by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
In my last post, I told you that Lloyd Douglas wrote anonymously for the Atlantic Monthly as part of the Contributors’ Club. Here’s a summary of each of the essays he published.
An Interrupted Homily (November 1917)
His youngest daughter, Virginia, shows him a shoebox containing “trained ants.” Douglas listens carefully but can’t quite understand the difference between “trained” and “untrained” ants. After she leaves, he wonders (by analogy) what practical difference there is between Christians and non-Christians if the United States and Britain truly are “Christian nations.”
International Pitch (November 1918)
Douglas tells about a conversation he had with a musicologist. “C is always C, no matter what else may change in the world,” the scholar tells him. And this leads Douglas to think about how greatly the world is changing as WWI comes to an end.
By-Products of Higher Education (June 1919)
Douglas describes an eccentric older woman from Ann Arbor who has a habit of popping in on lectures at the University of Michigan and asking the young professors challenging questions.
Accidental Salvation (September 1919)
An angry man who mistreats his wife and kids is walking around the house in his bare feet when he steps on a needle. Pulling it out of his foot, he discovers that the tip of it is missing and assumes it’s traveling in his bloodstream and will cause his death at any moment. The following morning, surprised to have survived the night, he begins putting his affairs in order and, among other things, becomes a good husband and father. His wife never tells him she found the tip of the needle in the carpet the next day. (Years later, Douglas would rewrite this as a Christmas story called Precious Jeopardy.)
Barrel Day (May 1924)
Beginning with a local (Akron, Ohio) custom of libraries putting barrels outside for people to return their overdue books no-questions-asked, Douglas daydreams about starting a new “Barrel Day” custom in which people return things they’ve borrowed from each other and have kept so long that they’d be ashamed to admit it now.
As you can see from the example above, the Contributors’ Club just ran these essays one after the other without by-lines. We know that Douglas wrote these five essays because his scrapbooks contain not only the copies of them but also the acceptance letters from the editor, Ellery Sedgwick.
And there’s another piece of evidence. In the 1980s a couple of researchers actually went through all the magazine’s check stubs to see who received payment for these anonymous contributions. They gave Douglas credit for all five of the essays he included in his scrapbooks. (Philip B Eppard and George Monteiro, A Guide to the Atlantic Monthly Contributors’ Club (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983).)
But even though he didn’t get to see his name in the Atlantic, Douglas was proud to be part of the Contributors’ Club (I found it in at least one of his bios); and rightly so. It made him part of an elite group, and he received helpful feedback in his writing. He didn’t always accept the advice he was given, but it was still good for him to hear it. On “Accidental Salvation,” Sedgwick thought the last sentence was weak. He suggested that Douglas replace it with something more “snappy.” Douglas did change the last sentence, but not to the editor’s liking. Sedgwick went ahead and published it, but he told Douglas he thought it could’ve been better. Take it from me: when you get a comment like that from an editor, it sticks with you! And you think about it the next time you write something similar. Knowing Douglas’s sensitivity to his audiences, I’m quite sure he took Sedgwick’s criticism to heart, and it made him much more aware of concluding each of his stories and essays in a way that would be emotionally satisfying to his readers.
But there was another periodical that played a more important role in Douglas’s life. I’ll tell you about that in the next post.
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