I’m all in favor of people telling what books influenced them the most, especially if they are specific about why and how. In my case, one Ur-book towers above all the rest.
My grandmother’s books were kept in low, open shelves, within the reach of a crawling or toddling kid. I was allowed to take the books out and look at them. Most had no pictures, although the paper coverings were interesting. But this one was my favorite. So unlike the pastel or primary hues of kiddie picture books, its pages held the first real art in my life.
It was the early 1950s, and we didn’t have television. Visually speaking, the world was pretty dull. A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago had been published in 1922, and I was ready to discover it.
I absorbed Herman Rosse’s stylized, realistic, stark, beautiful, bizarre pen and ink drawings, and wondered what these pictures were about. In order to find out, I had equip myself to read the words of Ben Hecht that told the stories. Along with learning to read, there were many delayed-reaction side effects in my psyche and behavior on account of this book.
Over the turbulent years, when I thought about it at all, the memory was an intense one. I looked it up once, but it was way beyond my starving artist budget. I thought about it again when I saw 365 Views of Mt. Fuji, the collaborative marvel by Linda and Todd Shimoda. I was like, “Where have I seen it before, this literary/pictorial synergy, this perfect fusion of art with text?” Of course. The Ben Hecht book with the black and white pictures.
I told the Shimodas about this insight, and they bought a copy, and saw what I meant. A few more years went by. Online, I found a cheap battered copy of the 5th printing (1927) and finally acquired my own 1001 Afternoons (without a dust jacket, sad to say). But who cares about that? My interest was, to put it bluntly – did the book still hold up? OMG yes.
Rosse was head of the School of Design at the Chicago Art Institute, and an art director in Hollywood, where he designed the sets for Dracula, Frankenstein and Murders in the Rue Morgue in the early Thirties.
Revisiting Rosse’s illustrations, after 50 years, I realized many things. It was because of this influence that I recognized the quality of a friend’s work when we were in junior high school. And indeed today that precocious student is an esteemed artist back East, with one of his works hanging in Buffalo’s Albright-Knox gallery. In the Sixties, I vibed to Aubrey Beardsley because of Herman Rosse. His work in
A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago so informed my taste that I was always looking for its equivalent, for Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics. I sprang at the opportunity to publish work by such artists as Musicmaster, and Billy Mavreas, and a whole bunch of other really great ones.
One thing I realized as an adult is, how clever Rosse was in meeting the challenge of illustrating stories when mostly constrained to vertical strips. Working with these uncommon dimensions, the height so much greater than the width, the artist is both stretched and confined.
When I was a kid we lived in Niagara Falls, NY, and my dad worked in a factory. Sometimes we went to pick him up, out on that long, long road lined with factories and the occasional ancient, desolate, falling-down house that wasn’t in their way yet. The factories were enormous, dirty and stinking industrial plants that produced chemicals as both product and by-product.
Thanks to Herman Rosse’s artwork, I saw them differently. At night they were fairy palaces dotted with lights and jets of flame. When I was older and taking the bus to Buffalo, twenty miles away, the incredible evening beauty of some industrial areas made indelible mental snapshots I can still call to mind. The ability to see things in certain ways, I trace directly back to this piece of art, right here.
Today, a 1922 first edition of A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago goes for a $1000 or so, but I’m pretty sure what my Grandma had was the book club edition. (Pause for research.) Uh-oh, it seems there was no book club edition. Wonder what ever happened to Grandma’s books?