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Memories Of A Manuscript Post by :Paula Category :Essays Author :Robert Cortes Holliday Date :October 2011 Read :1709

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Memories Of A Manuscript

I was born in Indiana. That was several years ago, and I have since seen a good deal of the world. I was reading in a newspaper the other day of a new film which shows on the screen the innumerable adventures of a book in the making, from the time the manuscript is accepted to the point where the completed volume is delivered into the hands of the reader. And it struck me that the intimate life of a manuscript before it is accepted might be even more curious to the general public. The career of many an obscure manuscript, I reflected, doubtless is much more romantic than its character. I wonder why, I said, manuscripts have all been so uncommonly reticent concerning themselves. But manuscripts, one recollects, have sensitive natures; and their experiences, at least the experiences of those not born to a great name, could hardly be called flattering to their feelings. Indeed, manuscripts suffer much humiliation, doubtless little suspected of the world. And it requires a manuscript strong in the spirit of detachment to lay bare its heart.

My parent--manuscripts commonly have but one parent--bore me great love; indeed I think he loved me beyond everything else in the world. He was a young man apprenticed to the law, but he cared more for me, I think, than for his calling, which I suspect he decidedly neglected for my sake. I know that in his family he was held a rather disappointing young man; but his family did not know the fervour of his heart, or the tenacity of purpose of which he was capable. He toiled over my up-bringing for two years, and often and often into the very small hours. I think I was never altogether absent from his thoughts, even when he was abroad about his business or his pleasure. I was his first manuscript--his first, that is, that ever grew up. And though I know he was not ashamed but very proud of me, he attempted to keep my existence something of a secret. I could not but feel that as I developed I was a great happiness to him, and yet at times he would give way to black discouragement about me. I know that I have passages which caused him intense pain to bring about. Throughout the time of my growth my dear parent alternated between periods of high exultation and of keen torture. As time passed he became more and more completely absorbed in me. When my climax came into sight he fell to working upon me with exceeding fury, and in the construction of my climax it was plain that he wrestled with much agony--an agony, however, which seemed to be a kind of strange, mad joy.

And then one night (I remember a storm raged without) my parent came to me with a wild, yet happy, light on his face. He pounded at me harder than ever before; and at intervals paced the floor, up and down, up and down, like a man demented, throwing innumerable half-smoked cigarettes over everywhere. The wind blew, and the little frame house strained and groaned in its timbers. As he bent over me a face enwrapt, striking the keys with a quick, nervous touch, great tears started from my dear parent's eyes. Then, it must have been near dawn and the little room hung and swayed in a golden fog of tobacco smoke, I knew that I was finished. My parent was bending over my last page like a six-day bicycle racer over his machine, when he straightened up, raising his hands, and drove his right fist into his left palm. "Done!" he cried, and started from his chair to pace the room in such a frenzy as I had never seen him in before. It was fully half an hour before his excitement abated, when he fell back into his chair, and smoked incessantly until the light of morning paled our lamp. At length I noticed he had ceased to smoke, his head gradually slipped backward, his eyes closed, and he slept. Thus I was born and brought up and grew to manuscript's estate in a little Middle-Western town, on a rented typewriter.

One day shortly after this I was packed up with great care and very carefully addressed, and under my parent's arm I boarded an interurban car. We new over the friendly-looking Hoosier landscape, and at length rolled into the interurban station of the bustling capital, the largest city I had as yet seen. I did not see much of it, however, on this first visit, as we went quickly around the handsome Soldiers' Monument to the office of the American Express Company on Meridian Street. I was given over in charge of a man there who very briskly weighed me and asked my parent my value. My parent seemed to be in a good deal of a dilemma as to this. He hemmed and hawed and finally replied: "Well, I hardly know."

"Is its value inestimable?" inquired the clerk. "Why, in a way I guess you might say it is," said my parent.

Finally, against the clerk's mounting impatience, an estimate was effected, and I was declared to be worth $500. I was cast carelessly on to a pile of other packages of various shapes and sizes, and my parent, giving me a farewell lingering look of love, went out the door.

Of my journey there is not much to say. I arrived in New York amid a prodigious crush of packages, and was delivered, in company with about a dozen others, which I knew to be brother or rival, manuscripts, at the office of a great publishing house. Here I was signed for, and, in the course of the day, unwrapped. I was ticketed with a number and my title, and placed in a tall cabinet, where I remained in the society of several shelves full of other manuscripts for a number of days. Here I was delighted to find quite a coterie of fellow-Hoosiers. But a remarkable proportion of my associates, I discovered, was from the South. The majority of us hailed from small towns. In our company were three or four of somewhat distinguished lineage.

As time passed and nothing happened, I grew somewhat nervous, as I knew with what anxiety my dear parent in Indiana would be counting the days. One of my new-found friends, a portly manuscript (a story of sponge-fishers) that had been out of the cabinet and had had a reading before my arrival, told me in the way of gossip something of the situation at the moment in this house. My friend was an old campaigner, very ragged and battered in appearance, and had been (I was appalled to hear) submitted to seventeen publishing houses before arriving here. It had lost all hope of any justice in the publishing world, and was very cynical. Heavens! would I------

However, it appeared that at this house the first reader had just been obliged to take a vacation owing to ill-health occasioned by too assiduous application to her task of attempting to keep somewhere abreast of the incoming flood of manuscripts. She was, it seems, a large elderly lady who had tried out her own talents as a novelist without marked success some twenty years ago. Her niece, a miss of twenty or so, who had a fancy for an editorial career and who had vainly been seeking a situation of this character for some time, found a windfall in the instant need for a substitute first reader. It was with some petulance, it struck me, that she yanked the door open one day. She was, apparently, showing some one about her office. "All that," she said, waving her hand toward my case, "practically untouched; and mountains besides. I don't know how I'm to get away with it. I suppose I'll have to do a couple every night." I don't know what time it was, but the light was going and the young lady had got into bed when she began to read me, propped up against her knees. She yawned now and then and sighed repeatedly as she shifted back my pages. I thought I noticed that her, knees swayed, just perceptibly, at times. Then suddenly my support sank to one side; I started to slide, and would have plunged to the floor, very nearly pulling her after me, if the disturbance had not as suddenly caught the young lady back into wild consciousness, and she grabbed me and her knees and the slipping bedclothes all in a lump. Shortly after this she turned back to see how I ended, and then went to sleep comfortably, lights out.

I did not see the report the young lady wrote of me, but I had occasion to think that she declared I was rather stupid. However, I got another reading. I was given next to a young man, not, so I understood, a regular reader, but a member of the advertising department who was frequently called on to help weed out manuscript, who took me home with him and threw me onto a couch littered with books and papers. Here I stayed for ever so long. One day I heard the young man say to his wife, nodding toward me: "I ought to try to get that unfortunate thing off my hands before my vacation, but I never seem to get around to it." As, alack-a-day! he did not get around to me before that occasion, I went, packed in the bottom of a trunk, with the young man and his wife on their annual holiday. In my pitchy gaol I had, of course, no means of calculating the flight of time, but when I next saw the light, after what seemed to me an interminable spell, I appeared to be the occasion of some excitement. The young man brought me up after several vigorous dives into the bottom of the trunk, as his wife was saying with much energy: "Well, of course, you can do as you please, but if I were you I'd telegraph an answer right straight back that I did not propose to spend my vacation working for them. The idea! After all you do!" "Oh, well," was the young man's reply, "some poor dog of an author wrote the thing, and it's only right that he should have some kind of an answer within a reasonable time. I ought to have got around to it long ago."

Whatever the kind-hearted young man may have said about me I was given yet another chance. A very business-like chap "took a shot at me," as he expressed it, one forenoon at his desk, I was considerably distressed, however, by the confusion and the multiplicity of interruptions to which his attention to me was subject. When I thought of the sacred privacy devoted to my creation, the whole-hearted consecration of my dear parent's life-blood to my being, I felt that such a reading was little short of criminally unjust. And how could any one be expected to savour my power and my charm in the midst of such distractions? The business-like chap sat somewhere near the middle of a vast floor ranged with desks. In his immediate neighbourhood a score or more of typewriters were clicking and perhaps half as many telephones were going. The chap's own telephone rang, it seemed to me, every five or six pages, and, resting me the while on his knee, he expectantly awaited the outcome of his secretary's answering conversation. At frequent intervals he was consulted by colleagues as to this and that: covers, jackets, electros, fall catalogues, what not? Nevertheless, he got through me in rather brisk order. At my conclusion I observed no tears in his eyes. And, it was evident, he settled my hash, as the phrase is, at this house.

I certainly felt sick at heart in that express car back to the corn belt. My poor parent, when I again met him, unwrapped me very tenderly, and sat for a long time turning me through very dully. I stayed on his desk for several days, and then fared forth again on my quest, valued this trip at a hundred dollars.

After the initial formalities, I fell this time first into the hands of a driving sort of fellow who had the air of being perpetually up to his neck in work, and who handed me to his wife with the remark: "Here's another job for you tomorrow. Make a careful, working synopsis of the story, and I'll dip into the manuscript here and there when I come home to get a line on the style and general character of the thing." The next night, after rustling energetically through me, he wrote out his report, and, passing it to his wife, said: "There are no outright mis-statements of fact as to the plot in that, are there?"

I next fell in the way of a fashionable character just leaving for a week-end, who read me in the smoking-car on his way up into the country. He burned several holes in my pages with the falling ash of his cigarettes. He read me in bits between scraps of conversation with his seat neighbour and recesses of enjoyment of the flying scenery. And he found it rather awkward holding me balanced on his legs crooked up against the seat in front of him. This, my precarious position, led to a grievous calamity. I toppled and fell, and my reader, making a swooping clutch at me as I went, but the more scattered my pages over the polluted floor of the car. An evil draught carried my third page underneath a seat, the third forward from my reader. It was an anguishing thing, but I could not cry out, I could not tell him: as my reader, cursing me heartily (for what I cannot admit was my fault) gathered me up, he neglected to crawl far enough under the seat before him to perceive my page three.

But it does not fall within the scope of my present design to extend this chronicle to the length of an autobiography. With what pain and labour my poor parent recovered from his memory, and then very imperfectly, of course, my third page; how he grew more melancholy of countenance at each of my successive returns to the house of my birth and formative years; how I sometimes remained away for months at a time, and how once an office boy mis-addressed me to a lady in New Jersey who very graciously herself forwarded me to my parent; how my poor parent was obliged at length by the increasing dilapidation of my appearance to go to the expense of having me completely re-typed by a public typist, and how directly after this he entirely re-wrote, expanded, and elaborated me at the instigation of one firm of publishers; how I was read by a delightful old lady who knitted in her office as she read; by a lady of cosmopolitan mien who had me together with many other manuscripts sent to her home in a box, and who consumed innumerable cigarettes as she perused me; by a young gentleman who I am sure had a morning "hang over" at his desk; by a tough-looking customer who wore his hat at his desk; by a young lady of futurist aspect who took me home to her studio; by an old, old man who seemed to "see" me quite, and by many more--all this I may merely indicate.

One very striking phenomenon I should by no means fail to mention, and this uncanny fact may be illustrated thus: If an object is blue or if it is yellow it will be recognised by all men as being blue or yellow, as the case may be. One will not say of it, "See that lurid yellow object," to have another reply, "What! that object directly before us? I see nothing yellow about it; it is as black as ink." But I was apparently exactly like such an impossible object. I was, figuratively speaking, no colour of my own and I was all colours. One, so to speak, saw me as green, another as white, and yet another as orange, while some saw quite red as they looked at me. That is, my character consisted altogether, it seemed, in the amazingly diverse reactions I inspired in my successive readers. I was intolerably dull, I was abundantly entertaining, I was over-subtle, I was painfully obvious, I was exceedingly humorous, and I lacked all humour.

How, at length, a group of editorial gamblers succeeded in coming sufficiently into harmony about me to render a composite verdict that I would be a fair publishing risk; but how the title my poor parent had given me it was unanimously held wouldn't do at all; and how I got another in book committee meeting; how, after I was (wonderful thing!) "accepted," I lay in a safe until I thought I should crumble away with age; and how I was suddenly brought forth and hastily read by the manufacturing department for ideas for my cover to be, and then by the advertising department for "copy dope," before being rushed to the composing room--of these things I have not time to speak further, as I am now on the press, and am rapidly ceasing to be merely a manuscript.

(The end)
Robert Cortes Holliday's essay: Memories Of A Manuscript

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