Learning How to DP

February 1, 2018

mentorcover_croppedOne thing evident in the Distributed Proofreaders forums is that DPers love helping people, often tripping over each other in their enthusiasm to help others master the skills they need to work on various DP tasks. Looking at this another way, it’s easy to see how working at DP can be enormously satisfying for those who enjoy working in teaching/learning environments–the learning curve is steep, but the rewards well worth the effort.

In addition to answering questions in the forums, there is a structured proofreading mentoring system which involves proofreading beginner projects in the second proofreading round and providing feedback to the newcomers who proofread the pages in the first round. What skills and qualities do P2 mentors require? Enthusiasm, a really good knowledge of the proofreading guidelines, empathy, and a genuine desire to help people master what is required of them to become good proofreaders/transcribers.

Formatting mentoring is similar, and, while a little less structured, involves giving a guiding hand to those who have begun the steep learning curve to become good formatters. The skills and qualities are the same as for proofreading mentors, with a sound knowledge of the formatting guidelines added to the mix. Whereas proofreading is most often right or wrong, formatting can be less defined with several ways to format a page correctly, so both formatting and mentoring formatters can be more challenging.

Post-processing mentors are magicians. They help people learn about the software tools available for post-processing, and how to install and use them. Then they guide the new post-processor through the steps required to check the pages for any last remaining errors. But their job hasn’t finished there! Once the new post-processor has mastered the skills to get that far, the mentor takes them through the process of creating html, epub and mobi versions of the ebook. But wait! there’s more … they need to help the learner check all of those versions in the available tools to make sure nothing has been missed so that the best possible product will be uploaded to Project Gutenberg.

Post-processing verifiers need all the mentoring skills mentioned above because when checking a post-processor’s work they need to be able to advise on the tools and processes used, as well as to carry out all the checks the post-processor has already done. Their job is to advise the post-processor on layout issues, to catch any remaining errors, and to help reword transcriber’s notes if they are unclear or don’t reflect what has been done when transcribing the book. Post-processors have invested a lot of time and effort into producing their ebooks and the decisions they have taken along the way are important ones, so tact is required when providing feedback. Just as well post-processors are always keen to learn and apply that knowledge to their books.

And then at every stage we have mentors who mentor the mentors, as well as the as yet unmentioned developers who are learning and teaching in every development task they work on.

A big thanks to all DPers who have mentored and taught other volunteers how to produce high quality ebooks, and to those who have developed the site and tools required to do our jobs.

This post was contributed by a DP volunteer.


Celebrating 35,000 Titles

January 26, 2018

Distributed Proofreaders celebrates the 35,000th title it has posted to Project Gutenberg, Shores of the Polar Sea. Congratulations and thanks to all the DP volunteers who worked on it.

Prolonged periods of well-below-normal temperatures and wind chill have made life uncomfortable and even dangerous for people in areas of the northern hemisphere recently. This blast of frigid Arctic air gives scope to imagine what life was like for the British explorers venturing northwards toward the Pole in Shores of the Polar Sea, a Narrative of the Arctic Expedition of 1875-1876.

This detailed account of the expedition led by Sir George Strong Nares was written by British Royal Navy Surgeon Edward Lawton Moss (1843-1880), who served both as surgeon and artist on HMS Alert, one of the ships taking part. The many engravings and lovely chromolithographs in the book come from drawings and watercolor sketches made by Moss himself during the journey.

The expedition sailed from England with three ships, two of which would venture on northwards, HMS Alert and HMS Discovery. The third, HMS Valorous, was a support vessel carrying additional supplies to be transferred to the other two ships at a rendezvous point along the coast of Greenland. The goal of the expedition was to “attain the highest northern latitude, and, if possible, reach the Pole.” A sketch map in the book details the paths taken by the expedition ships on their way northwards and later back home, as well as the tracks made by sledges across land covered by snow and ice.

As the book starts, the narrator sets the scene for the coming adventure:

… the Arctic Circle has obvious boundaries. A conspicuous change in the ordinary habits of nature warns the traveller that he is leaving the hospitable realms of earth behind him, and entering a region full of new experiences. Here familiar light and darkness cease to alternate, morning and evening no longer make the day, and in proportion as the latitude increases, day and night become mere figures of speech.

The Alert, towing the Discovery in an effort to save fuel, leaves contact with home behind after a stop in Upernivik, then the northernmost settlement in the world.

The explorers remark upon the beauty of the sunlight on ice, comparing it to “fields of mother-of-pearl.” It is not long though before the ice pack halts the progress of the ships for days, with the men waiting for an opening that will allow them to push on. The ice floes continue to be a hazard to progress, tearing against the sides of the ships and crushing the ships in between them. The explorers eventually have to blast the ice with gunpowder to free themselves after their ice-saws are no longer sufficient to get through the thicker ice.

While the Discovery, according to plan, settles down to spend the winter in a harbour near Lady Franklin Sound, the Alert continues onwards, the men still optimistic about their goal. They struggle their way through the ice up the Robeson Channel and find shelter on a beach, but a sense of confusion falls over them. The continuing coastline northwards that they expect to see based on their maps is not there; instead, they find themselves looking at the open polar sea.

sledges_cropped

Various sledges pulled by dogs and their crews trek outwards from the ship to the north and west, hoping to find some evidence that the coastline eventually continues towards the Pole. The men on the sledges encounter waist-deep soft snow and harsh temperatures as low as 47 degrees below freezing. With water-bottles freezing shut, the men have only “icy cold raw rum” to drink! The sledge parties return to the ship weeks later without conclusive results and the Alert hunkers down for the impending winter, where the explorers will go 142 days without seeing the sun and experience temperatures of 73.7 degrees below freezing and lower.

The narrator notes that it is not the extreme cold that is the worst part of enduring the long winter, that “An icy tub on an English winter morning feels colder to the skin than the calm Arctic air.” The constant darkness is more unsettling, and worst of all is the confinement in a relatively small space with others, requiring discipline and dedication to a routine. The men keep up with astronomical, meteorological and other scientific measurements and notes during the winter. Outside the ship there is only silence, occasionally interrupted “by sudden unearthly yells and shrieks from the still moving pack, harsh and loud as a steam siren, but unlike anything else in art or nature.”

As travel becomes possible again in the spring, men from the Alert crew the sledges once more and set off, one track going along the shore to the northwest, the other heading out northwards over ice floes. The bright sun burns the men’s faces and damages their eyesight, but also creates this stunning visual:

Every crystal of snow reflected a miniature sun, and the path of the rays seemed literally sown with gems, topaz and sapphire generally, but here and there a ruby. Similar colours, but with a curious metallic lustre like oil on water, tinted the fleecy clouds overhead….

The sledges taking the northern route come within four hundred miles of the Pole, reaching a record northern latitude of 83° 20´ 26´´, but they and the sledges on the other track eventually have to turn back as the men become afflicted with scurvy, suffering from “exhaustion, swollen and sprained ankles, stiff knees, and bruised and painful legs,” and cannot continue. Not all will survive to get back on the ships as they turn back towards home, fighting through the ice and racing against time to avoid another Arctic winter.

Today, a small community still exists not far from where HMS Alert wintered during this expedition. Named after the ship, Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place in what is now Nunavut, Canada, and is home to various Canadian weather and military facilities as well as an airport.

This post was contributed by ellinora, a DP volunteer.


King Winter

December 31, 2017

The winter solstice has long been a time of celebration, going back as far as Neolithic times. Many cultures around the world have indulged, and still indulge, in some kind of winter festival to mark the turn of the year. The waning daylight hours begin to wax again, and, although the next couple of months will still be mighty cold, the increasing sunshine brings the hope of spring and rebirth.

King Winter coverMeanwhile, humans being human, and therefore always looking to make the best of things, a host of celebratory traditions arose to take the sting out of a bleak midwinter. Many revolve around prayer and worship, eating and drinking, making music and dancing, and, most importantly, keeping warm. But many also revolve around the sharing of legends and fables and stories. With the rise of Western children’s literature, which came into full flower in the 19th Century, many of those winter legends and fables and stories were adapted or created especially for children.

Project Gutenberg has an extensive Christmas bookshelf, but there are also storybooks devoted to winter and the New Year. One of the loveliest in the collection is King Winter, a man-shaped little book in English verse but published in Hamburg, Germany, around 1859.

On a cold, gray day, by the fireside, Mamma tells her children of King Winter, and “Jack Frost, his man,” and Queen Winter, who all live in a snow palace in the “Frozen Zone.” King Winter makes an annual world tour, and to make things comfortable for him, the Queen puts down “a carpet of downy snow.” Meanwhile, Jack Frost decorates the landscape with mirror-like frozen lakes and icicle-laden trees. Delighted children frolic in the snow, which prompts King Winter to ask Jack Frost for a report on who has been good and who hasn’t — the familiar “naughty or nice” list. The good children get toys and Christmas trees (the only mention of Christmas in the book); the bad get birch rods — tied with a pretty red ribbon, though one doubts that would be any comfort to them. King Winter stays until the snowdrops pop up out of the ground, heralding spring.

The pretty color illustrations in King Winter were created with an early color-printing process called chromolithography, which replaced the labor-intensive and expensive hand-coloring process. Chromolithography allowed for fast, cheap mass production of color illustrations with rich, vibrant tones. And, through the magic of HTML, the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders were able to produce the e-book version with a searchable text surrounded by the illustrations, exactly where the text appears in the original book.

King Winter back coverAnother PG e-book celebrating winter is The Pearl Story Book: Stories and Legends of Winter, Christmas, and New Year’s, an eclectic collection compiled by Ada M. and Eleanor L. Skinner in 1910.  A wide range of noted authors are represented — Longfellow, Hawthorne, Dickens, Tennyson, Tolstoy, to name just a few — and there are even American Indian, Russian, Japanese, and Norwegian legends.

King Winter makes several appearances in prose and poetry, along with King Frost, the Ice King, and of course good King Wenceslas. The book is divided into sections focused on winter legends, winter woods, Christmas, the New Year, and the passage of winter into spring. Some selections are abridged, but they are all delightful, like this excerpt from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Hot off the Press wishes all its readers a happy and healthy New Year.


A Spell of Proofing

December 1, 2017

proofreader_cropped“I have some free time. I get to proof!” Proofing (as we call proofreading at Distributed Proofreaders) is relaxing. I get into a flow where time and place disappear and I am just in the page — in the zone.

“What shall I proof today? The project I have been chipping away at, a page at a time, has moved on. Oh, this project that I’ve been dipping into appears to be stuck in the round. What’s stopping it? Ah, it’s a page with a lot of Greek on it. I don’t think I can leave that page better than I found it. I’ll leave it for someone else.” Perhaps I’ll post about it in the Greek Team forum.

“Look, here’s a book someone proofed up to the Table of Contents (ToC).” I enjoy proofing ToCs because they often hold a few missed errors. “See — that page number is 33, not 38. It’s a bit obscure, but since the next entry is for page 35, it’s likely 33.” I’ll leave a note.

33[**38]

“Ooh look, it’s one of those old-fashioned detailed ToC entries that lists out subjects covered in the chapter separated by dashes. This line starts with a dash so the dash and the word following it need to move up to the prior line. The word is followed by a dash so that needs to move up too.” I change:

porches–rocking chairs–stoops
–steps–lazy conversation–sunset

to

porches–rocking chairs–stoops–steps–lazy
conversation–sunset

“The post-processor is going to have fun with that!”

I’m at the bottom of the page. Let me hit WordCheck (DP’s version of spellcheck). “Hunh. I didn’t notice ‘explain’ was mis-typeset ‘explarn’. I’d better exit and add a note.”

explarn[**explain]

I return to WordCheck. “Looks good.” Save and close.

“I’ve wrapped up the ToC and Illustrations pages. I’m not really interested in the content of this project. What else is available?”

“Oh, I see a novel, a Western. That should have different types of errors to seek out and find.”

I open a page. “Ugh — dialect. I’ll do just this page then find something else.” But dialect means dialogue. Dialogue often means quotation marks misplaced in the text — often mis-spaced ones or ones attached to the speaker instead of the conversation. “Yep, there’s one.”

he said,” Bring that thar hoss over hyar.”

I change that to:

he said, “Bring that thar hoss over hyar.”

Novels, juveniles, and Westerns often seem to have the worst typesetting: missing or misplaced quotation marks, missing periods at the ends of sentences, misspellings. They’re laced with dialect that at times makes reading and understanding the intended word difficult at best.

Speaking of reading: There’s proofing and there’s reading. It really helps to do both to find errors — but not at the same time. “Oh, this is really interesting.” “I didn’t know that.” “What happens next?” Sliding from proofing to reading can mean my eyes gloss over errors, unconsciously mentally fixing instances where a word is repeated, not noticing misplaced quotation marks, but still laser-focusing on typos, incorrect word usage and lack of continuity. Proofing to match letter and punctuation marks can mean I miss the typo because the letters match. These are all important errors to catch. Making separate reading passes and proofing passes as the page is open can help me find different kinds of errors. Muddling both into a single pass risks missing things.

“What? My free hour is up? How can that be? I just got started!”

This post was contributed by WebRover, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.


A Bohemian’s Bohemian

November 1, 2017

This post is dedicated to the memory of Elizabeth Oscanyan, affectionately known as Mama Beth, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer who post-processed, among many other projects, Peter Altenberg’s Neues Altes and Semmering 1912“. The latter was her last project before she passed away last month.

Though she was not a native German speaker, in the true spirit of DP teamwork she worked with a German-speaking post-processing partner, woldemar, in order to make the project the best it could be. Another German-speaking DP volunteer, salmonofdoubt, was the post-processing verifier for the Altenberg projects and completed „Semmering 1912“ after Mama Beth died.

Mama Beth never shrank from a challenge, and the Altenberg books posed for her not only a language challenge but also a formatting challenge, due to Altenberg’s unique style, which often made it difficult to tell what was prose and what was poetry. Many thanks to woldemar and salmonofdoubt for helping her to make these projects as great as they are. Special thanks to salmonofdoubt for his kind assistance with the translations in this post.

Mama Beth was much loved by her many DP friends for her warmth and generosity. She will be much missed. Auf wiedersehen, Mama Beth.

 


 

Peter Altenberg

Bohemians — not the Czechs, but rather those unorthodox artistes who came into full flower in 19th-Century Europe — will forever be associated with coffeehouses. And it was in the Belle Époque Viennese coffeehouse culture that the Austrian writer Peter Altenberg (1859-1919) gave birth to his eccentric, modernist work.

Born Richard Engländer into a middle-class Jewish family, Altenberg struggled against his parents’ bourgeois expectations, dropping out of both law and medical school. In his 30s, he plunged into the “Jung-Wien” (Young Vienna) artistic movement, even though he was older than most of its proponents, adopted oddball modes of dress — baggy clothes and broad-brimmed hats and sandals — and wrote the short poems and sketches that are the hallmark of his art.

Altenberg spent the vast majority of his time in Viennese cafés, especially the famous Café Central, where he even received his mail. There he hobnobbed with the likes of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Adolf Loos, Gustav Klimt, and other fellow iconoclasts who led the modernist movement in fin-de-siècle Vienna. They admired him; he admired them, drank with them, borrowed money from them. And he wrote — often for them — numerous snippets of prose and poetry that demonstrated his wit, his poetic sensibility, and his zest for humanity and nature.

Altenberg liked to scribble his striking pieces on the backs of picture-postcards and mail them to his friends. One such friend was the composer Alban Berg, who wrote Fünf Orchesterlieder nach Ansichtskarten-Texten von Peter Altenberg (Five Orchestral Songs on Picture-Postcard Texts of Peter Altenberg), more conveniently known as the Altenberg Lieder. Its 1913 premiere in Vienna literally caused a riot in the middle of the piece, with the audience calling for both Berg and Altenberg to be committed. Too late — Altenberg had already checked himself into a private asylum a few months before the concert.

Some of Altenberg’s Ansichtskarten-Texten — including the texts of all five Altenberg Lieder — can be found at Project Gutenberg in the collection Neues Altes (New Old), published in 1911. Here is a blank-verse ode to the Soul:

Seele, wie bist du schöner, tiefer, nach Schneestürmen — — —.
Auch du hast sie, gleich der Natur — — —.
Und über beiden liegt noch ein trüber Hauch, wenn das Gewölk sich schon verzog!

Soul, how much lovelier you are, deeper, after snowstorms — — —.
You have them, too, like Nature — — —.
And over both still lies an overcast tinge, though the clouds already dispersed.

And here, a prose poem that is a poet’s heart-cry:

Hier ist Friede — — —. Hier weine ich mich aus über alles. Hier löst sich mein unermeßliches unfaßbares Leid, das meine Seele verbrennt. Siehe, hier sind keine Menschen, keine Ansiedlungen. Hier tropft Schnee leise in Wasserlachen — — —.

Here is peace — — —. Here I weep my heart out over everything.  Here is released my immense, unfathomable pain, which burns my soul. See, here are no people, no settlements. Here snow trickles gently into puddles — — —.

The asylum Altenberg had entered in late 1912 was where he completed another collection of short works, „Semmering 1912“, first published in 1913 and reissued in 1919, the year he died. Before committing himself, he had been staying at Semmering, an Austrian mountain resort. In “Winter auf dem Semmering” (“Winter on the Semmering”) he writes of his uneasy love affair with snow:

Ich habe zu meinen zahlreichen unglücklichen Lieben noch eine neue hinzubekommen — — — den Schnee! Er erfüllt mich mit Enthusiasmus, mit Melancholie.

I have added to my numerous unhappy loves yet a new one — — — snow! It fills me with enthusiasm, with melancholy.

In spite of his bouts with mental illness, Altenberg lived his unconventional life with gusto, and his vital spirit is fully reflected in his work. His many friends never stopped supporting him, even when he irritated them, and he was even nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1914 (but no prize was given that year, due to the outbreak of World War I). It is unfortunate that few of his works have been translated into English, but it is fortunate to have at least these German editions freely available to all on Project Gutenberg, thanks to the dedicated volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders.


New England Bluestocking

October 1, 2017

During the Enlightenment, that great period of intellectual exploration in the 18th Century, a group of educated Englishwomen, tired of being excluded from “masculine” literary and artistic discourse, banded together to form a celebrated salon known as the Blue Stockings Society.  It flourished for about half a century, attracting prominent guests such as Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole. But by the 19th Century, its popularity had waned, and the term “bluestocking” became a pejorative one for any intellectual woman — stereotyped as a frumpy spinster with literary pretensions.

Guiney

Louise Imogen Guiney as St. Barbara,
by Fred Holland Day.

As with all stereotypes, that view did a profound disservice to its targets. In 19th Century America, New England produced a rich vein of female literary talent. While those like Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott take center stage today, there were others of great ability but lesser renown whose works deserve a revival. The poet and essayist Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) is one of them.

Guiney was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, the daughter of an Irish-born Civil War hero and lawyer. She was educated at a Catholic convent school, but her father’s death in 1877 forced her to work to support herself and her mother, taking jobs as a postmistress in a small Massachusetts town and a cataloger at the Boston Public Library. Meanwhile, at 19, she launched her literary career with a poem, “Charles Sumner,” published in a Boston newspaper. Her critically acclaimed poetry collections, Songs at the Start (1884) and The White Sail (1887), soon followed.

Guiney also garnered a reputation as an incisive and learned essayist. Her first essay collection, Goose-Quill Papers (1885) shows off her scholarship as well as her wit and flair. The amusing essay “On Teaching One’s Grandmother How to Suck Eggs” gives us a tongue-in-cheek survey of the subject:

In the days of the schoolmen, when no vexed question went without its fair showing, it seems incredible that the proposition hereto affixed as a title provoked no labyrinthine reasoning from any of those musty and hair-splitting philosophers. Aristotle himself overlooked it; Duns Scotus and the noted Aureolus Philip Theophrastus Bombast de Hohenheim Paracelsus were content to repeat his sin of omission. Even that seventeenth-century English essayist and scholar, “whose understanding was wide as the terrene firmament,” neither unearthed the origin of this singular implied practice, nor attempted in any way to uphold or depreciate it. The phrase hath scarce the grace of an Oriental precept, and scarce the dignity of Rome. It might sooner appertain to Sparta, where the old were held in reverence, and where their education, in a burst of filial anxiety, might be prolonged beyond the usual term of mental receptivity.

After her initial successes, Guiney became a key part of Boston’s aesthetic revival of the 1890s, and counted among her friends the poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes (to whom Goose-Quill Papers is dedicated), the architect Ralph Adams Cram, the poet Bliss Carman, and the photographer Fred Holland Day. Her third poetry collection, A Roadside Harp (1893) sealed her reputation as a fine aesthetic poet, with some flourishes harking back to an earlier time, as in “Tryste Noel”:

The Ox he openeth wide the Doore
And from the Snowe he calls her inne,
And he hath seen her Smile therefore,
Our Ladye without Sinne.
Now soone from Sleepe
A Starre shall leap,
And soone arrive both King and Hinde;
Amen, Amen:
But O, the place co’d I but finde!

Guiney began a new epoch in her life and work when she moved to England, where she liked “the velvety feel of the Past underfoot,” in 1901. She gave up poetry — her last collection, Happy Ending, was published in 1909 — and refocused much of her literary work on biographies of prominent English Catholics (Blessed Edmund Campion) and Irish historical figures (Robert Emmet). Her work was not lucrative, however, and she often went without food or coal in order to have enough money to buy books. She died of a stroke at her home in Gloucestershire in 1920.

Consistent with the stereotype of the bluestocking spinster, Guiney never married, and was said to share a “Boston marriage” with the writer Alice Brown. But, inconsistent with the stereotype, so far from being a frump, she was “tall and lithe. . . given to such outdoor pursuits as hiking,” as Douglass Shand-Tucci describes her in Boston Bohemia: 1881-1900. Guiney was not only “pretty, with beautiful dark gray eyes,” but also “warm and affectionate, even flirtatious, and altogether a buoyant free spirit with an irrepressible sense of humor.”

Guiney’s free spirit shines through in the dozen or so of her works available at Project Gutenberg. Her biographer, Henry G. Fairbanks, called her the “lost lady of American letters.” She deserves to be found again.


The Book Report I Never Wrote

September 1, 2017

curwoodI wish I had read a book like James Oliver Curwood, Disciple of the Wilds, by H.D. Swiggett, when I was in school and had to write a book report. I would have had the material for a real book report. I knew teachers wanted something different from a summary of the plot, but I really didn’t get what that was. The reports my fellow students gave also varied from rambling plot “summaries” to concise ones, but little about the quality of the writing, the editing, or the message.

While proofing this book for Distributed Proofreaders, my mental process started with, “Who is this guy James Oliver Curwood and why did someone write a book about him?” Once that question was in the process of being answered, then my questions were more along the lines of, “Why was that random information included?” and “Really, didn’t you just tell me that but in different words?” to “Wow! Where did that come from?” and “Did the editor actually review this book? Did the author slap together articles into a book? Did he take research notes, shuffle them like a deck of cards, then turn them in as a book?”

I would have actually had material for a book review.

So, who is this guy James Oliver Curwood and why did someone write a book about him?

Curwood (1878-1927) was, in his day, a famous author with over 30 books published between 1908 and 1931. Two of his books each had more than a hundred thousand copies printed and sold of the first edition (The River’s End and The Valley of Silent Men). At least eighteen of his books and stories inspired movies. In fact, The River’s End has been turned into a movie three times: a silent version in 1920, and sound remakes in 1930 and 1940.

Curwood was an avid outdoors person from boyhood. He was not particularly attentive in school and dropped out or was expelled in tenth grade. As his biographer tells it,

When he was not present in school he was either writing tales of the wilds, or living them along the banks of the rivers nearby. In fact he had absented himself from classes on many occasions to devote more time to his stories. Jim Curwood finally developed into a real problem for his teachers in high school.

One day as he quietly came tip-toeing to his seat … the teacher … completed what he had to say with: “And dear Lord, we thank Thee for returning Nimrod safely to us this morning.” From that day forward his nickname at school was “Nimrod.”

As a teenager, Curwood went on long outdoor trips. He was a hunter who later became a serious conservationist/anti-hunter. Though he was American, his real love was for the Pacific Northwest of Canada. He turned his experiences in the outdoors into a series of adventure novels in that setting.

Curwood’s first published story was “The Fall of Shako,” printed in his hometown paper, The Argus of Owosso, Michigan, on November 21, 1894. He was 16. He wasn’t paid for it, but it brought him some notoriety. A resident of Owosso who didn’t like James’s father, also a James, assumed the father had written the article and wrote a blistering criticism which derided “the story [as] an insult to the intelligence of the people of the community and one composed of childish drivel.” The editor, seeing the possibility for publicity, published the criticism on the front page. The community sent hundreds of letters objecting to the harsh criticism of a youthful writer. The story made it to every large paper in the country. As Swiggett put it, “He was getting his name before the public as a writer and that in itself was worth its weight in gold.”

While Curwood didn’t complete high school, he passed an entrance exam to attend the University of Michigan for two years. He left to become a reporter, and thus started his adult writing career.

With the publication of Curwood’s first two books and the release of numerous articles and short stories in various magazines, all set in Canada, the Canadian Government offered the now somewhat famous James Oliver Curwood the sum of $1,800 a year plus expenses if he would explore the distant wilds of the Dominion and use all he saw as a basis for material in his future writings.

OK – so that’s the “school book report,” a short retelling of the story. Now for the review of the biographer’s style. In the first part of the biography, Swiggett lays out information about Curwood in an informative and easy-to-read story form. But the second portion provides randomly presented information, repetition, and unsubstantiated statements.

Perhaps I’m overstating it when I say “unsubstantiated,” but this passage seemed unsupported to me:

Jim was gloriously happy, of that there was little doubt, but for some apparently unknown reason, his wife was not. Perhaps it was because he had excluded her from his real life….

Had she stopped to realize that her husband was on his way to the top of the ladder and would eventually reach that goal, the marriage might have lasted.

This passage implies that, though she may have been seriously neglected, had Mrs. Curwood known that her husband would become rich and famous, the neglect wouldn’t have mattered and she would have stayed with him. I saw nothing that supported this and much to indicate that she was simply left behind to care for their children alone while he went off on his travels.

The next chapter discusses books being submitted and accepted for publication. It then jumps back to Curwood neglecting his wife and this resulting in divorce. Next it hops to book submissions and publication. The sense of a story is lost.

From this point forward the book seems to consist of a few paragraphs about a topic, a jump to something else that may have already been covered, and then another jump. For example:

⦁ A three-month trip to the wilderness with his brother
⦁ The offer from the Canadian government to pay him to explore and write about it
⦁ A trip to northwest Canada
⦁ Decision to settle in Owosso
⦁ Church supper in Owosso where he meets his future second wife
⦁ A trip to the wilderness with his new wife
⦁ Starting to write his third book in the wilderness cabin
⦁ Back to Owosso to build a house and writing studio, Curwood Castle
⦁ Back to the wilderness
⦁ Lots of books published
⦁ Jump back to book three
⦁ Discussion back and forth of books
⦁ Contract with publisher Bobbs-Merrill ends
⦁ Back and forth about his book Kazan

While the first half of the book told a story, the second half felt like the result of a stack of reference cards being dropped on the floor, picked up, poorly assembled back into order, and then just slapped into text. I suspect a deadline approached with less time than needed. However, the first half did create enough curiosity that I took a look at a James Curwood book as it went through the rounds at DP. But that’s a story for another day!

This post was contributed by WebRover, a DP volunteer.


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