Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Unearthing Forgotten Bits of Culture: William Lyon Phelps

Reading old issues of The New Yorker clarifies a lot of things about life in the '20s and '30s, but it also raises new mysteries. It was written -- obviously -- for people who knew the current events of the day, so things can be a bit muddy for the 21st century reader, especially when the writers neglect to provide Googleable clues.

Several months ago I solved The Mystery of Mitzi Hajos. This afternoon I solved The Mystery of Nothing Like It.

Written by Christopher Ward* in the March 8, 1930 issue, "Nothing Like It By W-M L-N PH-L-S" is obviously a spoof of a particular book reviewer. This reviewer is obsessed with his airtight Christian morality, and even more obsessed with his social connections; each review degenerates into a long-winded story about how he is on friendly terms with the author. He also makes some really terrible puns.

Most enjoyable is his "Faery Queene Club," which he offers membership to anybody who has read the poem, including a nine-year-old named Abram Goody who wants "a badge or something" ("No, Master Goody, the only reward is a consciousness of superiority to your parents and friends, and your name in this magazine"). He also gets a letter from a chorus girl:
I have read quite a lot of the book you give me. Its certainly wrote swell. Its away over poor little me. Anyhow I want to join your Fairy Queen Club. I suppose its like the others sos I can go there when the shows over and get a drink and see a little life. Ime getting along fine they have gave me a better part. Ime in the front row now. Let me know about the Club where its address is and everything.
Besides proving that people haven't changed much in the last eighty years, the spoof posed a mystery...who was W-M L-N PH-L-S? Obviously a '30s reader would know, but what about me?

I tried inserting letters into the blanks...obviously "Phelps," but what about "W-M" and "L-N?" "Wim Lon Phelps?" Nothing was working, so I tried reverting the spoof column name ("Nothing Like It") to what I assumed was the original ("Something Like It" or "As You Like It"). Nope, no luck.

Then I tried "The Faery Queene Club," and really existed, and was run by William Lyon Phelps, who wrote a regular column called "As I Like It" for Scribner's Magazine! More importantly, every mention of Phelps online waxes eloquent about his intelligence and fame, but they never ONCE mention his supposed pomposity.

So by writing this post I am not just crowing about my internet sleuthing...I'm also pointing out that William Lyon Phelps was once considered annoying enough to inspire a spoof column, and a very funny one indeed.

* Bonus Mystery: I assume that "Christopher Ward" was Christopher Lewis Ward, who was known for writing burlesques around that time.

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