A Most Inestimable Piece of Balderdash

In 1834, not long after submitting to the Southern Literary Messenger the disturbing story “Berenice,” in which a man yanks the teeth from his wife’s corpse only to discover that she wasn’t quite dead after all, Edgar Allan Poe sent something equally disturbing to the magazine. What he offered was a harsh critical review of the book Confessions of a Poet by Laughton Osborn, who may have been somewhat less cheerful than his name suggests.

In the beginning of his book, Osborn (publishing anonymously) claimed he would commit suicide upon completion of the work and that as he began the book, he placed a loaded pistol on the table beside him for that purpose. Poe astutely pointed out that even were he to work quickly, the poet would not likely complete a book in less than thirty days. By then the powder in the load would no longer be usable and the world might be unfortunately subjected to a sequel of Confessions.

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I have pretty thick skin, but this is not a man I’d want to have leaving a review for my book. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even for a man known for writing dark words, that’s pretty heartless. A few months later, Poe was charged with writing a review for a novel by well connected New York journalist Theodore S. Fay titled Norman Leslie. Poe called the book a “most inestimable ­piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or villainously insulted.”

It wasn’t long before Poe earned something of a reputation as a literary critic, that reputation being mostly that he was an insufferable jerk. Of course, today Poe is far more well-known than either Osborn or Fay, and there were a few authors whose work he actually appreciated.

One of those was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who Poe wrote about in a review of Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an old Manse for Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1847. There Poe claimed Hawthorne was unoriginal, peculiar, and “infinitely too fond of allegory,” but possessed “the purest style, the finest taste…the most delicate humor…the most consummate ingenuity.” That’s about as high praise as anyone might be able to expect, I think, from the author of a story about getting a man drunk and burying him alive behind a brick wall.

But in the same review, Poe also states that it’s not for him to say whether Hawthorne, or any other author, has impressed his readers. And he’s right. Because ultimately the people who read a work, the majority of whom probably don’t write harsh critical reviews for a living, get to decide whether or not they enjoyed it.

I have to assume that Poe would find the state of book reviews today pretty irritating, full of flattery and lacking (hopefully) in the suggestion that the author’s suicide would be preferable to a sequel. But I think it’s kind of great that in this era of Amazon and social media, the book reviews that matter most are the simple ones in which readers tell other readers the gist of what they thought.

And reviews really do matter, not only because word of mouth and recommendations are the way most people figure out what to add to their pile of books to read, but also because the fairies that live inside our computers give the numbers of reviews a great deal of weight when determining what to present to the next reader to come along in search of a book.

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Sample review: “Five Stars…This book has absolutely given new life to my furniture!”

I’ve been very fortunate so far. My book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense has been out for about three weeks and in that time it has received ten reviews on Amazon and several on Goodreads. As a bonus, not one has called it a “most inestimable ­piece of balderdash.” Yet.

I am so grateful for all those who have added Launching Sheep to their pile of books to be read (both real and virtual), for those who have already flipped through it, and to the folks who have actually even read it and are already using it to prop up the wobbly ends of their sofas. And I am overwhelmingly grateful to the people who have taken the time to offer their thoughts, especially on Amazon where the computer fairies are particularly nosy.

If you have read the book, and think it might be worth someone else’s time, would you please consider leaving a review? It really doesn’t have to be long and pretentious, or cleverly harsh. Just a simple sentence or two about what you liked or didn’t like is all it takes. If you genuinely don’t have the time or inclination, though it might briefly occur to me that you’re unoriginal, peculiar, and infinitely too fond of allegory, I promise I will still think you’re a lovely person, and I really am delighted you were interested enough to read it at all.

Superglue, Bailing Wire, and Candy Cane Goo

If you were to walk into my parents’ house at Christmastime, you would see an artificial Christmas tree strung with lights and topped with the same lighted, multicolored star my parents have had for as long as I can remember. At this point I’m pretty sure the star contains more bailing wire and superglue than original material and still it’s held together mainly by the sheer will of Christmas spirit. Well, that, and maybe a little sticky candy cane goo.

The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers.
The most precious ornaments are always made with Popsicle sticks put together by little fingers.

I don’t remember when it happened because I had to have been very small at the time, but the story goes that as the family worked together to decorate the Christmas tree, my eldest brother, who is easily the tallest in the family, was teasing my sister, just two years younger and quite a bit shorter.

As she was always the most zealous keeper of holiday traditions in our house, I suspect she had been giving him a hard time about his tendency to clump the tinsel and to think little of the proper spacing of candy canes as he threw them randomly on the tree.

So he did what any young teenage boy might and stretched up beyond her reach to place a candy cane on the star. He expected it to irritate her. Instead, she was delighted. We all were. Somehow it seemed like the perfect touch to finish off the tree that primarily featured lumpy clay and Popsicle-stick-ornaments constructed by little fingers. And every Christmas since, the tree has been topped with the same (kind of garish) star and a single candy cane.

Because regardless of what religious symbolism a Christmas tree may hold (a hundred different sources will provide a hundred different interpretations), it should represent childhood and good Christmas memories.

At least that’s what Queen Charlotte, the German wife of England’s King George III, seemed to think. When she married in 1761, Charlotte spoke no English (though she learned quickly) and brought with her several German customs, one of which was the setting up of a decorated yew branch at Christmastime.

Christmas trees, or some version of them, had been part of German tradition since at least the 16th-century, when legend credits Martin Luther with the first. The claim of the legend is almost certainly false, but historians do generally agree that the first Christmas trees emerged from the general vicinity of Germany.

Queen Charlotte was certainly fond of the tradition and quickly transformed the private family yew branch celebration of her childhood into a spectacle like none the English nobility had ever seen. Then in 1800, she took the tradition to a whole new level, inviting the children of Windsor to a party featuring at its center an entire yew tree loaded with, according to one contemporary biographer, “bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles.”

He makes no mention of Queen Charlotte topping the tree with a star or a candy cane. Of course since there’s no definite evidence that the candy cane was invented until a hundred years later, I can give her a pass on that one.

Queen Victorian and Prince Albert gathered with their family around the Christmas tree.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert looking very stylish around the Christmas tree.

What is clear is that the tree was a hit and Christmas trees started popping up in some of the noble households over the next few years, until in 1848, The Illustrated London News featured a woodcarving of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around their Christmas tree. After that, everyone wanted one. When the picture was run two years later in the American publication Godey’s Lady’s Book, the tradition caught fire (sometimes literally) in the United States as well.

Ours is not yet held together by bailing wire and hot glue, but give it time.
Ours is not yet held together by bailing wire and hot glue, but give it time.

Queen Victoria and her Prince Albert often get the credit for popularizing the Christmas tree, but the honor may more appropriately belong to Queen Charlotte, who knew that there are some traditions worth preserving.

So if you were to walk into my house at Christmastime, you would see an artificial Christmas tree strung with lights, decorated with lumpy clay and Popsicle-stick-ornaments, and topped with a (kind of garish) multicolored, lighted star and a single candy cane.

What weird little traditions do you follow and wouldn’t dream of celebrating Christmas without?