-- visually, too-- than Alice, Dorothy, or the cartoon Beatles. Chihiro is a very ordinary little girl, not a beautiful fairy-tale princess; her transformation is far more powerful than 1950s classics Sleeping  Beauty and Cinderella . Among Miyazaki’s heroines, Chihiro stands out as the most complex and realistic. While the others are static personalities, she changes. She is even drawn as more distinctively individual, in contrast to the images of Princess-warriors and eager girls that Miyazaki recycles from one film to another.

But then, Spirited  Away is on a different level than Miyazaki’s other films. It joins a different tradition of fantasy classics-- not adventure escape but the transformation of everyday life into a spirit world.


The Secret of Failure Following Success

Lewis Carroll attempts a second sequel to Alice in Wonderland, but Sylvie and Bruno flops. L. Frank Baum would rather have The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a theatre piece than a novel; he invents other children’s fantasy-lands that don’t appeal, and only abandons his lecture-plus-film road show and returns to the Oz series when he runs out of money. Yellow Submarine  has no sequel, and the Beatles break up two years later, never to be as successful separately as they were together. It is by far the most memorable of the four Beatles films, the others being can’t-get-enough-of-them fan films (although their first film, Hard Day’s Night, is not only full of early Beatles’ performances but a satire on the recording industry run by adults exploiting youth culture without understanding it).

Miyazaki does not quite fit the failed sequel pattern, since he never tried a sequel to Spirited  Away. It was the 9th of his 13 films (plus another 5 rather average children’s films that he produced or co-wrote). The only other one that attempts something serious is his final film, The Wind Rises  (2013), which tells the story of a Japanese pioneer of aviation engineering before World War II. This is Miyazaki’s own family biography, aggrandized into fantasy, since his father ran an aircraft manufacturing plant.  (Hayao was born in 1942, and had early memories of American fire-bombing.) As usual, the visuals are beautiful, but it lacks the psychological depth of Spirited  Away. Miyazaki was in the children’s cartoon business his entire life, and only two of his films are genuine cross-over fantasy for adults; of these, his semi-biographical finale is something he did to clear the memory decks. So here our question shifts into: why, during a long creative career, is the classic-making peak so hard to hit and to sustain?

Having done it once shows that you have the techniques. Why then can’t you just repeat them, with structural modifications and new materials?

Too much inventiveness, too many materials.  All these creative artists were supremely versatile, good at observations from life, well-versed in the classics of their field, clever at sifting and inventing techniques. They had, on the whole, much more material than they could use. Paradoxically, this became a weakness and an impediment to further finished products at the highest level. Their inventiveness generated huge stock-piles, hoards of material they felt they had to empty out.

Carroll poured the contents of an office-full of materials into Sylvie and Bruno, creating a jumble. Good ideas got in each other’s way; bad ideas-- or at least ones that were inappropriate for the mix-- spoiled the effect.

A writer can lose one’s judgment on too great a pile of materials. Baum immediately turned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz  into a play where Dorothy is cast as an adult, eliminating the magic, and turning the rest into political parodies.  Some of the changes no doubt came from his producers, but Baum had been a newspaper editor and writer of political satires, so it is safe to say he was shifting to another of his long-standing interests. It was the book market and the insistence of his publisher in continuing the Oz series that produced the long string of successful sequels, not Baum’s own judgment.

Boredom with the success formula.  Baum repeatedly turned away from writing Oz books to do something else.  Of course one can get bored with doing the same thing, even if it was successful. Boredom was part of the breakup of the Beatles. In cases like Baum’s, boredom is a byproduct of having too many interests, being too clever and inventive, so that new topics in the forefront of one’s mind obscure the successful formulas in one’s corpus.

Losing the tone.  Carroll’s Sylvia and Bruno fails, among other reasons, because too much of it is preachy and moralizing. His political satires are sometimes clever but the tone is too seriously meant. It is true that an early fantasy classic like  Gulliver’s Travels is full of political satire; but it was not a children’s cross-over fantasy at the time it was first read, and as it became a classic over the generations the political allusions dropped out of recognition. Baum’s original Wonderful Wizard of Oz had contemporary political overtones; and that was the way it was played in the stage version. It may well be true that the Tin Woodman represents industrial labor, and the Scarecrow, agriculture; while the Cowardly Lion and the Wizard caricature William Jennings Bryan and other politicians of the day. But knowing this does not make the Oz story more enjoyable, but rather less so. The successful sequels dropped these contemporary characters, and where they played with political themes (the feminist army in the second book), they did it with a light touch.

The Yellow Submarine, too, can be regarded as a political movie, an anti-war statement at the height of the Vietnam War. But the Blue Meanies are easily vanquished, and what makes the film memorable is above all the central portion while the submarine is navigating various metaphysical seas. It is here that it is cross-over fantasy at its best.

Creativity is not enough.  Perhaps surprisingly, creative inventiveness is the relatively easy part, once you get the hang of it. Creativity means making something new. Can there be a technique for this? Certainly; we’ve seen how it’s done. Humorous inventions (and non-humorous ones as well) are made by reversals of words or ideas. New situations, characters and plot ideas are made by recombining existing ones, with a few reversals, giving a new mix. The results are ironies, satires, and jokes. In the adult/child cross-over fantasy genre, some of the best effects come from clever combination of philosophical and naive levels. Lewis Carroll constructed Through the Looking Glass with just these techniques.

But generating a lot of such material is not enough for a successful book or film.

Pace and rhythm has to control creative materials.  Having a creative idea-- a reversal or recombination-- is enough to make a writer feel inspired. But it needs to be worked out, in the proper length and detail; if not, it lies among one’s papers as notes to be developed. This is the source of the backlog problem that weighs on a creative person and can lead to the obstacles listed above. Assuming one gets the time and the material resources to work out some of these creative elements, there is still the issue of how they combine into an overall package.

A successful work needs a pace and a rhythm, and this is something over and above the clever pieces that go into it. Ironically, too much creativity can get in the way of a successful product. The total product is not something static but the flow of experience in audience-time: the difference between a new classic and a book you stop reading or a film you can’t quite get into. Pace and rhythm is something a great writer learns too, but it appears to be the aspect that most easily gets overwhelmed.

For explaining creativity, a key comparison is the successes and failures of the same author, at different points in their career. Obviously, since it is the same person, clichés like genius or talent are no use. Finding one’s voice is certainly something that happens; in micro-detail, it means that the author/artist has found the techniques and the niche in which to construct something that attracts lasting admiration. What about losing one’s voice, after you have found it? That part of the creative process is what this essay is about.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

 Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy  
 Micro-sociological secrets of charismatic leaders from Jesus to Steve Jobs
E-book now available at Maren.ink and Amazon




Klaus Peter Dencker. 2006.  Deutsche Unsinnpoesie.

Max Ernst. 1934/1976.  Une semaine de bonté. A surrealistic novel in collage.

Maurice Nadeau. A History of Surrealism.

Mel Gooding and Alastair Brotchie. 1993. Surrealist Games.

Wikipedia articles

THE ASSASSINATION OF THE TERRACOTTA EMPEROR (a fiction after the style of Jorge Luis Borges)

            Most famous of all the Emperors of China was Ying Zheng, King of the state of Qin, who united the Warring States and took the title Qin Shihuang-di, the First Emperor.  The thousands of life-sized terracotta warriors buried with him are described by tour guides as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Their sight proclaims China on tourist posters all over the world, and heads of state visit to have themselves photographed with China’s new rulers alongside the terracotta army. Qin Shihuang-di ended the anarchy of the feudal lords, bringing order out of chaos by imposing uniform laws, standardizing the writing scripts, unifying the currency, even regulating the length of cart axels so that the ruts of roads everywhere might be equally passable. He established the rule of centralized bureaucracy which became the stamp of Chinese civilization, and began the cycle of dynasties that fall only to rise again.  He built the Great Wall to keep out the Northern Barbarians, sending 700,000 workers whose bones were buried under the Wall to make it strong. His tomb took 38 years to build, the length of his entire reign, consuming another 700,000 workers. They surrounded it with underground caverns filled with terracotta warriors and battle chariots lifelike in every detail, and also with real horses and household servants who were buried with him, along with incalculable treasures in jade and gold. To deter grave-robbers, crossbows were cunningly set to kill any intruder in the underground passageways, and the craftsmen who knew the secrets of the tomb were buried inside it.  Qin Shihuang-di was a tyrant, but a great one.

            Even his enemy Jia Yi, writing in the Han Dynasty which overthrew the Qin after the death of Qin-Shihuang-di, extolled him.  According to the ancient text: “After this the First Emperor arose to carry on the glorious achievements of six generations. Cracking his long whip, he drove the universe before him, swallowing up the eastern and western Zhou and overthrowing the feudal lords. He ascended to the highest position and ruled the six directions, scourging the world with his rod, and his might shook the four seas. In the south he seized the land of Yüeh and made of it the Cassia Forest and Elephant commandaries, and the hundred lords of Yüeh bowed their heads, hung halters from their necks, and pleaded for their lives with the lowest officials of Qin. Then he caused General Meng Tian to build the Great Wall and defend the borders, driving back the Huns over seven hundred li so that the barbarians no longer dared to come south to pasture their horses and their men dared not take up their bows to avenge their hatred.

            “Thereupon he discarded the ways of the former kings and burned the writings of the hundred schools in order to make the people ignorant. He destroyed the fortifications of the states, assassinated their powerful leaders, collected all the arms of the empire, and had them brought to his capital where the spears and arrowheads were melted down to make twelve human statues, in order to weaken the people of the empire. He garrisoned the strategic points with skilled generals and expert bowmen and stationed trusted ministers and well-trained soldiers to guard the land with arms and question all who passed back and forth. When he had thus pacified the empire, the First Emperor believed in his heart that with the strength of his capital within the Pass and his walls of metal extending a thousand miles, he had established a rule that would be enjoyed by his descendants for ten thousand generations.”

            Nevertheless, the old chronicles tell us, the great Emperor came close to being assassinated before all this could be done.  None of this might have come about: China unified, cart axels, pottery soldiers and all. The Grand Historian, Sima Qian tells the story, which he verified from those who had talked to eyewitnesses at the scene. Qin had not yet destroyed the six remaining great feudal states, but pressure was growing. His generals inflicted defeated on the state of Zhao to the east, and buried alive the 400,000 soldiers who surrendered. The state of Yan, in the north, was the weakest of the states; its prince, Dan, knew that if the other states fell, Yan could not survive. At this time Fan Yuqi, a Qin general, knowing that his master Ying Zheng, King of Qin, was unforgiving of failure but jealous of success, fled to the protection of Yan. Knowing that receiving Fan Yuqi would provoke Qin even more, nevertheless Prince Dan took him in.

            His worries redoubled, Prince Dan sent for a famous assassin, Jing Ke, and asked him to eliminate the tyrant. But the King of Qin sat always in fear for his life; how would Jing Ke come armed into his presence? Only one way: the Prince must send a secret envoy, offering alliance; to assure good faith, he must carry the head of the traitor Fan Yuqi. He would also offer a map of the Yan fortresses, wrapped up in which would be the dagger Jing Ke would use to kill Ying Zheng.

            Jing Ke agreed to the plan and called on Fan Yuqi.  The ex-general received the assassin courteously. He had been thinking, he said, of how he could contribute to revenge on the King of Qin. Now he understood; and with that, he cut his own throat, offering his head to Jing Ke.

            Jing Ke now journeyed to Qin, offering bribes and gifts to the appropriate officials to arrange an audience with King Ying Zheng. Ushered into the royal chamber, he took the head of Fan Yuqi from the box in which it was packed with salt, and brandished it before King Ying Zheng. The king beckoned Jing Ke forward to unroll the map of the Yan fortifications. Seizing the dagger that appeared at the end of the roll, Jing Ke sprang forward. Now the king, terrified of assassination, allowed no one armed to enter his inner hall; so the courtiers and attendants were unable to defend against Jing Ke.

            The king alone had a sword, but it was a ceremonial sword, longer than anyone else’s because he was the king; its scabbard was so long that he could not draw the blade as Jing Ke rushed at him. They darted around the pillars of the court chamber, Jing Ke giving chase with the dagger, King Ying Zheng fleeing and trying to draw his sword, while his courtiers watched in horror. Or perhaps indifference. No one gave orders to call armed soldiers from the outer halls, and since they had not been called, no one risked punishment by entering the upper hall.  Only the court physician, Xia Wuqie, battered at Jing Ke’s dagger with his medicine kit. At last the king unsheathed his sword and managed to cut down Jing Ke’s legs. Falling, Jing Ke hurled the dagger at the king, but missed him and struck a pillar. Thus King Ying Zheng of Qin escaped assassination. The assassin Jing Ke was hacked to pieces and his head displayed on the city walls. The king of Yan, hoping to appease the wrath of Qin, ordered the head of Prince Dan cut off and sent to Qin, but a massive Qin army destroyed Yan, and soon after unified the Middle Kingdom.

            Such is the story as reported by Sima Qian, Grand Historian of the Han dynasty, who lived 100 years ater Ying Zheng, the First Emperor. In truth, the story went differently. As the courtiers stood paralyzed, or indifferent, while Jing Ke brandished his dagger, only the court physician Xia Wuqie  attempted to protect the king. But as he moved forward to place his medical kit between the king and the assassin’s dagger, he was held back by a pull of the long sleeve of his gown by the Prime Minister, Li Si . The tyrant king Ying Zheng was unable to draw his sword from its scabbard, and as he dodged behind the pillars, Jing Ke’s dagger found its target. The tyrant was dead. Only then did the Prime Minister Li Si call the guards from the lower chamber, who rushed in and killed Jing Ke. At a sign from Li Si, they killed too all the courtiers who were close enough to see what had happened -- whether as punishment for not protecting their sovereign, or to eliminate witnesses of the deed, no one would ever know.

            Now Prime Minister Li Si and court physician Xia Wuqie held conference over the king’s corpse, out of sight behind a pillar.

            “The situation is thus,” observed Li Si. “King Ying Zheng was suspicious of everyone. That is why our most successful general, Fan Yuqi, fled to Yan. Ying Zheng has been king since he was twelve years old. As he has grown up, it has begun to dawn on him that we ministers, who flatter him as the great and tyrannical king, have always controlled the state of Qin. Soon he would have turned his suspicions on us. It is better we are rid of him.”

            “In that case,” remarked the physician Xia Wuqie, “are we not now superfluous? Or do you intend to make yourself king?”

            “Not at all,” said Prime Minister Li Si. “Who I am is known to everyone. It is preferable to remain Prime Minister, and replace the king.”

            “To replace a king is not easy,” replied Xia Wuqie.

            “On the contrary,” said Li Si, “this very king, Ying Zheng, was just such a replacement. You may recall my predecessor, the Prime Minister Lü Buwei. He was once a common man, merely a wealthy merchant. But he befriended one of the grandsons of a previous king of Qin; standing nearly lowest out of more than 20 sons of the royal concubines, Prince Zichu had little chance of receiving the succession on his own. By distributing bribes and gifts at court, Lü Buwei had the king’s favorite concubine, who was childless, adopt this prince as her own son, and by her wiles prevail upon the old king to put aside his first son and name Prince Zichu as his heir. Then Lü Buwei, promoted to Prime Minister, gave one of his own beautiful concubines to Prince Zichu; in fact she was already pregnant by Lü Buwei, but Prince Zichu believed he himself quickly impregnated her with a son. It was this son, Ying Zheng, who succeeded his father as king of Qin.

            “Being only twelve years old when he ascended the throne, Ying Zheng was naturally under the advice of Prime Minister Lü Buwei. As we know, for six generations the state of Qin has followed a policy of expansion. Ministers have come from every state, offering their clever plans, and the shrewdest have been given office here in Qin. Our generals have built the most massive armies, scouring territories of the outlying marchlands west of the Pass and south into Sichuan to build up our population. Our ministers have established laws regulating the people, concentrating power in the tentacles of the court, while the other feudal states have allowed a free hand to their unruly barons. Our policy has worked well, as long as no ruler was allowed to interfere with it. Therefore, in order to occupy the attention of young King Ying Zheng, Prime Minister Lü Buwei encouraged him to take an interest in magic, and flattered him to believe himself a cruel tyrant. As soon as Ying Zheng took the throne, the Prime Minister set before him plans to build his tomb, greater than any predecessor. Three hundred years before, King Jingsong of Qin buried hundreds of horses and attendants in his tomb; King Ying Zheng of Qin would have thousands more. Lü Buwei sent to him alchemists and sorcerers, filling his ears with tales of magic potions bringing immortality. Thus the King of Qin thought more of his tomb than of anything else; he would have an army underground to accompany him in the afterlife -- and protect him too, since already in his young life his cruelty surrounded him with enemies, and the world of immortality in the grave is in this respect no different than our mortal life.

            “Thus young King Ying Zheng enjoyed his cruelties and took pleasure in building his huge underground toy. But Lü Buwei let himself become too grand. He began secretly to take back his beautiful concubine, aged though she was.  Finding her insatiable, he arranged other lovers for her, choosing a man with a giant penis who they secretly passed into the women’s quarters as a eunuch. On reaching the age of twenty-two, King Ying Zheng grew suspicious; he had his mother imprisoned, and her suspected lovers killed, along with their relatives through the third degree of kinship. Lü Buwei, realizing he had overreached himself, offered to retire. But even on his vast country estate, King Ying Zheng suspected Lü Buwei of being too grand; taking a hint, Lü Buwei killed himself. It is thus that I, Li Si, became Prime Minister.

            “I have guarded King Ying Zheng since he was twenty-two. I have changed nothing suddenly, only extended previous precedents. King Ying Zheng I have kept occupied with filling his vast tomb with precious objects and building his army of terracotta warriors, while I have continued plans of previous Prime Ministers to build the state of Qin and unify the Middle Kingdom.  Our armies grow steadily stronger than any of the feudal states. They are stronger, too, even off the battlefield, since they are drawn from a population where everyone is harnessed to the will of the state. Elsewhere the feudal nobles do what they wish, following their honor codes of loyalty to friends and sworn vengeance to enemies. Here in Qin no one stands above the law. Only one, the king appears to stand above. But he too does not escape the law; he is merely the name in which all others are leveled.

           "The king of Qin is at the center of this circle we are constructing, because we need one point on which all eyes are focused. But the king does this for Qin only as long as I control him, I the Prime Minister, just as another Prime Minister did before, and another Prime Minister will after me. At times I have considered: if this child ever realizes what we are doing, he will ruin everything.

            “Of late, it has come close to that. Ying Zheng’s suspicions were growing. His cruelties were striking everywhere, ever closer at hand. It was time to replace him. Heaven has sent this assassin at the right time. Truly, Heaven looks down on the state of Qin, and on its destiny to unify the Middle Kingdom.”

            Court physician Xia Wuqie bowed his head to Prime Minister Li Si in the kowtow.  “You are truly wise, Prime Minister.  But what shall we do with the corpse of Ying Zheng?  And who shall we put in its place?”

            “There is a servant in my household,” said Li Si.  “Low-born, lacking confidence in himself, he will do what I suggest. His face and body match the late King Ying Zheng well.  He is superstitious too, a halfwit. He is also a coward, fearful of enemies, so we can easily make him Ying Zheng, fearful of assassins. I have detected in him signs of cruelty, and that too we can encourage, giving him petty victims to begin with. Let him start by executing his fellow servants of my household, who might recognize him, and the former servants of Ying Zheng. They can be executed for treason, for failing to fend off the assassin. After that, let him move on to bigger cruelties. We can use him to cut off any rivals who might appear at court, who have designs on our own offices.”

            So it was done. The young halfwit was dressed in the robes of the king, and taught to brag how he killed the assassin with his own sword while his cowardly courtiers watched. To get him in the right spirit, Li Si and the physician Xia Wuqie had him hack at the body of the dead king Ying Zheng, after it had been stripped of its clothes, until it was mutilated beyond recognition. This they represented as a henchman of the assassin; and its head too was displayed on the city wall.

            And so the halfwit was set on the throne. Qin’s armies resumed their task of reducing the state of Zhao in the northwest and Yan in the north, Han and Wei in the center, Chu in the south, and finally the mighty king of Chi in the east.  In 221 B.C. the halfwit was named emperor of all the Middle Kingdom.  On the advice of his ministers (Li Si standing in the front row not too far forward, showing due humility as no more than foremost among the ranks below the emperor), he took the title of Qin Shihuang-di. Being told repeatedly by everyone of his great achievements, he came to believe in them himself.

            For Li Si, there remained one chief problem. Only the court physician, Xia Wuqie, knew the secret.  The thought began to trouble Li Si’s mind: had he told anyone? The scholars too seemed to have an air of knowing something, both Li Si’s old schoolmates in the School of Rigidly Enforced Laws, as well as the advocates of the other systems, the followers of Confucius and Modi and Laozi, the theorists of the Yin-Yang and of the Five Processes, the debaters and the School of Names. The solution was simple. Li Si insinuated to the emperor that the scholars were plotting against him, using their books (which he could not read) as evil portents against his rule. The emperor obligingly ordered all books collected and burned. When the scholars protested, 460 of them were buried alive.

            The emperor became steadily more cruel, and more concerned with magic. The Prime Minister, extending old policy, suggested connecting all the walls of the older states of the north into one Great Wall to keep the Huns beyond the borders. The Emperor accepted the suggestion, but believed the magicians who told him that the wall would be strong only if thousands of living persons were buried alive beneath the wall. His tomb became a maze of caverns beneath an enormous mound. The emperor began to meld in his halfwit mind the idea of immortality in the grave and immortality above the ground, through magic potions that would enable him to mount to the sky as equal of the gods. He sent expeditions into the Eastern Sea, toward the Land of the Rising Sun, where alchemists told him the potion of immortality would be found, if only the ships were manned by 4000 beautiful boys and girls. These were taken from their wailing parents and sent off, but the ships always wrecked and never came back successfully.

            The two old conspirators, Li Si and the court physician Xia Wuqie, grew increasingly suspicious of each other.  Xia Wuqie acted first; in his straightforward way, he decided to explain to the emperor the true circumstances of how Li Si had put him on the throne. Affronted by a dim recollection that no longer fit his sense of himself as the great Qin Shihuang-di, the emperor had Xia Wuqie struck down.  But the thought lingered in his mind; perhaps Li Si was plotting against him. Others, quick to see how the wind was blowing, began to spread rumours about Li Si. The burning of the books and execution of the scholars had increased the numbers of his enemies. It ws not difficult, with a distribution of gifts and bribes, to have stories circulate that would reach the emperor behind the back of Li Si.  One day Li Si found himself on the execution ground, the emperor watching from one tower, the new Prime Minister (a hitherto unnoticed court official) from the other, while the relatives of Li Si through three degrees of kinship were lined up to be executed, and Li Si was sentenced to be cut in half.

                   *            *            *            *            *            *            *            *           

            Does the story end here? Like a cycle that is the history of China (and the pattern of the world, according to some sects of the scholars), events turn on a wheel. Sometimes faster:  after ten years of the reign that was to last ten thousand generations, the First Emperor died, poisoned by mercury which was the principal ingredient of the immortality potions he was taking. After his death, revolt broke out.  Peasants exhausted by work on the Great Wall and on the enormous tomb with its terracotta warriors, flocked to join rebel armies. The court at the emperor’s magnificent city of  Xianyang broke into factions; no one gathered in his fist all the reins of power like the Prime Ministers Li Si, Lü Buwei, or their predecessors; each turned on each, betraying them to the rebels. The city of Xianyang and its palace were destroyed. The underground caverns of terracotta warriors were broken into, their weapons stolen to arm the rebels, the statues smashed into shards, not to be reassembled until archeologists twenty-two centuries later began to reconstruct their own myth.

            The empire of the great tyrant was shattered. On its ashes, the leaders of the peasant revolt built a new empire and a new city, Changan (which later generations would call Xi’an), a few kilometers east of the city of Xianyang. The glorious Han dynasty arose, taking over the laws of the Qin -- its mutilations and punishments, its conscript armies, its people condemned as criminals and sent as slave labor to build new walls, or march in ranks like live terracotta warriors to extend the frontiers of the Middle Kingdom in every direction. Sima Qian, who preserved the stories of the the evil Qin emperor and his would-be assassin, himself lived under a newer and greater Emperor, Wudi.  Angering the emperor for some offense -- could it have been protesting against repeating the policy of the tyrannical First Emperor, when the Han emperor Wudi conscripted new millions to build walls and extend even further the Middle Kingdom?  However that may be, Sima Qian offended the emperor enough to be sentenced to castration -- not to death by being cut in two, nor to having his head displayed on the city walls, since the Han dynasty was a more progressive time, and laws were adjusted to circumstances. Thus Sima Qian survived, to give us the records of the Grand Historian, and to hide from us (although, we believe, with guarded omissions and hints), the truth of the assassination of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang-di.

            Sometimes the wheel turns slower: more than twenty centuries later, another period of Warring States returned, followed by yet another unification.  Some date it to the time of the Opium Wars with the Western Barbarians, some to the rebellion of the Taiping tian-guo, the Kingdom of Great Heavenly Peace, some to the warlords of the 1920s and the invasion of the Japanese from the Land of the Rising Sun. After this came another turn of the wheel, the unification of the Middle Kingdom. Righteous and militant, its leaders proposed a rule of rigorously enforced laws, with all people in equality beneath the state. Here again ministers struggled at court over who should be the point on which all eyes are focused, the picture on the front of the Imperial Palace in the capital city. In the struggle, one minister in emulation of Li Si launched another burning of the books. This too, like all burnings of books, flared up unstoppably and then burned itself out. During a period of twelve years (the length of the Qin dynasty itself, from 221 B.C. to the death of the First Emperor in 209 B.C.), the book burners buried in peasant villages those who wrote books and those who read them. And since books are written not only on strips of bamboo and on paper, but also on stone steles and inscribed on walls and in very shape of the statues and the tile roofs of temples and all the monuments of culture, there was a formidable task of destruction to be done, too much for the book burners to carry it all out before they themselves burned out.

            Fortunately -- or not, since in the great turnings of the wheel nothing happens by chance -- in 1974 A.D., exactly twenty-two hundred years after the assassin threw his dagger at the First Emperor, peasants digging a well in the countryside near the old imperial cities of Xianyang and Changan, came across the underground caverns and Qin Shihuang-di’s armies of terracotta warriors. The book burners were flickering, their leader aging and about to die. The new regime, eager to divert attention from the emblem of the leader whose picture looked down from every wall, seized on the new discovery of the old emblem.  An army of archeologists reconstructed and reassembled the terracotta army, and in 1979 -- the year China opened a new policy and pierced its own walls to the world -- the Eighth Wonder of the World was announced. Foreign heads of state, and tourists bringing money for development and admiration to rebuild the prestige of China’s ancient  culture, were invited to Xi’an and photographed in front of the terracotta warriors of Qin Shihuang-di. The First Emperor, great builder and great tyrant, who was himself but another terracotta warrior, now took the place of the great leader, great picture on the wall of the Imperial Palace in the capital city.  The wheel turned.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon


Akira Kurosawa’s film, Rashomon, is famous as an unsolvable puzzle: multiple clashing viewpoints, with no truth to be found. If we view the film through the eyes of the sociology of fighting, however, one of the four witness accounts is true to life. The others are largely false.

Four realities

The film tells the story of a murder and rape set in Japan during a lawless period of the 12th century. There are four witnesses.

The bandit  says he was aroused by the sight of a beautiful woman on horseback being led through the woods by a samurai. The bandit offers to show the samurai where a cache of weapons is hidden in the forest; when they arrive there, the bandit seizes the samurai from behind and ties him up, then lures the woman to the forest glade and rapes her. Afterwards, she tells the bandit that she can’t live with the shame of being seen by two men, and that one of them must die. The bandit unties the samurai and gives him his sword back. They fight heroically in classic samurai style. The bandit brags about it after he is captured: no one ever clashed swords with me for twenty strokes; we fought like tigers until I killed him with the twenty-third stroke. But the woman had run away.

The woman says that after the rape, she rushed to her husband and cut him free with her dagger. But in his eyes she saw only a cold look of loathing. The bandit was gone. She tells her husband that she can no longer live with him, and asks him to kill her. When he refuses, she loses consciousness, then awakens to find she has stabbed him. She tries to kill herself but she hadn’t the strength. So she ran away.

The dead man’s story is told by a spirit-medium, to testify before the police investigator. After the rape, the samurai remained tied up, listening to his wife’s conversation. The bandit tells her that her virtue is stained, so that her husband won’t take her back; why not marry him instead? She suddenly cries out, Kill him! I can’t marry you as long as he lives. The bandit angrily knocks her down, and asks the samurai what he should do with her, kill her or let her live? While the samurai struggles to answer, the woman escapes into the forest, and the bandit cuts his bonds and disappears. After a long silence, the samurai hears someone crying: it is himself. He finds his wife’s dagger and stabs himself.

These three witnesses comprise the story as written in 1922 by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which Kurosawa used as the basis for his 1950 film. But Kurosawa now adds a fourth witness. In the original, there is a woodcutter who finds the body. In the film, Kurosawa has the woodcutter tell his story, not to the police inspector, but to a small group of listeners at Rashomon gate, where they are waiting out a rainstorm. The woodcutter, hiding among the trees, saw the rape and its aftermath. The two men fight, but not at all in the heroic samurai style. Both are tense and fearful; they hang back, make sudden charges and retreat again. They swing wildly and can’t keep their feet, falling into the bushes in their uncontrolled rushes. Finally the samurai drops his sword and gets tangled in branches-- an easy target, finally, for the bandit to stab him through the heart.

Real fights in sociological observation

The fourth version is true to life. Fighting in films and in literature has almost always been depicted inaccurately, portraying fighters as more heroic than they really are. In the last 20 years, as real fights have been captured on video and CCTV, sociologists find a very different pattern. Fighters are tense and mostly incompetent. They swing wildly, shoot inaccurately and hit the wrong targets. Because of the tension, angry disputes often end in standoffs before they get going; most fights abort without a clear winner. This is the pattern in fist-fights as well as gun violence. One-on-one confrontations are the hardest to carry off; most such fights abort. The exception is where there is an audience who cheers on the fighters, making it more like a boxing match or a duel, where the social pressure of the group keeps them fighting. Fights between evenly matched antagonists have the highest tension; violence is successful mainly when it consists in the strong attacking the weak, catching them off guard in an ambush, or by a group ganging up on a single individual-- the most common pattern of violence seen in riots.

In Rashomon, the fighters are evenly matched-- the bandit versus the samurai. At the very beginning, the bandit attacks the samurai from behind and ties him up; attacking from behind is a favorite tactic of robbers, giving a psychological advantage, avoiding the tension that results when the contenders stare in each other’s face. Later-- in the woodcutter’s account of the sword fight-- they are evenly matched, and hesitant to fight. The woman goads them into fighting, screaming that neither is acting like a real man; but once the fighting begins she is terrified, can scarcely bear to watch the fight, and runs away. This fight fits the pattern of the most difficult kind of confrontation-- one-on-one, without a supporting audience.

And here the fighters are very incompetent. Their sword-swings and lunges are clumsy; they screw up their courage, then run away; they have trouble staying on their feet. This clumsiness is common in cell-phone videos of fighters, whose wild swings often throw themselves off balance; in street confrontations with guns (as among rival gangs), there is a lot of wild firing that misses its target. The threat of a violent confrontation generates a surge of adrenaline, the flight-or-fight hormone, tensing up the body to go either way. The mythology of fighting pretends that the adrenaline surge (called “heart” or “courage”) always presses forward in a determined attack; in reality, most fighters either retreat or at best keep themselves on the spot by an effort at self-control, their body pulling two ways at once. This is the mechanism that produces heavy breathing and trembling limbs, with the result that fighters often can’t control their fists or their weapons.

Confrontational tension in sword-fighting

This is what we see in the woodcutter’s account of the fight: they are tense, breathing heavily, gasping for breath, wearing themselves down as the fight proceeds. The bandit only wins because his opponent loses his sword and becomes tangled in the bushes. Suddenly it turns into an unfair fight, the strong attacking the weak, and this is when the bandit gets enough control over his bodily tension to kill him. After the fight, he is so debilitated that he can barely walk away.

Almost all our evidence of realistic violence in video and first-hand observation comes from modern times, in fights with fists or guns. Does it also fit sword fights? Certainly there are a lot of Hollywood movies and TV series of medieval heroes and sword-and-sorcery dramas, showing sword-fighters in the mythical heroic mode: never afraid, always attacking and counter-attacking; far from being clumsy, they make acrobatic moves, especially when the hero has to swirl around fighting his way through a crowd of opponents on all sides. This is also the style of kung-fu films and Chinese flying-dragon films, where the acrobatics are enhanced by computer-generated images. And Japanese samurai films-- including those made by Kurosawa in his long career after he made Rashomon-- also show Zen-inspired warriors, flashing their lightning sword-thrusts and making the graceful moves of a martial arts school routine. All this means is that sword-fighting films, both the Western and the East Asian versions, are designed to be an entertaining spectacle. It’s all done in the studio, and the film editing. Movie sword-fights are no more accurate than movie fist fights or gun fights. 

Here are two pieces of direct evidence. A samurai in 1864 just before the Meiji revolution in Japan describes a night-time encounter  on the streets of Edo (Tokyo):

            “The time had already turned an hour past midnight-- a cold and clear winter night with the moon shining brightly overhead. Its silent, white beams made me feel unusually chilly for no good reason. I walked along the broad, vacant street-- no one in sight, absolutely still. Yet I remembered that strolling ruffians had been appearing every night, cutting down unfortunate victims at dark corners.

            “I saw a man coming toward me. He looked gigantic in the moonlight, though now I would not swear to his stature at all. On came the giant.

            “‘I cannot run back,’ I thought, ‘for the rascal would only take advantage of my weakness and chase me more surely. I had better go ahead. And if I go ahead, I must pretend not to be afraid. I must even threaten him.’

            “I moved diagonally to the middle of the street from the left side where I had been walking. Then the other fellow moved out too. This gave me a shock, but now there was no retreating an inch. If he were to draw, I must draw too. As I had practiced the art of iai, I knew how to handle my sword.

            “ ‘How shall I kill him? Well, I shall give a thrust from below.’

            “I was perfectly determined that I was going to fight and felt ready if he showed the slightest challenge. He drew nearer...

            “Now there seemed no alternative. If the stranger were to show any offense, I must kill him. At that time there was no such thing as police or criminal court. If I were to kill an unknown man, I would simply run home, and that would be the end of it. We were about to meet.

            “Every step brought us nearer, and finally we were at a striking distance. He did not draw. Of course I did not draw either. And we passed each other. With this as a cue, I ran. I don’t remember how fast I ran. After going a little distance, I turned to look back as I flew. The other man was running, too, in his direction. I drew a breath of relief and saw the funny side of the whole incident.

            “Neither had the least idea of killing the other, but had put up a show of boldness in fear of the other. And both ran at the same moment... He must have been frightened; I certainly was.”  [The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi,  236-37]

During the Tokugawa period of the 1600s, when the civil wars had ended, the Shogun required all the great lords and their samurai to spend every other year in Edo. The samurai spent much of their time in sword-fighting academies, where the graceful movements of stylized exercises and mock duels were practiced. It kept the samurai ethos alive, but in fact it was almost all for show. There was very little real fighting, while carrying swords and displaying the elegant etiquette of the sword schools became a key part of the samurai code. Japanese sword-fighting turned into the equivalent of boxing gyms, which in England and the United States became popular for men at just the time when modern law-and-order was eliminating duels and most real fighting.

The bandit’s idealized sword-fight

The bandit’s account portrays the usual mythology of fighting. It is all very honorable; the bandit cuts the samurai free so that they can have a fair fight, just man-on-man, to decide who will get the woman. Both look like they were trained in a sword-fighting school, making all the proper feints and maneuvers. The bandit is bragging, showing off afterwards to the police and declaring that he expects to die sooner or later and he repents of nothing. His claim that they crossed swords 23 times is implausible-- not that it couldn’t have happened, but a real fighter in the midst of adrenaline rush would find most of it a blur.  (This is typical of cops describing their experiences in a gun-fight, where time is distorted and they often are unaware of how many shots they fired.) In the bandit’s version of the Rashomon fight,  both men perform their moves like a ballet or a sword-school exercise. This is the opposite of the woodcutter’s version, which shows the fighters sweating profusely. Their breathing is so heavy that it fills the sound track.

The other two versions

We can rule out the bandit’s version, and accept the truth of the woodcutter’s version, as far as the sword-fight goes. What about the other two stories-- could they be true? There is no fighting in either of these. In the woman’s version, she cuts her husband loose, but he refuses to fight for her. In the dead man’s version, he also refuses to fight, refuses to let the bandit kill his wife (even though in his view she has betrayed him), and kills himself. Both accounts are self-serving. The woman says she killed her husband while she was blacked out. This is plausible; losing conscious awareness can happen during extreme states of adrenaline rush. After she runs away, she tries to kill herself by drowning, but fails. This too is plausible, since the majority of suicide attempts fail, and women’s attempts fail more frequently than men’s.

If we leave aside the sword-fights, comparing the four stories one after another turns up something unexpected: the woman is the central character driving the overall plot. And she becomes increasingly dominant from one version to the next.

In the first version, she resists the rapist ineffectively: she lunges with her dagger, he dodges, he overpowers her. Then she turns on sexually: the camera shows her hands clutching the bandit’s back as the rape proceeds. (This is the bandit’s story, and it sounds like rape mythology, that a woman enjoys it.) Afterwards, she demands that the two men fight over her, and they comply. 

In the second version, she takes the initiative to free her husband; but when he refuses to fight for a dishonored woman, she goes into a fury, demanding that he kill her to relieve her shame. When he refuses that too, she flips out of ordinary consciousness, and stabs him.

In the third version, she switches tactics strategically (as her husband sees it). After the rape, she implores the bandit to take her with him; he agrees. Then she implores him to kill her husband; this makes the bandit angry. He offers to let the husband decide whether he should kill her or not. Her husband is now reduced to complete passivity, and the woman successfully escapes the bandit.

From scene to scene, she becomes more central; in the fourth version, she dominates most of the action.  After the rape, the bandit is won over by her, and begs her to marry him, even promising to give up crime for her. She’s not letting anyone tell her what to do; she breaks away with her dagger and frees her husband. But her husband takes the same line as the second and third versions, refusing to fight for a worthless woman: “You’ve been with two men. Why don’t you kill yourself?” In version two, she asked him to kill her, but now she switches tactics: she rushes to the bandit, calling on him to wait, crying she is only a helpless woman. “Stop  crying. It’s not going to work any more,” her husband says. This gets the bandit to take her side: “Stop bullying her.” She laughs angrily, “If you’re my husband, why don’t you kill this man?” Annoyed at his cowardice, she turns to the bandit: “I was sick of this tiresome daily farce. I thought you could save me. But now I see you’re as petty as my husband.” She laughs hysterically at both men, and they hesitatingly begin to fight.

As an actor would say, she takes over the scene. A micro-sociologist would say she achieves emotional domination, forcing the men to do even what they don’t want to do.

Dramatic sequence or alternative realities?

Does this help us decide which scenarios are more truthful than others? Unfortunately not, except in the all-important point, that the fight scene in the first version is untrue, and the last version is typical of real fights. Focusing instead on the woman, we see that she becomes increasingly dominant over the men, by her emotional tactics, from one version to the next. This implies that it is really the screen-writer and director-- i.e. Kurosawa-- who has developed the sequence in this way. He does it for dramatic considerations, in order to make the film build up towards a climax.

In effect, Kurosawa is running through a series of permutations on what can happen in a sexual triangle following a rape: who blames who, and who gets killed. Strictly speaking, there is no sequence; it could have been run in any order.* This would be maximally relativistic-- maximal Rashomon effect-- but it would not be as dramatic.

*In fact one could produce as many as 36 different versions of the film, differing only in the order of the 4 witnesses’ accounts. This relativistic device was used, 35 years later in Milorad Pavic’s novel, Dictionary of the Khazars,  published in two versions (male and female) identical except for one key passage.  More recently, the device was used to structure Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red.

The fourth version, as noted, is not in the original story Kurosawa used for his script. The original three episodes were not long enough for a full-length movie, so Kurosawa wrote a fourth episode, the woodcutter’s story. This introduces the realistic version of the sword fight, and it also gives the most complex psychology of the woman’s role.

The first three episodes were enough to establish the Rashomon effect-- multiple realities that are all equally plausible; and that is what the original writer (Ryunosuke Akutagawa) appears to have intended. But by adding a fourth episode, and making it into a banal, unheroic fight, Kurosawa shifted the emphasis: the fourth version ends up feeling more real than the others.  In the concluding scene of the film, however, one of the  listeners to the narrations at the Rashomon gate, declares that the woodcutter is lying too: he omitted to say that he was the one who took the pearl-inlaid dagger from the murder scene. Yes, this makes the woodcutter a liar, but only about that particular detail; what he saw and reported of the rape and its aftermath, including the incompetently-performed duel, is true.

Kurosawa clings to the Rashomon effect, although adding the realistic fourth version undermines his philosophical statement. His autobiography says that he intended a multiple-reality effect all the way through conceiving and making the film. It was a one-shot trial. None of his other major films use multiple realities.

Would a micro-sociological conclusion still be a great film?

Would the film be any better if it explicitly said the ignominious fourth version is the true one? Obviously not; the whole metaphysical Rashomon-effect would disappear, and it would turn into nothing but another mystery story solved at the end.

This raises a further question about the usefulness of micro-sociology in literary creativity. A thought experiment should convince us: omitting the woodcutter’s version would leave us feeling unsatisfied, even with the Rashomon-effect intact. Dramatically the film needs the fourth retelling in order to rise to the level of one of the great films.

This is the same conclusion reached in my analysis of the realistic violence in Camus' The Stranger; a micro-sociological insight is at the core of the plot, but the author can’t dwell on it, and has to stay on a philosophical level in order to keep up its serious message. The spoiler isn’t micro-sociology in general (most good fiction writers are good micro-sociological observers); it is the micro-sociology of violence in particular, the dirty secret of how ugly and disgusting people look in committing real violence.  The aesthetic fact is, real violence is just too unpalatable to get much space in a narrative that people will want to view. The writer’s dilemma is this: nothing makes a plot more dramatic than violence; but the more realistically violence is depicted, the more it has to be covered over by aesthetic distractions.

Rashomon does a lot to soften the violence. The bandit, Toshiro Mifune, is a rapist and professional murderer; but he is made into something of an anti-hero. In part, by his good looks and handsome physique-- he comes across as low-class only because he is scruffy and badly groomed; and he shocks the Japanese stereotype by lolling around in undignified postures, grimacing and slapping at mosquitoes. This was Toshiro Mifune’s first major film, and he and Kurosawa rose to stardom on the same vehicle. Yes, he is the villain of the plot, but he is irresistible to watch on screen; ebullient and spontaneous, laughing boastfully and childishly, but also overcome by fits of puzzlement. He grows more human through the sequence of retellings, alternatively in love with the woman he has raped and sympathetic with the samurai he has humiliated. By the fourth episode, we feel he is not a bad guy through and through... and our search for the bad guy widens to everybody.

The woman is beautiful and delicate in classic Japanese style, but the film makes her more than a mere victim. As the film goes on, she becomes the scene-stealer, the psychological center of attention. Against these two, the samurai is the straight man in every sense of the term, with his limited range of facial expressions, few speaking lines, his prim look: his slicked-back hair contrasting with Mifune’s wild hairiness.

Without the fourth viewpoint, Rashomon would have been a near-great try at a great film. It still would have the beautiful cinematography, perhaps the very best of the black-and-white era, with its rhythmic camera movement synchronized with the thrusting tom-tom of the music, and its psychologically revealing close-ups. It would have missed greatness, though, because the visual rhythms, the music, the shifting emotions of the actors, and the mounting philosophical doubt surrounding the whole thing are so tightly interwoven. A three-act version could have been just as beautiful, but it would have missed its climax. The three scenarios are too idealized, each artificial in its own way; the fourth, realistic scenario was needed to shift the mood and tie everything to the real world.

The four-part Rashomon is a greater film than the straight Rashomon-effect of a three-part version. The fourth alternative, anchored in the micro-sociology of violence, undermines the easy relativism of the Rashomon-effect. That dose of aesthetic tension makes it one of the greatest movies ever made.

Tragedy, the most serious form of literature, and action-adventure, one of the most popular forms, both depend on episodes of violence; but they cannot show violence as it really is. What does this mean for the rules of creative success? Future posts will take this further.


Jack Kerouac in 1960 was fleeing from being famous. On the Road, published 3 years before, has reporters knocking on his door and pursuing him for interviews wherever he goes. Everyone in the literary bookshops in San Francisco recognizes him, and his secret visit to the bars and skid row hangouts is no secret at all, and ladies come in wanting a real beatnik for her party, so there is no way to deal with it except be rude and drink more and more, and finally he gets a cheap bus ticket to Big Sur where a hip friend has a cabin he can use.

(I will pause for breath even though Kerouac rarely does, just a nonstop stream of words in the present tense.)  Jack digs the ocean and having no people around and he is going to get down to writing another novel but first he will have a drink. Then he is walking in the canyon where the wind roars and the ocean has a voice and then the bottle is empty and he goes to bed. He wakes up in the morning without any food, but first he would rather have a drink but the bottle is empty. So he hitch-hikes up the mountain to the nearest tavern, where he has several drinks including a Manhattan with a cherry in it for nutrition, and he starts feeling like writing again, but this time makes sure he brings a couple of bottles back to the cabin. After three weeks of this, he can’t stand it any more, so he goes back to San Francisco, where everything is just like it was last time. So he rides 50 miles down to the farm country to see his old buddy Cody who drove back and forth across the country with him stoned in his last book and they do some drinking and driving around. Then it’s back to San Francisco and then Cody and a bunch from Los Gatos all pile in a car and go to the cabin at Big Sur where they get in each other’s way. Jack gets into a really long binge which goes like this: every day he drinks until he feels sick. Then he gets up in the morning and starts drinking to ease the hangover. He doesn’t feel like eating so when he’s hungry he drinks to get some energy in his body. This does something to his metabolism so after a while he can’t sleep. So he is hallucinating and wandering around and quarreling with people until something happens that pulls the plug on him and he sobers up for a while--

There’s more. We haven’t touched on the Zen/ beat theme and the literary movement and their drop-out trip and why the beats are different than the hippies that came after them. The point here is only that a writer has to have something to write about and a style in which to write it, and Kerouac got both of them by seeking intoxication. He’s not the only one, which is why Kerouac is a good entry-point for a whole movement. For another pointer-reading, take Norman Mailer.

Mailer and Kerouac are about the same age, in fact Mailer was born a year later (in 1923), but he became a best-selling author in 1948 for his war novel, The Naked and the Dead, while Kerouac was still trying to get his book published about bumming his way across America. The theme of intoxication is not important in Mailer’s earliest novels, but it looms more centrally into the 1960s when Mailer is a celebrity, a self-appointed political guru, an obnoxious drunk, and one of the most extreme self-promoters of that counter-culture decade. Mailer also happened to be a writer with flashes of excellence-- clear and easy to follow, a sharp eye for how things look and an ear for the way people talk, energetic writing that moves you forward on the page. For the sociology of creativity, it is very worth explaining how one acquires these skills, and the fact that Mailer is good at some aspects of writing and fails at others makes him useful for dissecting what makes a writer tick.

Here is Mailer in one of his most successful books, The Armies of the Night, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. The topic is a big anti-war demonstration in Washington D.C. to shut down the Pentagon, or at least dramatize opposition to the Vietnam War by the tactic of non-violent resistance and getting arrested. Mailer puts himself in the center of the narrative, which is legitimate enough since he was one of the celebrity intellectuals invited by the organizers to make speeches and draw attention to their cause by their willingness to emulate Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Mailer is both participant and observer, and he uses his tell-it-like-it-is style to include backstage preparation for speeches in leftist political meetings and what it is like to be thrown into a police van. Mailer thus acquired literary acclaim for breaking down the boundaries between novel-writing and news reporting, becoming known as an exemplar of “the new journalism” along with Tom Wolfe and (on the heavily drugged-out side) Hunter Thompson.

Armies of the Night is Mailer’s breakthrough performance. He is very self-conscious about his rank in the American literary pantheon; thus he is pleased to write about himself marching next to “America’s best poet?” (Robert Lowell) as “America’s best novelist??” But not to follow traditional decorum.  He gets roaring drunk the night before the demonstration, when the big names are supposed to make inspiring speeches at a rally. Just before going on stage, Mailer urgently has to take a piss, but he can’t find the light switch in the bathroom so he pisses on the floor. This gives him the idea of confessing he’s the one who did it so the hostile press can’t accuse the demonstrators of being slobs. He loves the idea because it will bring existential reality into the artificiality of public speech-making, and when he finally gets on stage he makes it the main point of his obscenity-laden speech. This tells you something about Mailer’s judgment, and how his worst ideas come from his belief that intoxication is writer’s satori.

The other side of Mailer’s method gets his book back on track. Once the march starts moving, he delivers perceptive details of the soldiers guarding the Pentagon (mostly small-town boys, like those he knew in the Army) and the demonstrators (mostly urban and educated) who clash with them.  Mailer continues his own preoccupations. He had planned to attend an exclusive party in New York that evening, and he grows impatient that the march is taking so long. So he makes himself one of the first to cross the open grass, accosting a military guard to arrest him; then he mingles details about being held in the same paddy wagon as right-wing counter-demonstrators, with his urgent need to get booked, bailed out, back on the plane and on the way to his Manhattan soirée. Honesty, egotism, political relevance, mix with not a little drunken recklessness to power the book to its conclusion. (Which is that he has indeed succeeded in writing The Novel as History, plus a sermon on how America lost its mojo.)


Intoxication as topic or as method

Intoxication is writer’s capital in two senses:  a topic for a writer to write about;  or intoxication as a method of writing, writing while drunk or stoned.

Intoxication as topic was explored by naturalistic writers like James Joyce describing the taverns of Dublin (later he did a riff on drunkenness as stream of consciousness). Hemingway had his impotent narrator watch his companion exiles from Prohibition America drinking and coupling in 1920s Paris. The genre goes back at least to De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), and medieval student-monks wrote Latin poem/songs about drinking.

Intoxication as writing method has been extolled since antiquity, but it clashes with the general pattern that most writers are disciplined and at least partly methodical, using notebooks, outlining, drafts, revising, putting in long months or years to see projects to completion. Historically some writers were heavy drinkers (and more recently, drug-users) but many were not;  some carousing authors alternated respites of intoxication with long hours of literary concentration. If and where intoxication was actually a creative method needs ferreting out in the details of how authors spent their time while writing.


The Cult of Intoxication

What makes intoxication important for a particular ecology of writers is that both kinds of capital overlap in a cult of intoxication. The writer is inspired: by the sheer act of creativity, of words in flight through one’s head and one’s pen, by the lyrical desire to sing what is in your heart, by  echoes of  pagan incantation in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Zen monks in medieval Japan had to produce as evidence of Enlightenment a poem that conveyed their experience. Baudelaire epitomizes the modern cult of the writer, simultaneously the free spirit unchained from social convention, the aristocrat of taste and perception, and the energized professional who can meet journal deadlines with a music review, an art exhibit criticism, or a serialized novel. Those were the social conditions for the writer’s cult of the 1850s; Baudelaire’s expression of it was the artist as magician in a world of bored readers.

Balzac contributed to the emerging cult by fueling himself through all-nighters with 50 cups of café noir, as he penned endless revisions directly on printer’s proofs. (He produced 85 novels in a spurt of 20 years, before dying, not too surprisingly, at age 50.) Downstream from  Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud deliberately engaged in “a reasoned derangement of the senses” by means of absinthe, hashish, whatever was available; and succeeded in writing memorably gnomic poems: 

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,

Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes:

A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes

Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,

            Golfes d’ombres; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,

Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’umbelles;


A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,

I will tell some day your latent births:

A, black corset hairy with brilliant flies

That bulge around cruel stenches,

             Gulfs of shadow; E, artlessness of vapours and booths,

Launched by proud ices, white kings, thrills of umbrella-shapes;


I, poupres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles

Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes;

            U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,

Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides

Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux;


I, crimson, spit-up blood, laugh of beautiful lips

In anger or drunken penitence;

            U, cycles, divine vibrations of heaving seas,

Peace of meadows scattered with animals, peace of wrinkles

That alchemy prints on great studious foreheads;


            O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,

Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges:

--O l’Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux!


O, supreme bugle full of strange shrillness,

Silences traversed by Worlds and Angels

-- O the Omega, violet ray of His Eyes!

Rimbaud still writes formally conventional verse, rhythm and rhyme; the stylistic break is in the shock of word associations. Does it have a meaning? It was not written to express a preconceived idea; the method itself creates striking phrases that readers must parse for themselves. Much in the same way rock bands of the 1960s gave themselves names like Strawberry Alarm Clock.

Where can you go after this, if you are a writer at the beginning of the 20th century?  Several places. Balzac was a caffeine freak but his method was naturalistic word-pictures of all corners of French society, propelled by melodramatic plots. These genres prospered for another century in novels of society and popular adventure, the invention of the detective story, and several other niches where an abundance of writers could find work.  Not everybody took the Fleurs du mal / Bateau ivre route.  Why then does the cult of intoxication come back so strongly in the 20th century, from the 1920s through the 60s?


The Partying Scene of the 1920s

The obvious thing would be Prohibition. The underground drinking scene of speak-easies and bootleggers gave American writers something new to write about, and they could be ironic or moralizing about what the change in American manners meant. But it wasn’t just an American phenomenon. American writers flocked to Paris where they wrote about the easy drinking and easy sex among the expatriots. But the expats were also British and other nationalities, who had no Prohibition but were mixing in the same scene, which they variously interpreted as loss of values, disillusionment from WWI, but also attraction to the center of action in literature, painting, and modernism generally.

In fact there was a new social phenomenon in the Roaring Twenties. Superficially it was the wild and crazy parties of the younger generation, thumbing their nose at the stiff formality of the older generation-- which, they could add, had disgraced themselves with their stupidity in promoting a devastating and pointless war. Fitzgerald became famous for writing about the partying scene in the U.S., but  the same kind of scene provides the materials for Evelyn Waugh’s and Aldous Huxley’s early novels of youthful high society in England. Germany has it too, reflected in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf  (the name of a Berlin bar that is the entrance to an alternative reality, more drug-flavored than alcoholic). Underneath the ideological blaming was a structural change: the breakdown of the traditional marriage market controlled by adults, and its replacement by a courtship scene where young people picked their own partners in affairs that began in fun parties. Love used to be sentimental but led to socially sound matches; now love is fun and excitement, leading to marrying the really fun guy or gal. If you were rich enough on your parents’ money, or had a good job in the booming Twenties, you could keep up the partying scene after you were married, full of fun couples like Scott and Zelda and the hilarious stunts they were always cooking up. (Evelyn Waugh gives a more sardonic picture of this than Fitzgerald, who is always sentimentalizing his alter-ego heroes, then bringing them down with a romantic/tragic crash like his bootlegger hero Gatsby who can’t get the rich girl after all, even though he does give better parties.) The sexual revolution isn’t yet full scale, compared to what happens later in the century, but the partying scene of the 20s is not only flirtation for the young but adulterous affairs later on and the growing acceptance of divorce (reaching even the King of England in 1936); in short, on the way to modern serial monogamy.

All this was great material for novelists, who at their best are sociologists of the moving social frontier. It also fed the modern cult of intoxication. Fun parties and zany antics were best engineered with a heavy dose of alcohol, but mixed with the excitements of flirtation, and a mild amount of sex (the real sexual outburst, as Kinsey, Laumann and others have shown, came decades later). Above all, making the scene, being present at the really cool party is more important than anything else. (Not for nothing does Norman Mailer waver between stopping the Vietnam War and attending a high-status party in New York.)

As further proof that Prohibition (repealed in 1933) was not the cause, the partying cult continued into the WWII years and after. Drinking was a big part of seeing it through, especially in London during the blitz, along with singing and rolling home in the arms of your buddies. This was mass-participation drinking, with nothing specific to intellectuals. Why does there emerge a full-scale intellectual cult of intoxication in the postwar era? This time the U.S. is the center, already in the late 1940s, when Jack Kerouac is trying to hitch-hike his way out of New York City (although the term Beats does not catch on until the late 50s). The timing is a puzzle, since this is the period of postwar economic boom, and America has vaulted to Top Nation in world geopolitics. But the intellectuals are bailing out, not just ideologically (they aren’t as far Left as they were in the 30s), but in lifestyle; just when everyone seems to be becoming middle-class, the beats are going in for lumberjack shirts and fisherman’s dungarees, trying to find their soul downward and outward as far as possible from the upscale world of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The crucial development is a new form of intoxication, a scene, a philosophy and a status that trumps everything anyone else can do.


Heroin-fueled jazz and the hipster

Syncopated popular music, AKA jazz, had existed since the ragtime of the early 1900s. In the late 1940s it morphed into an esoteric version, modern/cool/jazz/bebop. The social scene was different. Instead of  loud audiences and dancing, it was more cerebral, dim-lit clubs where you concentrated on the music, and clapping or snapping your fingers showed you were not with it. Just being able to follow the way-out sounds was a secret code, and drugs unlocked the code. Booze made you sloppy, but the musician on heroin felt they could concentrate on the intellectual patterns of the music, creating new riffs for hours on end. A woman described a jab of the heroin needle in her leg as “an incredible exhilaration, as if an electric current flashed through her body, leaving her detached yet connected to the music and everyone in the room.” (Schneider, 31).  The cult of musicians and jazz fans were a secret society, with their own clothing, gestures, their own rhythm of walking and their own talk. (“I ain’t hep, to that step, but I dig it.”-- song lyrics from the 40s) They were cool and hip; everyone else was square.

Heroin wasn’t the only drug, and it had its problems. Hipsters also used morphine, cocaine, anything you could get your hands on if you were addicted enough. Marijuana was popular in the same circles, although advanced musicians looked down on it as “for kids,” too light to get the really far-out insights (that would come a dozen years later with LSD). But heroin addicts became unreliable band members, easily forgetting to show up for a gig. Teenage gangs, which appeared in New York around the same time, had the same problem; heroin was popular (as was bebop) but the really heavy users were useless in fights and  tended to wander away from the gang looking for a fix, so that after a few years the tough gangs became antagonistic to junkies.  William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) gives a brilliantly surrealistic picture of the junkie’s life and fantasies. (Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg helped get it in shape and find it a publisher.)

Music and popular culture continued to evolve in the 50s and 60s. More up-beat music became easier to understand, dancing and partying came back in, youth gangs expanded and created a fringe of wannabees and look-alikes, youth movements both black and white became more political. Through it all one basic marker continued: the distinction between the hip/cool and the square. This was the essence of literary movements like the Beats (who tried to make their poetry readings sound like jazz), non-literary movements like the hippies, and celebrity writers like Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer.


Intoxicated by writing vs. writing while intoxicated

The cult of intoxication is one way of capturing the high point of a writer’s life. As the image of the writer as a higher being spread in the 19th century, even very straight-laced writers like Emily Dickinson could express it:

I taste a liquor never brewed,

From tankards scooped in pearl;

Not all the vats upon the Rhine

Yield such an alcohol!


Inebriate of air am I,

And debauchee of dew,

Reeling, through endless summer days,

From inns of molten blue.


Till seraphs swing their snowy hats

And saints to windows run,

To see the little tippler

Leaning against the sun!

If you get into Emily Dickinson there is no pitying her solitude; she is genuinely turned-on, tripping out on her own word-play and the shadows angling across the lawn.

Intoxicated writers, full of the lyric impulse, are not necessarily users of intoxicants. Walt Whitman, drunk on words as anyone could be, was more of a teetotaler. Ezra Pound, at his best in summoning up the spirit of tripped-out writers from the galleries of world history, conveys the downside of addiction to writing:

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,

Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop,

With the little bright boxes

                        piled up neatly upon the shelves

And the loose fragrant cavendish

                        and the shag,

And the bright Virginia

                        loose under the bright glass cases,

And a pair of scales not too greasy,

And the whores dropping in for a word or two in passing,

For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.


O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,

Lend me a little tobacco-shop,

                        or install me in any profession

Save this damn’d profession of writing,

                        where one needs one’s brains all the time.

Getting intoxicated from writing can be an antidote to heavy drinking or doping, since one is competitor to the other.

Nevertheless, there have been great writers who were intoxicated most of the time. Some of them, like Scott Fitzgerald, made drunkenness their writer’s capital throughout their career. All his novels, from The Beautiful and Damned to Tender is the Night,  follow somebody like himself and Zelda, giving it a high-tragedy seriousness by making the pursuit of intoxication into a noble flaw, the hubris of the modern age. In his personal life, Fitzgerald’s drinking in pursuit of gay-zany episodes mostly alienated his friends, and kept him from getting his work done until he was no longer in fashion. Kerouac  was pretty much a one-note writer but he kept himself going by reporting each segment of his life in a new novel. Unlike Allen Ginsberg, he made no transition to the upbeat 60s, and died in 1969 at age 47. Other writers who drank themselves to death at an early age were Dylan Thomas -- an intoxicated poet in every sense-- and Flann O’Brien, who was an inventively good-humored drunk and a tremendous mimic of the voices of Dublin saloons and newspaper writers. For some of these, their topic and their style was so close to the world of drinking that they couldn’t avoid it; they lived in the groove that killed them.


In vino veritas?

The phrase goes back to folk proverbs, meaning no more than a drunk cannot keep a secret. If taken to mean anything deeper,  why would anyone believe it? Drunks mostly are sloppy, clichéd talkers, repetitive and boring. A good analogy is the way Dr. John Dee, an Elizabethan-era occultist, summed up his life of magic calling up spirits:  I have heard their voices for forty years, he said, but never learned anything from them but gibberish.

In vino there is little veritas, although a group of like-minded drunks may convince themselves that the only worthwhile truth is their happy solidarity. Intoxication works best when it is social, producing collective effervescence in the group, and thereby the feeling of deep, uninhibited bonding. One of the literary expressions of this is in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (another cult-of-intoxication book from the 1940s, published in 1951). The book’s two protagonists, tough Sgt. Warden and soulful bugle-player Pvt. Pruitt, get falling-down drunk outside the Enlisted Men’s Club, and play out their comradeship in a parody of saluting each other. Alcohol encourages expressing deeper masculine bonds than anything else; and these are two soldiers in love with the Army, with Pearl Harbor about to happen.

Shared intoxication is good for temporary solidarity, but bad for action, planning, or self-control. Shakespeare depicts drunks as low-comedy buffoons. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus seeks the devil’s path of intoxication but he ends up selling his soul for little more than drunken hi-jinks, and the plot peters out without any great breakthrough on the wisdom front. Other drugs, like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop heroin, are more cerebral but their creativity is short-lived and self-liquidating. The only one who kept up a long career along this route was Burroughs, who would break his heroin habit from time to time by taking a cure, but then let himself get back on heroin for his next book; he knew he was on a life-long cycle. It helped that he was the heir of a big business fortune, always had an income, and could flee to foreign countries when things got bad, such as when he accidentally killed his wife while playing William Tell with a pistol in Mexico City in 1951.

And this brings us back to--

Mailer’s method of literary intoxication

Mailer’s pissing incident at the Pentagon rally is ludicrous, except from his own point of view. Mailer is no humorist, and he explains very seriously the key to his own creativity, as he sees it: 

“He was fond of speaking in public because it was close to writing... a good half of writing consists of being sufficiently sensitive to the moment to reach for the next promise which is usually hidden in some word or phrase just a shift to the side of one’s conscious intent. (Consciousness, that blunt tool, bucks in the general direction of the truth; instinct plucks the feather.) ... speaking-in-public (as Mailer liked to describe any speech that was more or less improvised, impromptu, or dangerously written) was an activity like writing; one had to trick or seize or submit to the grace of each moment, which were usually occasions of some mystery. The pleasure of speaking in public was the sensitivity it offered: with every phrase one was better or worse, close or less close to the existential promise of truth, it feels true, which hovers on good occasions like a presence between speaker and audience. Sometimes one was better, and worse, at the same moment; so strategic choices on the continuation of the attack would soon have to be decided, a moment to know the blood of the gambler in oneself.” [Armies of the Night, 28-29]

Mailer then describes what went through his mind while he decides that he will make the pissing incident the high point of his speech; later he describes how he tried to play the audience, getting a combination of laughs, hostile jeers, and embarrassed silence. Nothing fazed, Mailer both acutely reports his own stream of consciousness, and concludes that it was a great speech.

He has behaved far worse. Back in 1960, he stabbed his wife with a knife and almost killed her. Mailer had decided to run for mayor of New York, on a third-party ticket of hipsterism and existentialism. The idea seems to have come from petition campaigns that Mailer was involved in to change local cabaret licensing laws that prohibited drug-convicted musicians from performing. It was also a time when liberals and lefties were coming together to support the Civil Rights movement growing in the South. After John F. Kennedy got the Democratic nomination for president, Mailer wrote an Esquire magazine article called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” extolling Kennedy as a hipster, like Mailer himself. The article was successful in the literary world, and Mailer got a thank-you letter from Jacqueline Kennedy, whereupon he replied that when they next met he would explain his ideas about rehabilitating the Marquis de Sade. Mrs. Kennedy did not write back nor invite him again, but after the election Mailer started claiming partial credit for Kennedy’s victory. He began to drum up support among his lefty and celebrity friends for his campaign for mayor. His wife, sister, and friends mostly think the idea is bonkers, but Mailer is running around to meetings, doing literary readings, and writing letters to famous people. A big party is planned for his apartment two weeks after Kennedy won, where Mailer plans to announce his candidacy.

On the big evening, Mailer is hyper. He has a couple of hundred guests, but enthusiasm for his candidacy is mixed, and as the evening goes on Mailer becomes more and more pugnacious. He follows departing guests into the street and gets into scuffles and fist-fights. Mailer has been drinking steadily. Around 4 a.m., the party is down to a handful. Mailer comes back in with a black eye, and his wife taunts him; he stabs her in the back and chest with a knife, narrowly missing her heart.

Mailer beats the rap. His friends arrange for a psychiatrist to admit him to Bellevue mental hospital. His wife survives and withdraws charges against him; a sympathetic judge gives him a suspended sentence and probation. During his two weeks in the mental ward, Mailer uses his time to gather material from the patients that will go into his next book; particularly interesting to him is one of the criminally insane who stabbed his brother. Mailer is developing his philosophy of violence. A year later, Mailer tells an interviewer that the death camp commander Adolf Eichmann had bureaucratically murdered thousands of people, but that if he had killed them with his bare hands, “he would have worn the scar of his own moral wound” and gained “our unconscious respect.” [Lennon 2013: 303]  Such is the existential viewpoint of the hipster philosophy.

Enough. Mailer had terrible judgment in the kinds of things he would say-- and apparently believe-- in his own hipster intuition. It is sometimes said that genius is personality; thank God it isn’t. You don’t have to like someone’s personality to get the best out of their writing. How could he be so good at some things and so ridiculously bad at others? Here is an example of what Mailer is good at, from his 1955 novel about Hollywood:

            “Seated on two couches which faced each other were half a dozen women. They were all dressed expensively, and their make-up to make up for such faults as thin mouths, small eyes, and mouse-colored hair, had curved their lips, slimmed their cheeks, and given golden or chestnut tints to their coiffures. Like warriors behind their painted shields, they sat stiffly, three and three, staring at one another, talking with apathy. These were the wives of important men and men who wanted to be important, the husbands in chase of one another through the Laguna Room while the women were left behind.

            “When a man went by, they tried to take no notice. They either walked by without a look, or stopped for a brief but wild gallantry which went something like:

            “Carolyn!” the man would say, as if he could not believe he saw the woman here and was simply overcome.

            “Mickey!” one of the six women would say.

            “My favorite girl,” the man would say, holding her hand.

            “The only real man I know,” the deserted wife would say.

            Mickey would smile. He would shake his head, he would hold her hand. “If I didn’t know you were kidding, I could give you a tumble.”

            “Don’t be too sure I’m kidding,” the wife would say.

            Mickey would straighten up, he would release her hand. There would be a silence until Mickey murmured, “What a woman.” Then, in the businesslike tone which ends a conversation, he would say, “How are the kids, Carolyn?”

            “They’re fine.”

            “That’s great, that’s great.” He would start to move away, and give a smile to all the women. “We have to have a long talk, you and me,” Mickey would say.

            “You know where to find me.”

            “Great kidder, Carolyn,” Mickey would announce to nobody in particular, and disappear into the party.

            “All through the Laguna Room, wherever there was a couch, three wives were sitting in much that way. Since a lot of the men had come without women, the result was that men got together with men, standing near the pool, off the dance floor, at the café tables or in a crowd near the bar. I picked up a drink and wandered through the party looking for a girl to talk to. But all the attractive girls were surrounded, though by far  fewer men than squeezed up to listen to a film director or a studio executive. Most of the girls seemed to like the conversation of fat middle-aged men and bony middle-aged men. Actually I wasn’t that eager [to join a conversation]. Being stone sober, the fact was that it was easier to drift from one circle of men to another.”   [The Deer Park, 69-70.]

This is Mailer being a micro-sociologist, walking around stone sober making mental notes on the ways people behave. He was in Hollywood for the filming of The Naked and the Dead, and accumulated enough material for a no-holds-barred portrait of the Biz. It also gave him the idea he was as fit as anybody to be a film producer, director, writer and actor, all of which he tried back in New York with his friends. Nothing much came of it; Mailer’s roll-with-your-intuitions approach did not work in an enterprise that requires a lot of coordination and planning.

Totting up his strengths and weaknesses, on the plus side we can put his vivid, realistic observations, his capacity to make the reader feel like you are there, and his quality of always being interesting. On the negative side, his characters tend to be off-putting, especially those based on himself. The narrator of The Deer Park is an ace fighter pilot, a near-professional boxer, great poker player, big-handsome-sexy irresistible to women who resemble Marilyn Monroe, and of course a great writer-in-the-making.  This adolescent fantasy check-list does nothing to advance the plot, but Mailer uses it for the main characters in most of his works of fiction. For his new journalism, he himself is the observation post, but this is his strong point and these are his best works.

He intrudes too much of his opinions, which he thinks are brilliant existential psychology but mostly come down to asserting that what the world needs is more of his spontaneously macho risk-taking and violence. He admires Hemingway and has some of his descriptive skill but none of his restraint. He regards himself as a high-intellectual leader but his ideas are too wacky to influence anybody; and as we have seen, his practical judgment is terrible.

His strength is social ethnography, vivid portrayals of cutting-edge scenes in America. Where does he get his skills? He trained himself to be a writer, already as a high-school student in New York and an undergraduate at Harvard. He went into the army near the end of the Pacific war, hoping to get near enough to the front to write a great war novel. (He had one combat patrol, but everything he observed went into a convincing picture of the military machine, especially the previously little-discussed class conflict between officers and enlisted men.) He has an excellent memory for detail and the sounds of people’s voices. Some of this is the memory component of high intelligence. One remembers best what one deliberately sets out to observe, and Mailer trained his mind to see what messages people are giving off while claiming to be something else. This is a Freudian-inspired mode of observation, that Mailer shared with his exact contemporary, Erving Goffman, when the Freudian vogue of the 1940s and 50s shifted away from deep childhood traumas to the fronts people are acting out all around us. In action Mailer was usually a jerk, but as an observer he was focused and on target.

What makes his writing so energetic? His sentences have flow; often they are long and strung-together, but without complex grammar or subordinate clauses, the whole thing rushing forward without a hitch. Whatever he is saying, you get it; you don’t have to figure it out. Like him or not, he keeps you awake; and except when he is sounding off on his own trips, his descriptions have the feel of reality.

With Mailer and Kerouac alike, the cliché is right, trust the writer’s reports, not the writer’s ego. Ironically, these are writers who believe the cult of intoxication gives them their true voice, but it gets in the way of the idea part of writing, which requires a lot of reflection. For all his claims to be writing philosophical novels, Mailer’s philosophy is the least impressive thing about it. Writers who truly have something to say (as distinguished from something to report), like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, or Proust, have a calmer tone; and their writing practice is the opposite of a frenzied rush.

What, then, does the cult of intoxication really deliver? As a method, it has its Kubla Khan peaks of poetry, but novels are made for the long perspective, passion recollected in tranquility. There are not a lot of successfully intoxicated novels. Its successes are all on the other fork, the cult of intoxication as a topic. It has been increasingly a central part of modern history, and one whose allure we have yet to fully understand.


“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon




Jack Kerouac. 1962. Big Sur.

J. Michael Lennon. 2013. Norman Mailer: A Double Life.

Norman Mailer. 1955. The Deer Park.

Norman Mailer. 1968. The Armies of the Night. History as a Novel, the Novel as History.

Bill Morgan. 2011. The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation.

Eric C. Schneider. 2008. Smack: Heroin and the American City.


The plot of Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger, builds on realistic micro-observations of violence and the emotions leading up to it. This is inserted into a pre-conceived plan to write a philosophical novel, dramatizing Camus’s central argument.

Violence is shrouded in myths, and Camus creates a shock by describing it accurately. What he sees, however, is subordinated to the clash of philosophies in the later part of the book. Camus is not really interested in developing a sociological theory of violence; that would come 50 years later once we started getting videos and close reports on violent experiences. Most good writers are intuitively good sociologists; but it is adding something else that makes it literature.


Low life in French Algeria

Meursault, Camus’s anti-hero, is a low-paid clerk who lives on the fringes of the Algerian underworld. A neighbour in his cheap apartment house wants to make him his “pal.” Raymond is known as a pimp, talks like a lower-class tough guy, looks like a boxer, and wears snappy cool clothes. Raymond takes him drinking, and fills his ears with stories about beating up his girl friend because he thinks she’s cheating on him. This sounds like the kind of drinking talk that Americans would call bullshitting, and Meursault doesn’t take it seriously, but Raymond gets him to write a letter luring the woman to his apartment so he can talk some sense into her. Meursault is surprised that the woman is an Arab, but he lets that pass too. Next evening there is screaming in Raymond’s apartment. Everyone spills out into the hall, and the police come. The woman accuses him of being a pimp, and he says he will report her to the police as a whore. Next day Raymond phones Meursault to tell him that some Arabs are shadowing him because one of them is the girl’s brother. He wants Meursault to be on the lookout, and to come to the police station to testify that the girl was false to him. Meursault does so, and the case is dropped. Raymond then invites Meursault to a weekend party with one of his pals at the beach.

Camus’s text describes four incidents between the antagonists.


Incident #1

            Just as we were starting for the bus stop, Raymond plucked my sleeve and told me to look across the street. I saw some Arabs lounging against the tabacconist’s window. They were staring at us silently, in the special way these people have-- as if we were blocks of stone or dead trees. Raymond whispered that the second Arab from the left was “his man,” and I thought he looked rather worried. However, he assured me that all that was ancient history. Marie, who hadn’t followed his remarks, asked, “What is it?”

            I explained that those Arabs across the way had a grudge against Raymond. She insisted on our going at once. Then Raymond laughed, and squared his shoulders. The young lady was quite right, he said. There was no point in hanging about here. Halfway to the bus stop he glanced back over his shoulder and said the Arabs weren’t following. I, too, looked back. They were exactly as before, gazing in the same vague way at the spot where we had been.

 [The first confrontation comes to nothing except hostile staring and growing tension. Initially there are 3 French colonials and about 4 Arabs. They are fairly evenly matched and not ready to fight. Confrontational tension is an unconscious barrier that is breached only when one side feels a palpable advantage over the other.]

[At the beach they meet Raymond’s older friend Masson (“tall, broad-shouldered, and thick-set”), who has a bungalow on the beach, with his plump wife. After swimming and eating lunch, drinking several glasses of wine, the women clean up and the three men go for a walk in the noon-day sun.]


Incident #2

            Just then Raymond said something to Masson that I didn’t quite catch. But at the same moment I noticed two Arabs in dungarees a long way down the beach, coming in our direction. I gave Raymond a look and he nodded, saying, “That’s him.” We walked steadily on. Masson wondered how they’d managed to track us here. My impression was that they had seen us taking the bus and noticed Marie’s oilcloth bathing bag; but I didn’t say anything.

            Though the Arabs were walking quite slowly, they were much nearer already. We didn’t change our pace, but Raymond said:

            “Listen! If there’s a roughhouse, you, Masson, take on the second one. I’ll tackle the fellow who’s after me. And you, Meursault, stand by to help if another one comes up, and lay him out.”

            I said, “Right,” and Masson put his hands in his pocket.

            The sand was hot as fire, and I could have sworn it was glowing red. The distance between us and the Arabs was steadily decreasing. When we were only a few steps away the Arabs halted, Masson and I slowed down, and Raymond went straight up to his man. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I saw the native lowering his head, as if butt him in the chest. Raymond lashed out promptly and shouted for Masson to come. Masson went up to the man he had been marking and struck him twice with all his might. The fellow fell flat into the water and stayed there some seconds with bubbles coming up to the surface round his head. Meanwhile, Raymond had been slogging the other man, whose face was streaming with blood. He glanced at me over his shoulder and shouted:

            “Just you watch! I ain’t finished with him yet!”

            “Look out!” I cried. “He’s got a knife.”

            I spoke too late. The man had gashed Raymond’s arm and his mouth as well.

            Masson sprang forward. The other Arab got up from the water and placed himself behind the fellow with the knife. We didn’t dare to move. The two natives backed away slowly, keeping us at bay with the knife and never taking their eyes off us. When they were a safe distance they swung round and took to their heels. We stood stock-still, with the sunlight beaming down on us. Blood was dripping from Raymond’s wounded arm, which he was squeezing hard above the elbow.

[The details of the fight are realistic. It is 3 against 2, starting as a pair of fist-fights. The big Frenchman knocks out his Arab in two punches. Raymond takes the initiative and pummels his Arab, but when he glances back over his shoulder the Arab slashes him with a knife. At this point, the weaker Arab hides behind the knife-wielder--- an alignment often seen in photos of small-scale fights. Like most fights where we have micro-interactional detail, they reach a standoff, literally stock still, then one side backs away slowly, then runs.]

[Masson says there is a doctor at the beach on weekends, and they take Raymond to get his wounds patched up, which turn out to be are not very deep. Back at the the bungalow, the women are upset.]


Incident #3

            Presently Raymond said he was going for a stroll on the beach. I asked him where he proposed to go, and he mumbled something about “wanting to take the air.” We-- Masson and I-- then said we’d go with him, but he flew into a rage and told us to mind our own business.  However, when he went out, I followed him.

            At the end of the beach we came to a small stream that had cut a channel in the sand, after coming out from behind a biggish rock. There we found our two Arabs again, lying on the sand in their blue dungarees. They looked harmless enough, as if they didn’t bear any malice, and neither made any move as we approached. The man who had slashed Raymond stared at him without speaking. The other man was blowing down a little reed and extracting from it three notes of the scale, which he played over and over again, while he watched us from the corner of an eye.

            For a while nobody moved; it was all sunlight and silence except for the tinkle of the stream and those three little lonely sounds. Then Raymond put his hand to his revolver pocket, but the Arabs still didn’t move. I noticed the man playing on the reed had his big toes splayed out almost at right angles to his feet.

[The monotonous flute-playing is a version of fuck-you jiving, contemptuous of the other side as generally happens in confrontations among groups of tough guys.]

            Still keeping his eyes on his man, Raymond said to me: “Shall I plug him one?”

            I thought quickly. If I told him not to, considering the mood he was in, he might very well fly into a temper and use his gun. So I said the first thing that came into my head.

            “He hasn’t spoken to you yet. It would be a low-down trick to shoot him like that, in cold blood.”

            Again, for some moments one heard nothing but the tinkle of the stream and the flute notes weaving through the hot, still air.

            “Well,” Raymond said at last, “if that’s how you feel, I’d better say something insulting, and if he answers back I’ll loose off.”

            “Right,” I said. “Only, if he doesn’t get out his knife you’ve no business to fire.”

            Raymond was beginning to fidget. The Arab with the reed went on playing, and both of them watched all our movements.

            “Listen,” I said to Raymond. “You take on the fellow on the right, and give me your revolver. If the other one starts making trouble or gets out his knife, I’ll shoot.”

            The sun glinted on Raymond’s revolver as he handed it to me. But nobody made a move yet; it was just as if everything had closed in on us so that we couldn’t stir. We could only watch each other, never lowering our eyes; the whole world seemed to have come to a standstill on this little strip of sand between the sunlight and the sea, the twofold silence of the reed and the stream. And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire-- and it would come to absolutely the same thing.

            Then, all of a sudden, the Arabs vanished; they’d slipped like lizards under cover of the rock. So Raymond and I turned and walked back. He seemed happier, and began talking about the bus to catch for our return.

[It begins as a 2-on-2 standoff. They are full of confrontational tension, and locked in on their mutual threats. “... everything had closed in on us so that we couldn’t stir. We could only watch each other, never lowering our eyes; the whole world seemed to have come to a standstill.”  Interviews with police who have been in deadly shootouts also shows the tendency to tunnel-vision, seeing nothing but the enemy; time-distortions are typical. There is already time-distortion in Incident #2: “Though the Arabs were walking quite slowly, they were much nearer already.”

 Underlying these perceptual distortions are heightened adrenaline, manifested in a very rapid heart beat: “thudding in my head...”  Showing the gun changes the balance, and the weaker side retreats.]

            When we reached the bungalow Raymond promptly went up the wooden steps, but I halted on the bottom one. The light seemed thudding in my head and I couldn’t face the effort needed to go up the steps and make myself amiable to the women. But the heat was so great that it was just as bad staying where I was, under that flood of blinding light falling from the sky. To stay, or to make a move-- it came to much the same. After a moment I returned to the beach, and started walking.          

[Two paragraphs omitted describing feeling befuddled by the heat, and thinking about reaching the stream.]


Incident #4

            I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on... Anything to be rid of the glare, the sight of women in tears, the strain and effort-- and to retrieve the pool of shadow by the rock and its cool silence!

            But when I came nearer I saw that Raymond’s Arab had returned. He was by himself this time, lying on his back, his hands behind his head, his face shaded by the rock while the sun beat on the rest of his body. One could see his dungarees steaming in the heat. I was rather taken aback; my impression had been that the incident was closed, and I hadn’t given a thought to it on my way here.

            On seeing me, the Arab raised himself a little, and his hand went to his pocket. Naturally, I gripped Raymond’s revolver in the pocket of my coat. Then the Arab let himself sink back again, but without taking his hand from his pocket. I was some distance off, at least ten yards, and most of the time I saw him as a blurred dark form wobbling in the heat haze. Sometimes, however, I had glimpses of his eyes glowing between half-closed lids. The sound of the waves was even lazier, feebler, than at noon. But the light hadn’t changed; it was pounding as fiercely as even on the long stretch of sand that ended at the rock. For two hours the sun seemed to have made no progress, becalmed in a sea of molten steel. Far out on the horizon a steamer was passing; I could just make out from the corner of an eye the small black moving patch, while I kept my gaze fixed on the Arab.

            It struck me that all I had to do was turn, walk away, and think no more about it. But the whole beach, pulsing with heat, was pressing on my back. I took some steps toward the stream. The Arab didn’t move. After all, there was still some distance between us. Perhaps because of the shadow on his face, he seemed to be grinning at me.

            I waited. The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were gathering in my eyebrows. It was just the same sort of heat as at my mother’s funeral, and I had the same disagreeable sensations-- especially in my forehead, where all the veins seemed to be bursting through the skin. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and took another step forward. I knew it was a fool thing to do; I wouldn’t get out of the sun by moving on a yard or so. But I took that step, just one step, forward. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it up toward me, athwart the sunlight.

            A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of moisture. Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinct, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scattering my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.

            Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace.

[Now it’s down to 1-on-1, both sides armed, again locked into confrontational tension. Time distortions get worse -- “For two hours the sun seemed to have made no progress.” Meursault’s heart beat is pulsing in his forehead, although he attributes it to the sun-- “the whole beach pulsing with heat” -- “cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull.”  The tension intensifies as one side moves forward a step, the other draws his knife. The flashing blade fills the narrator’s consciousness-- the acute tunnel vision on the enemy’s weapon that police often experience before they fire.]

[The last paragraph turns metaphorical, away from the narrator’s usual matter-of-fact delivery. “Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift.” But it does convey the acute perceptual distortions shooters can experience at the moment of firing.]

            And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.

[I have clipped off this final sentence of the first part of the book, since it shifts to dramatic comment uncharacteristic of Meursault.]


Where did Camus get his materials?

He had spent several years as a newspaper reporter, covering the crime news and court trials in an Algerian city. Incidents #2 and #3 are partly real: a tough guy Camus knew told him about a couple renting a villa on the beach. The wife was accosted by an Arab, the husband intervened and got knifed in the mouth. Husband went back to get the tough guy, who brought his revolver and the two men went looking for the Arab. They found him, but no shot was fired-- the confrontation wound down, as most such incidents do. [Lottman p. 221] 

Camus said that three people in the book are real: himself (Meursault), his tough friend (Masson), and Mersault/Camus’s sexy girl friend. Mersault is depicted as a nobody, but he has friends, and women are attracted to him. He resembles Camus, who was very good looking, tall and slender, an actor who always played the lead roles and hooked up with a series of hot women. Camus was also athletic, liked to swim, and was a star on a local soccer team. Meursault has some of these qualities (in solitary confinement, he passes the time imagining the details of all the sex he’s had sex with  women); but his personality is very different. Camus was the engagé intellectual, a political activist; member of the Communist Party until expelled over his rejection of Communist political expediency. Mersault is completely apolitical. He is the opposite of intellectual; he is not curious about anything; untalkative, feeling that he has nothing to say. (Camus’s original title was L’Indifférent.) Mersault goes along with everything that happens around him. He advises his tough pals on the side of caution and moderation, but always concludes that it doesn’t matter, go ahead and whatever. Mersault just wants to live in the physical world, enjoying swimming, the beach, sexy women, the Mediterranean evenings. If this sounds like southern California 30 years later, that is no accident: there was an ethos of French colonial Algerians who rejected cold rainy France for life’s a beach. In the late 1930s when the story is set, Algeria like L.A. was la-la land.

In writing L’Etranger, Camus had two good reasons to make the hero unlike himself. One was that by the time the novel was finished in 1941, France had been occupied by the German blitzkrieg for a year; and to get anything published it had to be completely apolitical. The other reason was more central: Camus wanted to write a novel about a person who believes in nothing-- it is a thought experiment, a philosophical exercise. Mersault is not a Byronic anti-hero who rebels magnificently against conventions; that old Romantic stereotype was outdated, and the avant-garde had moved on to characters like Kafka’s anonymous victims or Sartre’s bummed-out alter ego in Nausea (published a few years earlier in 1938).  Mersault is not alienated or even unhappy. He is deliberately pared down to a man who believes in nothing but his senses.


The colonial situation

One aspect that seems strange from our 21st century point of view is Raymond’s Arab girl friend. She lives in a Frenchman’s apartment; she wears western clothes and makeup. But this is a time before the nationalist uprisings of the 1950s and 60s; before the neo-Islamist radicalism of the late 20th century. In fact she is a rather typical figure of colonial regimes, the native woman who plays the sex market with colonial men. The same pattern is in Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American, set in French-occupied Vietnam; the hero has a live-in Vietnamese girl friend who works at a pick-up bar, and her shifting loyalties among men drives much of the plot. Camus and Greene see the situation from the western side. But Camus’ plot is implicitly driven by the sexual tension of Arab men resentful of the colonials treatment of their women. The outburst of resentment can be seen on screen in the realistic 1967 Italian film, The Battle of Algiers. Its central figure, Ali La Pointe, is an Arab street hustler denounced to the police by respectable French women who don’t want him in their neighbourhood; in prison he becomes a terrorist bomber. Ali La Pointe is Camus’s knife-wielding Arab 20 years later.


The next step in the intellectual chain

Camus by the late 1930s had linked up with the network of avant-garde French intellectuals in Paris, notably the journal Nouvelle Revue Française and the Gallimard publishing house, who published Sartre and translated Kafka into French. They were inclined to see L’Etranger as a combination of Sartre’s Nausea and Kafka’s The Trial, which does describe the niche in intellectual space Camus was moving into. But Camus had a further agenda, and he added another stylistic element. He didn’t need Kafka’s surrealistic vision of a man summoned to trial without knowing the charge against himself. Camus knew plenty about murder trials, and he wanted to make the story completely realistic. That is why it starts out as a kind of “hard-boiled” crime novel (soon to become film noir); and Camus adopted the newly famous American style of Hemingway and his followers. This required the author to be completely self-effacing, avoiding all explanatory comments, and letting the story speak for itself.

Moreover, Camus had decided to write a trio of works that would establish his oeuvre in the lineage of great writers. Simultaneously, he worked on L’Etranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and his play Caligula.Sisyphus develops the philosophy that Camus called “absurdist”-- life is without any meaning given by religion or anything else. Any truths had to be developed anew, like Descartes doubting the existence of everything until he could deduce new principles from cogito ergo sum. But Sisyphus was to be no abstract treatise. Rejecting all previous philosophical themes, Camus begins: “There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Instead of cogito, it is death that serves as the starting point for everything else. (Yes, this also had been said in 1927 by Heidegger, Dasein is being-towards-death; but Camus was writing no heavy German tome.)  Because human life-vs.-death is philosophically the one necessary value, Camus is anti-death-penalty.

* Caligula was historically a flighty, spoiled brat Roman emperor, but Camus transforms his fooleries and murders into philosophical gestures against the Absurd. Camus had already acted and adapted scripts for avant-garde theatre.

So Camus’s novel, to drive home the theme of Sisyphus, has to center on a character who is condemned to death. But he can’t be an innocent victim, a maudlin cliché. The plot needs to contain a murder that occurs naturally. To get a sympathetic reading, the murderer can’t be a really bad guy, but he is not going to repent like the philosophically-driven killer in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (where a wise cop and a prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold are the rescuers).  So Meursault is made into an ordinary guy who accidentally falls in with criminals and their guns. To complete the set of substitutions, Camus makes the dramatic bad guy the State Prosecutor-- a devout Christian who is outraged that Meursault feels indifferent about his crime; and who builds his death penalty case on evidence that Meursault did not grieve at his mother’s funeral. The plot is a combination of Dostoyevsky and Kafka, but with the philosophical implications upended.

The other villain in the plot is a priest who intrudes into Meursault’s cell to try for a last-minute conversion. (There was a long tradition of Catholic priests boasting of converting atheists on their deathbeds.) But Mersault ends up as the Voltairean hero, bursting out of his silence in the last few pages to denounce the priest and affirm that he will not give up his truthfulness in the face of death, since death constitutes humanity because everyone eventually faces it. The novel, largely naturalistic and non-preachy all the way through, turns into a philosophical fable at the end.


Camus as micro-sociologist

Camus is an excellent observer of the small details of how people interact in particular situations, especially what consciousness feels or looks like at each moment in one’s body.

Notice:  After drinking with Raymond and agreeing to be his pal and help punish his girlfriend, Mersault stands alone in the hallway, unthinking but hearing “nothing but the blood throbbing in my ears, and for a while I stood still, listening to it.”

When the police come to Raymond’s apartment after he is heard beating his girl friend, the policeman knocks the cigarette out of his mouth. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” the policeman added,  “getting so tight you can’t stand steady. Why, you’re shaking all over!”  “I’m not tight,” Raymond explained. “Only when I see you standing there are looking at me, I can’t help trembling. That’s only natural.”

Raymond is right; his adrenaline, the fight-or-fight hormone, has shot upwards, his heart is racing; but he has to stand still and do nothing because the cop has the upper hand. These are exactly the circumstances when someone goes into trembling.

Mersault’s actions, which seem inexplicable when examined as acts of deliberate reasoning, make sense when seen as how he reacts to the Goffmanian micro-rituals of everyday life. At his mother’s funeral, he is not only tired out by a long bus ride and the vigil of sitting up all night with the dead body; he dislikes the social pressure from these conservative Catholics to follow their rituals, including the ostentatious mourning they expect everyone to perform. And just before Incident #4,  it is Mersault’s rejection of the burden of social politeness that sends him back down the beach: “I couldn’t face the effort needed to go up the steps and make myself amiable to the women.”

Back again to the most famous line in the novel:           

            “And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.”

Camus has Mersault speak out of character, to create a dramatic tag line. But it is also the chief mystery of the novel: why, after shooting his antagonist once, does he deliberately pump four more shots into the body? The prosecutor makes a big deal out of this, and Mersault never explains it. It is just a fact, and he tells the truth about facts. OK, that makes him an existentialist hero. But micro-sociology adds something further.

With the advent of videos, police cameras, and today’s news scrutiny, we have seen many cases where the police end a confrontation with suspect, not just by shooting once, but unleashing a whole barrage of shots-- emptying their gun’s magazine. This looks like what Mersault is doing. He shows all the acute symptoms of perceptual distortion -- time slowing down, tunnel vision, flashes in his eyes. His heart beat is racing; he feels it pounding in his temples. It is the phenomenology of losing control in a violent confrontation, what I have elsewhere described as a “forward panic.”

Camus is a better micro-sociological observer than analyst of his observations. The four superfluous shots are real. We understand now what causes such things. Camus implies it is the pressure of the sun-- although here he verges into the metaphorical-- and more basically, just one of those God-damned accidents that rule human life, and that makes a reasonable thinker reject God. Camus has taken a little-noticed reality of violence, and adds a philosophical twist to it.

I am not suggesting it would be a better novel if an omniscient author intruded, at some point, and explained it as I did. Great literature is great, in part, because it builds on acute observations of real life. But it has a drama and a symbolic resonance that goes beyond sociology. Literary success is a combination of such ingredients.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon



Albert Camus. 1942.  The Stranger. Paris: Gallimard.

Herbert Lottman. 1997. Albert Camus. A Biography.

Dave Klinger. 2004.  Into the Kill Zone: A Copy’s Eye View of Deadly Force

Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory.

Randall Collins. 2016. “Cool-headed Cops Needed: Heart-rate Monitors can Help"


Most great stories have a strong plot line. That comes from how the characters are related to each other. The classic way of doing this is a triangle. The skeleton of the plot can be diagrammed as a social network.  

A network diagram may look static, but a good structure is bursting with energy. It is the tensions in the network--  with its positive and negative links-- that drive the plot. Great literature is a version of network sociology.

The Great Gatsby is considered a major classic above all for its tight plot structure. It is also the great self-portrait of the Jazz Age, and has been filmed many times for its over-the-top party scenes, not to mention the reckless driving around in flashy convertibles.

What makes it work, though, is the way it is structured: two interlocking love triangles closely packed into a short book.

The love triangle is a very old plot device that doesn’t show any sign of wearing out. A love triangle is a tense network because there are two very strong ties-- the two rivals with their love object-- plus a strong negative tie between the rivals.

How do authors and film-makers get so much mileage out of it? Aside from inserting a love triangle into different social classes and historical settings, there are three main possibilities:

[1] Vary the focus on different members of the triangle. Take one of the rivals as protagonist; or zoom in on the emotional struggles of the person in the middle; or give everybody equal time; etc.  Make the conflict quick or long drawn-out; highlight being faithful or flighty; end happily or tragically.

[2] Link two or more triangles together. (The Sun Also Rises; The Graduate)

[3] Locate the point of view in an outsider to the triangle. If the outside narrator has to discover what is going on, it adds mystery to the inner tension of the triangle. The driving force becomes finding out what is happening, combined with the unresolved plot tension of what is yet to happen.  (The Great Gatsby)


A simple triangle: Casablanca

The structure doesn’t have to be complicated to make it work. One of the most famous films of all time, Casablanca, consists of one simple triangle.

The story is told almost entirely from the POV of Rick, the American bar-owner. There is his on-and-off romance with the beautiful Ilsa, explained in flashbacks after she walks into his saloon in Morocco with another man. The man turns out to be Ilsa’s husband, Victor Lazlo, heroic leader of the anti-Nazi underground throughout Europe.

Unlike many love triangles, there is no conflict between the two rivals; they respect and even like each other. So the plot tension is driven mainly by the love-hate relationship between Bogart’s character and Ingrid Bergman’s character. Since Bogart has the documents that will enable a couple to get out of Casablanca and escape the Germans, Ilsa tries to get them from him by various appeals. Finally she pulls a gun on him; when that doesn’t work, Ilsa simply breaks down and tells him he’ll have to make the decisions for both of them from now on. End of triangle; end of plot tension.

Well, not yet. The effect of the minor figures surrounding the triangle now takes over driving the plot.

The antagonistic part of Lazlo’s network are the Nazis. Bogart starts out neutral, the cynical tough guy only out for himself. But almost everyone who works for him in the saloon is in the anti-Nazi side, and Bogart gets pulled into protecting them. A third part of the penumbra are the Vichy French, like the bar women who consort with the German soldiers. There is also Rick’s quasi-friend, the chief of police Captain Renault (Claude Rains’ character), who is likewise cynical and sophisticated, but with a light and charming manner. Through a series of symbolic confrontations with the Nazis, all provoked by Lazlo, the fence-sitters start standing up for the Resistance. Bogart is pulled along by the minor part of his network--- all secondary characters and bit parts, but Rick as famous saloon-keeper is the patron of a network, which cumulatively adds up to a strong tie. In the end, Bogart goes over to the Resistance and brings his counterpart Captain Renault along with him.

Rounding it off at the end is the love story. The triangle rivalry isn’t quite over, although it takes a new twist.  Bogart and Lazlo take turns showing how noble they are.  Lazlo offers to give up Ilsa so that she can escape; Bogart finally sends her off with Lazlo so that she can support him in the great work he is doing for the cause. In the high-angle perspective of network structure, the woman at the hinge of the triangle is essentially passive, all the decisions being made for her by the men in her life. This is certainly a pre-feminist film. On the other hand, the ending does resonate with the join-the-fight message of this 1942 film: Bogart becomes the typical American soldier leaving his lover behind as he goes off to war, doing what a man has to do. Lazlo, who gets Ilsa, is not quite in the same category as a hero.


The Sun Also Rises: Multiple triangles around a hub 

In Hemingway’s signature novel of Paris in the 1920s, The Sun Also Rises, a series of triangles centered on one woman make up both the atmosphere of  “the lost generation” and the prime mover of the plot.

The central figure in the network structure is Lady Brett Ashley, a beautiful and wealthy widow, who lost her husband and her ideals in the war. In the novel, she is surrounded by past and present lovers, including: [1] Jake Barnes, a cynical American newsman; [2] Pedro Romero, the rising star of the Spanish bullfighting world; [3] Robert Cohen, a gauche young Jewish American; [4] Mike Campbell, another British aristocrat and Brett’s current fiancée, who drinks continually and views everything with cynical amusement.

We never do see things from Lady Brett’s POV, and only the network diagram brings out how central she is. * Take her out of the network and the whole story collapses. Instead, the narrator is Jake Barnes, who is both disgusted with Brett but can’t help carrying a torch for her, as the saying was. They were old lovers, supposedly idealistic ones, but he was wounded in the war and has become impotent, while everyone else centers their lives on their sex drives.

* There appears to be a punning allusion in her name: the British equivalent of the American Social Register that lists members of the hereditary wealthy upper class was called DeBrett’s Peerage.  Hemingway is implying that she represents the topmost elite of the aristocracy, who have thrown themselves into the new 1920s scene of partying, drinking and sexual affairs, like Fitzgerald’s rich young people in America.

Structurally, Jake’s impotence enables Hemingway to let one of the participants in the triangles conduct us through the story-- not that anything is mysterious for Jake, but he is dragged along nevertheless in the feeling of networked doom that Hemingway manages to evoke. Jake knows all the other characters, and in fact the novel starts by Jake talking about how Robert Cohen was a boxing champion at Princeton; and how Cohen is always hanging around his newspaper office. This sounds like starting off on a tangent, but by the end it becomes clear that it is structurally important. Looking at the network where men radiate out from Lady Brett like spokes of a wheel, the plot question is: where is a jealous triangle going to form?

The answer is: Cohen sees Lady Brett in the Paris cafe whirl, and she toys with him, while he becomes obsessed with her. Moving on with the whole group of holiday-makers into Spain, Brett picks up with a beautiful, slender young bull-fighter. Jake is even more sorry to have made this connection for her, because he knows how much bullfighters need to avoid distractions and concentrate on their craft; but there is no stopping Lady Brett. Cohen finds out about this affair, and beats up the bull-fighter in a rage-- a boxing champion being the more dangerous to human beings, especially when he doesn’t understand the code that Hemingway insiders live by.








The story ends with Lady Brett calling on old reliable Jake to get her out of Spain-- a place where an older moral code still prevails and the lost generation’s affairs are barely tolerated. Jake Barnes is more like a real-life version of Bogart’s character in Casablanca, but this time life has no romantic endings, just real regret over what might have been.

The Sun Also Rises is the most serious, and most sociologically acute, of all Hemingway’s novels; and the only one structured around a love triangle.**

** Until Hemingway’s posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden, came out in 1986, 25 years after his death, and receiving little attention among his major novels. It is psychologically the most complex of all his novels, plotted around a bisexual love triangle: an attractive and creative young man; his wealthy young wife who wants to immerse herself in him so much that she tries to be the man; and a beautiful Frenchwoman who lets both of them make love to her. The ideal coupling breaks up as the wife directs the triangle more and more aggressively; the young man ends up with the Frenchwoman but without his ideals. Tersely written in the best Hemingway style, it reads like the enigmatic “Hills Like White Elephants” overgrown into a rainforest of love-cum-sex.


Interlocking triangles plus outside narrator solving mystery 

The construction of The Great Gatsby is especially powerful. The network structure consists of two interlocking triangles:

Triangle number one:

Daisy, the golden girl, belle-of-the-ball, debutante of the year as of five years ago; now married to:

Tom Buchanon, rich inheritor of an old family fortune, athletic and domineering;

Gatsby, upwardly mobile from nowhere into splashy riches; the antithesis of Buchanan in being unrespectable and linked to the criminal underworld; but very good looking and personally dominant.

Left to itself, we can easily imagine how this triangle would work out. Although Daisy and Gatsby had a romantic affair when he was disguised by his army officer’s uniform, in the adult world respectability and money were bound to beat disrespectability and money. Sociological theory of marriage markets shows this from empirical data: marriages tend to be homogamous on as many dimensions as possible.

Fitzgerald’s inspiration was to link this rather standard old-rich vs. nouveau-riche conflict with a second triangle:

Tom Buchanon, the rich man:

Myrtle, a floozy from the working class, the lower class version of the flapper / party girl (of which Daisy is the upper class version);

George Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, a working class looser struggling to run a gas station.

Looking at the network, we discover that the center linking everything together is Tom Buchanon. He is not presented as a sympathetic character, but nevertheless if he is taken out of the diagram, the plot collapses.

Structurally, the central character is a plot-tension network does not have to be sympathetic; nor does much attention have to be directed at him or her. The pivot of the story is inescapable, and may well be last one standing at the end-- not only like Tom Buchanon, but Lady Brett Ashley.

Pivoting on Tom, the two triangles work themselves out at the same time:

If we take Daisy-Tom-Myrtle as one rivalry triangle, it ends in classic fashion, with Daisy killing Myrtle, her structural rival. Never mind that Daisy kills her by accident with a speeding car through a mix-up of whose car it is; and for that matter, that Daisy knows only that someone like Myrtle exists in her husband’s life although she doesn’t know who she is. Fitzgerald’s plot works with the inevitability of ancient Greek tragedy; the protagonists don’t need to know what they are doing, to bring the structure to its fated resolution.

The other triangle in Tom’s life ends with Wilson killing Gatsby, and then shooting himself. In other words, Tom gets his two male rivals to eliminate each other. This is arranged, half-inadvertently, but sensing an opportunity, by Tom, who tells Wilson (truthfully) who the speeding car belongs to. The rest of the triangles being eliminated, Daisy is back with her respectable rich husband, and they leave this sordid mess for somewhere else in the world, retreating into their vast fortune.

The two-triangle story, murders included, could have been told straightforwardly by an omniscient author or from the point of view of one of the main characters. Fitzgerald however adds a third layer:

This is his narrator, Nick Carraway. He happens to know the other main characters-- Daisy because she is his cousin; Tom because they were classmates at Yale; Gatsby because Nick rents the old caretaker’s house next to his mansion. Everybody drags Nick along with them, and reveals the backstage of their affairs. Tom takes him to the garage and to a drunken party with Myrtle and other flappers. Gatsby invites him to his grand parties, shows him around his mansion, takes him to lunch in New York with his underworld connections. And of course, Gatsby is cultivating Nick so he can establish the network link that will bring him and Daisy together, and launch the culminating action of the plot.

The outside narrator gets the early part of the story going, where the main interest is the parties Gatsby gives at his mansion, and all the speculation about who he is and where his money comes from. Nick Carraway is like a naive detective who has the mystery revealed for him. Nick grows in stature towards the end because he is the only person throughout the plot who learns the truth. He alone knows that Gatsby pretended he was driving the fatal car, to save Daisy from a murder rap. This raises Gatsby’s moral standing, but it also is the nail in the coffin of his affair with Daisy, since she can’t go off with a known murderer. (Even though she is a murderer herself; and her husband is indirectly.) So the naive narrator can present a moral judgment on what is going on. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch of them,” Nick says to Gatsby before he goes to the pool and is murdered. No need for Fitzgerald to preach; the structural arrangement of the POV does it for him.


The Graduate: Three consecutive triangles viewed  from inside

Finally, look at the network structure of The Graduate, another famous film. This consists of three triangles, played in sequence: 

First, Benjamin, a young Ivy League graduate moping around home, responds to the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson, and starts a clandestine affair. This is played awkwardly for comedy, until the other parents in the network pressure Benjamin into dating the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine.  Benjamin finds her a respite from the pressures of his clandestine life, and falls in love, thereby setting up the first triangle.  Most of the plot tension in this part is between Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin; structurally mother and daughter are rivals, but the mother can’t tell her that, and so her anger has to come out on the other link of the triangle.


The unusual twist is the mother-daughter rivalry over the same young man (a structural substitution for the father-son rivalry over the same young woman that is at the center of The Brothers Karamazov). In this sense The Graduate resonates with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It also shows there are plenty more permutations possible in the old love-triangle formula, by shifting sexual taboos and gender preferences.

The second triangle develops when Benjamin finds Elaine has another boyfriend. This is Carl Smith, a medical student depicted only vaguely as good-looking, successful and conventional. Carl largely ignores Benjamin and the latter doesn’t even try to play the aggrieved rival; this leads to another comedy sequence in which Benjamin uses his naive gaucheness as a way of mocking Carl and importuning Elaine to marry him instead.

The third triangle is latently present from the beginning. Having an affair with Mrs. Robinson makes Mr. Robinson the aggrieved husband, and therefore Benjamin’s rival. This doesn’t come out until late in the plot-- as a device to retard the action of triangle number two, when Mr. Robinson shows up at Benjamin’s rooming house and threatens him with a lawsuit. Keeping this triangle latent also makes the point that Mr. Robinson is sort of a nothing; his wife has stopped sleeping with him so he is no real rival. Benjamin never gives him a thought, and literally tells him so, in a comedic apology that makes things worse. Structurally, Mr. Robinson is just one of the cliché-spouters that Benjamin perceives as populating the entire older generation; all the more reason why this triangle is not very important in driving the action.

The final action sequence is when Benjamin breaks into the wedding to Carl Smith, calls out Elaine, and successfully fights off the families and wedding guests to escape on a bus.  This rounds off triangle two with a happy ending.

Structurally, triangle one has already played itself out when Benjamin leaves southern California, the site of his affair with Mrs. Robinson, and follows Elaine to Berkeley. In that sense, the plot sequence of The Graduate is rather simple; one triangle is succeeded by another, and it is all told from Benjamin’s POV. There is a brief period of linkage between the triangles, when Mrs. Robinson tries to alienate Elaine from him by telling her that he raped her mother. Surprisingly, Elaine gets over her outrage rather quickly. Is this a flaw in the plot? Perhaps so;  but notice that Elaine’s actions in the sequence of triangles are much the same as Ilsa’s in Casablanca.  The heroine emotes and vacillates in her triangles, but she lets other people decide things for her: taking her mother’s standpoint in the first triangle, then prevailed upon by first one man, then the other, in the second triangle. Despite the coincidence that The Graduate appeared as a film in 1967, when the 1960s counter-culture was becoming famous, it is not a feminist viewpoint.

It isn’t even a counter-culture viewpoint. The irony is that some of the scenes were shot on the Berkeley campus (during production a year or two previously), but the rebellious long-haired counter-culture style is nowhere in evidence, and certainly not in the preppy Benjamin with his upper-class kid’s Italian sports car. In real life, Benjamin and Elaine of the late 1960s would not have gotten married; they would have smoked dope, joined a commune or at last cohabited, taken part in demonstrations and played around with revolutionary politics. The reason they don’t do any of these things is that The Graduate was initially a novel by Charles Webb, published in 1963 when the 60s still looked like the 50s; the author graduated from tweedy ivy league Williams College a few years earlier, and that is the atmosphere still shown in the movie. It is more The Catcher in the Rye, a 1951 depiction of existentialist alienation in an elite Eastern prep school. Benjamin is Holden Caulfield a few years older, and having discovered sex.


Triangles and sexual revolutions

Anachronisms in the setting don’t make that much difference for successful drama.  The network structure of interlocking triangles is perfect for dramatizing sexual revolutions, with new sexual behaviors filling in the content. The first modern sexual revolution was the 1920s, when the old-fashioned marriage market overseen by parents was superceded by the flirtatious partying scene depicted by Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Both novelists were social observers, and their material came from both sides of the Atlantic, at virtually the same moment (1925-26). * The second sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s became far more radical, challenging marriage by cohabitation, the gay movement, and feminism.  This second sexual revolution received its iconic statement in The Graduate, not because it is an accurate portrayal of what was happening, but because the dramatic structure of a succession of triangles is so memorable.

* The best description of the revolution is Fitzgerald’s 1936 essay, “The Crack-up.” Fitzgerald named it “the Jazz Age,” but in the early 1920s, “jazz” did not mean music—it was a slang word for sex.


Further possibilities

Great literature resembles network sociology. The basic forms are simple, but a lot of variations can be built from them.

One of the oldest dramas, Oedipus Rex, creates a shocker by making the network between a father, mother, and son. Shakespeare did something close to this in Hamlet. Dostoyevsky did a more complicated version in The Brothers Karamazov.

The variations are not exhausted. One new vein, just now being explored, is to a network of heterosexual and homosexual ties. (Imagine re-doing Jane Austen with gay characters coming out of the closet. You can expect to see this on the screen before long.)

How do writers create plots? One way is by rearranging the structure of successful old plots, and transforming them in the ways listed above.


James Joyce's creative technique is on display in the Nighttown chapter of Ulysses. The chapter is famously surrealistic.  But it is easy to understand once we see how it is put together out of three main ingredients.

(1) A detailed and completely realistic description of sex workers and their customers; plus (2) the blended experience of drunkenness and dreaming, the flow of fantasy and free-association presented with Freud-like faithfulness.  In both ingredients, Joyce is a naturalistic writer telling the truths of everyday urban life.  But putting the two together, and giving the reader no guidance as to when he is doing one or the other, creates a third effect: (3) reading Ulysses is like cracking a code or solving a puzzle. Joyce is very much a 20th century modernist writer, by keeping the author out of the way and never speaking to the reader in his own voice. Gertrude Stein played the same game-- never explain anything.  So did Hemingway, whose simplicity is ostensibly the opposite of Joyce's style. They are all writers of hidden meanings.

Put this another way. Ingredient (1) is Joyce being an ethnographer. Novelists were sociologists before professional field researchers existed. In the Nighttown chapter, Joyce carries forward what previous novelists like Balzac, Dostoyevsky, and Zola had touched on-- prostitution-- but in far more detail, and without either romanticizing it or moralizing about it. Throughout Ulysses, Joyce is a superior ethnographer of the details of everyday life. In Nighttown, and in Molly Bloom's concluding thought-stream about sex, Joyce went further than anyone has done yet-- even today-- on the micro-sociology of sex.

Ingredient (2) is psychological ethnography. The drunken/sleeping fantasies that intrude on the scene are psychologically realistic, what Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in the red light zone of Dublin on a night in June 1904 would be thinking, or at least have flickering across their minds in dream recollection. Joyce was not the only writer to attempt stream of consciousness. Virginia Woolf did it too, the difference being that her characters are limited to respectable upper-middle class members of her family and her social class; she had no way of exploring the lower-middle-on-down sector Joyce was immersed in. (Woolf found Joyce distasteful, which was partly literary rivalry-- Gertrude Stein didn't like him either-- and partly class bias.) Joyce's creativity here needed only one step. After seeing that the realm of everyday people's thoughts and fantasies are dramatic material, he just had to go ahead and describe as much of it as possible. Like most creativity, it required no continuous flashes of inspiration; only finding a new technique, then the long work of applying it.

Joyce's problem in writing Ulysses was to take a day of ordinary life and make it interesting rather than boring. He made it harder for himself by dispensing with plot, the most artificial aspect of fiction. He took the opposite path from detective stories-- that other modern literary invention-- which are set in ordinary life but with strange things happening at a fast-moving pace. Joyce solved this by cloaking each chapter in a different style, making the book into a puzzle to figure out. The Nighttown chapter is especially successful both in the ethnography-- dealing with the most exciting topic, sex and violence, the police coming and politicians smoothing it over-- and in the Freudian fantasies.

It is possible to take the ingredients apart, to extract from the surrealism a straightforward description of the red light zone, the prostitutes and their customers. Joyce’s 180 page chapter boils down to one-tenth that length. I will present the stripped-down text, Joyce's red light ethnography, at the end of the post.

Preceding Joyce's text, I will summarize what Joyce the sociologist shows about sex work and the world of underground excitement. Joyce turns out to be quite a good sociologist, one reason why he is a great writer.


The Carousing Zone

Nighttown in Dublin in 1904 was literally on the other side of the tracks, behind the railway yards, and down-river near the harbor. It is mostly unpaved, with scanty street lights, a place of sheds and barns (it is still the era of horse-drawn vehicles), mostly low flimsy houses. The up-scale brothels are in a street with more prosperous multi-story buildings. It is a place for the lowest of the poor, beggars, sick and half-crazed people. Dirty and ill-fed children play on the street even at night. It is also a carousing zone, a place where the laws are relaxed, illegal and semi-legal entertainments are available. The night-time population also includes drunken soldiers, sailors, and laborers visiting cheap unlicensed drinking establishments run by “shebeen-keepers.”  Joyce’s narrative also shows the presence of medical students and middle-class middle-aged men. Touts, bawds, and street-prostitutes recognize such outsiders immediately as potential customers.

Carousing zones, in one degree or another, have existed in most big cities since the Middle Ages. Their atmosphere is a vacation-break from normal work and respectability; a “holiday from morality” is their chief image and attraction.  Various kinds of unlawfulness and immorality are accepted here without question; but as we see, the carousing zone has its own kind of order and rules its members try to enforce.


Stratification of sex-work markets

Joyce’s novel is permeated with sex. Both Bloom, the protagonist, and Mollie, his wife, are pursuing extra-marital affairs; the latter with Blazes Boylan, her concert-promoter, who is portrayed as a dandy and man-about-town in Dublin’s saloons. Stephen’s medical student friends continually joke and brag about sex. All this is amateur sex-- although as Viviana Zelizer (2005. The Purchase of Intimacy) shows, there is no sharp division from paid sex, since receiving gifts and favors is generally part of sexual relationships. Professional sex differs by being much more explicitly bargained, and for short time-periods rather than longer relationships with their bundle of commitments.

What generates the demand for explicitly commercial sex? Customers are those seeking more attractive, or more easily accessible partners than are available to them in the amateur sex market of courtship, dating, and affairs. Famously, this includes soldiers, sailors and travelers away from normal social networks; but also persons whose social class is too low, personality and culture unappealing to potential partners, or who are too unattractive to match up with sexier women. Another advantage of commercial sex is that it is an exchange market where there are very few rejections, unlike (as David Grazian shows) the world of dating, pick-ups, hook-ups, as well as courtship.*

* David Grazian, 2008.  On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife.

Elizabeth Bernstein, 2007. Temporarily Yours. Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex, describes how work-obsessed Silicon Valley geeks buy upscale prostitutes selling GFE (Girl Friend Experience) since it doesn't waste their time.


It follows that sex markets are stratified. Customers vary in how much money they can offer. Older men of the higher social classes can afford the best-looking women, compensating for their own declining physical attractiveness. Joyce depicts two commercial travelers who have been drinking champagne with Kelleher, a city official, who in turn brings them to the best brothel in Dublin; also a middle-aged customer (bald head, goatee beard, suspenders dragging from his trousers) whom Bloom passes in embarrassed silence on the stairs. Prostitutes reminisce about a priest who tried to disguise his clerical collar under his coat. Further down the customer chain are middle class students, short on cash, like Stephen’s companion Lynch, who toys with the prostitutes but can’t afford to take one until Stephen drunkenly offers part of his teaching pay received that morning. Still further down are the drunken soldiers, who pick up a street girl.

On the seller’s side, prostitutes offer different prices, depending on their attractiveness and the corresponding market of what their customers can afford.  Following is a list of Joyce’s sex workers, in ascending order:

An elderly bawd ("famished snaggletooths") trying to upsell middle-class customers by offering a virgin (“ten shillings a maidenhead”).  Joyce describes her unappetizingly “in the gap of her dark den furtive, rainbedraggled”.

“Cheap whores, singly, coupled, shawled, dishevelled, call from lanes, doors, corners.”

Cissy Cafferty, on the street with two soldiers (“I’m only a shilling whore.”)  [a shilling is 12 pence, 1/20th of a pound.  One pound was worth about $120 in today’s money; her price was about $6.]

Several other slangy street whores are called Biddie the Clap and Cuntie Kate, implying disease and gross appearance.

Among the low-class prostitutes is one Bloom fleetingly remembers as his first sex, behind a stable. Another prostitute drifts through a previous chapter  (“A frowsy whore with black straw sailor hat askew came glazily into the day along the quay.”) Bloom tries to avoid her; she had offered to do washing for his wife, and they had “an appointment” which Bloom now regards as too risky, as well as seeing that she “looks like a fright in the day.”  She reappears in the post-Nighttown chapter when she peers into a late-night shelter looking for customers: (“The face of a streetwalker, glazed and haggard under a black straw hat...”) Bloom dismisses her as “partially idiotic female.”

Higher-class prostitutes are at Mrs. Cohen’s brothel. The sitting room is furnished in middle-class style, with piano, gilt mantlepiece mirror, tapestried wallpaper, and peacock-feather fireplace screen. The women’s prices are ten shillings each [half a pound sterling, equivalent to  $60], for a short time, while staying the night is more.

Zoe, the most attractive (a young whore in a sapphire slip, a slim velvet fillet round her throat), is also the boldest and most skilled talker, mixing slang and repartée. Kitty (a bony pallid whore in navy costume, sailor hat, doeskin gloves, coral wristlet, corset, jacket, skirt, white petticoat, boa around her neck) is dressed much more properly than Zoe’s deshabillé. Kitty has polite middle-class manners, apologizing about her coughing and hiccuping-- implying ill health. Florry (a blonde feeble goosefat whore in a tatterdermalion gown of mildewed strawberry, lolls spread-eagle on the sofa corner) is regarded by Kitty as “a bit imbecilic.”

The madam or whoremistress, Mrs. Cohen, is middle-aged, heavy, unattractive, but wears a low-cut evening gown, rings and semi-precious jewels, and flirts behind a showy operatic fan. She is reputed to be on good terms with officials and race-track tipsters, and to have a son at Oxford. She is alert and aggressive at business, and compliments Bloom for not letting himself be short-changed; although later she tries to cheat Stephen out of more money.

Still higher on the scale are the barmaids at the Ormond Hotel, in the earlier “bronze by gold” chapter. Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy go by polite form of address, and are paid enough to dress well and take sea-side vacations. They lord it over the waiters and kitchen servants. Their role is not so much to serve drinks as to attract men to the saloon, where they flirt delicately. Two of the gentlemen-about-town customers play a game with Miss Douce that they call (in cultured French) “Sonnez la cloche” (ring the bell). This consists of her raising her long skirt above the knee and snapping her garter against her thigh. Although she tells Blazes Boylan “You’re the essence of vulgarity,” she smiles superciliously and glides gracefully away. This is reminiscent of Zoe, at Mrs. Cohen’s, depositing her ten shilling note in the top of her stocking. In a more high-class way, Misses Douce and Kennedy have a sex-worker attitude to men, expressed as they look through the saloon window at a top-hatted gentleman riding past in a carriage: “He’s killed looking back,” Miss Douce laughed. “Aren’t men frightful idiots?” “It’s them that has the fine times,” Miss Kennedy answered.


Relationships among the players

If the business is love for sale, there are ambiguous relationships among everyone involved:

Sellers and buyers of sex:  Prostitutes and their touts push a mixture of sexual arousal, friendliness, and making the sale at the highest price. Taking advantage of politeness, guilt-tripping, and fair play also enter the mix. Which tactics prevail depends on where in the social ranking the exchange takes place.

The cheap whores call out blatant sexual come-ons: (“How’s your middle leg? Come here till I stiffen it for you.”) When they are turned down, they make insults: (Bawd spits in their trail her jet of venom. “Trinity medicals. All prick and no pence.”)

Zoe starts more indirectly with conversation, moves on to innuendo along with cuddling, feeling Bloom’s pockets and genitals, lets him caress her breasts, and bites his ear gently. This last technique is found  in much earlier societies-- biting the lover’s body is prominently mentioned in the Kama Sutra (ca. 200 A.D.), but largely disappeared in the 20th century. Zoe switches tones when Bloom tries to leave her. (“I hate a rotter that’s insincere. Give a bleeding whore a chance.”) This mixture of aggression and guilt-tripping works on Bloom, who apologizes for his bad manners and resumes conversation. She then offers a deal: “Have you cash for a short time? Ten shillings?” They go inside and he bows politely to “two sister whores” at the doorstep.

Inside, Lynch (who has no money) is lifting the skirts of the prostitutes, getting what sex thrills he can for free. When Mrs. Cohen enters, she makes them stop playing around: (“This isn’t a musical peepshow. Who’s paying here?”), herself  playing the teamwork game of good cop, bad cop.

Competition among sellers.  Sex business is rarely booming, and the prostitutes compete for customers. They do this by invidious comparisons, some more strident than others: (The Bawd: “You won’t get a virgin in the flash houses. Sixty-seven [a street number] is a bitch.”)  Zoe’s competitive advertising is subtler: (Bloom: “Is this Mrs Mack’s?” Zoe: “No, eightyone, Mrs. Cohen’s You might go farther and fare worse.”)  Mrs. Cohen is aware of her standing. When Stephen creates a drunken disturbance, she declares: “Here, none of your tall talk. This isn’t a brothel. A ten-shilling house.” Bloom tells her: “But he’s a Trinity student. Patrons of your establishment. Gentlemen that pay the rent. “She replies angrily: “Trinity! Coming down here, ragging after the boat races and paying nothing.”  Class conflict comes to the surface, although it quiets down when a cab drives up with more gentlemen customers.

Inside the brothel, there is a tone of put-downs between some of the prostitutes. But on the whole, they stay on friendly terms. This is typical of sex workers, since they generally spend much time in each other’s company, and there are long boring spells waiting for customers. Overall the strongest solidarity in the red light district is among prostitutes who work together. Their implicit rivalry is expressed mainly against sex workers of a different rank, especially those they regard as underselling them or displaying too much sex in the bargaining phase. The structure generates its own morality.

Relationships among customers: Male customers ignore each other. Bloom avoids meeting eyes with the punter in the stairwell by turning his head to examine the hall table. The two gentlemen (“two silent lechers”) arriving by cab try to enter unobtrusively, while Bloom again averts his gaze. Why is there no atmosphere of camaraderie among all those “out for a good time”?  Research on red light zones and sex clubs shows the same pattern; a group of men may be jolly together passing by looking at prostitutes, but they rarely break off from the group to engage a woman in bargaining. Prostitutes regard such groups as lookers; actual customers are those who leave the group, such as when they are drinking in a bar, to return alone. The solidarity of the male group itself is a strong rival to the mutual absorption, the temporary folie-à-deux of the erotic pair. Sexual adventuring, like violence, has a strong element of pretence, more talk than action. [Grazian, On the Make.]


Quarrels and fights

Stephen has been brought to the brothel after a drinking party by his friend Lynch. But their concerns are deeply split: Lynch wants to flirt with the prostitutes, hoping to cadge enough money to hire one of them. Stephen is aimless, upset about the death of his religious mother and his own failed vocation as a priest. They don’t provide any solidarity for each other, and Stephen is badgered by Mrs. Cohen into paying for three prostitutes. Next, he starts swinging his walking stick wildly—subjectively at his drunken fantasies, but in fact doing a little symbolic property damage to Mrs. Cohen’s sitting room, which is one way to reassert his will.  Bloom, who has a good financial head, settles the dispute with a token payment.

Outside on the street, Stephen has gotten into another quarrel, this time with two British soldiers. Considering this is the red light district, nevertheless it is interpreted as a matter of honour, even sexual jealousy. Cissy, a street prostitute, is alarmed when Stephen (probably inadvertently) runs up behind her, while her two soldiers are off taking a piss. “But I’m faithful to the man that’s treating me though I’m only a shilling whore.” *

*The term “treating” existed in the US at the turn of the century, meaning a kind of dating relationship, where the man paid for entertainment and gifts, and a certain amount of sexual intimacy was expected.  Truman Capote comments that the main character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s --set in New York City in the 1940s-- is a “treats girl” who make her living by meeting wealthy men in bars, then asking them for $20 (a lot of money in pre-inflation times) to tip the maid in the ladies’ room. Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Butterfield Eight, based on John O’Hara’s realistic novel of the 1930s, is also a treats girl.


In Joyce’s Dublin, here is the morality of a sex worker: while she is with a customer, he gets all her attention. The soldiers regard it the same way, and accuse Stephen of insulting her. When the fight is about to happen, she seizes the soldier’s sleeve, and cries: “Amn’t I  with you? Amn’t I your girl? Cissy’s your girl.”

The fight takes a number of moves to escalate. Of the two soldiers, Private Carr does all the direct aggression, addressing Stephen and uttering a string of curses. His chum, Private Compton urges him on: “Biff him Harry.” And later, as Bloom tries to intervene to prevent the fight: “Go it, Harry. Do him one in the eye.” 

Stephen is mostly aloof, makes supercilious answers to Private Carr’s threats, looks up at the sky; at one point he nervously puts his arm on Private Carr’s sleeve, and semi-apologizes: “I understand your point of  view...” although continuing with his rambling thoughts.  Private Carr now picks up a new line of imputed insult, no longer about his girl, but about his king. Through a series of six utterances, as Stephen tries to retreat, Private Carr escalates verbally, from: “What are you saying about my king? / I’ll wring the neck of any bugger says a word against my fucking king. / I’ll wring the neck of any fucking bastard says a word against my bleeding fucking king. / I’ll do him in, so help me fucking Christ! I’ll wring the bastard fucker’s bleeding blasted fucking windpipe!”  Piling on the obscenities operates as a ritual incantation; each utterance repeats part of the previous and adds to it, although the effect of this is to show no great respect for the king or anyone else invoked in aid. *

*Joyce accurately describes the process of cursing. As Jack Katz (“Pissed Off in L.A.” in 1999, How Emotions Work ), has shown with the curses drivers make at each other in road rage incidents, cursing pumps you up; it is what I have called self-entrainment, getting entrained in the rhythm of one’s emotion.


Ultimately Private Carr breaks away from his girl who is holding him back, rushes at Stephen and knocks him down.  It is a one-punch fight, total domination; this is typical of most casual fights among the unacquainted, consisting of one “sucker punch.” As an informant told me about bar fights: the first to decide there is going to be a fight usually wins.

Private Carr is looking for a fight; he has worked himself up; he is strong and a competent fighter and has found a weak, diffident victim, all of which are ingredients for the most typical kind of fighting, attacking the weak. In real life, most fights are ugly, unfair, and not at all honorable except in the partisan mind of the attacker.**

** The audience plays an important role. Observational and video research [Collins, 2008.  Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory] shows that fights are longer and more intense when the audience cheers on the fighters; short and abortive when the crowd is divided or indifferent; and quickly end when bystanders intervene.


An excited crowd has gathered, but they dispute among themselves in a cacophony of voices who is to blame or even what is going on. Private Compton offers crucial social support. Not only egging on his chum; he attempts to control the crowd, waving them back, and calling out “Fair play, here.” He is invoking the rules of a classic duel or fair fight, one-on-one, while the audience watches. This is a second major form of fighting, where the audience by assuming the role of spectators puts the contenders under pressure to perform. Cissy immediately recognizes the honorific form, and cries out: “They’re going to fight! For me!”


Cooling out the cops

The aftermath of the fight is equally realistic. The police arrive. Private Compton tries to drag his chum away: “Here bugger off, Harry. There’s the cops!” Too late, the police start asking for identities. The privates go back to their line about being insulted with their lady. Bloom asserts his civic standing: “I’m a witness. Constable, take his regimental number.” Giving orders to a police officer rarely works [Donald Black, 1980. The Manners and Customs of the Police.], and the cop responds: “I don’t want your instructions in the discharge of my duty.” Private Compton takes advantage of the turn of attention to drag off his comrade, who has found a new target to swear at.

The cop now is about to take Stephen’s name and address, when Bloom spies an acquaintance in the crowd, Cornelius Kelleher, the city official who had brought two gentlemen to the brothel. Bloom whispers about network connections: “Simon Dedalus’ son. A bit sprung.” Kelleher adopts a different approach with the police. “That’s all right, I know him.  Won a bit at the races./  Leave it to me, sergeant. That’ll be all right. We were often as bad, ay or worse. What? Eh, what? The police are reluctant to change an investigation they have already started, but they disperse the crowd (which gives them more privacy), and gradually fall into Kelleher’s mood-- calming things down, drawling, laughing, invoking an informal tone, above all pulling them into his rhythm. “Come and wipe your name off the slate.” (He lilts, wagging his head, then imitates a drunken song.) “What, eh, do you follow me?” The second officer finally says: “Ah, sure we were too.”  Bloom joins in, shakes hands all around, offering polite thanks and confidential explanations. The artificial and embarrassed quality of the parting is displayed as they all repeatedly wish each other goodnight.


Respectability and embarrassment

Now Kelleher and Bloom have to cool each other out, as middle-class citizens meeting in the midst of the brothel district. Kelleher continues to laugh and to make light of the whole series of events, while explaining his purely incidental part in bringing the visiting commercials to Mrs. Cohen’s. Not that he is a prude: “Sure they wanted me to join in... No, by God, says I. Not for old stagers like myself and yourself. (He laughs again and leers with lackluster eye.) Thanks be to God we have it in the house what, eh, do you follow me? Hah! hah! hah!”  Bloom tries to laugh:He, he, he.” They ignore each other’s excuses and turn their attention to Stephen, still knocked out on the ground. Kelleher has been asked to help carry Stephen away in the cab, but he lets it drop. The ride would have prolonged the embarrassing situation of being together. As the horse-cab turns around and leaves, they act out a pantomime: Kelleher, Bloom, and the cabbie all pretending to be mirthful about witnessing lapses from propriety. 

Joyce captures better than anyone the maneuvers people go through on the borders between underground adventure and respectability. Historically, neither side has gone away.* This is another reason why sex is good material for literature.

* Randall Collins, “Why does Repression Exist?”


Following is the stripped-down version of Joyce’s text, omitting the fantasies.  Extracts are in sequence without breaks, elisions left unmarked. [In brackets are my brief summaries of omitted action.]




The Mabbot Street entrance to nighttown. Rows of flimsy houses with gaping doors. Rare lamps with faint rainbow fans.

Calls: Wait, my love, and I’ll be with you.

The Bawd. (The famished snaggletooths of an elderly bawd protrude from a doorway. Her voice whispering huskily.) Sst! Come here till I tell you. Maidenhead inside. Sst.

[Stephen passes with his companion Lynch, making irrelevant remarks.]

The Bawd: (spits in their trail her jet of venom.) Trinity medicals. Fallopian tube. All prick and no pence.

[Bloom appears.]

The Bawd: Ten shillings a maidenhead. Fresh thing was never touched. Fifteen. There’s no-one in it only her old father that’s dead drunk.  (She points. In the gap of her dark den furtive, rainbedraggled Bridie Kelly stands.)

(Weak squeaks of laughter are heard, weaker.)

The Bawd:  He’s getting his pleasure. You won’t get a virgin in the flash houses. Ten shillings. Don’t be all night before the polis in plain clothes see us. Sixtyseven is a bitch.

(Bloom passes. Cheap whores, singly, coupled, shawled, dishevelled, call from lanes, doors, corners.)

The Whores: Are you going far, queer fellow? How’s your middle leg? Got a match on you? Eh, come here till I stiffen it for you.

(He plodges through their sump towards the lighted street beyond. From a bulge of window curtains a gramophone rears a battered brazen trunk. In the shadow a shebeen-keeper haggles with a navvy and two redcoats.)

The Navvy: (belching)  Where’s the bloody house?

The Shebeen-keeper: Purdon street. Shilling a bottle. Respectable woman.

The Navvy: (Gripping the two redcoats, staggers forward with them.)  Come on, you British army!

Private Carr: He ain’t half balmy.

Private Compton: (Laughs.)  What ho!

(Zoe Higgins, a young whore in a sapphire slip, closed with three bronze buckles, a slim black velvet filet round her throat, nods, trips down the steps and accosts Bloom.)

Zoe: Are you looking for someone? He’s inside with his friend.

Bloom: Is this Mrs Mack’s?

Zoe: No, eightyone. Mrs Cohen’s. You might go farther and fare worse. Mother Slipperslapper. (Familiarly.)  She’s on the job herself tonight with the vet, her tipster, that gives her all the winners, and pays for her son in Oxford. Working overtime but her luck’s turned today. (Suspiciously.) You’re not his father, are you?

Bloom: Not I!

Zoe: You both in black. Has little mousey any tickles tonight?

(His skin, alert, feels her fingertips approach. A hand slides over his left thigh.)

Zoe: How’s the nuts?

(Her hand slides into his left trouser pocket and takes out an object.)

Zoe: For Zoe? For keeps? For being so nice, eh?

(She puts it greedily into a pocket, then links his arm, cuddling him with supple warmth. He smiles uneasily. He gazes in the tawny crystal of her eyes, ringed with kohol. His smile softens.)

Zoe: You’ll know me next time.

(Gazelles are leaping, feeding on the mountains. Near are lakes. Round their shores file shadows black of cedargroves. Aroma rises, a strong hairgrowth of resin. It burns, the orient, a sky of sapphire, cleft by the bronze flight of eagles. Under it lies the womancity, nude, white, still, cool, in luxury. A fountain murmurs among damask roses. Mammoth roses murmur of scarlet winegrapes. A wine of shame, lust, blood exudes, strangely murmuring.)

(Zoe murmuring singsong with the music.)

Bloom: (Fascinated.)  I thought you were of good stock by your accent.

Zoe: And you know what thought did?

(She bites his ear gently with little goldstopped teeth sending on him a cloying breath of stale garlic.)

Bloom: (Draws back mechanically caressing her right bub with a flat awkward hand.) Are you a Dublin girl?

Zoe: (Catches a hair deftly and twists it to her coil.) No bloody fear. I’m English. Have you a swaggerroot?

Bloom: Rarely smoke, dear. Cigar now and then. (Lewdly.)  The mouth can be better engaged than with a cylinder of rank weed.

[Bloom talks at length, says farewell.]

Zoe: (Stiffly, her finger in her neckfillet.)  Honest? Till the next time. (She sneers.) Suppose you got up the wrong side of the bed or came too quick with your best girl. O, I can read your thoughts.

Bloom: (Bitterly.)  Man and woman, love, what is it? A cork and bottle.

Zoe: (In sudden sulks.) I hate a rotter that’s insincere. Give a bleeding whore a chance.

Bloom: (Repentantly.)  I am very disagreeable. You are a necessary evil. Where are you from? London?

Zoe (Glibly.) Hog’s Norton where the pigs play the organs. I’m Yorkshire born. (She holds his hand which is feeling for her nipple.) I say, Tommy Tittlemouse. Stop that and begin worse. Have you cash for a short time? Ten shillings?

Bloom: (Smiles, nods slowly.)  More, houri, more.

Zoe: And more’s mother. (She pats him offhandedly with velvet paws.) Are you coming into the music room to see our new pianola? Come and I’ll peel off.

Bloom: (Feeling his occiput dubiously with the embarrassment of a pedlar gauging the symmetry of her peeled pears.) Somebody would be dreadfully jealous if she know.

Zoe: (Flattered.)  What the eye can’t see the heart can’t grieve for. (She pats him.) Come.

Zoe: Silent means consent. (With little parted talons she captures his hands, her forefinger giving to his palm the pass touch of secret monitor, luring him to doom.)  Hot hands cold gizzard.

(He hesitates amid scents, music, temptations. She leads him towards the steps, drawing him by the odour of her armpits, the vice of her painted eyes, the rustle of her slip in whose sinous folds lurks the lion reek of all the male brutes that have possessed her.)

(Zoe and Bloom reach the doorway where two sister whores are seated. They examine him curiously from under their pencilled brows and smile to his hasty bow. He trips awkwardly.)

(She crosses the threshold. He hesitates. She turns and, holding out her hands, draws him over. On the antlered rack of the hall hang a man’s hat and waterproof. A door on the return landing is thrown open. A man in purple shirt and grey trousers, brownsocked, passes with an ape’s gait, his bald head and goatee beard upheld, hugging a full waterjugjar, his twotailed black braces dangling at heels. Averting his face quickly Bloom bends to examine the halltable; then follows Zoe into the musicroom. A shade of mauve tissuepaper dims the light of the chandelier. The floor is covered with an oilcloth mosaic, footmarks stamped over it, a morris of shuffling feet without body phantoms, all in a scrimmage higgledypiggledy. The walls are tapestried with a paper of yewfronds and clear glades. In the grate is spread a screen of peacock feathers.)

(Lynch squats crosslegged on the hearthrug, his cap back to front. With a wand he beats time slowly. Kitty Ricketts, a bony pallid whore in navy costume, doeskin gloves rolled back from a coral wristlet, a chain purse in her hand, sits perched on the edge of the table swinging her leg and glancing at herself in the gilt mirror over the mantelpiece. A tag of her corset lace hangs slightly below her jacket. Lynch indicates mockingly the couple at the piano.)

Kitty: (Coughs behind her hand.)  She’s a bit imbecilic. (Lynch lifts up her skirt and white petticoat with a wand. She settles them down quickly.) Respect yourself. (She hiccups, then bends quickly her sailor hat under which her hair glows, red with henna.)  O, excuse!

(The wand in Lynch’s hand flashes: a brass poker. Stephen stands at the pianola on which sprawl his hat and ashplant. With two fingers he repeats once more the series of empty fifths. Florry Talbot, a blonde feeble goosefat whore in a tatterdermalion gown of mildewed strawberry, lolls spread-eagle in the sofa corner, her limp forearm pendent over the bolster, listening.)

Kitty: (Hiccups again with a kick of her horsed foot.) O, excuse!

Zoe: (Promptly.)  Your boy’s thinking of you. Tie a knot on your shift.

(Kitty Ricketts bends her head. Her boa uncoils, slides, glides over the shoulder, back, arm, chair to the ground. Lynch lifts the curled caterpillar on his wand. She snakes her neck, nestling. Stephen glances behind at the squatted figure with its cap back to the front.)

Zoe: Who has a fag as I’m here?

Lynch: (Tossing a cigarette onto the table.) Here.

Zoe: (Her head perched aside in mock pride.)  Is that the way to hand the pot to a lady? (She stretches up to light the cigarette over the flame, twirling it slowly, showing the brown tufts of her armpits. Lynch with his poker lifts boldly a side of her slip. Bare from her garters up her flesh appears under the sapphire a nixie’s green. She puffs calmly at her cigarette.)  Can you see the beauty spot on my behind?

Lynch: I’m not looking.

Zoe: (Makes sheep’s eyes.)  No? You wouldn’t do a less thing. Would you suck a lemon?

(Squinting in mock shame she glances with sidelong meaning at Bloom, then twists round towards him pulling her slip free of the poker. Blue fluid again flows over her flesh. Bloom stands, smiling desirously, twirling his thumbs.)

Zoe: There was a priest down here two nights ago to do his bit of business with his coat buttoned up. You needn’t try to hide, I says to him. I know you’ve a Roman collar.

Lynch: I hope you gave the good father a penance. Nine glorias for shooting a bishop.

Zoe: (Spouts walrus smoke through her nostrils.) He couldn’t get a connection. Only, you know, sensation.  A dry rush.

(The door opens. Bella Cohen, a massive whoremistress enters. She is dressed in a threequarter ivory gown, fringed round the hem with tasselled selvedge, and cools herself, flirting a black horn fan like Minnie Hauck in Carmen. On her left hand are wedding and keeper rings. Her eyes are deeply carboned. She has a sprouting mustache. Her olive face is heavy, slightly sweated and fullnosed, with orange-tainted nostrils. She has large pendant beryl eardrops. )

Bella:  My word! I’m all in a mucksweat.

(She glances around her at the couples, Then her eyes rest on Bloom with hard insistence. Her large fan winnows wind towards her heated face, neck and embonpoint. Her falcon eyes glitter.)

The Fan: (Flirting quickly, then slowly.)  Married, I see.

Bloom: (Approaches Zoe.)  Give me back that potato, will you?

Zoe: Here. (She hauls up a reef of her slip, revealing her bare thigh and unrolls the potato from the top of her stocking.) Those that hides knows where to find.

Bella: (Frowns.)  This isn’t a musical peepshow. And don’t you smash that piano. Who’s paying here?

(She goes to the pianola. Stephen fumbles in his pocket and, taking out a banknote by its corner, hands it to her.)

Bella: (Looks at the money, then at Zoe, Florry and Kitty.) Do you want three girls? It’s ten shillings here.

Stephen: (Delightedly.)  A hundred thousand apologies. (He fumbles again and takes out and hands her two crowns.)

(Bella goes to the table to count the money while Stephen talks to himself in monosyllables. Zoe bounds over to the table. Kitty leans over Zoe’s neck. Lynch gets up, rights his cap, and clasping Kitty’s waist, adds his head to the group.)

Florry: (Strives heavily to rise.) Ow! My foot’s asleep. (She limps over to the table. Bloom approaches.)

Bella, Zoe, Kitty, Lynch, Bloom: (Chattering and squabbling.)  The gentleman... ten shillings... paying for the three... allow me a moment... this gentleman pays separate... who’s touching it? ... ow... mind who you’re pinching... are you staying the night or a short time?... who did? ... you’re a liar, excuse me ... the gentleman paid down like a gentleman... drink... it’s long after eleven.

Zoe: (lifting up her pettigown and folding a half sovereign into the top of her stocking.)  Hard earned on the flat of my back.

Lynch: (Lifting Kitty from the table.)  Come!

Kitty: Wait. (She clutches her two crowns.)

Florry: And me?

Lynch: Hoopla!  (He lifts her, carries her and bumps her down on the sofa.)

Bloom: (Quietly lays a half sovereign on the table between Bella and Florry.)  So. Allow me.  (He takes up the pound note.) Three times ten. We’re square.

Bella: (Admiringly.)  You’re such a slyboots, old cocky. I could kiss you.

Zoe: (Points.)  Hum? Deep as a drawwell. (Lynch bends Kitty back over the sofa and kisses her. Bloom goes with the poundnote to Stephen.)

Bloom: This is yours.

[Piano-playing, dancing, singing; more fantasy apparitions. Stephen lifts his walking stick at a phantom and smashes the chandelier.]

Lynch: (rushes forward and seizes Stephen’s hand.) Here! Hold on! Don’t run amok!

Bella: Police!

(Stephen flees from the room past the whores at the door.)

Bella: (Screams.)  After him!

(The two whores rush to the halldoors. Lynch and Kitty and Zoe stampede from the room. They talk excitedly. Bloom follows, returns.)

The Whores: (Jammed in the doorway, pointing.)  Down there.

Zoe: (Pointing.)  There. There’s something up.

Bella: Who pays for the lamp? (She seizes Bloom’s coattail.) There. You were with him. The lamp’s broken.

Bloom: (Rushes to the hall, rushes back.)  What lamp, woman?

Bella: (Her eyes hard with anger and cupidity, points.)  Who’s to pay for that? Ten shillings. You’re a witness.

Bloom: Me? Ten shillings? Haven’t you lifted enough off him? Didn’t he...!

Bella: (Loudly)  Here, none of your tall talk. This isn’t a brothel. A ten shilling house.

Bloom: (His hand under the lamp, pulls the chain. The gasjet lights up a crushed mauve purple shade.) Only the chimney’s broken. There’s not a sixpenceworth of damage done. Ten shillings!

Bella:  Do you want me to call the police?

Bloom: O, I know. Bulldog on the premises. But he’s a Trinity student. Patrons of your establishment. Gentlemen that pay the rent. Know what I mean? You don’t want a scandal.

Bella: (Angrily)  Trinity! Coming down here ragging after the boat races and paying nothing. Are you my commander here? Where is he? I’ll charge him. Disgrace him, I will. (She shouts.) Zoe! Zoe!

Bloom: (urgently)  And if it were your own son in Oxford! (Warningly.)  I know.

Bella: (Almost speechless.)  Who are you incog?

Zoe: (In the doorway.) There’s a row on.

Bloom: What? Where? (He throws a shilling on the table and shouts.) That’s for the chimney. Where?

(He hurries out through the hall. On the doorstep all the whores clustered talk volubly, pointing to the right where the fog has cleared off. From the left arrives a jingling hackney car. It slows in front of the house. Bloom in the halldoor perceives Corny Kelleher who is about to dismount from the car with two silent lechers. He averts his face. Bella from within the hall urges on her whores. They blow ickylickysticky yumyum kisses. Corny Kelleher replies with a ghostly lewd smile. The silent lechers turn to pay the jarvey.)

[In the street, Stephen is being berated by two soldiers and a street whore, surrounded by a knot of noisy onlookers.]

Private Carr: (To Cissy Cafferty.)  Was he insulting you?

Voices: No, he didn’t. The girl’s telling lies. He was in Mrs Cohen’s. What’s up?  Soldiers and civilians.

Cissy Cafferty: I was in company with the soldiers and they left me to do-- you know and the young man ran up behind me. But I’m faithful to the man that’s treating me though I’m only a shilling whore.

Private Carr: (To Cissy.)  Was he insulting you while me and him was having a piss?

Private Compton: Biff him, Harry.

Private Carr: (His cap awry, advancing to Stephen.)  Say, how would it be, governor, if I was to bash in your jaw?

Stephen. (Looks up at sky.) How? Very unpleasant. Noble art of self-pretence. Personally, I detest action.

Bloom: (Elbowing through the crowd, plucks Stephen’s sleeve vigorously.)  Come now, professor, that carman is waiting.

Stephen: (Turns, disengages himself.)  Why should I not speak to him or any human being who walks upright? (He points his finger.)  I’m not afraid of what I can talk to if I see his eye. Retaining the perpendicular.  (He staggers a pace back.)

Bloom: (Propping him.)  Retain your own.

Biddy the Clap: Did you hear what the professor said? He’s a professor out of the college.

Cunty Kate:  I did. I heard that.

Private Carr: (Pulls himself free and comes forward.)  What’s that you’re saying about my king?

Stephen: (Nervous, friendly, pulls himself up.) I understand your point of view, though I have no king myself for the moment. A discussion is difficult down here. But this is the point. You die for your country, I suppose. (He places his arm on Private Carr’s sleeve.) Not that I wish it for you. But I say: let my country die for me. Damn death. Long live life!

Private Compton:  Eh, Harry, give him a kick in the knackers.

Bloom: (To the privates, softly.)  He doesn’t know what he’s saying. Taking a little more than is good for him.  He’s a gentleman, a poet. It’s all right.

Private Carr: I don’t give a bugger who he is.

Private Compton: We don’t give a bugger who he is.

Bloom: (To Stephen.)  Come home. You’ll get into trouble.

Stephen: (Swaying.) I don’t avoid it. He provokes my intelligence.

Private Carr: Here. What are you saying about my king?

Stephen: (Throws up his hands.) O, this is too monotonous. He wants my money and my life, though want must be his master, for some brutish empire of his. Money I haven’t. (He searches his pockets vaguely.)  Gave it to someone.

Private Carr: Who wants your bleeding money?

Stephen: (Tries to move off.)   Will someone tell me where I am least likely to meet these necessary evils? Ça se voit aussi à Paris.  Not that I ...

Cissy Cafferty (Shrill.)  Stop them from fighting!

Private Carr: (Tugging at his belt.)  I’ll wring the neck of any bugger says a word against my fucking king.

Bloom: (Terrified.)  He said nothing. Not a word. A pure misunderstanding.

Private Compton: Go it, Harry. Do him one in the eye.

Private Carr: I’ll do him in.

Private Compton: (Waves the crowd back.)  Fair play, here. Make a bleeding butcher’s shop of the bugger.

Cissy Cafferty: They’re going to fight! For me!

Cunty Kate: The brave and fair.

Private Carr: (Loosening his belt, shouts.)  I’ll wring the neck of any fucking bastard says a word against my bleeding fucking king.

Bloom: (Shakes Cissy Cafferty’s shoulders.)  Speak, you! Are you struck dumb?

Cissy Cafferty: (Alarmed, seizes Private Carr’s sleeve.)  Amn’t I with you? Amn’t I your girl? Cissy’s your girl. (She cries.) Police!

Voices: Police!

Private Carr: (With ferocious articulation.)  I’ll do him in, so help me fucking Christ!  I’ll wring the bastard fucker’s bleeding blasted fucking windpipe!

Bloom: (Runs to Lynch.)  Can’t you get him away?

Lynch: Kitty! (To Bloom.)  Get him away, you. He won’t listen to me. (He drags Kitty away.)

Stephen: (Points.)  Exit Judas.

Bloom: (Runs to Stephen.) Come along with me now before worse happens. Here’s your stick.

Stephen: Stick, no. Reason. This is the feast of pure reason.

Cissy Cafferty: (Pulling Private Carr.)  Come on, you’re boosed. He insulted me, but I forgive him. (Shouting in his ear.) I forgive him for insulting me.

Bloom: (Over Stephen’s shoulder.)  Yes, go. You see he’s incapable.

Private Carr: (Breaks loose.)  I’ll insult him.

(He rushes towards Stephen, fists outstretched, and strikes him in the face. Stephen totters, collapses, falls stunned.)

The Crowd:  Let him up! Don’t strike him when he’s down! Air! Who? The soldier hit him. He’s a professor. Is he hurted? Don’t manhandle him. He’s fainted!

A Hag: What call had the redcoat to strike the gentleman and he under the influence? Let them go and fight the Boers!

The Bawd:  Listen to who’s talking! Hasn’t the soldier a right to go with his girl? He gave him the coward’s blow.

(They grab each other’s hair, claw at each other and spit.)

Bloom: (Shoves them back, loudly.)  Get back, stand back!

Private Compton:  (Tugging his comrade.)  Here bugger off, Harry. There’s the cops!

(Two raincaped watch, tall, stand in the group.)

First Watch: What’s wrong here?

Private Compton: We were with this lady and he insulted us and assaulted my chum. (The retriever barks.)  Who owns the bleeding tyke?

Cissy Cafferty: (With expectation.)  Is he bleeding?

A Man: (Rising from his knees.)  No. Gone off. He’ll come to all right.

Bloom: (Glances sharply at the man.) Leave him to me. I can easily...

Second Watch: Who are you? Do you know him?

Private Carr: (Lurches towards the watch.)  He insulted my lady friend.

Bloom: (Angrily.)  You hit him without provocation. I’m a witness. Constable, take his regimental number.

Second Watch: I don’t want your instructions in the discharge of my duty.

Private Compton:  (Pulling his comrade.)  Here, bugger off, Harry. Or old Bennett’ll have you in the lockup.

Private Carr: (Staggering as he is pulled away.)  God fuck old Bennett! He’s a whitearsed bugger. I don’t give a shit for him.

First Watch: (Taking out his notebook.)  What’s his name?

Bloom: (Peering over the crowd.)  I just see a car there. If you give me a hand a second, sergeant...

First Watch: Name and address.

(Corney Kelleher appears among the bystanders.)

Bloom: (Quickly.)  O, the very man! (He whispers.) Simon Dedalus’ son. A bit sprung. Get those policemen to move those loafers back.

Second Watch:  Night, Mr. Kelleher.

Corny Kelleher:  (To the watch, with drawling eye.)  That’s all right. I know him. Won a bit on the races. Gold cup. (He laughs.)  Twenty to one. Do you follow me?

First Watch: (Turns to the crowd.)  Here, what are you all gaping at? Move on out of that.

(The crowd disperses slowly, muttering, down the lane.)

Corny Kelleher:  Leave it to me, sergeant. That’ll be all right. (He laughs, shaking his head.)  We were often as bad, ay or worse. What? Eh, what?

First Watch: (Laughs.)  I suppose so.

Corny Kelleher: (Nudges the second watch.)  Come and wipe your name off the slate. (He lilts, wagging his head.) With my tooraloom tooraloom tooraloom tooraloom. What, eh, do you follow me?

Second Watch: (Genially.)  Ah, sure we were too.

Corny Kelleher: (Winking.)  Boys will be boys. I’ve a car round there.

Second Watch: All right, Mr. Kelleher. Good night.

Corny Kelleher:  I’ll see to that.

Bloom: (Shakes hands with both of the watch in turn.)  Thank you very much gentlemen, thank you. (He mumbles confidentially.) We don’t want any scandal, you understand. Father is a well known, highly respected citizen. Just a little wild oats, you understand.

First Watch: O, I understand, sir.

Second Watch: That’s all right, sir.

First Watch: It was only in case of corporal injuries I’d have had to report it at the station.

Bloom: (Nods rapidly.)  Naturally. Quite right. Only your bounden duty.

Second Watch: It’s our duty.

Corny Kelleher:  Good night, men.

The Watch: (Saluting together.)  Night, gentlemen. (They move off with slow heavy tread.)

Bloom: (Blows.)  Providential you came on the scene. You have a car? ...

Corny Kelleher: (Laughs, pointing his thumb over his right shoulder to the car.)  Two commercials that were standing fizz in Jammet’s. Like princes, faith. One of them lost two quid on the race. Drowning his grief and were on for a go with the jolly girls.  So I landed them up on Behan’s car and down to Nighttown.

Bloom: I was just going home by Gardiner street when I happened to...

Corny Kelleher: (Laughs.)  Sure they wanted to me to join in with the mots. No, by God, says I. Not for old stagers like myself and yourself. (He laughs again and leers with lackluster eye.) Thanks be to God we have it in the house what, eh, do you follow me?  Hah! hah! hah!

Bloom: (Tries to laugh.)  He, he, he!  Yes. Matter of fact I was just visiting an old friend of mine here, you don’t know him (poor fellow he’s laid up for the past week) and we had a liquor together and I was just making my way home...

Corny Kelleher: Sure it was Behan, our jarvey there, that told me after we left the two commercials in Mrs Cohen’s and I told him to pull up and got off to see. (He laughs.)  Will I give him a lift home? Where does he hang out? Somewhere in Cabra, what?

Bloom: No, in Sandycove, I believe, from what he let drop.

(Stephen, prone, breathes to the stars. Corny Kelleher, asquint, drawls at the horse. Bloom in gloom, looms down.)

Corny Kelleher: (Scratches his nape.) Sandycove!  (He bends down and calls to Stephen.) Eh! (He calls again.)  Eh!  He’s covered with shavings anyhow. Take care they didn’t lift anything off him.

Bloom: No, no, no. I have his money and his hat here and stick.

Corny Kelleher:  Ah well, he’ll get over it.  No bones broken. Well I’ll shove along. (He laughs.)  I’ve a rendezvous in the morning. Safe home!

Bloom: Good night. I’ll just wait and take him along in a few...

Corny Kelleher:  (From the car, standing.)  Night.

Bloom: Night.

(The horse and car back slowly, awkwardly and turn. Corny Kelleher on the sideseat sways his head to and fro in sign of mirth at Bloom’s plight.  The jarvey joins in the mute pantomimic merriment nodding from the farther seat. Bloom shakes his head in mute mirthful reply...) [until the car is ought of sight.]





Joyce gave a description of himself wandering around Nighttown, in  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (written 1904-11). His fictional alter ego, Stephen Dedalus has grown up to become the top boy in his last year of Jesuit secondary school. He uses his new freedom to explore the streets of Dublin.] [actual descriptions italicized]

He had wandered into a maze of narrow and dirty streets. From the foul laneways he heard bursts of hoarse riot and wrangling and the drawling of drunken singers. He walked onward, undismayed, wondering whether he had strayed into the quarter of the jews. Women and girls dressed in long vivid gowns traversed the street from house to house. They were leisurely and perfumed. A trembling seized him and his eyes grew dim. The yellow gasflames arose before his troubled vision against the vapoury sky, burning as if before an altar. Before the doors and the lighted halls groups were gathered arrayed as for some rite. He was in another world: he had awakened from a slumber of centuries. 

He stood still in the middle of the roadway, his heart clamouring against his bosom in a tumult. A young woman dressed in a long pink gown laid her hand on his arm to detain him and gazed into his face. She said gaily:

-- Good night, Willie dear!

Her room was warm and lightsome. A huge doll sat with her legs apart in the copious easychair beside the bed. He tried to bid his tongue speak that he might seem at ease, watching her as she undid her gown, noting the proud conscious movements of her perfumed head.

As he stood silent in the middle of the room she came over to him and embraced him firmly to her and he, seeing her face lifted to him in serious calm and feeling the warm calm rise and fall of her breast, all but burst into hysterical weeping. Tears of joy and relief shone in his delighted eyes and his lips parted though they would not speak.

She passed her tinkling hand through his hair, calling him a little rascal.

-- Give me a kiss, she said.

His lips would not bend to kiss her. He wanted to be held firmly in her arms, to be caressed slowly, slowly, slowly. In her arms he felt that he had suddenly become strong and fearless and sure of himself. But his lips would not bend to kiss her.

With a sudden movement she bowed his head and joined her lips to his and he read the meaning of her movement sin her frank uplifted eyes. It was too much for him. He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips. They pressed upon his brain as upon his lips as though they were the vehicle of a vague speech; and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.

[Sitting in the schoolroom, Stephen awaits the night.]

It would be a gloomy secret night. After early nightfall the yellow lamps would light up, here and there, the squalid quarter of the brothels. He would follow a devious course up and down the streets, circling always nearer and nearer in a tremor of fear and joy, until his feet led him suddenly round a dark corner. The whores would be just coming out of their houses making ready for the night, yawning lazily after their sleep and settling the hairpins in their clusters of hair. He would pass by them calmly waiting for a sudden movement of his own will or a sudden call to his sinloving soul from their soft perfumed flesh. Yet as he prowled in quest of that call, his senses, stultified only by his desire, would note keenly all that wounded or shamed them; his eyes, a ring of porter froth on a clothless table or a photograph of two soldiers standing to attention or a gaudy playbill; his ears, the drawling jargon of greeting:

-- Hello, Bertie, any good in your mind?

-- Is that you, pigeon?

-- Number ten. Fresh Nelly is waiting for you.

-- Goodnight, husband! Coming in to have a short time?



Nighttown here is substantially the same place as in Ulysses, published in 1922.  But Joyce had trouble getting the innocuous stories in Dubliners published until 1915 because of a small amount of sexual innuendo; and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,  published the following year, is much more guarded although it focuses on Stephen's sexual awakening and resulting estrangement from his previous religious devoutness. Portrait's style is a conventional rendering of the protagonist's thoughts and feelings, in rather florid and romanticized language, especially in Stephen's first encounter with a prostitute. The prostitutes' talk is obviously cleaned-up of obscenities. The kissing scene might be real; in mid-20th century the rule was "never kiss a whore"-- with the rationale that she had some other man's cock in her mouth. But oral sex seems not to be common in the period Joyce is describing. The loose gowns worn by prostitutes outdoors would have been shocking in 1900, since this was ladies' casual indoor dress, and they would have worn corsets under tightly fitting suits outdoors and on proper occasions indoors.

Bottom line: Joyce in Ulysses has learned how to convey objective realities more sharply, and subjective feelings indirectly without the heavy veil of conventional expressions. It is possible that Joyce started his keen observations of sights and sounds-- the ring of beer froth on the clothless table, the voices of the prostitutes calling for customers-- from his sexual awakening. If his autobiographical novel is chronologically accurate, Joyce would have been 17 and the year of his wandering the red light zone would be about 1899.