Sunday, June 14, 2009

I Wish I Could Sell You ___

Why isn't all of Otto Friedrich in print? Unlike so many authors I recommend, I can at least still sell new copies of some of Friedrich's books. The Kingdom of Auschwitz: 1940-1945, still perhaps the best brief book on that Hell written by someone other than a survivor, is the book I would recommend to anyone who might seek to understand something of the logic of the maelstrom. Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s is a perfect popular history of a time and place most of us now know only from the movies. It is an admirably careful reconstruction of a lost culture, a tragically brief and chaotic period that produced great art and that also knew great suffering and that eventually produced the obscenity of National Socialism. Friedrich brilliantly captured the whole of this in a thoroughly readable and carefully researched book. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940's, is among the best books I ever read about the movies, California, American culture and the resonance of popular entertainment.

And that's it. Those are the only books by Otto Friedrich that can still be ordered, and even these are threatened with going out of print. What of his marvelous essays, collected in The Grave of Alice B. Toklas and Other Reports from the Past? What of his moving and memorable biography of the sad Mrs. Henry Adams, Clover: A Love Story, which more even than Ernest Samuels' magisterial biography of Adams, explained the sadness of the great historian? What of his other great biography, Glen Gould: A life and Variations, which should rank among the greatest biographies ever written about a musician of genius?

And there are other books by Friedrich, now long out of print, books I treasure even as my own copies have fallen apart, books like Going Crazy: An inquiry into Madness in Our Time, which spoke with an all too rare sanity on subjects usually reserved for dry academic treatment or anaemic popular inspiration. Why aren't these books still in print?

When Otto Friedrich wrote, he wrote as a journalist and as a novelist, he told stories for a living. He was not an academic, not a teacher or philosopher associated with a particular school or school of thought. He wrote to a standard of American English that has since fallen into disuse, dependent as it was on an informed and literate readership with an interest in, rather than a career made from the study of history and music and literature and writing. Friedrich was simply a writer and it is as such he ought now to be read and studied in his own right, as an example of what was best in American cultural reporting, in our journalism, in popular history. If none of his fictions or the charming children's books that he wrote with his wife have found a permanent place in our literature, his amazing nonfiction ought at least to be better remembered.

I am reminded of Bernard DeVoto, another good and neglected American writer, another journalist and historian, of the generation before Friedrich, whose contributions have likewise fallen on hard times. Like Friedrich, DeVoto spent a lifetime writing as his interests led him and wrote books of great and lasting value, most of which are now long out of print. Some of DeVoto's history has survived, as just a handful of Friedrich's books seem to have, but it would behoove the publishers with rights to the unreprinted works of both men to consider the real value of the titles they own and to consider restoring such good books to the public before another new, cumbersome, stylistically inferior brick is dropped on the Christmas market.

The failure of a reputation like that of Otto Friedrich is all in the inability of publishers and booksellers to conserve what is best and introduce it to new readers rather than selling the same stories told less well by later, living authors who can, presumably, be booked on CSpan or otherwise exploited as personalities. It is maddening, knowing how good Otto Friedrich was, not to have his books to sell. We really must learn to do better by our best.

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