"these little songs, and many like them, were made for the comfort of my friends, in their sorrow, doubt and suffering"
January 27, 2012 6:17 PM   Subscribe

An internet search, even in these days of abundant information, yields only that the pamphlets can be found in various library collections, and that they continued to be produced into the '70s. And that Edmund Wilson once sent one, "Mr. P. Squiggle's Reward," to Nabokov, calling it "one of the oddest of many odd things that are sent me by unknown people." He also got the title wrong, dubbing it "Mr. P. Squiggle's Revenge," which is probably significant. But that’s it: nothing about Volk or McCalib.
Epitomes was a series of pamphlets published by Elwin Volk and Dennis McCalib. Few traces of Volk's life are to be found, but he seems to have been a lawyer, and wrote at least a couple of pamphlets about law, which he self-published in Pasadena. McCalib is equally elusive. A man by that name contributed to an issue of One: The Homosexual Viewpoint in 1964. A Dennis McCalib also used the pseudonym Lord Fuzzy. The aforementioned "Mr. P. Squiggle's Reward" got a curt, two half-sentence dismissal in Poetry Magazine, otherwise these pamphlets seem not to have troubled the literary world. Someone donated their manuscripts to UCLA where they rest undigitized in fourteen boxes. But Library of Congress has scanned a total of twenty-six pages in high resolution.
posted by Kattullus (9 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This is fascinating. Good find, Kattullus! I love such mysteries. Obscure people, who remain obscure not necessarily because they lack merit of the more famous, but because of destiny's random favor. Who says fame or notoriety is apportioned in exacting degree to merit?
posted by VikingSword at 7:03 PM on January 27, 2012

Yes. The word fascinating is the first one that came to me. The second was Blake. Even at first glance there is a definite, and I suspect direct, Blakean influence that I want to think about more. I suspect there is something very lovely going on here, but it's 3am, so I should probably go to bed and come back to it in the morning. Thanks!

p.s. the quality of writing in that page from Poetry Magazine is hilariously bad. Was a hatred of intelligible punctuation a trend?
posted by howfar at 7:11 PM on January 27, 2012

The quality of writing in pretty much every poetry magazine is hilariously bad.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:24 PM on January 27, 2012

VikingSword: I love such mysteries. Obscure people, who remain obscure not necessarily because they lack merit of the more famous, but because of destiny's random favor.

I'll admit that from these scraps of information I've built a biography for Volk and McCalib in my head. I imagine that they met in the late 40s, Volk an established lawyer in his 30s, McCalib perhaps a young man recently back in the US after fighting in World War II. They fall in love and start collaborating together, drawing on Blake and Chinese art and poetry. They continue working through the years, sending their pamphlets out to random people, until one of them falls ill and dies in 1981, and the other packs up their lives' work in fourteen boxes and delivers it, teary-eyed, to the UCLA library. Oh, it's almost certainly wrong in every detail, but this imagined biography has taken root in my brain.
posted by Kattullus at 7:45 PM on January 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

this link http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/SSDI/individual_record.asp?recid=557128539&lds=3&region=-1&regionfriendly=&frompage=99 suggests a dennis mccalib died in june 1981 in California but it was in another part of the state.
posted by markvalli at 8:34 PM on January 27, 2012

They fall in love and start collaborating together, drawing on Blake and Chinese art and poetry.

Brilliant! Well, then, speaking of random bits of history and obscure stuff: "and Chinese art". Did you know, that having Chinese art, or what in general might be termed Orientalist decor, in an American bachelor's pad, was associated with being gay? I'm sure you've seen The Big Sleep. As you know, there was a sort of gay theme running through that film, what with antique dealers and Bogart playing - very broadly - a gay stereotype when he enters the faux dealer's shop. Now, do you remember Geiger's house? And how it was furnished? That's right - in an Orientalist decor. That, my friend, was a code for the audience, a nudge, a poke in the ribs and a wink, "this is a gay household", something that would have been understood back in the 40's where that (informal) convention existed. Which is why I found it highly amusing when you wrote "and Chinese art", when spinning out your fantasy for those two, ha! So, yes, the Chinese style illustrations by McCalib are perhaps a bit more conventional in a sense, than may seem at first glance... it reminds me of my Swedish friends who - this is going back a few decades - would just rant and rave about early John Waters movies, "how funny and how witty", and I had to clue them in, that while yes, they're funny, Waters was drawing upon decades of stock gay banter rather than stark originality. Great find, and a great opportunity to recall a bit of obscure history!
posted by VikingSword at 8:49 PM on January 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Interesting find.

By the way, you can't drop your archives off at UCLA Special Collections and expect the librarians to care for them--accessioning of donated items is at the discretion of the staff, which means these were considered worthy of retention. It can take years--sometimes decades--until a particular collection is fully cataloged and gets a finding aid, but anyone with an interest and an ID card can go down and request some time with these boxes. UCLA's very cool that way.
posted by Scram at 9:31 PM on January 27, 2012

VikingSword: Which is why I found it highly amusing when you wrote "and Chinese art"

Well, Volk references the Li Sao in one of this legal pamphlets, so I'm assuming Chinese culture was an influence. There's also something about the pamphlets which remind me in a vague way of Chinese art.

Thanks for the info about the link between Chinese art and homosexuality in American pop-culture. I have seen Big Sleep and I didn't notice the orientalist decor, though I did wonder about that scene where Marlowe plays the gay stereotype.
posted by Kattullus at 5:12 AM on January 28, 2012

They remind me a little of Ralph Chubb's lithographic books. These don't seem to have been digitised anywhere, but there are a few sample images on this page.
posted by verstegan at 2:53 PM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

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