Jetta Carleton

Moonflower Vine on the horizon

[asa book]0061673234[/asa] I haven’t mentioned in a while, probably because I hesitate to go there too often myself. Every time I do I get caught up for hours. Lists of great books that have been forgotten, often with images of the original dust covers (why am I so mezmerized by these? no idea) — what’s not to obsess about?

At any rate, NeglectedBooks has a lot of information on The Moonflower Vine — one of my all time favorite novels, long out of print — and its journey toward new release-dom. The new edition is published by Harper Perennial and will be available on March 24, 2009. (Clicking on the cover image above will take you to the Amazon order page.)

There’s  a short piece on the history of this novel in Publishers Weekly (via  Robert Nedelkoff):

by Lynn Andriani — Publishers Weekly, 2/2/2009

Books fall into obscurity all the time. If they’re lucky, someone rescues them and reintroduces them to a new audience—which is exactly what happened with The Moonflower Vine, a 1962 novel by Jetta Carleton, a one-hit wonder from Missouri who lived from 1913 to 1999. But in this case, it wasn’t just a person who rescued the long forgotten novel. With the help of a Web site called—and novelist Jane Smiley—The Moonflower Vine will be reissued by Harper Perennial in April, and will even benefit from a co-promotion with Vintage.
The Moonflower revival began when a small press contacted Carleton’s grandniece, Susan Beasley, telling her it wanted to reissue Moonflower, which is set on a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the 20th century. Beasley got in touch with agent Denise Shannon, who didn’t know the book but Googled it and wound up on, a site launched in 2006 that features thousands of books that have been, according to the site, “neglected, overlooked, forgotten, or stranded by changing tides in critical or popular taste.” Run by Brad Bigelow, who works as an IT project manager for NATO, the site features books with links to online sellers and also links to publishers who reissue books, like NYRB Classics, Paul Dry, Persephone and many others.
When NeglectedBooks featured Moonflower in December 2006, it had an endorsement from Jane Smiley, who also grew up in Missouri; Smiley had included it among the classics she discussed in her 2005 book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. Robert Gottlieb, former editor-in-chief of Knopf, had edited Moonflower, and later said, “Of the hundreds upon hundreds of novels I’ve edited, this is literally the only one I’ve reread several times since its publication.” When Moonflower was first published, it spent more than four months on the New York Times bestseller list. After reading about it on NeglectedBooks, literary agent Shannon—who’d never been to the site before—ordered it from a used bookseller. She loved it and went on to sell it to Terry Karten at Harper Perennial, along with five foreign publishers.
Smiley, whose novel Moo is just out in paperback from Vintage, wrote the foreword to the new edition of Moonflower, and will promote it along with her book when she goes on tour in April. “Jane has been like a fairy godmother for this book,” said Shannon. Smiley will participate in events in Missouri, tied in with the ReadMOre Festival, a statewide literacy program that has chosen Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991) as its 2009 selection. Copies of Moonflower, Moo and A Thousand Acres will be sold at all events.mondwinden

My only quibble here is that I claim to be the Fairy Godmother for this novel. I first read it in German in 1975 and then went through contortions to find the English language original, and ever since I have given away dozens of copies. Whenever I see one in a used book store, I buy it and press it on somebody. As I will press this new release on you all. I’ll be giving away some of the new edition as soon as they are available.

One thing I wish I had done  all along — scanned the various covers I’ve come across, which range from the abstractly gorgeous to the downright tacky.

Miss Pettigrew’s bodice

[asa book]190646202X[/asa] There’s an article in PW about the revival of interest in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a novel first published in 1938, reissued by Persephone Books in 2000 and about to be reissued again. It was also made into a movie starring Frances MacDormand.

There are many very good things to celebrate about all this,. To start with the publisher:

Persephone Books reprints forgotten classics by twentieth-century (mostly women) writers. Each one in our collection of seventy-five books is intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written, and most are ideal presents or a good choice for reading groups.

The books are beautifully edited and produced, from the period-appropriate cover art to the quality of the paper. Persephone was started by Nicola Beauman nine years ago but Miss Pettigrew is the first of the list of seventy-five to really take off, which certainly has something to do with the movie release. The story is, in a word, wonderful, and the film does it justice.

People like to talk about the madcap movies of the 30s with great affection and nostalgia, when in fact many of those films haven’t aged well. Miss Pettigrew, lost to obscurity for more than fifty years until Ms Beauman brought her back to life (and Stephen Garrett produced the film), is everything such stories are supposed to be: stylish, witty, laugh-out-loud funny, with an underlying thoughtfulness you can ignore if you’re so inclined. In this case, the contrast between those who lived through and survived WWI with those who are rushing blithely toward WWII.

Another good thing: Persephone Books are just now starting to be distributed in the States. The company was founded as a primarily mail-order establishment, but has grown into something bigger. For my own part, I’m hoping they might have a look at The Moonflower Vine, another truly excellent, out of print and forgotten novel written by a woman who went unnoticed for most of her life. (More on Jetta Carleton’s Moonflower Vine here).

And now the bad. As I began to write this post I was angry, and I’m angrier now than ever. This has nothing to do with Persephone or Miss Pettigrew. It has to do with the author, Winifred Watson. Or more exactly, it has to do with the way she is presented to the world by some outlets.

Winifred Watson, 2000Watson was born in 1906, into a very well to do family in the north of England that fell on hard times during the Depression, when she went to work as a typist. Watson’s obituary in The Independent tells the story of how she turned to writing and made a success of it, and why she gave it up. When Persephone Books reissued Miss Pettigrew in 2000 Ms Watson was still alive, and the book’s success shone a light on a surprised but gratified ninety-four year old. ((A more recent article in Chronicle Live notes that the film of Miss Pettigrew came too late for its author. ))

These and other obituaries and articles about the Watson’s rediscovery draw a picture of a woman who led a full life, someone of great character. Someone with a sense of the absurd, a keen understanding of human foibles, and a wicked sense of humor not stifled out of existence by social conventions. I certainly would be interested in knowing more about her. Which is how I stumbled on Anna Sebba‘s article dated November 13, 2000 in The Times. The title:

Bodice-ripping fame at 94

First, please note that I only found this article because its title was included in the information for Miss Pettigrew. And that’s all that was included. From the original interview by Sebba:

Winifred Watson has just been rediscovered – at the age of 94. But she thinks she may be just a little too old for the celebrity circus that she has suddenly been plunged into.

“Well, it’s rather nice, and most heart-warming,” says the Newcastle author, who was famous once before, in the 1930s. “But it’s not the same as when you’re young. I’ve got past all that being excited.”

Watson had six novels published between 1935 and 1943, mostly bodice-ripping rustic sagas about life in the North East – long before Catherine Cookson had published a word.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this makes me so angry. Here we’ve got one interviewer, a woman. She’s got the chance to sit down with someone who survived two world wars, who wrote six novels and then went on to raise a family, who has reached ninety-four years of age. And what does the reporter do with this opportunity? She reduces that woman’s work and trivializes it with that most overused, cliched catch-all, bodice ripper. A term that has no equal in terms of negative literary connotations. A term that encourages the reader to dismiss the book in question with a snicker without reading a single page. You know what this is about, is what that term says. It’s tawdry and silly and it’s below you. Do not bother.

All six novels, dispatched with one stroke.

Here’s a question: did Watson even write romances? And another: What does that have to do with anything at all? Does it matter what you call her novels?

I’ll tell you what matters to me: that (especially) a female journalist show respect and thoughtfulness in an interview with one of the women who struggled to be published in a far more difficult era. That she not trivialize books she has mostly likely never even read. And if she has read them, and if Ms Watson herself declared them romances, that she not delegate them to the literary trashbin with a careless flick of the finger. Jane Austen wrote romances, too. And Ms Watson deserved better.

Shame on Anna Sebba and shame on her editors at The Times.

libraries, ode to; Jetta Carleton

As a little girl I would walk two city miles to the public library on Lincoln Avenue on Chicago’s north side, no matter what the weather. I think I checked out every book in the children’s section before I was ten. If the building hadn’t been converted to condos (I should hate this idea, but then I can imagine what a great place that must be to live) I could show you still where certain books sit the the shelves because I checked them out so often: A Wrinkle in Time or Up a Road Slowly or Our Year Began in April.

I have a great respect for libraries and librarians of all kinds. Here in my small town the public library gets almost no public funding, but they provide wonderful services anyway. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we lived for ten years, there was a fantastic public library with every possible service, as well as the university’s top-ranked research library. I was spoiled, then. Now I have to make due with interlibrary loan, the internet, and buying lots of books I would ordinarily check out for a few weeks and take back.

There’s a ranking of public libraries (of course, we love to rank things). Like any ranking it is flawed, but it does establish one thing: In the big city category, the Denver Public Library ranks first. Now, I have nothing against Denver, really, but this seems to me a case of gluttony. Denver already has The Tattered Cover Bookstore, my favorite bookstore in the whole world. And it’s got a good university library too. Really. I ask you.

So if you have a good public library, count your blessings. If your public library isn’t quite so wonderful, maybe you could help them out a little, eh? Especially when it comes to public funding.
One other thing, because I ran into this book on my shelf today and whenever I do I want to sit down and read it all over again.

The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton.

Publisher: Bantam Books; Reprint edition (December 1984)
ASIN: 0553244221
sadly out of print

I first read this book in German when I was living in Austria. I loved it so much I tracked down the original English, and ever since I’ve been re-reading it on a regular basis. Whenever I see a copy in a used bookstore I buy it to give away. This is the story of a farm family in Missouri, set in the early part of the last century. Each section is told from the perspective of a different family member. This is a beautifully written, carefully constructed story that I have never tired of over the years. I gave it to my daughter to read this summer. She was doubtful (the cover of this particular edition was particularly awful, I admit) but she read it on my recommendation and we had long talks about it. The really sad thing, she says, is that Jetta Carleton never wrote another novel.

Jetta Carleton’s obituary, from the Albuquerque Journal on December 31, 1999.

JETTA LYON , 86, of Santa Fe died Tuesday following a stroke. She was a writer. Her major work, written under her maiden name, Jetta Carleton, was ‘The Moonflower Vine,’ a novel from her childhood in rural Missouri. The book was published by Simon and Schuster in 1962 and became an immediate best-seller in both hardback and paperback. It was a selection of the Literary Guild and the Readers Digest Condensed Book Club. She was a graduate of Cottey College and the University of Missouri. She taught school briefly, wrote for radio in Kansas city and for television and advertising in New York. She and her husband lived in Hoboken, N.J., and Washington, D.C., before building a home in Santa Fe in 1970. They founded The Lightning Tree press in 1973, publishing nearly 100 titles. The Rocky Mountain Book Publishers Association honored them in 1991 with its first Rittenhouse Award for lifetime contributions to regional publishing. She was preceded in death by her husband of 50 years, Jene Lyon. She is survived by a sister and grand-nephew in Wichita, Kan. Friends scatter her ashes at her home in the Santa Fe foothills at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Santa Fe Funeral Options.