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Part love story, part thriller, part booklover’s fantasyand entirely charmingChristopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop has something for every reader. Set in a lovingly evoked Brooklyn just after the end of World War I, the story cleverly juxtaposes a pair of middle-aged bookshop owners and two young lovers with a nest of German saboteurs. It is complete with mysterious clues, red herrings, blushing romance, derring-do, a desperate race to the rescue, and an explosion. But more important, the novel is an eloquent hymn to the bookseller’s trade and a fervent plea for the revivifying and redemptive power of literature. The unifying thread of this book, and indeed of the life and work of its author, is its passionate avowal that all the world and everybody in it needs is a good book.
Just as his best-remembered novel is idiosyncratic and hard to categorize, so is its author, Christopher Morley. He was an example of a species that scarcely exists anymore, the jack-of-all-trades literary gentleman, proficient in any number of genres, but not necessarily exceptional in any of them. In his astonishingly prolific career, Morley published twelve novels, fourteen collections of poetry, sixteen volumes of essays, a number of plays, and countless reviews. His literary career stretched from 1912, when he published his first volume of poetry, until 1955, two years before his death, when he published his last. His career coincided with those of some of the greatest American writers of the twentieth centuryWilliam Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot, to name a fewand while Morley’s work is not considered as groundbreaking or important as theirs, he was, during his day, a popular and well-respected writer. His novel Thunder on the Left, a dark fantasy about childhood and death, was considered unusual and even shocking upon its first publication in 1925, and his novel Kitty Foyle (1939), a frank first-person account of a tough working-class woman, was a best seller and was made into a popular film starring Ginger Rogers, who won an Academy Award for her performance.
But Morley was arguably more important as an editor, anthologist, reviewer, and all-round champion of literature than he was as a writer himself. Born in 1890 in Haverford, Pennsylvania, to English parents, he attended Haverford College and studied as a Rhodes Scholar at New College, Oxford, before arriving in New York in 1913. He started his literary career as a publicist and book representative for the firm of Doubleday, and he carried his enthusiasm for books and literature into his more important subsequent work as an editor and reviewer. He helped to found The Saturday Review, and wrote a column for the magazine from 1924 until 1941. He was also one of the five original board members of the Book-of-the-Month Club, for whose monthly newsletter he wrote hundreds of reviews. He was one of the founders of the Baker Street Irregulars, the society devoted to the appreciation of the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and he was the editor of two editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Through these activities, and his countless reviews and essays, Morley carried on his work as a popularizer and proselytizer of books he admired, helping to promote the reputations of many writers, including the American poet Walt Whitman and the great Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad. His reviews were not usually literary criticism in the dry, academic sense, but more along the lines of one friend saying enthusiastically to another, “You’ve got to read this book.”
This missionary passion for promoting good books was evident right from the start of Morley’s writing career, in his first two novels, Parnassus on Wheels (1917) and The Haunted Bookshop (1919). Written while he was still working for Doubleday, Parnassus on Wheels is an unusual first novel for a twenty-seven-year-old. Many first novels are youthful coming-of-age stories, but the narrator of Parnassus on Wheels is an unmarried, middle-aged woman named Helen McGill who has tired of caring for her brother, an eccentric but popular writer who lives in a remote New England farmhouse. When an itinerant bookseller named Roger Mifflin arrives on her doorstep one morning and offers to sell his custom-built bookshop-on-wheels to her brother, Helen buys it herself and takes off with Mifflin to learn bookselling. Like its sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, Parnassus on Wheels is an odd and charming story, part road trip, part extended rant by Mifflin on the salutary effects of great books, and (by the end of the novel) part middle-aged romance.
The unexpected success of Parnassus on Wheels (which enabled Morley to quit his job at Doubleday) led him two years later to write his next novel. Though the book is technically a sequel to the earlier work, it’s not necessary to have read Parnassus on Wheels to fully enjoy The Haunted Bookshop. Set in the weeks immediately following the end of World War I in November 1918, the novel finds Roger and Helen settled in Brooklyn, New York, where they have given up itinerant bookselling for a brick-and-mortar used bookshop, which is called Parnassus at Home. The bookshop, which according to Roger is “haunted by the ghosts of all great literature,” takes up the lower floors of their row house, with Helen and Roger living comfortably behind the shop. Much of the charm of the novel’s early chapters lies in their evocation of the shop and the quiet life of its owners. Morley’s Brooklyn is an attractive district of homely diners, corner pharmacies, and boarding houses. There’s even a literary air to the neighborhood, as all the streets around the shop (none of which exist in the real Brooklyn, then or now) are named after famous writers: Thackeray, Swinburne, Clemens, Hazlitt, and Wordsworth. The shop itself is on Gissing Street, which is named after one of Morley’s favorite writers, the British novelist George Gissing, author of New Grub Street, another (and much grimmer) novel about the literary life.
The shop itself, which is the setting for much of the novel, is a booklover’s fantasy of a quaint, cozy, under-lit used bookstore. It’s more of a dark grotto with bookcases than a brightly lit place of business:
Two stories of the old house had been thrown into one: the lower space was divided into little alcoves; above a gallery ran round the wall, which carried books to the ceiling. The air was heavy with the delightful fragrance of mellowed paper and leather surcharged with a strong bouquet of tobacco . The shop had a warm and comfortable obscurity, a kind of drowsy dusk, stabbed here and there by bright cones of yellow light from green-shaded electrics. There was an all-pervasive drift of tobacco smoke, which eddied and fumed under the glass lampshades. Passing down a narrow aisle between the alcoves the visitor noticed that some of the compartments were wholly in darkness; in others where lamps were glowing he could see a table and chairs.
Decades later, in an era of vast bookstores lit like supermarkets (and where no smoking is allowed), this is still many readers’ ideal of what a bookshop should be, even if they’ve never actually seen one like it.
And yet, though the shop is the focal point of the novel, the story ranges farther, becoming something more than just a sentimental evocation of bibliophilia. Helen and Roger are no longer the only main characters; indeed, Helen, who was both the protagonist and narrator of Parnassus on Wheels, plays only a supporting role in The Haunted Bookshop. Sharing top billing and providing a touch of romance are two younger characters. The ingénue is Titania Chapman, whose father, a successful businessman and close friend of Roger’s, has asked the bookseller to hire his daughter as an assistant in the shop and teach her something about books. Titania is an attractively naïve girl, her charm emphasized by her name, which (in yet another literary reference) is taken from the Queen of the Fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The vigorous, earnest, and slightly more earthbound leading man is Aubrey Gilbert, an ambitious young copywriter for the Grey Matter Advertising Agency across the East River in Manhattan, who has wandered into Roger’s shop in the hopes of selling him an ad, and who falls hard for Titania. Though he is not an explicitly autobiographical character, Aubrey owes something to his creator, who had spent the years just before writing the novel working as a publicist for Doubleday, pitching the company’s titles directly to booksellers. He is an attractive example of an ambitious young man on the rise, written by another young man on the rise.
A third element to the book is its evocation of life in New York, or at least Brooklyn. Most novels this whimsical, if they are set in a real place, are set in a soft-focus version of it, but Morley’s New York feels immediate and sharp. In one particularly lovely scene, Aubrey, who has just met Titania at the bookshop, pauses on the Brooklyn Bridge during his walk home, and gazes at the Manhattan skyline. It’s a wonderfully evocative moment, illuminating the heart of a young man in love, but also clearly and indelibly sketching a portrait of a still-young New York, in the years just before it became the most important city in the world:
The hour was latemoving on toward midnightbut in the tall black precipices of Manhattan scattered lights gleamed, in an odd, irregular pattern like the sparse punctures of the raffle board“take a chance on a Milk-Fed Turkey”the East Indian elevator-boy presents to apartment-house tenants about Hallowe’en. A fume of golden light eddied over uptown merriment: he could see the ruby beacon on the Metropolitan Tower signal three quarters. Underneath the airy decking of the bridge a tug went puffing by, her port and starboard lamps trailing red and green threads over the tideway. Some great argosy of the Staten Island fleet swept serenely down to St. George, past Liberty in her soft robe of light, carrying theatred commuters, dazed with weariness and blinking at the raw fury of the electric bulbs. Overhead the night was a superb arch of clear frost, sifted with stars. Blue sparks crackled stickily along the trolley wires as the cars groaned over the bridge.
The novel is likewise set during a particular moment in history, specifically late November 1918, in the weeks immediately following the Armistice that ended World War I. As the events of the novel unfold, President Woodrow Wilson is about to leave for France to negotiate the peace, and the recent horrors of the war in Europe, though not dramatized by Morley, cast a shadow over the novel. In the story, that shadow is manifested by a nest of German saboteurs working in Manhattan and Brooklyn, who are using Roger’s bookshop as a drop point for coded messages. The saboteurs themselves are rather stock characterssurly, bearded, heavily accentedand they reflect a bit too uncritically the anti-German sentiment of the time. But they do add a genuine spark of intrigue to the story, as Aubrey takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of their plot and protect the girl with whom he’s fallen in love. As an action hero, Aubrey is very much in the Arthur Conan Doyle tradition of the gentleman amateurenthusiastic, bluff, single-minded, and occasionally a little bumblingand the earlytwentieth-century technology he has to work withracing back and forth on trains and the subway, placing desperate long-distance telephone calls that take half an hour to connecthelps to generate genuine, if sepia-toned, suspense.
But the postwar shadow has a deeper resonance in the book, as Roger, who like most iconoclasts is at heart an idealist, wrestles with the futility of the recent war and the general anxiety of the times. In chapter 6, “Titania Learns the Business,” Roger (and Morley), under the pretext of showing young Titania the layout of the shop, delivers a passionate plea for the role of the bookseller in helping to make the peace. “My only consolation,” he tells Titania, “is that I think the bookseller can play as useful a part as any man in rebuilding the world’s sanity.” He continues:
Certainly running a second-hand bookstore is a pretty humble calling, but I’ve mixed a grain of glory with it, in my own imagination at any rate. You see, books contain the thoughts and dreams of men, their hopes and strivings and all their immortal parts. It’s in books that most of us learn how splendidly worthwhile life is . Books are the immortality of the race, the father and mother of most that is worthwhile cherishing in our hearts. To spread good books about, to sow them on fertile minds, to propagate understanding and a carefulness of life and beauty, isn’t that mission enough for a man?
And a moment later, he makes a claim for literature as the ultimate guarantor of peace, coming up with a more contemporary version of “the pen is mightier than the sword”:
Printer’s ink has been running a race against gunpowder these many, many years. Ink is handicapped, in a way, because you can blow up a man with gunpowder in half a second, while it may take twenty years to blow him up with a book. But gunpowder destroys itself along with its victim, while a book can keep on exploding for centuries.
This impassioned declaration (which is followed immediately by a reading list for Titania and the reader) lies at the heart of the book. Partly it’s a skillful bit of foreshadowing of the book’s literally explosive climax, which cleverly combines gunpowder and a biography of Oliver Cromwell, but more important, it’s a heartfelt plea from one passionate booklover to (hopes Morley) another, namely the one holding this little novel in his or her hands. And despite the quaintness of its setting and its plot, The Haunted Bookshop’s formulation of the bookseller’s dilemmashould he or she sell the books the public wants, or the books the public needs to read?remains especially pertinent in the era of the superstore and the Internet. There’s no doubting where Christopher Morley and his creation stand on that question“Books are the depositories of the human spirit,” cries Roger, “which is the only thing in this world that endures”and even in our own age of anxiety and war, what could be more noble, and more necessary, than that?
James Hynes is the author of three novels, The Wild Colonial Boy, The Lecturer’s Tale, and Kings of Infinite Space, and a book of novellas, Publish and Perish.