Not that John Barr!
Published by Dutton in 1934, The Riddle of the Traveling Skull is one of Windy City native Harry Stephen Keeler’s most entertaining books, a joyride of cracked narration and out-of-left-field eurekas. John Barr is a generous, hermetic bachelor who is helping his friend Philodexter Maximus read submissions for P.M.’s latest venture, a can’t-fail poetry mag called Verse—surely inspired by the Chicago-based Poetry, founded in 1912.
So when the real-life John Barr was named president of the Poetry Foundation in 2004, the Harry Stephen Keeler Society (of which I am a member) took note of the nominal and thematic convergence. A key text of Keelerdom seemed to have jumped off the page—and escaped into the real world! (One of HSK’s most endearing/insane-making tics is his constant use of exclamation points! Not to mention—dashes!)
Clay Calthorpe, the narrator of this confection, works for a candy company. He’s just returned from a trip to the Philippines, where he’s procured a new flavor for his boss, Roger Pelton. On a streetcar in Chicago, en route to his boardinghouse, he accidentally takes a bag that looks similar to his own. Later he discovers its macabre contents: a cranium containing scraps of what turn out to be a poem—and an old bullet.
He soon finds himself a player in a whirlwind nightmare of busted safes and ancient grudges. Though the paranoia level runs high, Keeler pulls out all the stops to entertain and keep readers on their toes: numerous mistaken identities, a graveyard for circus freaks, brain surgery minutiae. For fans of his unique “webwork” style, it’s catnip.
Clay is engaged to his boss’s daughter, but his best friend is Barr, who created the exceptionally well-designed travel bag that Clay misplaced. One of the first things Barr asks Clay after the streetcar mix-up is to assess a poem titled “Poor Pickings,” by Abigail Sprigge. “It’s your kind of ‘pome,’” Barr jokes. “Just the length you can stand. And just the amount of poetical depth you like!” Sprigge’s ballad runs, in its entirety:
A burglar entered by mistakeClay, a stranger to all that is airy-fairy, booms with praise: “It’s a damned good poem. Because it’s got but four lines, and they’re damned short! And it’s further a good one, because it isn’t all gooey with flowers, and springtime, and love. . . .” (Now that’s what I call criticism!)
A poetess’s room one day
And finding there was nothing else
To steal, he stole away.
Barr lays out businessman Philodexter’s surefire circulation scheme, which is so zany—so Keeler—that it bears repeating in full:
[H]e’s dividing the entire USA into a series of circular zones radiating out from Chicago. All copies of Verse will have to be returned by news-dealers complete. That is, not just covers, as with an ordinary magazine. They’ll then have a new date-page tipped in—in place of the old one—and be shipped out again, to the next zone outermost. For instance, Clay, the returns from Zone 1 will be shipped out to Zone 2. The unsold copies of Zone 2 will be shipped out to Zone 3. Each set, of course, with a new date-page. So that, at one stage, there’ll be five different editions of Verse on sale in the USA—all with the same date line.
As the mystery surrounding the traveling skull—a literal head-trip—thickens, a sonnet by the very same Miss Sprigge (vividly entitled “If His Love Dies—So Mine!”) turns out to play a key role, connecting Clay’s weird cargo with a champion of Verse. “For every sun expires in the West, / And lo! a new moon shines above the sea,” sighs the poetess.
Now the question you’re all asking: Who was Abigail Sprigge? (The question you’re not asking: And where can I read more of her stuff?) The novel’s poems were written by none other than Keeler’s wife, Hazel Goodwin Keeler. Though a staunch champion of his beloved’s literary skills, Keeler never had any illusions about the quality of these verses. The reason: They were written to order after his publisher, Dutton, dinged the poems he originally included in the manuscript—poems he found in a magazine, bearing no byline.
One of the poems he at first included sounded vaguely familiar to someone at Dutton; when questioned, Keeler said it was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “Time Does Not Bring Relief.” (The author of another, shorter poem in the original manuscript is the forgotten Ida McIntosh Zumstein.) Editor Merton S. Yewdale quite reasonably noted that “it would be unethical to print a poem by a living author and then credit it to a fictional character in a novel,” but Keeler wasn’t sympathetic. He needed to have that poem in the book, for “it would be rather silly—if the fragments of the lines . . . do not appear. The very plot and story depend on those fragmentary excerpts.”
Keeler obtained what he thought were the necessary permissions for use of the Millay poem, but on February 5, 1934, Yewdale (again quite reasonably) brought up a fatal inconsistency: “To the astute reader . . . how could a fiction character write a poem that Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote?” (He also noted that “the other three poems are rubbish.”)
Keeler tersely replied by telegram that he considered the book to have been rejected. Dutton tried to placate him. Keeler continued to pursue the permissions angle, hoping to convince Millay’s publishers that it would be OK for him to credit her on the copyright page, though not in the text proper. As the immense correspondence wound on, Keeler agreed to have his wife write substitute poems to order; The Riddle of the Traveling Skull appeared later that year, sans Millay.
Except in England!
Paul Collins, who edited Skull for its republication two years ago under his Collins Library imprint at McSweeney’s, discovered that Keeler’s British publishers, Ward Lock, apparently didn’t get the memo—and so the book’s first U.K. edition has the Millay sonnet in all its anonymous glory.
Now I must reveal that this has all been an elaborate plot of mine—to get you to read Millay’s “Time Does Not Bring Relief”—available in the Poetry Foundation’s very own archive!
I wish to thank Richard Polt, founder of the Harry Stephen Keeler Society, for sending me a copy of the Keeler correspondence, which was made available by the E.P. Dutton archive at Syracuse University. I’m also grateful to Paul Collins for showing me the ultra-rare U.K. Millay copy. For more information about Keeler, visit the Society website; to order a copy of The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, go here. (Full disclosure: I’m an editor of The Believer, a magazine published by McSweeney’s.)
Homepage image is a detail from the Ward Lock edition of Harry Stephen Keeler's The Magic Ear-Drums. Courtesy the Harry Stephen Keeler Society.