Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Salute to Herkimer.

Google made a big deal yesterday about it being the date of Les Miserables' completed publication in 1862, 155 years ago. Google, apparently, refuses to be held down to round numbers for commemorations. But I am made of much more rigid stuff. Therefore, today I celebrate the 150th birthday of a great American writer. I am of course referring to Herkimer Schnorbis---“Herk” to his pals---who was born on this date in 1867.

Schnorbis was born on the frontier, in the small town of Qwerty in the newly created state of Nebraska, a town that would become known (1922 to 1929) as the Typewriter Manufacturer to the World. After the factory closed it would be known as nuttin'.

In 1873 Schnorbis quit school, packed up his belongings, and headed east, wanting to make his fortune as a writer. It was not easy in those days for a six-year-old to travel alone, or for someone who barely knew the alphabet to make money as a writer (unlike now). But little Herkimer was showing the guts and determination that would become a byword in his writing. Or bywords. I guess both.

Herk found work first as a copy boy at the New York Phonautograph, one of the many newspapers in the city but the only one at the time known to have morning commuter forecasts (“May 8 – Many Unpleasantries await the Traveling Worker today, including a Streetcar Rail under repair just South of Union Square, and a Large Pile of horse manure uncleared hard by the Exchange. Tread carefully, Gentle Reader!”). The newspaper was never one of the big ones, although it pottered along until it sealed its eventual doom by its switch to an all-Esperanto format in 1890. But for the young Herkimer it was a valuable training ground. Herkimer learned the alphabet and graduated to being a copy editor at the age of 14. He later became a fact-checker for the paper, but as New York newspapers have never been much on facts he was allowed to become a reporter in 1885. On the rough and tumble of New York’s dangerous neighborhoods and dangerouser politics did Herkimer cut his teeth, but fortunately the Phonautograph had an excellent dental plan.

With the Esperanto switch at the paper, Schnorbis left reporting and went to make his fortune writing fiction. Being a reporter had taught him plenty about making up crap. He began by writing pulp stories for the popular penny magazines; silly stuff---Westerns, Gothic horror stories, thrillers, romances, tales of European ennui, "blogue" entries, financial advice columns, polemics on fluoride---under a variety of pseudonyms, like Schnerkimer Horbis and Orkimer Schnerbis. It wasn’t until 1900 that he published his first novel under his own name: the immortal Howard Dwiezel of Crackie Corners.

The book tells the story of Howard Dwiezel, a simple farmer faced with a lost harvest because so many of his seasonal workers have left for the big city to work in miserable factory jobs. Howard pursues some of his favorite men, hoping to bring them back from the wicked town and enjoy the simple life of dirt and bare subsistence. Using his plain-folks wisdom and gallons of booze he succeeds, but only for a while, as they sober up eventually. Howard is himself tragically killed in a combine incident, his blood fertilizing the very earth of his farm.

Reception to this now-renowned classic was at the time mixed. While the Trumpet called it “weird and unsanitary,” the Cageliner said its “hard-hitting prose” was unable to make up for its “contrived plot” and “stoooopid characters.”  The Phonautograph remembered its old reporter, and praised, “Tiu libro ne estas malbona!”

Heartened by this, Schnorbis went on to write three more novels in the next two months. The Lefthanded Seamstress was a drama of the garment district; Yukon B. Sirius, a book on violent prospectors and the women who loved them; and Ham Boulevard, a fictional exposé of the meat curing industry. Publishers refused them until a century later when they were posted on the Internet and fans found out why.

By 1910 Schnorbis was teaching at a technical school, writing anonymous reviews, and drinking hard on his next book. He thought himself a failure at 43, a “one-hit wonder,” but considering the sales of Howard Dwiezel perhaps a “none-hit wonder” would have been more correct. He was almost desperate enough to go back to the newspaper game when he produced what many call his masterpiece: His Masterpiece, a novel about a drunken down-on-his-luck writer who finds redemption in writing a book about a drunken down-on-his-luck writer. In its very last issue the Phonautograph called it “Espectaculares!” and his fortune was made.

Four more important works followed: There Will Be Frost, a fictional exposé of the ice industry and the brutal plutocrats running Big Ice; Bang Bang Ouch, a bloody novel about the Spanish-American War; Gritty Rhymes with City, a steamy, gory tale of the underclass of New York; and Happy Fluffy Puppy, a kids’ book. During this period he was so productive that he described himself to friends as "busier than a one-legged man in a metaphor of some sort."

In 1917 Schnorbis heard that all the cool writers were driving ambulances around Europe for the war, so he went to do his part, despite having just turned 51 and having no driver’s license. Soon he was wobbling all over war zones in his ambulance, looking for fares.

Sadly, this bright literary light was winked out when the vermouth he thought he was drinking turned out to be turpentine (contemporaries noted that he should have realized it tasted too good to be vermouth). Gone from this world all too soon!

But today we celebrate Herkimer Schnorbis, a great American writer. The world of belles lettres would be very different had he not taken pen to paper.

Actually, it probably would have been about the same. Never mind.

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