Some Forgotten Literary History

I dearly love the CUNY (City University of New York) library system. The catalog, along with Interlibrary Loan, which allows me to borrow books from all over the country and even around the world, has given me access to some really fascinating authors. I am always on the lookout for a story that might make for an interesting film adaptation. The last novel I read was Chocolates for Breakfast by Pamela Moore. The world at large seems to have forgotten Moore; Chocolates, her first novel, was a tremendous bestseller in 1956. Unlike another scandalous novel from the same year, Peyton Place, Chocolates for Breakfast was not made into a movie. (Edit: In a 1958 article in the Los Angeles Times, Jill St. John thought that a film was going to be made; presumably she would play Courtney.) It’s understandable, of course, given the themes in Chocolates, which would have been much more difficult to Hollywood-ize. But whereas Peyton Place went on to spawn a sequel novel, two films and a hit TV show, the career of Pamela Moore was effective over after the publication of that one novel. She was just unable to match that success. To create a further sad parallel between her life and the life of Peyton Place author Grace Metalious, both died in 1964, only eight years after achieving notoriety.

Why, then, read Chocolates for Breakfast? It’s been out of print possibly for decades and probably considered an odd relic. It’s certainly not as well-written as Peyton Place, although that novel supposedly only became readable after heavy editing by other people. Even the first lines of each novel are similar, observing the weather in the areas where the main characters reside. I think what drew me to Chocolates and compelled me to read it – although the lurid plot would keep your interest anyway – was my knowledge of what the author’s life was like. If I were to make a related film, it would probably be about Pamela Moore herself, not an adaptation of the novel.

There are other authors who have been unfairly forgotten. From my school, Hunter College, I borrowed Sara Vogan’s 1987 short story collection Scenes from the Homefront, published a mere four years before her death. Considering the fact that she passed away only 21 years ago, Vogan appears to have been largely forgotten by all but the most devoted literary fans. (Three out of her four of her books are out of print.) How can an author like Vogan simply be “forgotten”? Her oeuvre was certainly reviewed and discussed by critics when she was alive, particularly in the New York Times, for whom she wrote a number of book reviews in the 80s. I suppose the true mark of Vogan’s status is that she does not have a Wikipedia page (if I ever figure out how, I’ll make it). I couldn’t even find a photo of her until I bought a paperback copy of her novel Blueprints (1990).

There are also those unlucky writers whose lives are cut short and whose chances at success subsequently disappear. Amanda Davis published one short story collection, Circling the Drain (1999), and was taking part in a publicity tour for the newly-published novel Wonder When You’ll Miss Me when she died in a plane crash in 2003. Davis was only 32; her parents also died in the accident. (They were survived by a son and another daughter.) I borrowed the novel from either Borough of Manhattan Community College or York College – I can’t recall which offhand – and found it quite good. Davis had some fans in the literary world but died before she could make a bigger impact. Perhaps she will achieve greater fame after one of her stories is turned into a film, à la Nathanael West.

Still more writers languish in the depths. Once-notable names have been pushed aside to make way for the continuously growing output of writers who outlived them. I think Tom McHale‘s death (he committed suicide at age 40 in 1982) is especially sad because so many people felt he showed exceptional promise. On the back of his 1971 novel Farragan’s Retreat – which, by the way, was nominated for the National Book Award – there is a beautiful though eerily prophetic quote from Life reviewer Webster Schott that says, “Tom McHale has so much going for him it’s scary…. [He] writes as if born to the craft. He imagines and schemes like a beery poet. He sees, pokes, probes. He tells fabulous jokes. McHale’s capacity to trigger emotion ranges from laughter to compassion to cold horror. His style is as straight as a declarative sentence, but his novel luxuriates in complexity. Realism, bathos, mystery. Tom McHale is not another new writer. He is himself…. Stay healthy, Tom McHale. Sleep warm. Write more. And don’t give any of this a second thought.”

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