Topical Guide 2
The original version of “My Mother Takes a Tumble” began with this preface. However, in the current Babbington Press print edition of Little Follies, the preface has become an afterword. Here is Kraft’s explanation for the change:
“The first thirty pages, said my father, turning over the leaves,—are a little dry; and as they are not closely connected with the subject,—for the present we’ll pass them by: ’tis a prefatory introduction . . . or an introductory preface . . .”
— Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, Book V, Chapter XXXI
“He was at . . . times more favourable to mankind than to think them blind to the beauties of his works, and imputed the slowness of their sale to other causes; either they were published at a time when . . . the attention of the public was engrossed by some . . . other object of general concern; or they were by the neglect of the publisher not diligently dispersed, or by his avarice not advertised with sufficient frequency.”
— Samuel Johnson, An Account of the Life of Mr Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers (1744)
Spoiler alert: if you have never read George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss but think that you might like to read it someday, you may not want to read what follows. Your choice. You’ve been warned.
I ARRIVED AT HARVARD lean, green, sixteen, expecting to become a mathematician, and not expecting to be a husband and father before I graduated. I would have been happy, I thought then, taking nothing but math courses for my full four years. However, Harvard had other ideas. I would have to “distribute” my courses and my attention into areas beyond math, even to the extent of taking courses in the humanities. I was intimidated by Harvard, its lore, its aura, and its ivy, so I did as I was told. To begin meeting the distribution requirement, I took English 10, “Introduction to English Literature.” The reading list included George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Determined not to let anything that might be on an exam slip past me, I began reading it at the very beginning, which, in the edition that we were required to read, was a half title or “bastard title,” followed by a series title page, the title page proper, the copyright page, and then an introduction by Gordon S. Haight, professor of English at Yale. Haight’s introduction began with these words: “The flood that ends The Mill on the Floss was not an afterthought to extricate the author from an impossible situation, but the part of the story that George Eliot planned first.”
Well, thank you very much, Professor Haight! I was annoyed enough by what I’d now call Professor Haight’s spoiler to toss the book aside in favor of Elementary Differential Equations, by Lyman M. Kells, professor of mathematics at the U. S. Naval Academy, whose preface began with these words: “Differential equations furnish extremely powerful tools for analyzing functional relations.” No spoiler there.
To my surprise, over time, I drifted from mathematics to the humanities, and the single sentence that had delivered Professor Haight’s prefatory spoiler came to have on my life and work an influence more profound and lasting than differential equations.
Inspired by, or in reaction against, Haight’s model, I wrote a preface for each of the nine very short books that launched my career in the literary fiction racket (later gathered in the single volume Little Follies), and I went on writing prefaces for each of the ten much longer volumes that followed. All my prefaces had spoilers, but my spoilers were different from Haight’s.
Why did I begin the books with prefaces? Well, in a sense I didn’t. All my books seem to be written by someone else, the indefatigable memoirist Peter Leroy. Why did I have him begin the books with prefaces? First, I wanted him to confess to doing in the text that followed what all memoirists do but few are willing to admit to doing: straying from, twisting, embellishing, burnishing, exaggerating, or ignoring the facts. Usually, I had him give an example or two, apparently spoiling his own effort, later in the book, to paint a flattering portrait of himself and palm it off as true to life. Second, I wanted him to give the reader a look into what went on during his writing of the memoir—his reasons for writing it, the ways in which his memory of the incidents in it might have been distorted by time and wishful thinking, and his reasons for altering the facts in the telling. Third, I wanted through him to set the reader up, to focus the reader’s attention on aspects of the narrative that I considered particularly important and put the reader into a frame of mind conducive to appreciating those in the manner and to the degree that I wanted. Most of all, however, I (on my own, separate from Peter) wanted to invite the reader to read the book in the spirit in which I had written it, to join me in rambling through Peter’s narrative and through his life during the time when he was writing it. I saw the prefaces I wrote as Peter the memoirist as invitations to join me the fictionist in a game. Though they were called prefaces, I didn’t consider them hors d’oeuvre; I considered them essential parts of the work.
I think I had published nine of my books when I began to understand, through chance conversations with readers, that very many people were not reading the prefaces.
They did not read them before the text, as I’d intended, and they did not even return to them after they’d read the text. The readers had never given the prefaces a chance to have an effect on them.
What to do? The answer came from other writers. I began to notice that more and more writers, especially memoirists, were appending long acknowledgments sections to the text of their books. They were thanking everyone from their agents to their dentists. I asked a random sample of people browsing the bargain racks at my favorite bookstore whether they read these acknowledgments. Most of them did. “Why?” I asked. Nearly all of them said something along the lines of finding in these acknowledgments a glimpse into the heart of the author, as if there at the back of the book, with the narrative over, the author relaxed, shed the mask of author, and spoke to the reader directly and frankly.
I understood what I had to do. If I wanted my prefaces read, I had to move them to the back of the book. They wouldn’t work as acknowledgments, but I could turn them into afterwords. Would my publishers allow that? Would they pay for new editions of my slow-selling novels-pretending-to-be-memoirs? I never had to find out whether they would or not, because in a remarkably short time every book was out of print.
A defeat? No. An opportunity! Self-publishing had become easy and cheap, so I began re-issuing my work on my own. At present writing I have re-issued ten of the eleven volumes, each with an afterword rather than a preface.
I have just turned seventy-five, on the date below. All my prefaces are afterwords now. There is a metaphor in there, I think.
October 29, 2019
The Topical Guide continues after Episode 3 of the Personal History.
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You’ll find an overview of the entire work in An Introduction to The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy. It’s a pdf document.
My book group has recently read mostly male authors and they are looking for some women writers to read. We have already read “Middlemarch”. The discussion leader asked me what other book we should read by Eliot and I suggested “Mill on the Floss”.
Years ago I took my daughter to an audition at Northeastern University in Boston. While I sat outside waiting for her I read “Tristram Shandy”. A college student came and sat down across the room. She took out a book and started reading. She was reading “Tristram Shandy” as well.