Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Grandfather of the Monster

No, I'm not writing about myself.  And, no, my grandsons are not monsters in any sense whatsoever.  It's another grandfather I have in mind.

I've made a sad discovery in this yellow wood of my life: The more I read the less I know.  Just about every book I read points me toward other things I ought to read, toward vast unexplored oceans of ideas I did not even know existed.  Toward writers I never heard of.  Books I never knew.  It's as if my shelves were constructed by some waggish wizard who wandered in from Harry Potter: When I remove a book, a dozen somehow appear in its place.

And even when I think I know something, well, that's when I get a little reminder from the Other Side that all is vanity.

For example ...

When I was working on my Mary Shelley biography (The Mother of the Monster--available on Amazon/Kindle; as you've noticed, I can be crass and commercial any time or place), I read as well the complete works of both of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.

Godwin, who lived much longer than his poor wife, who died shortly after delivering the child that would become Mary Shelley in 1797, wrote a lot.  Novels, essays, scholarly works, biographies, monographs.  And children's books.

He had enjoyed a brief celebrity, then tumbled from favor when the political/religious climate changed (he was anti-government and an atheist--not always the most popular combination in any time or place) and had to scrape and scramble for cash, borrowing substantial sums from Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, though married, eloped with Godwin's teenage daughter.  But that's another, far more famous story.

One venture Godwin attempted, as I've said, was writing books for children (little Mary was often the guinea pig for his projects).  But he knew he dared not use his real name as the author ("William Godwin" was not a name that would cause young parents to cry, "Let's see what the anarchist/atheist wants to teach our children!").  So he adopted some pen names.

Edward Baldwin was one.  William Frederic Mylius was another.  (Mylius was a son of Priam, the Trojan king.)

A third was Theophilus Marcliffe--a name you gotta love.  The first name, in Greek, is "lover of God."

Well,I thought I'd read all of Godwin's children's books (a task that sent me to some distant libraries).  Nope.

The other day--for a reason I can't recall--I was looking at a Godwin bibliography and saw a Marcliffe title I didn't recognize: The Looking Glass,  a book that has a subtitle that's nearly as long as the text: A True History of the Early Years of an Artist; Calculated to awaken the Emulation of Young Persons of Both Sexes, in the Pursuit of Every laudable Attainment: particularly in the Cultivation of the Fine Arts.

In today's wondrous world of print-on-demand and online texts, I was able to acquire a print replica of the book (from Amazon: $14.99).  It came on Monday.  I read it in a single sitting.

It is a sort of inspirational tale, a biography of the boyhood of artist William Mulready (1786-1863), a Godwin friend and illustrator.  Here's his painting, The Sonnet (1839).  Not bad.

Godwin was so impressed with Mulready's rise from obscurity--his determination to succeed--that he wrote this little biography without mentioning Mulready's name at all.

The story is one of determination, of "emulation" (Godwin's focus), of a young man who will become an artist despite his humble background (his father, in Ireland, made leather breeches).

The book is almost entirely narrative, Godwin/Marcliffe popping up in the batter only occasionally to remind young readers that there's something to be learned from this life.  I love this line: "Let me give you however one caution: imitate whatever he did that was best; you will have faults enough of your own" (56).  Oh, will we!

And my favorite: "One of the great gratifications of an ambitious mind is to create surprise in the minds of others" (91).

Godwin did that with me, over and over and over in his writing.  So did his wife.  So did his daughter.  And it remains one of the principal reasons I read--to be surprised.

Even when that surprise means I've got another dozen books to read.


By the way, I think this is blog post #100.  How can that be?

And don't forget: I've got some titles available on Amazon--some as actual books, some in Kindle format only.

Click here for my books on Amazon.

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