Pass the Hemlock … but let Burton Rascoe live!

IMG_0183There is so much to love in the Burton Rascoe papers, not least, Burton Rascoe himself! Mr. Rascoe, for those who don’t know him, was a delightfully snarky and brutally honest literary critic and journalist.  He is known, not only for his own writings, but for championing the work of some of America’s best known literary giants, including Theodore Dreiser, H.L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, James Branch Cabell, and Carl Sandberg to name just a few.  Mr. Rascoe (1892-1957) started his career in Chicago, but moved on to New York in 1920.

IMG_0170I knew I was going to fall hard for Mr. Rascoe when I came across a letter he wrote to H.L. Mencken in which he complained about Theodore Dreiser (with whom he had a close personal relationship, deeply admired, and about whom he wrote his first book).  Nonetheless, when Mr. Rascoe had something to say, he said it.  In this case, he stated: “Dreiser’s stupidity and ingratitude give me an acute attack of proctalgia. What the hell is the use?  Here you have touted him in and out of season, fought his battles for him almost single-handed, sacrificed your time and money to secure him a hearing, and written a wholly admirable adjutication [sic] of his aims and methods, and he, the thankless fathead, is offended!  Pass the hemlock!” (box 4, folders 7-9).  I looked up proctalgia, and it is does not sound great.  I expect that Rascoe was not always popular after writing things like this, but he had his defenders like Bertha Downing who wrote “on the whole, Rascoe is good for one, like spinach and carrots, not pleasant but healthful … I say, let him live.” (Box 17, Folder 29). Possibly because he was so incredibly blunt and honest and forthcoming, it seems that many were simply delighted by him. Indeed, he had any number of correspondents who addressed him early in their correspondence as “Dear Mr. Rascoe” but who later addressed him as “My very dear Burton.”

Edward C. Caswell

Edward C. Caswell

The correspondence, all by itself, is a reason to love this collection. In a world of email and text messages, I often find myself wallowing in nostalgia while processing correspondence in archival collections–there is really nothing quite like that physical piece of paper on which the personality and the character of the writer can be seen in smudges and quirky handwriting.  I can only imagine the pleasure Rascoe had in receiving delightfully illustrated letters; from the absolutely exquisite artwork of Edward C. Caswell, to the more cartoon-y illustrations of Gene Markey, to the colorful sketches by Anna O. Thomas, to the charming drawings by his niece Judy Rascoe.

IMG_0178 - CopyThis collection is absolutely rife with visual delights.  Not only did Mr. Rascoe sketch, but many others sketched items for him.  One of my favorites is this drawing “Ted” did although I think it seems out of character (from all I gathered, Mr. Rascoe was an absolute bundle of energy). Regardless, it and all the other sketches in the collection (see box 16, folder 20 and box 26, folder 4) provide a wonderful window into the world in which Mr. Rascoe lived.

IMG_0182For me, a collection is truly great (not just containing items from important and influential people) when I feel like I get to know the creator and their surroundings.  I love when I can imagine their world and how they fit into it.  Mr. Rascoe makes this so easy … from his openness in his writing, to the sharing of his photos and sketches, to the inclusion of less-than-flattering descriptions of his work … he is not hiding who he is and the papers were not sanitized to make him look good. Although including a photograph of yourself with not one but FOUR kittens is guaranteed to help in that department!

Come to the Kislak Center and get to know this man … you might not love him as I do, but you will find him fascinating!

One thought on “Pass the Hemlock … but let Burton Rascoe live!

  1. It was delightful to find this page, although a bit embarrassing to see my “charming drawing” here. I’m always delighted to discover more information about my Uncle Burton, and photographs especially. I had a too brief visit to Penn’s collection some years ago and want to go back and take it slowly. Reading Burton’s high school diaries was a fascinating and very moving experience – a revelation about how excellent a high school education in Seminole Oklahoma could be had circa 1910. Nowadays I’ve been wondering if it might be possible to find a tape or wire recording of him talking. I know he did a lot of radio broadcasts in his day but on other people’s shows.
    Thank you so much for this eloquent appreciation.

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