Monday, May 10, 2010

Max Adeler Doing What He Feels

In Max Adeler’s “The Obituary Poet,” we find a small-town journalist doing what many, many other small-town journalists have always wanted to do: Write to get noticed. That said poet gets ridden out of town on a figurative rail as way of notice is beside the point.

Here, a simple story with a simple premise: Colonel Bangs, publisher of the Morning Argus, hires Mr. Slimmer to write obituary poetry, in order to make the Argus “a popular vehicle for the conveyance to the public of notices of deaths.”

The premise is great – but the way it’s written about, in that overblown prose, is even better, because how many small-town journalists, myself included, write that way?

Here we have Colonel Bangs giving Mr. Slimmer his orders:

“You understand, Mr. Slimmer, said the colonel, that when the death of an individual is announced I want you, as it were, to cheer the members of the afflicted family with the resources of your noble art. I wish you to throw yourself, you may say, into their situation, and to give them, f’r instance, a few lines about the deceased which will seem to be the expression of the emotion which agitates the breasts of the bereaved.”

“To lighten the gloom in a certain sense,” said Mr. Slimmer, “and to—“

“Precisely,” exclaimed Colonel Bangs. “Lighten the gloom. Do not mourn over the departed, but rather take a joyous view of death, which, after all, Mr. Slimmer, is, as it were, but the entrance to a better life. Therefore, I wish you to touch the heart-strings of the afflicted with a tender hand, and to endeavor, f’r instance, to divert their minds from a contemplation of the horrors of the tomb.”

Here we see the publisher give the writer just enough rope to hang himself, the publisher, and the paper, from the nearest cottonwood. On to the poetry:

The death-angel smote Alexander McGlue,
And gave him protracted repose;
He wore a checkered shirt and a Number Nine shoe,
And he had a pink wart on his nose.
No doubt he is happier dwelling in space
Over there on the evergreen shore.
His friends are informed that his funeral takes place
Precisely at quarter-past four.

Brother Alexander McGlue is affronted by the wart – his brother had no such blemish.

Then there’s the sad tale of Willie and his monkey, a “scandalous burlesque,” as says the bereaved father:

Willie had a purple monkey climbing on a yellow stick,
And when he sucked the paint all off it make him deathly sick;
And in his latest hours he clasped that monkey in his hand,
And bade good-bye to earth and went into a better land.

Oh! No more he’ll shoot his sister with his little wooden gun;
And no more he’ll twist the pussy’s tail and make her yowl for fun.
The pussy’s tail now stands out straight; the gun is laid aside;
The monkey doesn’t jump around since little Willie died.

First of all, wipe those dirty smirks off your faces. Willie’s father is, naturally, appalled.

“The atrocious character of this libel will appear when I say that my son was twenty years old, and that he died of liver complaint.”

“Infamous!—utterly infamous!” groaned the editor as he cast his eyes over the lines.

“And yet,” whispered Slimmer to the foreman,” he told me to lighten the gloom and to cheer the afflicted family with the resources of my art; and I certainly thought that idea about the monkey would have that effect, somehow. Bangs is ungrateful!”

And so on, until Mr. Slimmer is chased off and the Argus resumes “it accustomed aspect of dreariness.”

To tell the truth, I actually started a novel a few years ago based on this premise, totally unaware that Mad Adeler had already written this short story on the subject. I still think the idea’s got legs, if pulled off correctly. The novel, not necessarily the obituaries as poetry.

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