The American South's greatest postmodern novel, circa 1886
April 30, 2017 12:09 PM   Subscribe

The Lost Symphony: "It is difficult to get very far into Don Miff without suddenly holding the book very gingerly, examining the binding for radioactive scorch marks or other signs of time travel, and then finally exclaiming—“What the hell is this?”"

This being 2017, the novel in question, Don Miff, is now available online.
posted by steady-state strawberry (22 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
This is exciting.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:46 PM on April 30, 2017

What a very good essay. The rising on furniture and on Dickinson and Melville as authors beloved of the future reminds me of some line by Borges about how a critic creates connections between works that didn't actually exist until stated. I can't remember the quote of course, though Kafka was one of the points of reference.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:04 PM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also I really like phonetic spellings of accents even though they are completely problematic.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:07 PM on April 30, 2017

You had me at "They are not intended to instruct the boys, but are written by one pedant to astound other pedants."
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:21 PM on April 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Fascinating stuff! The bit about the contemporary reviewers invoking Tristram Shandy amused me.
posted by comealongpole at 1:35 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

It s one thing to talk about how southerners talk about southerners exiling themselves in New York, it s another to hear from southerners on the ground, at the place of wealth extraction. The monument to the white league was erected after this novel, in the financial center of the south. It was just taken down this year. There are obviously still plenty of idiots living that ignorant dream of honor, and one of them is president.

I also read the guano letter completely differently; reconstruction saw the abolition of human beings from the new york customs tallies, but all the other kinds of extraction still flowed from the south to the financial center of the nation-- guano was a resource that the united states had turned to imperialism to extract since 1856.

So the letter reads to me as evidence in an argument about the resource curse in an imperialist united states, especially if the author did not think the war was necessary for abolition. The spice must flow, as it were.
posted by eustatic at 1:42 PM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thank you for posting this. I wouldn't have seen it otherwise. This book will go next on my reading list.

On a very minor note, the crossreading is something I'll have to look into. Speaking of old things which are startlingly modern...

Yesterday the new Lord Mayor was sworn in,
and afterwards toss’d and gored several Persons.

...could be an Onion headline today in an article about the dangers of getting too close to the Lord Mayor in his rutting season.

Got goosebumps from the Essay on Military Glory. Simultaneously saying "war is shit" and "war is a racket". " but “We got the juleps, at any rate.” Just beautiful and depressing. Again, could imagine a modern version of this. A long and dry essay on stagnation of oil prices, with a single line buried in the middle concerning the price depressive effects of Iraqi oil fields gradually coming back online.
posted by honestcoyote at 2:19 PM on April 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Is there evidence this is actually a thing? I mean, the good people at McSweeney's are not exactly above pulling a literary spoof...
posted by rikschell at 2:33 PM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

This (pdf) seems like too much work for a hoax. Plus, I don't think the Internet Archive would play along.
posted by honestcoyote at 2:42 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Putting the whole thing on would be a bit much for them. Also, The Believer, despite its credulous title, is a serious pub.
posted by Going To Maine at 2:42 PM on April 30, 2017

There was a Virginius Dabney but, sadly, the dates don't line up. Here's his obituary in the NY Times.
posted by MovableBookLady at 3:25 PM on April 30, 2017

It's quite real.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:28 PM on April 30, 2017

some line by Borges about how a critic creates connections between works that didn't actually exist until stated. I can't remember the quote of course, though Kafka was one of the points of reference.

You are probably remembering "Kafka and His Precursors"
posted by thelonius at 3:32 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ah Paul Collins! Its been awhile! If you're unfamiliar with Mr. Collins this is kind of his thing. The last books of his I read was The Trouble with Tom, the story of what became of Thomas Paine after his death, which introduced me to "the strangest children's book of the 19th century—Sammy Tubbs, the Boy Doctor, and Sponsie, the Troublesome Monkey (1874). " Written by progressive health crusader E.B. Foote. Don Miff sounds equally as far out.
posted by Ashwagandha at 4:01 PM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

I won't threadsit, but the article mentions that the Pulitzer Prize winning Dabney is the grandson and namesake of the man in question.

I initially read this article about a decade ago. At the time, I was slightly skeptical -- "Don Miff" didn't have any hits online. Since then, it looks like it's been scanned twice (see the Google doc title page vs. the one). If it's a hoax, it's an incredibly elaborate one.

And the furniture digression is the one segment that's stuck with me. "This is what people were collecting at the time" explains so much about attempts to understand the past.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 4:10 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

He knocks the quoted reviews for supposedly lazily comparing the book to Tristram Shandy, but by his own account it does sound as if it resembles TS a lot. (And how's this for lazy?
Tristram Shandy is the type O-negative of literary criticism. You can always say that Lawrence Sterne did something first, and no one will ever reject the claim. First, because it’s probably true.
Cervantes, you wrote and died in vain! Not to mention, I recall reading an article—with a terrible extended metaphor I can't find and thus can't reproduce, but believe me, you'd roll your eyes at it—pooh-poohing those who were fast to claim that Sterne got his weird learned wit from Cervantes on the grounds that that sort of stuff was just in the air at the time anyway.)
posted by kenko at 4:12 PM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Has anyone found a human-mediated text/ePub/HTML file of this (I haven't searched yet, it's bed time). If not I would be willing to put together a real text using OCR and some extensive "heuristic proofing" and formatting, if a few other people would prefer something friendlier than scanned page images. Memail me please if interested. (We could even have a Fanfare group read.)
posted by sylvanshine at 11:30 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

There's a review in the July 1, 1886 issue of The Nation, and a letter from the author in the July 15 number. And a review in the March 26, 1887 issue of The Saturday Review. Until I found these, I suspected a hoax. Consider: the mention of an advertisement featuring polar bears "gamboling amid icebergs". The ad is in the window of a soda-water shop. I laughed, because I thought it was a joke. And there are some near-anachronisms: the author's telephone was "tapped" some years before the practice became common. There are many cultural and popular culture references in the book (so far -- haven't finished yet); Dabney was a smart, well-read man. This is a great find.
posted by CCBC at 11:47 PM on April 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Always nice to see people's automatic "this is fake" reflex lead them into error and humiliation!
posted by thelonius at 12:39 AM on May 1, 2017

There is no shame or humiliation in being skeptical of a thing as long as one is willing to change one's mind as further supporting evidence is uncovered.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:13 AM on May 1, 2017 [8 favorites]

This is really fascinating. Both the book itself and the essay's insights on taking from the past have been buzzing around in my head, and I've been trying to read a few pages of the book a day since reading this. The opening to The Gold That Did Not Glitter (there's a passage about differences in defining the word "drunk" by philologians, philologians' wives, and policemen that struck me as utterly Wodehousian in its tone) suggests it might be worth reading too, conventional romance though it may be.

Nosing around, I found references to Charles Darwin's correspondence with Virginius Dabney about the feeding habits of tobacco worms and, apparently, hogs in 1873, and a supposed hybrid tomato (or bud-variation?) in 1878.

(I know, I know, everyone corresponded with Darwin, RIP his mentions, etc., but I'm always delighted to find these connections.)
posted by mixedmetaphors at 7:47 PM on May 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh man, this was supposed to be part of a larger work called Curiosities of Literature that has never been published as far as I can tell. Get a move on, Paul Collins, your public wants more!
posted by Kattullus at 3:27 AM on May 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

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