Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 23, 2022

The Untidy Pilgrim, by Eugene Walter

Hmm, I’m not entirely sure that the book I chose for Karen and Simon’s #1954Club was actually first published in 1954.  My mother’s hardback edition of The Untidy Pilgrim by Eugene Walter, wasn’t published in 1954, it was published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in London in 1955.  It looks like a first edition, because there’s no acknowledgement of previous publication, but both Wikipedia and Goodreads tell me that it was first published by a different UK publisher, Methuen, in 1954.  (E&S merged with Methuen later on, but that wasn’t until the 1970s.) To confuse matters further, there’s a Kirkus review of it dated 1953.  Maybe that was an Advance Readers Copy?

Whatever, I am totally intrigued that my mother carted this book all around the world with us on our travels.  Many of my father’s books travelled with us, but apart from her beautiful illustrated set of Jane Austen’s novels (which are now on my shelves), The Untidy Pilgrim is the only one that stayed the distance.  It’s dedicated to Totty and to Kate, which was my mother’s nickname.  Coincidence? There are no details about the author’s personal life on his Wikipedia page. I’ll never know!

Anyway…

Eugene Walter (Wikipedia)

The most interesting thing about reading The Untidy Pilgrim, is that my discovery of its author was more interesting than reading the book.  Wikipedia tells me that Eugene Walter (1921-1998) was an American screenwriter, poet, short-story author, actor, puppeteer, gourmet chef, cryptographer, translator, editor, costume designer and well-known raconteur.  After a dreadful childhood spent partly on the streets, he seems to have become a free spirit, gadding about and living a “pixilated wonderland of a life”. 

Born in Mobile Alabama, he was fending for himself in his late teens when WW2 broke out and he became an army cryptographer in the Aleutian Islands (off the coast of Alaska or Russia depending on exactly where he was).  He then pitched up in Greenwich Village in New York City and pioneered spontaneous performance art at the Museum of Modern Art.  He got himself to Europe on a cargo ship and lived in Paris during the 1950s, where he helped launch the Paris Review, which published his short story ‘Troubadour’ in the first issue. He interviewed people like Isak Dinesen and Gore Vidal, and went on to edit a multilingual literary journal called Botteghe Oscure in Rome.  And after that, he acted in the films of Federico Fellini and translated Italian films into English. His dinner parties were legendary, with guests who included T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Judy Garland, Anaïs Nin, Gore Vidal and Richard Wright (whose biography by Hazel Rowley in on my TBR). That’s an astonishing CV for a street kid.  How did he get an education, I wonder?

Anyway, Walter returned to Mobile in 1979, and that’s where The Untidy Pilgrim is set.  It’s a coming-of-age novel, deliberately comic, so they say, and it won the Lippincott Fiction Prize for Young Novelists in 1954.  Kirkus found that it had a vernal, rollicking charm that will seduce even the moral-minded and the University of Alabama saw fit to reissue it (with a terrible cover) in 2001, but it didn’t do much for me.

According to the description at Goodreads, Walter’s lightweight style may have been what charmed the judges because of its contrast with the southern literary tradition. That tradition was my first serious introduction to American literature at university: it was established by William Faulkner, (Light in August, The Sound and the Fury) Truman Capote (In Cold Blood, and Summer Crossing) and Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Clock without Hands and The Member of the Wedding).  Yes, it’s generally cheerless, but exploring significant themes in memorable novels often is.  Wikipedia describes the tradition like this:

Traditional historiography of Southern United States literature emphasized a unifying history of the region; the significance of family in the South’s culture, a sense of community and the role of the individual, justice, the dominance of Christianity and the positive and negative impacts of religion, racial tensions, social class and the usage of local dialects.

Walter may have been loosely satirising John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  His unnamed ‘pilgrim’ goes south to study law and work in a bank.  He talks about the commencement of a lot of voyaging for me, and I don’t mean only in Geography. He exoticises Mobile as a foreign place with banana trees and palm trees there in a profusion and lushness they never attain in Persepolis.  But when he meets temptation, unlike Bunyan’s protagonist Christian, he cheerfully succumbs.

At first he stays with his cousins the Morelands, but it’s clear that he’s not destined to stay there for long.

Mrs Moreland — Cousin Annie — is a sweet dopey woman who always looks as if she expects the plaster to fall, she looks up to the ceiling every third word; while Mr Moreland — Cousin Charlie — is a deep one, says about two words a week, makes money hand over fist in real estate.  They have these two children roughly my age: Son (I hate that boy!) and this talking-machine daughter Lola.

I had not seen any of this crew since we children were eleven-ish and twelve-ish: so much can happen in the years just after, but those are the sort of knobbly-kneed, cowlick, first-cigarette years when you’ve ceased to exist as a child, but nobody yet notices you as grown up.  My memories of spats with these cousins didn’t lead me into any hi-jinks of enthusiasm for this visit, but I was moderately pleased to see that Lola was sort of good-looking, and was happy that Son was away.

Pop had gotten me a job too — it’s an easy thing to do when every tenth person in the county is your cousin, and most of them in solid politics, or the lumber or real estate business: all of them pious on Sunday, at ease on Saturday, and out for blood the other five days of the week. (p.11)

Well, once he’s found a more congenial resting place with the eccentric Miss Nonie Fifield, he abandons any pretence of a Puritan work ethic, beds Miss Fifey’s grandniece Philine, flits off to a brief sojourn in New York without explanation to his host, gets into a fist fight with Son a.ka. Perrin and breaks his nose, and proposes marriage to Ada five minutes after her aged husband has died.

Walter’s style is to deflate pomposity and to celebrate quirkiness, but I found most of it inane.  I should have read Alberto Moravia’s Contempt also published in 1954 instead.

Image credit: By http://www.nomadmusicstudio.com/EugeneWalterHomepage.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12571338

Author: Eugene Walter
Title: The Untidy Pilgrim
Publisher: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955
ISBN: None
Source: from my mother’s bookshelves.


Responses

  1. Great post, even if not a great read Lisa. I’m intrigued I must say.

    Like

    • Thanks, Sue:)
      Somebody should write a novel based on this author’s life, I reckon!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never heard of this author – what a fascinating life! It’s a shame the novel was so dull with all he had to draw on.

    Like

    • It’s not exactly dull, it’s more that there’s nothing meaningful in it. It’s like listening to inane 20-something young men brag about what they think are achievements, that are just ordinary events in the ordinary process of growing up.
      Maybe if you live in a really stuffy society, his nonchalance about what other people think has some significance, and maybe the south in the 1950s was like that so the book does make some kind of rebellious statement… but it seems rather lame to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh dear…. Sorry it wasn’t great but from that quote I can see why. But thank you for bringing something very different to the club!

    Like

    • LOL It has given me a fresh appreciation of Carson McCullers et al!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A shame the book wasn’t good, but how intriguing that it was the one your mum took with her – and that mystery dedication!

    Like

  5. As you read it, did you come across something (other than the inscription) as to why your mother kept this book the whole time?

    Like

    • No, nothing. I did have one other book of hers, but I think since it was an Israeli novel with a later publishing date, that someone must have given it to her when we lived in East St Kilda. But the dedication could have just been a joke, as in ‘look Kate, I’ll have to buy this for you because the author’s dedicated it to you.’

      Like


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