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July 12, 2011

The BP Broadside

Memento Mori, Clarence Budington Kelland and Joe Crede

by Steven Goldman

Every now and again in my career as an editor, I have come across a writer who thinks that they are Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare, by which I mean that they operate under the delusion that the little baseball doodads that they write will be remembered for more than three seconds after they stop doing them. It must be a pleasing delusion to feel so self-important, but it’s a blinding one. Better to believe, as Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” and then have time prove you wrong than to assume the opposite and go through life under the misapprehension that there is a Hall of Fame for scribblers.

Yes, I am aware there is a so-called “writer’s wing” at Cooperstown. I will get back to that in a moment.

Several years ago, I saw a television editorial by Harlan Ellison, an excellent writer I would hope will be remembered. His theme was that a writer’s glory is fleeting (you can see the second half of it here, though the clip largely omits what I am about to discuss; I would also like to point out that the bowdlerizing of, believe it or not, Lassie he refers to in the video is also being done today with The Great Gatsby). In it, Ellison mourns the total obscurity of one Clarence Budington Kelland. He returned to Kelland in a 2008 interview with the Onion’s A.V. Club:

There is a philosophical point that should be made here, because it goes to the hubris of writers. [Sighs.] There's no point in saying less than your predecessors have said. Hemingway said, "You know, I'm in the ring with Dostoyevsky every time I sit down." And Jules Renard, he said, "Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none." So one can be misled by the approbation…

[snip]

So if you begin to believe that posterity is going to look at you—and we have no way of knowing if it will. I mean, good God, does the name Clarence Budington Kelland mean anything to you?

AVC: Sorry, no.

HE: Nor to 10 out of every nine people that you'll meet. Clarence Budington Kelland was, during the '20s, '30s, '40s, and on into the '50s, the most popular writer in America. He had a serial—the height of success in America in those days for a freelance writer was to get a serial in Collier's or The Saturday Evening Post. Well, Clarence Budington Kelland just wrote—everything that was picked up by Collier's, The Post, they made into movies. He wrote Westerns, he wrote children's books. He wrote everything, and he made more money than the President of the United States. Today, you go to a library, you cannot find a Clarence Budington Kelland book! He was a pretty good writer. He was not William Faulkner, he was not Colette, but he certainly was a very good, decent writer. With the exception of one or two people whose names are common coin—Shakespeare, perhaps Faulkner—being well-known and being remembered is a mugg's game. There's no way of knowing whether you're going to wind up being Geoffrey Chaucer or Clarence Budington Kelland.

When Ellison first brought up Kelland it was in the pre-Wikipedia days, so I reached for an old edition of the Oxford Companion to American Literature I keep around the house for just such moments. Here is what it says:

Kelland, Clarence Budington (1881-1964), popular novelist whose works included Mark Tidd (1913), the first of a series of novels for boys, of the genre of Tom Sawyer; and novels for adults, most of them dealing with current fads and manners, such as Conflict (1920), Rhoda Fair (1925), Hard Money (1930), The Great Crooner (1933), Arizona (1939), and Dangerous Angel (1953); or detective fiction. His stories about a shrewd Yankee who pretends ingenuousness first appeared in Scattergood Baines (1921).

Wikipedia adds:

In a long and prolific career as a writer of fiction and short stories, he was published in many magazines. The Saturday Evening Post and The American Magazine were his best markets. He published about sixty novels; juveniles at first, then reprints of his magazine serials.

Although largely forgotten now, a small number of his stories achieved some recognition, including Opera Hat, serial from The American, which was the basis for the film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), a short-lived television series (1969–70), and another film Mr. Deeds (2002). One of his best-known characters was Scattergood Baines who was featured in six films from 1941–43, starring Guy Kibbee.

Kelland’s page at the Internet Movie Database lists 35 “story by” credits, including sound films starring Cary Grant, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Gary Cooper (the aforementioned Deeds), Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Lucille Ball, and Randolph Scott.

That’s a heck of a career, and what’s left of it? Well, you can get Scattergood Baines for free if you buy a Kindle. You want to be remembered, my fellow scribblers, you’d better aim higher.

Even for the famous, fame is fleeting. There is a Hall of Fame in the Bronx, New York that predates the baseball Hall of Fame and all the others. The idea was to honor great Americans in all walks of life. The custodians of this place ran out of money, interest, and awareness some time ago, and so it sits, largely unknown. They started with inductions in 1900 and held elections until 1976. They stopped because they ran out of money to buy the busts for the enshrined, although I am amused by the idea that perhaps it is because we haven’t produced anyone worth adding in the last 35 years.

There are 102 men and women memorialized with the words, “By wealth of thought, or else by mighty deed, They served mankind in noble character. In worldwide good they live forever more.” They are all listed at the link above; see how many you can identify on sight. I went 76-for-102, or .745, which isn’t great given that there are a great many gimmies in there, including 13 presidents.

The winners of the Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award are far more obscure than even Kelland or my 26 missed U.S. Hall of Famers. It is pleasing to know that Ring Lardner and Damon Runyan are still read, and that there are those of us who still return to Red Smith, but how many of the remaining 58 names are still remembered or, more importantly, read today? Most of them meaning something to me, and probably to many of you, as a researcher and appreciator of old baseball books, but to the world beyond that small band of aficionados, they might as well never have lived.

This is one of the many reasons that I don’t get too exercised by who made the All-Star team and who didn’t, who called in sick and who came to play, or who won the glorified batting practice session that is the Home Run Derby. It’s not something that anyone can remember two minutes after it happened. Let’s name some All-Stars at random: Bill Walker, left-handed pitcher. Started the 1935 game for the National League. Burgess Whitehead was on the bench. He hit .263/.289/.305 that year. Sam West was a very good player, a center fielder, hit .299/.371/.425 in about 1800 career games. He made four All-Star teams, but he doesn’t sell very many jerseys these days. Let’s get close to the present day. The 1985 All-Star game: Glenn Wilson. People thought he was good for awhile because he drove in 100 runs once and had a good arm. Damaso Garcia. People thought he was good because—well, I can’t recall anyone thinking he was good, but I guess they must have. Phil Bradley: now there was an exciting player for awhile, sort of a Johnny Damon-style guy, but he was done at 30.  

Just three years ago: Milton Bradley (starter!). Cristian Guzman. Joe Crede. When was the last time anyone thought about Joe Crede who was not a close friend or relative of Joe Crede’s? My purpose is not to dismiss or insult the man—he had 888 games at the major-league level, which is more than 99.9 percent of us will ever do—but did the All-Star citation do anything to mark Crede in memory? Nope. It came. It went. Look upon my works, ye mighty and forget what it is we were talking about.

You can undertake the same exercise with the Baseball Hall of Fame (How many people arrive at Cooperstown with an appreciation of Bobby Wallace? Or leave with one?), the Pulitzers (Edna Ferber was probably bigger than Clarence Kelland at one time, but is she read today?), or the Nobel Prize in Literature (they might rethink the whole Pearl S. Buck thing—I would be personally grateful). Glory is fleeting.

Part of our job as baseball writers, analysts, and historians, is to defend the underappreciated before history. That’s something I’m more than eager to do with a full season at hand, a series of seasons, or a career. Given half a season and some fan voting for a game that fewer watch every year and I’m less inclined to get excited, in the same way I am disinclined to think more of my work than it is or is meant to be. Some writers, concerned with posterity, will defend a half-sentence about Ron LeFlore like a mother bear defending her beer stash, but I’m more inclined to let these things take care of themselves. Posterity will or it won’t remember, and if it does it will be without reference to that sentence. And remember, when you get too hopeful, just think of Kelland, or one of those Spink award winners, or James Baldwin, All-Star pitcher in 2000. It wasn’t up to them, and it’s not up to you.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

19 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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BrewersTT

Consider it ironic if you like, but I liked this article enough to save a copy for future reference.

I read a lot of old fiction, but I had never heard of Kelland. Except for the references to actual films, the whole bio reads like fiction itself.

Harlan Ellison's work may or may not survive, but after he passes, his personality will live on in the form of a small, very hot sun, and although less will revolve around it than he might expect, it will be eons before it goes out in a nova, leaving nothing but empty space for parsecs around.

Jul 12, 2011 09:33 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

The interesting thing about Ellison is that although he's perceived to be an egotist, if you read the rest of the interview I cited, particularly around the section I pulled, you will see that he's making the point that you can't think that things will revolve around you, because once you do that, you become too self-conscious of yourself to actually do good work. That way lies self-parody at best or extreme writer's block at worst. Or maybe the other way around.

Jul 12, 2011 09:40 AM
 
ScottyB

Um, Edna Ferber is perhaps the greatest female novelist in US history, a giant of literature. Her novels have been turned into some of the greatest broadway musicals (Showboat) and movies of all-time (Giant). She was a member of the Algonquin Round Table!!!! Yes, I'm a lit geek and all, but Ferber is nowhere near obscure.

This being said, I get your overall point and enjoyed your column!

Jul 12, 2011 09:40 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

I know EXACTLY who Ferber is, esp. because Robert Benchley (and thereby the Round Table) has been a huge influence on me, although I am a poor shade compared to him and you probably can't tell. That said, maybe I took the wrong courses in high school and college, but I can't think of a single book of hers that is part of the standard American canon curriculum. She hasn't had a Library of America reissue, you don't see Penguin Classics' editions of her work--what is really in print? Checking out Amazon, I see maybe two-three books. The plays she did with Kaufman aren't often revived... What's really left? Just Showboat, and Showboat has its own problems that keep it from getting as much exposure as it otherwise might (IE the dated, racist language).

See, I'm a geek too.

Jul 12, 2011 09:52 AM
 
Jason Wojciechowski

I think Ferber was well-chosen for your point, Steven, for exactly the reasons that ScottyB writes -- she's a giant of literature that you'd have to be a nerd to have read. As a geek, but not a particularly lit-geek one, I've heard her name, but never come particularly close to reading any of her work, just like many of the players you name -- I've heard of some of them because I read quite a bit about baseball (though (obviously?) not nearly as much as you seem to, particularly about history), but couldn't begin to actually tell you much about them.

Jul 12, 2011 16:15 PM
rating: 0
 
BrewersTT

@Steven G: Ellison is a fascinating fellow, a man of many contradictions. One is that despite the invaluable points he makes in your source, his ego drives almost everything. His fierce loyalties and equally fierce feuds. His reaching intellect and his fisticuffs over points of literary debate. His insistence that LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS be the end-all of sf anthologies, decades in preparation and expansion beyond any realistic scope, while writers age and die without seeing publication or getting their work back. He's a huge, terrific writer, and an even bigger study in ego.

Jul 12, 2011 10:02 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

I wish I better understood why he got stuck on the LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS. I don't know that he's ever clearly explained it.

Jul 12, 2011 10:08 AM
 
newsense

When you mentioned James Baldwin, I thought of the writer and whether he was headed to the same level of obscurity as the pitcher.

Jul 12, 2011 10:14 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

I used him for exactly that reason.

Jul 12, 2011 10:56 AM
 
Lloyd Cole

Robert Benchley! Excellent! One of the favorite authors of my adolescence, and one of the wittiest people ever. Yet, to your point, who remembers him now?

Jul 12, 2011 10:16 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

I love his work (and even his short films and supporting parts in others' films, esp. his sour, alcoholic reporter in Hitchcock's underrated "Foreign Correspondent") that I couldn't bring myself to denigrate poor Bob that way.

Jul 12, 2011 10:55 AM
 
PeterBNYC

Steve, thanks for remembering Benchley's short films, many of which are hilarious, in a mystifying way- I sure hope they appear on DVD some day- hasn't everything else? (By the way, if you think you recognize the name in another context, right, his son Peter Benchley, was the author of the novel on which JAWS (NOT Jaffe's HoF metric) was based. A sample of Benchley's humor: A man, somewhat the worse for alcohol, needing to get to Chicago, boards at Grand Central Station the type of cross-country train (the 20th Century Limited, etc.) common in the '30's, enters his room in the sleeping car, and falls asleep. Next scene: sleeping car porter knocking on Benchley's door. Porter: "Buffalo, Mr. Benchley." Benchley: (verrry tentatively) "Are they coming our way?"

Jul 14, 2011 14:28 PM
rating: 0
 
BrewersTT

@Steven G: HE has given a number of public statements now and again, and when combined with the inside-baseball comments of others involved over the years, they strongly suggest a project that he could not allow to be simply great, it had to be beyond anything anyone could imagine. He kept buying stories and kept buying stories, never finding the time to edit or write his introductions to them, and then he got boxed in: he had way too much material to publish in one book, way too much work to do to get it ready for publication, but too much ego invested in it to cut the scope and give back some of the stories. British writer Chris Priest (THE PRESTIGE) wrote an essay about it, not especially generous but with the feel of truth. It used to be on-line, but apparently it's no longer available. Too bad; it painted a vivid picture.

Jul 12, 2011 10:38 AM
rating: 0
 
Shkspr

A cynic (or a Texan) might point out that one major reason neither LoA or Penguin have reprinted Ferber's work is that the rights to the best of it (Giant and So Big) are still held by HarperCollins, and are part of their Harper Perennial imprint.

That said, West Texas is sad that their 11th grade curriculum is considered non-standard.

Jul 12, 2011 21:24 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

I did say that there were two-three books still in print in the comments above. Those Harpers were what I meant, and that should have invalidated the Penguin part of what I said. Still, I think the overall point stands. Glad to know that Texas cares, though.

Jul 12, 2011 21:32 PM
 
drmorris

An absolutely wonderful essay, Steven. I was reflecting the other day on the transient nature of success in fantasy baseball when I gazed at my league-winning team of 2002 and saw the likes of Phil Nevin, Eric Gagne, and Rich Aurilia represented. Sic transit gloria.

Jul 12, 2011 22:20 PM
rating: 1
 
Pat Folz

A few years ago I was doing an internship in Cleveland, Ohio, and one day after work I went with a couple of friends, 20-something-year-old American college students, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the time there was a special exhibit on The Doors, so we went in, split up, and poked around looking at Jim Morrison's old report cards and such. Eventually we reconvened, and one of my friends goes "So have either of you actually heard of 'The Doors'?", and my other friend says, "Well, I've heard of 3 Doors Down..."

Once I picked my jaw up off the floor I managed "yeah, they did 'Light My Fire'..." At least they'd heard of that song.

Just goes to show how hard it is to know whose legacy will live on on popular memory. But I think it's for this very reason that we have Halls of Fame and the like: we can preserve what's significant in our time so that future generations might remember it as well. They might think us quaint or backward or having terrible taste, but at least these things won't be completely forgotten. I'm not a huge Doors fan myself, but I think it'd be a shame if only historians and music nerds ever heard their stuff. At least with the HoF there are now a few patrons who've heard of them when they otherwise wouldn't have, and if even one of those people goes home and checks out a few songs and finds something they really like, it's more than served its purpose.

In a similar way I like the 'time capsule' element of the All-Star game. Yes, many of the participants are less-deserving than established greats, and many of the deserving participants will be forgotten in a few years' time, but those rosters are preserved forever. Some boring summer day in 2043, Stephen Goldman Jr. will be flipping through historical All-Star rosters on baseball-reference.com and come across a long-forgotten outfielder named Randy Winn, and get inspired to make that day's YCLIU column a retrospective on Winn and Robert Fick and other forgotten All-Stars of the early 00's, and I think that's far more valuable than reaffirming for the 6000th time that Manny Ramirez is really good.

Jul 13, 2011 04:27 AM
rating: 0
 
John Collins
(110)

Pat Folz (reply function not working): point taken, but I don't think your example points out so much the uncertainty of whose fame will endure as it does the stunning ignorance of your friends. The Doors' popularity has been unusually enduring and unflagging.

Jul 17, 2011 17:23 PM
rating: 1
 
Llarry

Downloaded Scattergood Baines to my Kindle and am now a few chapters into it. Good stuff, thanks. Got some Twain-ishness about it.

Jul 18, 2011 17:57 PM
rating: 0
 
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