In 1907 Sam Walter Foss (1858–1911), a country boy from New Hampshire who had become a prolific poet and, in his other life, library director in Somerville, Massachusetts, published what turned out to be his last volume of poetry, Songs of the Average Man. Bound in a sturdy green cloth cover sprinkled with pretty little violets, the book also contained nine pen-and-ink Page 860 | Top of Article illustrations by Merle Johnson. A particularly revealing one shows an elderly couple in their parlor. The wife, her hair neatly tied in a bun, is leaning forward in her big armchair, mesmerized by the book she is holding in her hand. More books are stacked on the coffee table by her side. Her husband, white-bearded and shirt-sleeved, sits stiffly on a dining-room chair he has pulled up to be closer to her. His wife is reading to him, and he seems to be all ears. Smiling broadly, he informs the reader (and the caption for Johnson's picture is a direct quotation from the poem that precedes it): "For I jest soak in Literacher sence Mary jined the club." Reading the works of "Tennerson" (the "potery man, you know") and "James Rustle Lynn" has actually made the lives of Mary and her husband if not better then at least bearable. Or so the husband claims: "Yis, life 'ith us hez allus bin a pooty serious rub; / But somehow things is pleasanter sence Mary jined the club" (Songs, p. 61).
Johnson's drawing and Foss's poem, titled simply "Sence Mary Jined the Club," handily epitomize some of the radical transformations the literary marketplace underwent in the decades between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War II. The lives of average Americans changed drastically during those years. Between 1870 and 1900, the total number of wage earners increased from twelve to twenty-nine million, a development that was also reflected in the number of labor strikes that rocked American cities. Notions of what it meant to be American were challenged by the steady influx of immigrants. Everything was changing. As local companies went out of business, giant new corporations or trusts took over or controlled the production of many of the items the average American used every day. And books suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Between 1880 and 1900, American publishers tripled their output, and the price of books—once regarded as "the great refiner" of literature, according to James Russell Lowell ("James Rustle Lynn")—dropped, too. All over the country, book clubs and reading circles mushroomed. Sam Walter Foss, during his tenure at the Somerville public library, was able to increase the circulation of books from 193,000 in 1897 to 353,000 in 1904.
Foss's "Sence Mary Jined the Club" seems written as if to illustrate the fastidious Lowell's worst fears, warning readers what may happen when affordable books reach the untweedy masses, people like the Yankee and his "Tennersen"-declaiming wife who say "rennysarnce" instead of Renaissance and pronounce "homogeneity" like "Homer G. Nierty." By the same token, Foss's poem also sends a comforting message to the middle-class reader who just happens to know how to spell these two words but is not too sure about
many others. Under the guise of satire, "Sence Mary Jined the Club"—as a place where high and low culture meet—ultimately legitimizes the enjoyment of those who have traditionally not had easy access to the pleasures of "Literacher."
The paradoxes behind Foss's "Sence Mary Jined the Club" are the contradictions of American popular poetry in general. The poems discussed here happily inhabit the space Virginia Woolf, in her famous essay on the middlebrow, ridiculed as "the betwixt and between" (p. 155). Their authors, many of whom were avid readers and performers of their poetry, were widely recognized and admired. By 1897 schools in Missouri, at the recommendation of the State Superintendent of Public Schools, observed the date of Eugene Field's death each year with "suitable programs made up from the dead poet's writings and articles eulogistic of him and his works" (Conrow, p. 101). The "Hoosier" Page 861 | Top of Article poet James Whitcomb Riley, after his death in July 1916, lay in state under the dome of the Indiana state capitol, where more than thirty-five thousand people filed past it. The Michigan legislature designated 21 October as Will Carleton Day (Public Act 51 of 1919), in honor of Michigan's "Pioneer Poet." And Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who, according to the newspapers, had "out-Swinburned Swinburne and out-Whitmaned Whitman" (Ballou, p. 82), toured army camps during World War I, capitalizing on her fame and reciting poems to American troops, whom she encouraged to "come back clean" (Ballou, p. 256).
Today the popular poems written in the decades between the two wars are considered as "beneath and beyond the intellectual life of the country" (Ballou, p. 8). Their makers are familiar to us perhaps from a few highway rest stops that have been named after them or from a handful of tattered copies in secondhand bookstores. And yet, in their own day, these writers' achievements were considerable. They helped increase and solidify an audience for poetry in America. And, following the model of America's first "pop" poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, yet adopting their own distinctive approaches, they opened up the language of literature to the joys and concerns of ordinary people. Thus, they indeed created, as Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley would demand later, "something for the modern stage" (p. 98).
In 1873 Longfellow published the last installment of his American answer to Boccaccio, Tales of a Wayside Inn, which contained, among other things, a heated debate about the proper course of American poetry. One of Longfellow's storytellers, a student, ridicules those writers who believe that the literary sun rises and sets in their own backyards only. But another member of the group, a theologian, snaps back: "I maintain / That what is native still is best" (p. 284). He prefers "bards of simple ways," whose "singing robes were homespun brown / From looms of their own native town" (p. 284). These words (which do not reflect the cosmopolitan Longfellow's own views) might serve as the mantra of the new generation of popular poets that emerged after the Civil War. It is no coincidence that its most prominent representatives came not from Boston or New York but from states in the Middle West: James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916), a former sign painter and peddler in "miracle cures," was born in rural Greenfield, Indiana; Eugene Field (1850–1895) hailed from St. Louis, Missouri, and worked as a journalist in Detroit and Chicago; Will Carleton (1845–1912) boasted of his origins on a pioneer farm in Michigan; Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850–1919) came from a farmhouse in Johnstown Centre, Wisconsin. Riley once said that, as far as he was concerned, the phrase "homefolks" sounded "jis the same as poetry"—that is, he added disingenuously, "ef poetry is jis / As sweet as I've hearn tell it is" ("Home-Folks," p. 384). Over and over again, Riley's poems repeat the same message: home is where it is best ("We Must Get Home"; "Home Ag'in"; "Writin' Back to the Home-Folks"; "The Old Home by the Mill"; "The Poems Here at Home"). "We hear the World's lots grander," concedes the speaker in "Right Here at Home," but that is no good reason to run off: "We'll take the World's word fer it and not go" (p. 209). What could be better than "old Hoosierdom"?
Eugene Field's singing robes were decidedly homespun, too—but the hard-hitting columnist for the Chicago Daily News who collected rare books and translated Horace wore them rather self-consciously. Consider "In Amsterdam," in which Field both makes fun of his own passion for antiques and uses it as an occasion to celebrate the superiority of American craftsmanship. Field's speaker reminisces about a visit to Hans Von der Bloom's antiques store in Kalverstraat, where he casts a desirous eye on a bed with ornate carvings, "whose curious size and mould bespoke, / Prodigious age." The dealer, an "honest Dutchman," wants a thousand guilders for this rare piece of furniture, once slept on by "King Fritz der Foorst, of blessed fame." This is more than the speaker can pay, of course. He deplores the fact that he is from America, a country that is "full of stuff / That's good, but is not old enough." But then he notices a sticker on the frame featuring a rampant wolverine ("a strange device"), as Field says, no doubt remembering the "banner with the strange device" from Longfellow's "Excelsior"). And with relish he shares with the readers what the label says: "Patent Antique. Birkey [sic] & Gay, Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S.A." The Dutch antique turns out to be the product of modern American industry. Concludes Field's speaker:
. . . when I want a bed
In which has slept a royal head
I'll patronize no middleman,
But deal direct with Michigan.
(Poems, p. 115)
Berkey and Gay quickly picked up on the free advertising Field had given them here, and they promoted Field's poem in an ad they ran in The Century. The circle closes: a popular American poet endorses a popular American manufacturer who in turn endorses the poet's popular poem ("if you want the Field poem—on a pretty card ready for framing or mounting—tell us, please").
Michael R. Turner has mocked the lurid subjects of much of what he calls "Victorian parlor" poetry, with its moribund babies, dead toddlers, starving paupers, suspected criminals facing the gallows, and artists who have fallen on hard times. Of course, death was an everyday reality for contemporary readers (out of the eight Field siblings, only Eugene and his brother survived infancy; his mother died of cholera when he was six; and Field lost three of his own children). Yet, for each popular poem about someone's untimely or well-deserved demise there are at least two or three others addressing more mundane issues, such as—to quote a few examples from the poetry of Sam Walter Foss—whether or not a man should shave his whiskers off ("The Shaving of Jacob"); what the proper posture is for prayer, down upon one's knees or standing up straight with outstretched arms ("The Prayer of Cyrus Brown"); how you can still love your wife even Page 863 | Top of Article after she has knocked you out with a sink pipe for breaking a lamp ("Matilda's New Year Resolutions"); how losing your job makes you realize "the whole blund'rin' mistake" of your birth ("W'en a Feller Is Out of a Job," Dreams, p. 179); and how the worst loss you incur after a house fire, one for which no insurance can compensate you, might be that old bib and baby shoe ("Mother Putney's 'Things'").
"The city's heat and dust" (Riley, "Herr Weiser," p. 231) is present in these poems, but mostly as the memory of people who have just escaped from there:
W'y, of all the good things yit
I ain't shet of, is to quit
Business, and git back to sheer
These old comforts waitin' here—.
(Riley, "Back from Town," p. 248)
Not that the countryside makes no demands on you. Take the poems of Will Carleton, who made a name for himself as the author of sentimental ballads about the hardscrabble lives of rural people: "I'd have died for my daughters, I'd have died for my sons" ("Over the Hill to the Poor-House," p. 38) exclaims the old woman dragging herself to the local poorhouse, realizing that, at least in her case, what goes around does not come around: "when we're old and gray / I've noticed it sometimes somehow fails to work the other way" (Farm Ballads, p. 34). But in the country things often have a way of working out. In Farm Ballads (1873), "Over the Hill to the Poor-House" is followed by a poem in which a despondent son takes responsibility for his destitute mother ("Over the Hill from the Poor-House"), just as Carleton's ballad about divorce, "Betsey and I are Out," is immediately followed by "How Betsey and I Made Up." But life in the city is a different matter altogether. Here, disasters are irreversible: "This city wastes what any one would call / Nine hundred times enough to feed us all" (City Ballads, p. 62). No wonder that Carleton's Farmer Harrington breathes a sigh of relief when he is back on his farm in the country ("the old, old homestead"), where he and his wife now feed hungry children from the city, "with features pinched an' spare" (City Ballads, p. 172). After spending several years in Boston and New York, Carleton was given a hero's welcome when he returned to his native Michigan in 1907.
"It takes a heap o' livin' in a house to make it home" ("Home," p. 28) the Detroit newspaper man Edgar Guest rhapsodized in 1916. Sometimes even that was not enough. The poetry of Lizette Woodworth Reese (1856–1935), founder of the Women's Literary Club of Baltimore, is full of houses that are nobody's home anymore. Less optimistic than Carleton, Reese writes about the vanishing countryside around Baltimore, with its gnarled willows baring their teeth to the wind, meadows rich with the scent of herbs and wildflowers, and collapsing old buildings haunted by the ghosts of the past. At its most effective, Reese's clipped lines acquire an incantatory, spell-like quality, in which the boundaries between life and death blur and emotions are just barely contained:
Topple the house down, wind;
Break it and tear it, rain;
She is not within,
Nor will come again.
That not even her ghost
Will know it for her own;—
Topple it into dust;
Tear it bone from bone.
("Nocturne," p. 161)
But Reese is no Dickinson. In her most famous poem, the sonnet "Tears," first published in Scribner's Magazine in 1899, Reese assures her readers that while life, "a wisp of fog betwixt us and the sun" (l. 2) might seem hard and short and is over before we know it, our real home is somewhere else anyway. "Make me see aright," the poet-speaker addresses the souls of her dead poetic precursors. "How each hath back what once he stayed to weep" (p. 82).
The limits of poetic ambition, for the poets discussed here, were always defined by the realities of everyday life because they knew that this is how things were for their readers. "Who cares for thrones his thoughts to rouse," intoned Sam Walter Foss in Dreams of Homespun: "Who has a baby in the house?" ("A Good Domestic Man," p. 82). Eugene Field, widely recognized as the "Children's Laureate" even in his lifetime, made the pleasures and pains of children one of the focal themes of his poetry (in a less upbeat moment, he referred to his poems for children as "mother rot"). Remembered chiefly for the sentimental "Little Boy Blue" and the playful "Dutch" lullaby "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod" (and not at all for the pornography he also wrote), Field produced reams of verse in which boys will be boys and girls are, well, girls, and Mother's biggest problem is how to get the baby to sleep through the night, in the "garden where dreamikins grow" ("So So Rockabye So," Poems, p. 280) and the "Dinkey-Bird goes singing / In the amfalula tree" ("The Dinkey-Bird," Poems, p. 275). Like Riley, whose Hired Man believes that "all childern's good" ("The Hired Man's Faith in Children"), even the bad ones, Field evokes a world ruled not by bona fide adults but by the mysterious "Rock-a-By Lady from Hushaby Street" ("The Rock-A-By Lady").
There is no indication anywhere in these sweet-sounding ditties that child labor had, by 1900, become Page 864 | Top of Article one the most pressing problems in American society, with one and three-quarter million children between the ages of ten and fifteen working in cotton mills, mines, factories, cranberry bogs, and so forth. That said, the sardonic vignettes Field penned for the Denver Tribune earlier in his career show that he nevertheless had a fairly realistic view of the realities of childhood. Field used the model of The New England Primer, capitalization and all, and turned the religious doctrines behind it upside down by literalizing the emblems: "The Apple is in a Basket. A Worm is in the Apple. It is a juicy little white Worm. Suppose you Eat the Apple, where will the Worm be?" (p. 60). Field knew how prone to violence the youngsters were about whom he wrote, and he did not shrink back from exploring the nether regions of a typical child's imagination: "The Cat is Asleep on the Rug. Step on Her Tail and See if she Will Wake up. Oh, no; She will not wake. She is a heavy Sleeper. Perhaps if you Were to saw her Tail off with the Carving knife you might Attract her attention. Suppose you try" (p. 26).
These early comic vignettes and the later sentimental lullabies evoking the magic of childhood share with each other the notion that children are not "proto-adults" but that, for better or worse, they live in a world of their own, barred to most adults except the readers of Field's poetry, who can at least vicariously express their longing to be young again: "I'd wish to be a boy again, / Back with the friends I used to know" ("Long Ago," Poems, p. 242).
LOVE IS (NOT) ENOUGH
Unlike her male colleagues, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, the ex-farmgirl from Wisconsin, was much more committed to living her life in the present. Although she was, like Field, quite attuned to the pleasures of the "Land of Nod," she felt no nostalgia for her lost childhood. Wilcox spent her life reinventing herself as the "Poetess of Passion," and she was so successful in that endeavor that even her milk baths became a matter of public discussion. Wilcox's own and, to date, only biographer unmercifully called her a "lowbrow," but her skill with words is undeniable. Take her clever handling of the form of the Italian sonnet in "Friendship after Love," which later earned a prominent place in the chapter on "Badness in Poetry" in I. A. Richards's Principles of Literary Criticism. Wilcox takes a truism—that ex-lovers cannot be friends—and turns it into memorable if not particularly original poetic conceit, likening the passing of love to the changing of the seasons:
After the fierce midsummer all ablaze
Has burned itself to ashes, and expires
In the intensity of its own fires,
There come the yellow, mild, St. Martin days
Crowned with the calm of peace, but sad with haze.
( Poems of Passion, p. 21)
St. Martin's Day, in the European tradition, marks the beginning of the winter season. Worse, it is named after a man whose selflessness led him to share his coat with a beggar who was freezing by the side of the road. As passion yields to charity, the relationship described in the poem begins to falter: "We do not wish the pain back, or the heat; / And yet, and yet, these days are incomplete" (p. 21). Notice the insistent repetition of "yet" here—contrary to what I. A. Richards says, the speaker does not seem to be "appeased." Wilcox's sestet, a bit unusually, rhymes cddcee. In a true Italian sonnet, the rhymed couplet closure would be considered taboo, and that is exactly what the message of Wilcox's lines is, too: erotic desire, though impossible, is also irrepressible. Thomas Wyatt and John Donne used the same variation of the Italian norm with great success, though one hesitates to invoke such illustrious names in a context where "heat" indicates not a sudden rise in the outdoor temperature.
Writing poems of passion for "millions of passionless readers" (Kreymborg, p. 255), Wilcox was fascinated by sex and the war it wages on our socially sanctioned "yearning / For spiritual perfection" ("As by Fire," Poems of Passion, p. 104). "Love Is Enough," she once declared in a poem with that title, but her fans were not fooled. As in a modern photo-novel, they preferred to read about the erotic complications of Wilcox's protagonists, mouthing along to their "sweet words of passion" and relating them to their own lives.
Wilcox's obsession with what she termed "the Soul's calisthenics" (p. 15) found its most remarkable expression in her book-length narrative poem called Three Women (1897). Thoroughly contemporary in its language (the characters eat corn muffins and sit down to enjoy fricasseed chicken and strawberry cake, pp. 26, 36), the poem nevertheless sends an old-fashioned message that is not much different from the values espoused by Riley and Carleton. Wilcox's story revolves around the parallel lives of two close friends, the dreamy poet Maurice Somerville and the cynical Roger Montrose. The action takes place on Short Beach in Connecticut, where Maurice and his sister Ruth own a house (as did Wilcox). When Roger comes for a visit, Ruth falls in love with him. Avoiding Ruth's "soft mother-eye" (l. 363), Roger makes the fatal mistake of courting the one local girl his friend Maurice likes, too, Mabel Lee, a devotee of charitable causes, whom he seduces and then weds. Unsurprisingly, Mabel turns out to be completely unsuited for marriage Page 865 | Top of Article as well as motherhood. Their only child dies, quietly passing on to better, "mother-filled" pastures (l. 1127), while the self-involved Mabel is attending a conference in Boston. Heartbroken, Mr. Montrose throws himself into the soft, pliable arms of a woman he meets at the beach, Zoe Travers. In a striking mimicry of the male gaze, Wilcox, her imagery dripping with innuendo, dwells on Zoe's "clinging" silk bathing suit (l. 1588), her "ardent skin" (l. 1600), her sensuous mouth ("a rose Love had dropped in the snow / of her face," p. 115), and her eyes, which are "the color the sunlight reveals / When it pierces the soft, furry coat of young seals" (p. 103). Nothing good can come from so much sex appeal.
Wilcox's provocatively direct representation of erotic desire is embedded in—or made safe by—a rather conventional idea of a woman's place in the home. On the one hand, she appears to be sympathetic to women who break out of the "mold / Of a man's wishes and passions" and live "as our century bids us" (p. 135). Why shouldn't Ruth Somerville be allowed to go to Medical School? After all, "true modesty dwells / In the same breast with knowledge." On the other hand, it soon becomes obvious that Wilcox is talking out of both sides of her mouth. Ruth's "warm woman face," she reveals, is really "made for fireside nooks," not for bending over textbooks, and she fondly imagines "the cheeks of fair children" resting on Ruth's motherly chest, "love's sweet downy cushion of rest" (p. 175).
Coincidentally, Roger Montrose, after being shot by a desperate Zoe Travers, ends up at the very hospital where Ruth is a medical student. Her diagnosis is clear: "'Tis the world's over-virtuous women, ofttimes, / Who drive men of weak will into sexual crimes" (p. 191). A true woman is neither a saint like Mabel nor a slut like Zoe:
The world needs wise mothers, the world needs good wives,
The world needs good homes, and yet woman strives
To be everything else but domestic
Ruth, who at the end of the book returns to Short Beach to keep house for her brother, knows where she belongs. Out of the three women featured in the book, she, the homeliest, is the one the reader is supposed to emulate:
Once a wife, I will drop from my name the M.D.
I hold it the truth that no woman can be
An excellent wife and an excellent mother,
And leave enough purpose and time for another
SOMEPIN' YOURS AND MINE
In Three Women, Ella Wheeler Wilcox combined a frank representation of erotic desire with an intentionally conservative notion of the poet's task: "The souls whom the gods bless at birth / With the great gift of song, have been sent to the earth / To better and to brighten it" (p. 66). The truly popular poet never forgets that he or she is writing for an audience. He or she also knows that his or her poetry, considered strictly as poetry, might not amount to very much. Generations of New Jersey schoolchildren memorized a poem by their homegrown poet Joyce Kilmer, in which they were told that no poem could ever be as "lovely as a tree" ("Trees," p. 19). Form, in the poetry of Kilmer and others, serves as an aide de mémoire, as Guy Davenport put it, never as an end in itself: no fancy rhyme schemes here, no perfumed metaphors. The earthier the better: "What we want, as I sense it, in the line / O' poetry is somepin' Yours and Mine," rhapsodized James Whitcomb Riley, "Somepin' with live stock in it, and out-doors" ("The Poems Here At Home," p. 195).
And yet, while many popular poems were intended to be just "songs for the average man," their makers still firmly believed that they were, all things considered, less-than-average poets. They were not like the guy in Sam Walter Foss's poem who thought that he would only have to purchase an inkwell to get going on his masterpiece: "what avails a sea of ink / To him who has no thoughts to think?" ("A Bottle of Ink," Dreams, p. 190). A strong belief in the superiority of poetry was part of the "homespun" message delivered in these poems—as was the message that poetry is not for sissies. "Take up your needles, drop your pen, / And leave the poet's craft to men" ("To Certain Poets," (ll. 25–26) is Joyce Kilmer's less-than-friendly advice to all those "little poets" (l. 7) with "tiny voices" (l. 15), those "wet, amorphous things" (l. 18) despised by everyone. "Who is this Creature with Long Hair and a Wild Eye?" asks Field in his Tribune Primer. Answer: "He is a Poet," God forbid, someone who writes poems about spring and such. And Field immediately envisions the poet's destruction: "A mighty good Sausage Stuffer was Spoiled when the Man became a Poet. He would Look well under a Desending [sic] Piledriver" (p. 83). In a similar vein, Will Carleton writes of a farmer's son who wanted to be "one of these long-haired fellers a feller hates to see; / One of these chaps forever fixin' things cute and clever" ("Tom Was Goin' for a Poet," ll. 2–3). When Tom went "a-sowin'" (l. 16) he was dropping metaphors instead of seed; when he went "a-ploughin'" (l. 31), he "sat down on the handles, an' went to spinnin' verse" (l. 32). Clearly an Page 866 | Top of Article intolerable situation. But Tom's wife quickly cured him of such highfalutin notions, disseminating his poems the only way she knew how: "she shoved up the window and slung his poetry out" ("Tom Was Goin' for a Poet," Farm Ballads, pp. 48–51). No Will Carleton he.
The authors discussed here all believed, rather traditionally, in the dignity and importance of poetry. None of them was innovative formally, unless one counts their preference for dialect verse as a major step forward. The subjects that they wrote about were familiar to everyone. Yet within those narrow parameters they, for a few decades, made American poetry the most inclusive it has ever been, envisioning ways in which the pleasures of ordinary readers—like that of Foss's "literecher"-besotted Yankee—could find a place in the sacred sphere of culture. And they were not without any influence on writers better remembered today: the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, for example, admired Riley's dialect verse, and Louise Bogan, in her poem "Woman," responded directly to Lizette Woodworth Reese. Officially, though, the modernists reestablished and celebrated the division between appetite and taste, between the common reader and the connoisseur. "I beg you my friendly critics," declared Ezra Pound, Longfellow's distant relative, in "Tenzone" (1913), "Do not set about to procure me an audience" (p. 40). And, later still, John Ashbery, in "Variations, Calypso, and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox," made fun not only of the banality of Wilcox's rhymes but also of the basic idea apparently championed by all popular poets: "But of all the sights that were seen by me / In the East or West, on land or sea, / The best was the place that is spelled H-O-M-E" (p. 240).
see also Lyric Poetry
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Rubin, Joan Shelley. The Making of Middlebrow Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
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Turner, Michael R., ed. Victorian Parlour Poetry: An Annotated Anthology. 1969. New York: Dover, 1992.
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Van Allen, Elizabeth J. James Whitcomb Riley: A Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Woolf, Virginia. "Middlebrow." 1912 In The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, 152–160. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1961. First published 1942 by Harcourt, Brace.