Seagull V Dog

I have called Stanley Pleeber’s fear of dogs ‘irrational’: why then should I delve any further? What could one possibly hope to find? When poke comes to push comes to shove comes to a kick in a teeth, would I stand by my statement? The irrational should have no answers. Yet I cannot help looking for them.

Putting aside the possibility of there being a dark-dog-related-incident lurking like a wounded wolf in the reeds of Pleeber’s most peculiar past, let us wander instead into one of many other pastures, and posit the following question: how could a man who was terrified of terriers be so fond of everybody’s least favourite sandwich-grabbing scavanger-birds? I refer, of course, to the infamous seagull: terror of sunbathers everywhere, if not city-dwellers also (for seagulls, as we well know, have no sense of place these days, and simply will not consign themselves to purely littoral domains). I would, in truth, no sooner make friends with a seagull than a pitbull. Pleeber, however, was rather more forgiving on this front.

Was it, perhaps, a question of domesticity? Seagulls make poor pets. They are the vagrant type: life’s perennial outsiders. Dogs, on the other hand, only threaten wildness. All dogs are, so to speak, mongrels. They know not what they are. They are the ultimate in-betweeners. To say that Pleeber was fond of seagulls is to say that he respected them. He doffed his cap to them – but he never took them home to meet his mother. Seagulls clearly don’t belong in the home. Neither do dogs: but they will go on pretending they do. This is, as Pleeber might have said, a ‘sorry state of affairs’. And on this point I am ever so slightly inclined to agree with him…

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Dogs Without Bite

You may or may not recall the name of Stanley Pleeber, the late Boston-based collector of rare manuscripts, precious artworks and postcards with horses on them. I assembled some ‘random facts’ pertaining to his strange life on this very blog a year or so ago (you’ll find most of them here). Amongst other things, I commented on his dislike of bronze sculpture, his fondness for seagulls and his conspicuous lack of similarity to Harry Elkins Widener. I also mentioned his fear of dogs: one of many impediments to his instinct for adventure. ‘If I hear a dog yapping in a man’s house, I do not enter that house’, he said once. This turned out to be an understatement. If he heard a dog yapping anywhere, Pleeber’s reaction was to run as fast and far as he could. He simply could not abide dogs.

Further proof (if needed) is offered by a book I uncovered in his archives, entitled ‘Diary of Dogs Without Bite’. In this volume, Pleeber made a note of every dog he had encountered against his will – and whether or not it had bitten him. Though Pleeber did his best to avoid dogs, the list was long. He came across many dogs: it was inevitable. ‘I am plagued by malicious beasts,’ he once complained: ‘I dream of pulling dogs out of my hair. They are simply everywhere’. What is remarkable about this diary, however, is that for all the hundreds of dog encounters it lists, there is no mention of having been bitten. For the truth is: Pleeber never was bitten. He aimed to make a note of how many dogs he could pass without suffering an attack. The answer was: all dogs.

But did he soften? Did he indeed. Irrational fears change shape, but they never soften.

Dogs and Life

‘If I hear a dog yapping in a man’s house, I do not enter that house’ said the ever pragmatic Stanley Pleeber. So he hired an army of assistants to enter the house for him instead (as noted here). Finding myself in a similar position – but without the army of assistants – I tend to follow the same course of action. If I hear a dog yapping in a man’s house, I walk away from that house, fast.

It’s nothing personal – I just don’t like dogs. And I understand that the feeling is mutual; that terriers and hounds across the world don’t weep at night for lack of my love; that somewhere in Dorchester a dalmatian called Dante will not be waiting for a pat on the back from me. We are together in our wish to live apart.

I remain, however, unsatisified. As Pleeber realised, one cannot simply run away from dogs – not if one has aspirations. Not if one really wants to go out into the semi-wilderness and grasp the essentials of the European folk tale tradition. This may sound strange. What have dogs to do with literature? Ah, but folk tales are not ‘literature’ in that sense. They aren’t things one finds on smart bookshelves in wood panelled and crimson-carpeted rooms. They don’t attend drinks parties, or formal dances. They don’t sit on plush sofas, or atop a pile of nicely-bound books on charmingly disordered desks. Folk-tales are found in less forgiving surroundings. Folk-tales are found where the chickens scratch, the rats scurry and the fleas leap. Where the dogs yap.

Seth Kinloch, another collector of European folk-tales, knew the score. He knew that he’d meet his fair share of dogs. And though he wasn’t their biggest fan, neither was he afraid. He was, after all, a seven-foot bear of a man: the kind of fellow who wrestles alligators in his spare time. He wasn’t going to let a mauling from a Moldovan mongrel put him off. ‘If a man runs away from a dog, he sees nothing of life,’ wrote Kinloch. A little extreme, methinks, but typical of Kinloch, whose action-hero moves lean, on occasion, toward the comical. Whilst feeling sorry for oneself is not necessarily an attractive trait, I have seen enough of Kinloch’s bravado to know that it wouldn’t suit me at all. As I once wrote: ‘academics will do a lot for their work (and so they should) but braving a mad Norwegian bloodhound does not have to be one of them’.

Boston Bricks

Following up on a series started a couple of months ago, here is another random fact regarding the late American book-collector Stanley Pleeber.

Random fact no. 8: Although we still don’t know how tall Pleeber was, we may yet be inching towards to the truth. As I revealed in the comments to this post, Pleeber was almost always photographed standing alone in front of a brick wall. As the size and types of bricks used in Boston in this period vary greatly, it is pretty much impossible to tell from such images how tall he was.

When in Boston, I made every attempt to leap nimbly over this hurdle by doing a little brick-based research. Unfortunately – and I don’t mind confessing this, however poorly it reflects on my academic endurance – brick-based research must be one of the more tedious forms of research there is. ‘Brick Lit’ – as it is known – is a veritable quarry of dull unstructured piffle. I have spent many a merrier minute scratching my nostrils.

I won’t say I didn’t try my best – though I can’t say it helped. What I will say is that, should someone ever recommend Jay Biggin’s Cementing a Reputation: All the Houses that Jackson Built to you, I advise you hit said person over the head with the largest volume of Latin prose you can find. Likewise the strangely titled Stoned: Building America which, despite a lively chapter on scaffolding (and a fine anecdote about marble tabletops) is the sort of book that gives detail a bad name. Well, I say that – but then where were the much sought-after facts on Boston bricks circa 1900? Nowhere to be seen, alas.

So the brick-based research came to nothing. It crumbled under my hands, it sank into the sand, it all fell down. But no matter, for new information regarding Pleeber’s height has snaked its way through alternative channels. In the soon-to-be-published diaries of Sam Tavistock Jnr, a contemporary of Pleeber’s, we find the following reference to Stanley:

Walking by the waterfront today, I came across Stanley P sitting on a stone next to a dowdy grey-feathered seagull. Both of them were looking out across the Atlantic, the seagull somewhat wistfully, Stanley a little philosophically. The resemblance to the dwarf prophet of Mackazee was so perfect, I could not bring myself to disturb them.

Pleeber’s fondness for seagulls is boringly well known. The reference to the ‘dwarf prophet of Mackazee’ is, however, fascinating.  It would be even more useful if we had any idea of who the ‘dwarf prophet’ was – but then the comment does at least open up the possibility that Pleeber was not the tallest of men. That is, of course, if the statement refers to a straight general physical resemblance, as opposed to a mere facial resemblance, or a resemblance to a shared tendency (i.e. should the ‘dwarf prophet’ have also been in the habit of hanging about with dowdy seagulls). As it is, we don’t really know, though (needless to say) we will certainly be working on it. And something tells me that dwarf-prophet based research may be a little more interesting than that of Boston-brick variety.

More Stanley Pleeber facts here.

Some Final Facts, For Now

As my Boston adventure draws to a close, I present two more of my ever-expanding list of ‘Random Facts about Stanley Pleeber’. Not the last two facts by any means, but the last you may find here for a while.

Fact no. 6: One of Pleeber’s most treasured and controversial possessions was a nail clipping said to have belonged to William Shakespeare. This single item could be said to be responsible for the great lack of respect Pleeber suffered from in his career. Even now we struggle to comprehend how it was he ever believed in the validity of the article in question. I ought to add, however, that he never claimed the clipping was from Shakespeare’s body itself; only that it had belonged to the late English playwright. From whose toe or finger the clipping actually came remains of one the world’s great mysteries.

Fact no. 7: In 1926, Stanley Pleeber sat for a portrait bust by local sculptor John P P Phillips. Though Phillips was said to have achieved a remarkable, even frightening likeness, Pleeber was disappointed by the finished product. ‘No one told me I was to have been cast in treacle’ he remarked, only to be reminded that the bust was, strictly speaking, made of bronze. ‘Bronze, schmonze,’ replied Pleeber, ‘it looks much like treacle to me’. From here on in, Pleeber was always an outspoken critic of both bronze and marble sculpture. Aligning himself with the young art critic Jeremy Baleknik (author of the infamous treatise Sculptors! Where is Your Colour?) he fought for the use of bright colours in public statues. In 1941 he got his wish, when a bright pink statue of Washington was unveiled in Swington, Connecticut. It was, sadly, pulled down by vandals within a week of its erection.

Random Fact/s about Stanley Pleeber (no 5)

Stanley Pleeber was no Harry Elkins Widener (though he was once mistaken for him at a party). The differences between the two book collectors are, however, vast.

Widener died young, a victim of the Titanic sinking. Pleeber, on the other hand, lived into his eighties, a victim of a dull and healthy lifestyle.

Widener went to and graduated from Harvard. Pleeber spent a great deal of time in the vicinity of the famous university, but was never actually enrolled (he only went, he admitted later: ‘to feed the dear sparrows and to sneer at the old students’)

Widener started collecting books at a very early age. Pleeber was in his late thirties when his literary frenzy took hold of him.

Widener, it is supposed, loved books and loved collecting books. Pleeber only loved collecting them.

Widener’s mother saluted her dead son by building a library in his honour. Pleeber’s mother died before him, making such an action impossible, though the facts suggest that (though equally wealthy) she would have been disinclined to take such measures. The only present Pleeber records having received from his mother can be found in his diary entry of July 4th 1902: ‘From Mrs Pleeber, one smack received’. He was twenty-two at the time.

Legends surround Widener. Few legends surround Pleeber: only facts (of which this is indutibly one).

Poetry Procession

‘The king, for his part, quite forgot to thank the Icelanders for what they thought the most significant thing they gave him in return, which was the poetry composed in his honour. Some poets composed as many as eight poems about him. It is not the custom in Germany to compose poetry in honour of country governors, Electors, or even the Kaiser, and Kristian Wihelmsson was left wide-eyed and open-mouthed as a procession of poets stepped forward one after the other and recited verse at him; he had never heard verse before, and did not know what it was’ (Halldor Laxness, Paradise Reclaimed)

Random fact about Stanley Pleeber no. 4:

Stanley Pleeber, a man from whom good intentions often oozed, once had the idea to invite all the children of Boston to compose a poem or two in honour of a great and modest man (i.e. himself). The children, being the enthusiastic type, did so – spurred on (i.e. pushed by their parents) by the promise of some wonderful reward. In March 1931 all the poems were submitted to Pleeber, whose charming idea turned to dust in his lap. ‘I had not realised how tiring the reading of poetry is’ he wrote in his diary, after getting through two lines of the first work. Needless to say, he went no further, giving the reward (a grapefruit) to the boy with (in his opinion) ‘the most amusing name’. Isaac Slopper received the fruit gratefully.

The rest of the poems remained unread – until now. I am, however, saddened to report that few of them are brilliant, let alone masterly. Perhaps in the future, however, I may share one or two with you – and you can be the judge.