Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

How a table named a book--

Almost twenty years ago, I was living in a splendid but somewhat ramshackle Arts and Crafts / Tudor house on South Park Avenue in Greenville, South Carolina. A large house, it had a big, wonderful dining room with high fumed oak wainscoting. We had no table to fit such a large room, and no money with which to buy one worthy of the space. One day I found a table in the alley. Unable to find out why it had landed in the alley behind our house like a welcome UFO or who it belonged to, and half believing it had been sent especially to us because we lacked a table, I eventually helped carry it inside.

The table turned out to belong to the back yard carriage house of a neighbor, Wade Hampton Barber (yes, a descendant of Civil War General Wade Hampton and also an architect and a very kind man.) Not wanting to be table-pilferers, we were quite prepared to lug our two-legged friend back out again, but he told us to keep it. So it became ours. A two-pedestal number with one weak, repaired leg--not right as to house style and marked by many long-ago dinners--the table looked wonderful in the room.

Later on, it moved to a federal house in Cooperstown with us and went through many adventures, the leg breaking and being repaired multiple times, once collapsing under the pressure of our daughter's birthday party (eleventh, I think.) Many girls leaning at one end of the table, plus a major Schneider's Bakery cake, did in that table. Happily, both cake and girls survived. The table was propped and cake happily demolished soon afterward. For some years we relied on clamps and supports (jars, cans, anything stackable) hidden under generous tablecloths, the table sometimes standing on its own, sometimes with help. After multiple rounds of repair by a carpenter, we finally consigned the table to the garage and nabbed a sturdy Hickory Chair table on Craigslist. The new table is quite fine and has strong legs, but I miss the old one.

The table's original owner was Wade Hampton Barber's Aunt Thalia. Her name was pronounced this way: THAY-leeah. We always referred to the wayward table as Aunt Thalia's table. Aunt Thalia's name went back to ancient Greece, where Thalia (Θάλεια) was the name of various mythic figures: one of the Charites or Graces; the Muse of comedy and idyllic or short pastoral poetry; a nymph and goddess of plants who was the daughter of the creative god Hephaestus; and one of the Nereids. I like the link in meaning to abundance, flowering, and flourishing.

One summer day in the village of Cooperstown, I woke up with a long poem streaming in my head, and the name of the heroine was Thalia. And that is how a table named a book called Thaliad.

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Postscript: Sad to say, I just found a mention of Wade Barber's funeral online. His mother is listed as Thalia Chastain Barber. So perhaps the table owner was not Aunt Thalia but Mother. Which is even more appropriate to the book. But maybe this was Great-aunt Thalia, after whom his own mother was named. Given the condition of the table, that seems likely.

* * *

The second printing of The Foliate Head is officially out of print, with no more copies via the publisher, though there are some copies left at online bookstores. In print are: Maze of Blood; Glimmerglass; Thaliad; A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage; The Throne of Psyche. See more links above.

17 comments:

  1. How wonderful! I love that you repaid the man who put that table in the alley many times over with your book, which will be far longer lasting, I hope, than any table.

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    1. I think it was the son who left the table behind our house... And perhaps would have liked to have it back again.

      Well, who knows? Many a writer has hoped his wide reputation secure, though we no longer know his name. And the forgotten or under-valued or unlucky writers are only sometimes remembered. It's a complex business, lodging something worthy and beautiful in the world's mind.

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  2. Quite the fascinating tale of a table naming a book!

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    1. Hi, Marja-Leena!

      Hope all is very well with you. I need to pop by and see what you've been doing... Over here, we seem to practicing a lively hair-on-fire mode this week.

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    2. !!!say what!!? i still have the dining room table used by my family when i was in high school. the veneer is starting to peel off, but it still works as a tool bench cum bicycle repair table... no good stories attached, although it reminds me of 50's cultural and dietetic phenomena... long-lost days of forgotten youth...

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  3. Hi, Mudpuddle--

    Well, we would still be using Aunt Thalia's table if only it had two good legs to stand on! I have some family furniture that also has stories--a beat up old sewing machine bought for $3.00 that saw my paternal grandmother through the Depression, some pieces that belonged to my maternal grandmother and have some history and tales attached to them. It's funny how things mean, isn't it? They record time and sometimes events--and those matter more than the thing itself but are held by it.

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    1. yes; the tenuous and oft times febrile grasp we try to maintain on the world we know; or think we know... like magic keys to unlock what we thought past reality was, or is...

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    2. That's a good description....

      Cooperstown has one of those villages of the past--all the buildings are authentic area buildings, but they have been moved to one location. It always interests me, this weird, made-up world but made out of real pieces. Real and unreal at once.

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  4. It's just not fair. Your advantages (as a writer) are manifest. You not only belong to a geographical tradition characterised by "Peel me a grape, Beulah." you have the memory and the attention to detail that help make the most of this upbringing. Not knowing what fumed oak looks like I am forced into writing about cars and trying to pretend they have intellectual resonance. Nor do the surnames that surrounded me in my youth (Buttershaw, Raistrick, Earnshaw) have any of the ringing, euphonious stage-setting conviction of Wade Hampton Barber, leading ineluctably to the throwaway parenthesis (yes, a descendant...) which isn't throwaway at all. The only disadvantage I can see is there's been more Tara, decayed Tara that is, in your background than the Snopes family but that may be down to your own good timing; Faulkner appears to be passing through a fallow period.

    And it's not just detail and ante-bellum perfumes; the language gets right down from the chaise longue and - metaphorically, of course - the mint julep is exchanged for a Coors.

    Good stuff. A good story given the pace, the scope and the varying rhythm it deserves. For me plagiarism beckons.

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    1. I expect you can make great things out of Buttershaws and Raistricks and Earnshaws! Shades of Wuthering Heights in that final name! And cars, too. (One of the children just totaled ours, so I'm keenly aware that they're a subject worth talking about....)

      Fuming was discovered in England and used in the Arts and Crafts movement, but I guess it's really linked most to Gustav Stickley and mission furniture and wall treatments. I was startled to find that he used to put tubs of ammonia in a room and seal it up. Imagine being the people who carried in the ammonia. Ugh! How dangerous the world of decorating was--like Morris's lovely green wallpaper colored with arsenic salts that could cause serious illnesses in dank rooms.

      My father--raised as a sharecropper's boy--had a deep hatred for Faulkner's books and thought they were cruel and unfair to poor whites. Many events in his early life have all the pathos and tragedy and drama one could ever desire in a novel. Being a teenage tail gunner in World War II gave him the G. I. bill and helped him become a professor of analytical chemistry. So my life was a mixed thing--born after he and my mother graduated from Emory (she with a master's degree) but before he went to Louisiana State University for his PhD, I was around to see his upward climb. And I also spent part of every summer in a sharecropper's ephemeral house, and another part in my maternal grandmother's Queen Anne house (built by my grandfather.) They lost a great deal in the Depression, but the house and grounds always felt beautiful and gracious. But there, too, I had a sense of struggle. (My grandfather quite a bit older than my grandmother; he was born not long after the Civil War.) The back bedroom was the original house, and my mother would sit with a baby on her lap and a gun beside her. The times were wild, and the site remote. Eventually the room became a big house with many porches, and they also owned a store in town and a farm in the country. After the Depression, they still held onto the house.

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    2. Good grief, you've passed through a whole spectrum of upbringings. But you've also won gold and it's a gold denied me by birth. To be able to include "sharecropper" in your CV is game, set and match. Textile mills (I come from Bradford, once the centre of Britain's warping and woofing) are no match.

      The word is iconic in the real sense and needs no definition, which is why I've always avoided looking it up in the dictionary. For better or for worse it evokes a man in a special kind of shirt (coarse fabric, loose fitting, no buttons, open at the neck), trousers held up by gallusses, hands gnarled, cheeks sunken in adversity, standing by a broken plough, preparing to die from malnutrition. From that to Seven Types Of Ambiguity, 'tis but a step for a likely lass.

      I'm sorry to have picked a single word from a rich plum-pudding of a re-comment (not least the role played - indirectly - by that magnificent socialistic gesture, the GI Bill) but I'm conscious of my earlier comments, big and growing bigger, resting like emboli in the arteries of your blog. They cannot be healthy for you.

      I take quiet pride in communicating with someone whose family tree includes "a big house with many porches".

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    3. My somewhat peculiar Southern upbringing did one specific thing for my writing: it allowed me to experience (and often) three different eras in close succession. I think that it gave me a sense of another time as a place that I can get to and walk around in, rather than as something that is lost.

      And in a practical way, I was able to write a book like "A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage" without looking far. The orphanage is really a portrait of the farm my grandparents sharecropped, right down to the inside of the well. And I've used my maternal grandparents' home as a setting as well. I don't tend to borrow people, but I do sometimes use places that are meaningful to me.

      You are entirely too flattering to a rather obscure writer, lost in the immensity of America!

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  5. I absolutely love this story, Marly. I also wonder if your previous table could ever be restored. It sounds so worthy and good. Perhaps the table top with a completely new support system underneath?
    Anyway... reading this filled me with wonder, somehow.
    Thank you!

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    1. You are welcome to drive over from Ohio and take Aunt Thalia's table!

      Oops.

      Just found out we gave it away. I hope it has a nice new life somewhere....

      Wonder is good!

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  6. What an interesting story! I recall naming a story I wrote for a creative writing class because of a name-brand wall clock in an office where I worked part-time: "Ben Franklin Hanging on the Wall." 'Twas a terrible story, and readers were surprised that Ben Franklin never figured in the story, but I liked the title. You should share more tales about your titles; readers will be fascinated.

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    1. I'm not sure that they all have such curious tales! I'll have to think about it. I like your title!

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.