Christopher Morley’s Shandygaff is a protean little book, a wide-ranging collection of essays, humor writing, columns, criticism, and short stories that has long been relegated to the lost-and-found of belles-lettres.
Ah, the joy of rediscovering whimsical little books! We are devoted to the humor of of P. G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Parker, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Phyllis McGinley, E. F. Benson, and Emily Kimbrough. And Morley belongs here, though his books are forgotten, except his charming bookstore novels, Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop.
Shandygaff is surprising and great fun, if uneven. The title may sound like a nonsense word – a bit like pipe tobacco or vintage candy – but it is a “beer diluted with a nonalcoholic drink like ginger beer,” says Merriam-Webster. And that is appropriate to this wildly eclectic book.
Morley opens with a hilarious short story, “A Question of Plumage,” a satire of the life of a book reviewer. The hero, Mr. Stockton, the literary editor of a daily newspaper, makes fifty dollars a week, not enough to support his wife and four children in New Utrecht, “a suburb of Brooklyn.” He does not complain, because his philistine boss would prefer to have the sports editor write the book reviews. But Mr. Stockton works very hard at the office: “he skimmed faithfully all the books that came in, wrote painstaking reviews, and took care to run cuts on his literary page on Saturdays ‘to give the stuff kick,’ as the proprietor ordered.”
And he freelances to earn the extra $30 needed to support his family life. He writes articles on current poetry for a literary magazine – and reads 50 literary journals to prepare for each one – and also a “Letter from New York” for a Chicago newspaper. He writes just about anything for anybody.
The highlight of his career as a poetry critic is a genial correspondence with his favorite English poet, Finsbury Vern. One day he receives a telegram saying Vern is arriving on a ship and asking Stockton to meet him at the dock. The Stocktons panic, because their house is shabby and they are dressed almost in rags. The ending is hilarious and unexpected – and in case you’re wondering, the poet is not a bohemian fashion plate.
I also enjoyed Morley’s profile of Don Marquis, the newspaper columnist who created Archy and Mehitabal. If you are unfamiliar with these memorable characters, you will adore Archy, the Vers Libre cockroach who taps out poems on a typewriter in a garage at night,and his friend Mehitabel the alley cat.
As Morley puts it, “Who but a man inured to the squalor of a newspaper office would dream of a cockroach as a hero?”
There are also essays on the art of walking,; on his pilgrimage to Edinburgh with a friend to celebrate their love of Robert Louis Stevenson; a critical essay on Rupert Brooke; and an odd little story about Woodrow Wilson’s making his decision to enter World War I.
I really enjoyed most of these, and look forward to reading more of Morley’s essays if I can find them.