Back in 2007 humorist David Sedaris created a bit of controversy when he acknowledged exaggerating and embellishing some of the personal essays he had written for NPR and The New Yorker about his comically dysfunctional family. This seemed unfair to me. Embellishment and exaggeration are the very essence of a good family story. Take for instance the story that I call “A Thanksgiving Without Turkey,” which I drag out of mothballs every year about this time.
I am a grocery store enthusiast. I love to shop for food. But I tend to avoid grocery stores in the days leading up to a major national holiday – the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday (not technically a holiday, but probably America’s biggest secular feast day). I have a proprietary relationship towards the half dozen grocery stores I regularly visit, and it annoys me to have to share them with throngs of strangers. I prefer to do my grocery shopping during the workweek, at ten in the morning or two in the afternoon, when the supermarkets tend to be less crowded than usual.
Several years ago, my sister Cynthia invited my wife and me to spend Thanksgiving with her and her family in El Macero, a suburb of Davis, California. For various reasons, I hadn’t been to a grocery store in nearly a week at that time. And now the knowledge that we weren’t going to be fixing a Thanksgiving feast at home inspired me to put off my shopping until after the pre-holiday frenzy was over. I told my wife that we should allow the supplies in our pantry and our refrigerator to dwindle down to nearly nothing and then we could replenish them on the Friday after Thanksgiving (aka “Black Friday”), when the rest of the world would be shopping for Christmas presents, and the grocery stores would be relatively deserted.
Black Friday is my favorite of all the official and unofficial national holidays. The house is usually filled with tasty leftovers. A person can snack on delicious foods all day long without ever having to do any kitchen chore more strenuous than operating a microwave oven. The Christmas season officially begins on Black Friday, but shopping days are still plentiful and no one seems too stressed out as yet.
Of course, on this particular Black Friday my house would not be filled with leftovers, but since I love to shop for groceries, I was looking forward to spending my favorite holiday engaging in one of my favorite pastimes. Julie thought this sounded like a good idea. And so, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, we blew the dust off old cans of soup and baked beans and boxes of minute rice and instant potatoes and other supplies that had been cluttering up our pantry shelves for far too long. We emptied our cupboards and fridge in anticipation of our Black Friday grocery-shopping binge. By Thanksgiving morning there was practically nothing edible left in the house except some frozen sandwich rolls in the freezer and a few of the less appetizing soups that had been cluttering the pantry.
And then the unexpected happened. At noon, just as we were getting ready to leave the house for our trip to El Macero, my sister called. I could tell from the sound of her voice that something was wrong. Her throat was scratchy and hoarse. She could barely speak. Feeling tremendously guilty, she informed me that she wouldn’t be able to host a Thanksgiving get-together that year. She had awakened feeling sick and feverish and simply didn’t have the strength to spend the day cooking and socializing.
I told her not to worry about it. I told her Julie and I would be fine. I told her to take care of herself. Then I hung up the phone and passed along the bad news to Julie.
By now it was too late to start our own Thanksgiving feast. Most of the grocery stores were open only until noon. And even if we could find a place to shop, it was far too late to begin cooking a turkey and all the trimmings. A real traditional Thanksgiving feast takes all day to prepare. Julie usually makes some of the appetizers the night before Thanksgiving. There was no way we could whip up a feast with the time and supplies we had available to us. And neither of us had any desire to eat a Thanksgiving meal at a restaurant. Thanksgiving is about home and family. The prospect of going to a restaurant and dining by ourselves seemed entirely too depressing. And so we decided to stay home and thaw out our frozen sandwich rolls and boil up some lentil soup.
Now, every year in mid-November, Cynthia invites Julie and me to her house for Thanksgiving dinner, in an effort to atone for the Thanksgiving we missed out on. Julie and I have always politely turned down this invitation. I tease Cynthia by telling her that we cannot accept her invitation and run the risk of another Thanksgiving dinner of sandwich rolls and soup. And whenever we do attend a family function or some other gathering at Cynthia’s house, I am sure to regale everyone with my story of The Thanksgiving Dinner That Wasn’t. Through the years, the details of this story have become increasingly estranged from the truth. The last time I told it, Julie and I had spent the Thanksgiving in question dining on breadcrumbs and water. This year it will likely be cat food and pond scum. By now, everyone expects the story to grow a little more improbable with each retelling — or else what’s the point? Exaggeration and embellishment are the hallmarks of a good family story. This is something that David Sedaris’ critics just don’t understand.
But in the interest of full disclosure, I shall now reveal the truth behind my famous Thanksgiving story. As it turned out, the day wasn’t at all unpleasant for Julie and me. What I always fail to mention is that Julie and I had insisted that we would provide the desert for that particular Thanksgiving Day feast. Thus, I had gone out the day before and purchased a delicious pumpkin pie from a local bakery. What’s more, our cupboard wasn’t quite as bare as I always make it out to be. I can’t recall exactly what else we found to eat that day, but it’s possible we might have been able to whip up some mashed potatoes and gravy. There may even have been some frozen corn and peas and a few other items of interest in the freezer. But these inconvenient facts would only spoil a good thing were I to include them in my story. So, out of generosity to my audience, I always omit them.
The real reason Julie and I turn down Cynthia’s invitation (and all other invitations) every year at Thanksgiving, is because dining away from home on Thanksgiving puts a real damper on my favorite holiday: Black Friday. As good as turkey and cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie taste on Thursday when they are hot and fresh out of the oven or off the stove, they taste twice as good the next day, when they are cold and require absolutely no preparation whatsoever. What’s more, it’s not the food that makes the Thanksgiving weekend so much fun for Julie and me. It’s spending four days together with no work or worries. And that’s why we enjoyed it even when we had (almost) nothing to eat but sandwich rolls and soup. But don’t tell that to my sister.
Memories change through the years, and who’s to say that the earliest versions are always the most accurate? Take, for instance, the case of writer Willie Morris. In his 1995 memoir, “My Dog Skip,” Morris recycles a lot of the anecdotes that appeared in an earlier memoir, “North Toward Home,” published in 1967. In “My Dog Skip,” Morris writes about a time when, at the age of twelve or so, he and a buddy contrived to terrify a little boy named John Abner Reeves in a Yazoo City, Mississippi, graveyard. Earlier in the day Morris had given John Abner a quarter in exchange for the latter’s promise that he would walk through the graveyard at exactly nine o’clock that night. Before the appointed hour, Morris, his dog Skip, and the buddy arrive at the graveyard and hide behind some bushes. Later, as John Abner is passing their hiding place, Morris blasts a loud and terrifying note on his trumpet while his buddy simulates the appearance of a ghost by raising up a long stick over which a large white pillowcase has been hung. The most elaborate part of the prank involves Skip. As a terrified John Abner races toward the graveyard’s exit, Morris attaches a cardboard replica of a human skeleton to Skip’s back and instructs the dog to chase poor John Abner out to the street. This final element of the anecdote struck me as false and cartoonish. I double checked it with “North Toward Home” and discovered that, although in most respects the 1967 anecdote matches the 1995 version nearly word-for-word, the 1967 anecdote contains no mention whatsoever of either Skip or the cardboard skeleton. In fact, the graveyard anecdote is described on page 35 of my edition of “North Toward Home,” and Skip doesn’t enter Morris’ life until page 67. I suspect that Morris was so fond of the graveyard anecdote that he decided to give Skip a role in it so that he could justify including it in “My Dog Skip,” where it otherwise might have seemed gratuitous. How else to explain such an inconsistency from an author who claimed, in yet another memoir, “I have always taken no inconsiderable pride in my recollection for detail…”? In this instance, it is the earlier version of the tale that seems the most authentic.
In “North Toward Home,” Willie Morris writes, “when my old dog Skip died of a heart-attack…looking at me with his sad black eyes and expiring in a sigh as old as death, that [the commemorative jacket Morris was given when his baseball team won a Mississippi state championship] is what I wrapped him in before I took him in my arms and put him in the ground.” Twenty-eight years later, in “My Dog Skip,” here is how Morris recalls the death of his beloved dog: “A month later there was a transatlantic call for me at Oxford University. I went to the front lodge of my college to take it. ‘Skip died,’ Daddy said. He and my mother had wrapped him in my baseball jacket and put him in the ground…” I don’t think Morris was lying, exactly, when he wrote the earlier book. Morris had been with Skip through every other major event of the dog’s life. His recreation of Skip’s burial in “North Toward Home” seems more of an act of reclamation than of deception. He is reclaiming for himself an act – the burial of his dog – that he would have performed himself had it been humanly possible for him to do so. In fact, by the time he came to write “North Toward Home,” Morris must have pictured Skip’s burial in his mind so many times that he began to believe he had been there himself. Twenty-eight years later, however, I think Morris realized that the truth was actually more moving than his imaginary recreation of the event. The thought of an old dog dying alone while his beloved young master is in a faraway land across the sea is much more poignant and powerful than Morris’ earlier, more melodramatic version. No doubt, young Willie’s departure for Oxford, which left Skip bereft of his best friend, contributed to the dog’s final decline. Morris doesn’t say this, but he doesn’t have to. The two versions of Skip’s death provide an object lesson in the differences between the stories of youth and the stories of old age. Morris was in his thirties when he wrote “North Toward Home.” In that book he still seems to regard himself as the hero of his own grand adventure. Thus, like a good hero, he personally attends to the interment of his fallen comrade. Years later, a relatively old man, he no longer seems to consider himself such a romantic figure. Now he sees himself as an ordinary mortal who was once forced by circumstances to abandon his best friend, thereby condemning that friend to a hastened death all alone. Which of these two versions is true – the young man’s or the old man’s? That’s easy to answer. They’re both true. Morris writes at the end of “My Dog Skip”: “They had buried him under our elm tree, they said – yet this was not totally true. For he really lay buried in my heart.”
Everyone expects a family story to contain some embellishment and exaggeration. But I have the bad habit of embellishing other types of stories as well, stories that have nothing to do with my family. When I was a child, my friends and I used to play a game called “Chinese Whispers,” wherein one player would secretly whisper a short phrase into the ear of the player sitting to his right. The players would sit in a circle and the phrase was passed on, counterclockwise, until it reached the end of the circle. At that point the last player would repeat the phrase out loud. The fun derived from the way the original phrase would get mangled as it passed through the circle. Through a process similar to what takes place in a game of Chinese Whispers (now more frequently referred to by the less evocative but more politically correct name “Telephone”), the stories I hear and pass along tend to morph with each telling until they reach a condition in which they would no longer be recognizable to their originator. Take for instance the story of an unlucky biographer that I heard years ago at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. It was told to me by a young academic and may well have been apocryphal. But even if it had come to me as absolutely unvarnished truth, it would now no longer be recognizable to any of its principle participants. I have told it so many times and embellished so many of its details that I doubt a single fact remains unadulterated. To call the story fictionalized would be an understatement. The story is now far more fable than fact. Whenever I gather with other writers to discuss the literary trade, I recite it as a cautionary tale. The original story was told to me in under a minute. When I attempted to write up my version of the story for this essay, it ran to 2,500 words and would have taken somewhere between five and ten minutes to recite out loud. I call it:
THE MARQUAND REVIVAL: A Tale of Obsession
Years ago, a professor of 20th Century American Literature at a large state university got wind that a publisher was planning to bring several titles by the late and largely forgotten novelist John P. Marquand back into print. This was back in the mid 1970s. Marquand won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Late George Apley” in 1938. But by the time of his death, in 1960, his works were rapidly fading from the public consciousness. By the 1970s most of his work was out of print and his name unknown to all but a handful of old admirers. Younger readers were almost entirely unaware of his existence, despite the fact that some of his close contemporaries – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner – were still very much read and admired. Rumor had it that Marquand’s old publishers had decided the time was right for a new generation of readers to discover this once-popular writer and were planning to bring back into print four or five of his most highly regarded books, with an eye towards bringing the entire body of Marquand’s writing back into print over the following four or five years.
Upon hearing this rumor, Professor X decided to capitalize on the coming Marquand revival by spending his summer vacation hammering out a quickie biography of the writer. The professor had written several monographs, on writers such as Joyce Cary and Hart Crane, that were intended solely for an academic audience, but he wanted his Marquand biography to be a more commercial venture. He was hoping to attract the interest of middlebrow readers, that segment of the American public that considered itself too sophisticated for cheap romances and paperback detective novels but shied away also from heavyweights like Proust and Joyce.
All summer long, the professor spent his mornings reading the works of Marquand and making copious notes. At noon he went to the library to research the writer’s life and times. In the evenings he sat in his study and composed the opening chapters of the biography. The more he read, and the deeper into Marquand’s life he delved, the more he began to like his project. Marquand was not just some tedious Ivy-League “man of letters,” the kind of pompous bore inevitably laurelled and celebrated by the American Academy of Arts and Literature. Marquand began his career as a writer of pulp short stories and novels. He created the extremely popular Japanese detective Mr. Moto, the inspiration for a string of B movies starring Peter Lorre. Although Harvard-educated, Marquand was not a member of the east-coast elite. At least he didn’t start out a member of the elite. He grew up in relatively humble circumstances and always considered himself an outsider to the ruling-class world occupied so comfortably by many of his Harvard classmates. Though his pulp fictions were a smash success that brought Marquand lots of money and fame, his family, and especially his in-laws, looked down upon his work as not worthy of a gentleman. To earn the respect of his peers and family members, Marquand put aside his career as a pulp fictioneer and, in middle age, vowed to write a work of serious literature. He moved into a quiet cabin on the Massachusetts coast and started work on “a real novel.” A year later he had produced “The Late George Apley,” a book that would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and vault Marquand, in many people’s minds, to the highest rungs of the literary elite. The professor was fascinated by Marquand’s story. By the time September rolled around, he had written over 100 pages of the biography and had notes that would take him all the way through to the end. He contacted a publishing house and described his project for them. He didn’t approach the publisher that was rumored to be planning the Marquand revival because he figured they might already have their own biography in the works. Besides, Professor X was writing a critical biography, a work that questioned the literary value of much of Marquand’s work, and he figured Marquand’s publisher would not look kindly on such a venture. Eventually, a commercial publishing house offered the professor a small advance on his biography, even though no one at the publishing house had been able to verify that a Marquand revival was in the works. It was agreed that the professor would receive no more money and his book would not be published until the Marquand revival actually commenced.
All during the school year the professor worked on his Marquand book He solicited letters from numerous people who had corresponded with Marquand. He acquired copies of some of Marquand’s publishing contracts. He tracked down the most obscure of Marquand’s early pulp fictions and read them with the care an archeologist might give to a fragment of ancient Sanskrit, looking for insights into the writer’s mind. By the end of the school year, he had over 1000 pages of material in his Marquand file. He spent another full summer finishing the biography. By September he had completed a 600-page manuscript, which he submitted to his publishers. The publishers liked the book but did not consider it to be viable in the current literary market. Marquand was nearly out of print. Younger, hipper writers – Kerouac, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Barth, Kesey, Brautigan – had come along to completely dominate the literary scene in the decades since Marquand’s heyday. Lacking a wide-scale revival of interest in the man’s literary works, a Marquand biography would have an extremely limited appeal, one not large enough to justify the printing costs.
The professor was not unduly concerned by this news. He felt confident that a Marquand revival was imminent. In the meantime, he planned to improve his biography. He wanted to make it more literate and intellectual. To hell with the middlebrows; he now believed he had a chance to win a Pulitzer of his own simply by making his Marquand biography a more serious work of scholarship. And so he took a sabbatical and spent an entire year tracking down people who had known Marquand. He researched the minutest details of the man’s life: the kind of pen he wrote with, the brand of whiskey he drank, the make of car he drove. Years went by and still the professor continued to add depth and heft to his book. Gradually, he began to suspect that his book was not only good, but brilliant. Yet, a full decade after the rumors began, no Marquand revival had appeared. Even worse, the professor’s obsession with his book had cost him his marriage. His wife, feeling neglected, had taken their daughter and moved to another town. She remarried and the professor’s daughter grew up much closer to her stepfather than her real father. The professor believed that all this would be justified by the eventual success of his book. When he was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in Biography, his daughter would be proud to claim him as her father and would finally understand why his book had been so important to him. The attention that his Pulitzer would bring would generate job offers from prestigious universities. Eventually he might find himself teaching Contemporary Biography at Yale or Princeton or Columbia. Then his daughter would understand and forgive the sacrifices he had been forced to make.
But during the 1980s and 1990s, the Professor watched as one forgotten writer after another experienced a posthumous reversal of fortune. The Dawn Powell revival proved to be the making of her biographer Tim Page. He was hired to edit a collection of her letters, a collection of her short fiction, and even her diaries. When her best work was collected into several volumes by the Library of America, Page was hired to do the editing. The Jim Thompson revival proved to be the making of his biographer Robert Polito. After winning a National Book Critics Circle Award for his Thompson biography, Polito was paid to write an introduction to Thompson’s short fiction. Then he was hired to edit a two-volume Library of America edition of American Crime Noir. He contributed essays to numerous studies of crime noir fiction. When the John Fante revival came about, Fante’s biographer Stephen Cooper received a similar career boost. The works of Philip K. Dick and Patricia Highsmith both experienced huge posthumous revivals, and helped promote the careers of biographers and academics who had hitched their wagons to those subjects. Professor X watched enviously as one academic after another rode to success on the coattails of a dead author. Surely, he thought, the Marquand revival must be coming soon. With the possible exception of Patricia Highsmith and her fictional Mr. Ripley, none of those other writers had ever created a character as widely known as Marquand’s Mr. Moto. None of those other writers had ever won a prize as prestigious as the Pulitzer. And long before the films “Bladerunner” and “Total Recall” and “The Grifters” and “Ask The Dust” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” appeared in theaters, Hollywood had been making films based on the works of John P. Marquand. So why were Dick and Thompson and Fante and Highsmith enjoying such a resurgence in popularity while Marquand’s grip on the public consciousness grew more tenuous with every passing year?
By the end of the 20th century, the professor’s Marquand bio was nearly 1400 pages long. The original publishing contract had long since expired and the publishing house had refused to renew it. No one now believed that a Marquand revival was imminent. The man and his works were as dead as the dodo. In his query letters to publishers, the professor argued that his biography was good enough to create a Marquand revival all by itself. It was so fascinating, he claimed, that readers would demand that Marquand’s best work be brought back into print. But publishers were dubious. In recent years, biographies of two largely forgotten writers, William Saroyan and John O’Hara, had appeared in print and fared poorly. Neither had generated a renewal of interest in the works of those once-celebrated authors. Nobody wanted to run the risk of getting stuck with 10,000 remaindered copies of a massive biography for which there was no ready-made audience. A few academic presses expressed an interest in the professor’s book, but he was reluctant to trust his life’s work to one of these obscure houses. For one thing, every academic publisher who had seen the book insisted that its length would have to be reduced by at least half before it could be published. Secondly, none of these presses had the clout or prestige necessary to make the book the kind of blockbuster that the Professor believed it deserved to be. It had been in the works now for three decades. The professor was surely the world’s leading authority on the life and work of John P. Marquand. He believed his book deserved a large printing by a commercial publishing house powerful enough to properly handle such a complex work. A big publishing house, with a full staff of publicity experts, would know how to get the book reviewed in all the right places. Such people would be able to make sure the book was strongly considered for all of the major literary awards. A powerhouse publishing firm could secure strong pre-publication blurbs from top name writers and critics. And so the professor turned down all offers from publishing houses he regarded as too small to properly promote and support his book. He believed his time would come. Through the years there had been numerous rumors that a new film version of “Wickford Point” or “The Late George Apley” had been green-lighted by a major Hollywood studio. Eventually, the professor believed, one of these films would go before the cameras, and when that happened, a revival of interest in Marquand’s life and work was bound to follow.
But it didn’t. The professor died one night, alone at his desk, cut down by a heart attack while polishing up a chapter dealing with Marquand’s courtship of his first wife. In his last will and testament, the Professor left his manuscript and his massive collection of Marquandiana to his ex-wife and daughter. In a personal note included with the will, he urged his two heirs to guard the materials carefully. When the Marquand revival finally arrived, he wrote, the biography and its source materials would be worth their weight in gold. The ex-wife had no desire to be the curator of the professor’s life’s work. She blamed his Marquand obsession for the failure of her first marriage, and so she refused to even admit the material into her house. The daughter was less hostile towards the professor’s legacy. She had barely known her father and she thought that perhaps by reading his Marquand biography and looking through his research materials she could gain some sort of understanding of the man who had sired her. She became the sole guardian of her father’s life work. But it wasn’t an easy task. She had little money and lived in a small apartment. The Marquand material filled three filing cabinets and several dozen large cardboard boxes. The daughter placed everything but the manuscript into a storage facility. Every few months she made a vow to read her father’s book, but the 2000-plus-page manuscript was so daunting that she always broke this vow. The daughter moved several times. She became so financially straitened that she couldn’t afford to pay the monthly fee for the storage facility. She wrote to her mother and urged her to please take on the responsibility for the Marquand materials. But the mother simply ignored the request. During one of her frequent moves, the daughter discovered that she had misplaced her father’s manuscript. She hoped that someone would find it and return it to her. She also believed that there must be a copy of it somewhere among her father’s massive storehouse of research materials. Thus, she didn’t worry too much about the missing manuscript. When the rent was three months overdue, the managers of the storage facility removed the Marquand materials from the daughter’s unit and offered them up for auction. When no one bought the material at auction, a recycling company was paid to haul it all away for shredding and recycling. The biography itself never resurfaced. The Marquand revival never arrived.
Now, except for the fact that the original version of this story had no death, divorce, or daughter in it, and made absolutely no mention of John P. Marquand, I’ve passed it along to you almost exactly as it was recited to me.