The Heljeson Talent
by Hazel and Harold Segal
AT THE OUTSET we had not anticipated any difficulty, but as we read through old journals it became apparent that a decision must be made. L. Verle Heljeson was a gifted writer and to confine samples of his style to a single issue of Campane meant that restrictions would have to be made if this dedicatory issue was to be meaningful. This meant bypassing a number of good profiles, critiques, autobiographical reminiscences and general comment on affairs within the hobby that were of current concern.
Our intent, on the following pages, is to display typical Heljeson material that would reveal his feeling for amateur journalism. We have taken excerpts from a half dozen articles to show his attitude about critics and the handicaps they must tolerate in the hobby, his joy in attending conventions, and some advice to newcomers on writing for the amateur press.
Any attempt to cover in detail the writing skill that was L. Verle Heljeson’s would encompass more and larger pages than Campane could manage. Nonetheless, we think this culled cross-section of his writing will reveal the depth of his talent.
Beyond the Blue Hills
by L. Verle Heljeson
Cameo, October 1949:
Those who live in the shadow of an important mountain are often the last to visit it. And I had lived in Philadelphia more than a year, within walking distance of the Franklin Institute, before I went to see the Edwin Hadley Smith collection of amateur journals.
My interest in amateur journalism began in 1927, but I have no file of journals, not even my own. On this initial visit I wanted to find copies of The Commentator, which I published jointly with L. R. Geringer. I found what I believe was the first issue, Autumn 1931, followed by regular quarterly publication for two years, then intermittent issues until Autumn 1935 when I relinquished the co-editorship because of pressure of other interests. Geringer carried on alone for a time, and amateur journalism indirectly led him into commercial printing. I remained a non-publisher until Memorandum first appeared in 1941, since followed by only a few issues.
It was interesting to rediscover, there in the gloom and mustiness that haunts all libraries, the things I had written eighteen years ago. I wrote some poetry then, and its influence extended to my prose, which was strewn with adjectives, similes and metaphors, and sentences dripping with alliteration. I was preoccupied with night – three titles being “Lines to Meet the Night,” “Sounds That Pierce the Night” and “Scars on the Moon.” If some titles were lyrical, others, “Life in the Raw” for example, were unbelievably trite. One bit of chit-chat about amateur affairs was headed “Miscellany,” another “Between Me and Thee,” and in “Panorama – Recent Journals in Review” I undertook to criticize other papers, including comments upon poor mimeographing.
I had youthful courage in tackling such limitless subjects as “Thinking of the World.” In “Conflict and Question” I concluded that the possibility of ultimate conflict in the United States between capital and labor was impossible in a classless society such as ours; and I dismissed the probability of war unless brought on by “a few exaggerations about the yellow peril.” Comment on “trucks filled with relief workers passing by” foreshadowed the forthcoming depression, and a poem mirrored the drought and dust storms which visited the economic tragedy upon the middle-west, now forgotten amid the lushness of perpetual subsidies and post-war prosperity.
My writing then had some of the fierce wholesomeness and hideous whimsicality for which I now criticize other amateurs, and it was pervaded by deadly seriousness, straining for effect and attempted cleverness. Today’s [Allen] Crandalls and [Earle] Cornwalls would find it rich plowing. I found, however, underlying enthusiasm and sincerity and a lack of disillusion which might well be recaptured now. Much of it, surprisingly, had more body and fluency than I expected. This may be significant since then I was writing rather than reading about writing, and was less a prisoner of edited phrases and successive rough drafts.
Cameo, November 1950:
Critics are never popular and most of them, particularly in literary and theatrical circles, are considered both unnecessary and evil. Young novelists, who soon develop bitterness toward the species, often comment, when a second or third book fails to receive the favor of a prior work, “The critics will allow you just one good novel – the first.” While in the theatre, certain producers bar unfriendly reviewers from their audiences, and at least one established playwright has paid for newspaper space to attack adverse criticism.
The critic not only operates in an unpopular field but in a restrictive one. The vocabulary of musical criticism is so limited that the comment is repetitive and unintelligible except to those with technical training in music. Literary criticism is a broader area but much of it falls into a pattern in which “incisive” is but one of many over-used words, and in avoiding this pattern some reviewers go to extremes of sensationalism and whimsicality. Theatrical criticism is less stereotyped since it deals with people as well as ideas, but it carries the occupational hazard of having to make first judgments for early morning editions which may be erased by the always unpredictable public.
If a critic surmounts the barriers of style he encounters further problems. He must be honest yet honesty is virtually impossible for the shadow of the advertising page or of the box office always hangs over his pencil. He must be objective yet he cannot divest himself completely of the instinctive web of preference and prejudice that governs the actions of each individual. He must be ruthless if he is to stimulate better accomplishment but the same influences that dilute his honesty and color his objectivity, temper his counsel.
There are temptations along the way. The reviewer neglects substance for the enticements of phrase-making in the hope that some epigrammatic pronouncement will be quoted for posterity. He exalts or condemns small things in a book or play – a character, a room, a view, a moral, a political principle – so that the resulting decision is based upon details rather than the body of a work. Finally, because of the terrific mass of written and visual material before the literate public today, the critic must substitute immediate reactions for the mellowed and sincere judgment that forms and develops tastes. Thus he is engaged in a profession of concurrence of which the practice of reviewing books or making selections for the “book-of-the-month” from galley proofs is but one unhealthy facet.
Since the amateur press has no advertising sales offices nor deadlines and few editorial taboos, theoretically the amateur critic is unfettered. Actually he faces some of the same restrictions, problems and temptations of the professional critic. In constructing his text the amateur critic has difficulty in finding acceptable synonyms for “amateur journalism” and he wonders how many new members (if any) will understand references to Burton Crane, The Scarlet Cockerel, Vondy, King Cole and old Doc Yak? Then there is the question of attitude. If he approaches amateur journals and their publishers too seriously he is pompous and dull; if he tries to be clever he is flippant; if he takes amateur journalism too lightly he is contemptuous; if he interprets the journals in terms of contemporary life he has his head in the clouds and is neglecting ordinary papers; if he draws from the past he is becoming fossilized.
The amateur critic cannot be entirely honest: he writes with one eye on the Inner Circle and the other on the rebels. He cannot be objective because he is swayed, unconsciously perhaps, by the amateurs he has met and by journals that appeal to or offend his personal tastes. He cannot be ruthless for, after all, amateur journalism is a hobby in which bad printing or messy mimeographing or mediocre verse is not only a privilege but almost a right. He desperately wants to be a phrase-maker and to be quoted at banquets or at little chit-chats in cozy [convention hotel] bars, and the term critic is now applied in the broad sense to include all nearby historians. He looks for and savors small things and is tempted, when a writer uses the title of a popular song in apt description of a young amateur, to mistake this glimmer in a swamp of averageness for the emergence of a new and fresh style.
Seldom insulted, often ignored, the critic in amateur journalism writes in the shadow of fabled predecessors and under the strain of current demand for “constructive criticism” which, being freely interpreted, usually means approbation. At the end of the association year he sinks into oblivion after, to borrow from the word supply of the book reviewer, an experience that is both stimulating and rewarding.
The National Amateur, June 1954:
The reception committee won’t arrange itself on a formal receiving line but its members will make newcomers feel that they are a part of the Inner Circle – almost….
The Order of Business looks deadly in the By Laws but as the convention progresses it turns into a fascinating pageant in modern dress. For example, the initial roll call is often answered by journal titles as well as members’ names. It is at this point, if it is your first convention, that you learn that The Scarlet Cockerel usually dresses in monotones of tan and brown; tall, dignified Earl Bonnell announces himself as “Bunny” Bonnell; and Louise Lincoln wears an “A. Walrus” pin.
Then, if the vice-president is not there, suspense hangs over the room until the president makes his pro tempore appointments since the temporary vice-president by law automatically wins the coveted post of [absentee ballot] committee chairman. Suspense prevails again as the [absentee] ballots are handed to the presiding officer and the politicos make a quick visual estimate of the number of envelopes. Nor are the annual report presentations always dull. One year a misplaced decimal point caused the mailer to report an astronomical figure as bundle mailings. Another, the executive judges frowned (audibly) when the official editor reported an expenditure which had not had judicial clearance.
“Miscellaneous and new business” is a prosaic part of each day’s agenda but this part of the proceedings often packs the punch and drama of a McCarthy hearing. You haven’t lived if you haven’t heard Clele Matheison making incisive points of order or Rusty giving parliamentary advice. Then, too, Helm Spink’s reedy voice dominates the room pleasantly as he draws from his vast knowledge of the constitution and convention precedent… and Willametta, whose Roanoke radar intercepts every event of amateur journalistic importance, helps keep the record straight as to which members are dead or alive….
Business will not dominate the convention, however. There will be other things to talk about and do… the disorganized yakking, equally interesting and frequently informative…. Then there will be midnight club soda sessions in various bedrooms where people sit on the floor when chairs run out, shoes (and the gloves) come off, and National history is rehashed – and made.
… If there is a question as to how these seasoned amateurs got that way, the answer is: Long ago they went to their first convention.
The Scarlet Cockerel, August 1968:
Sometime or somewhere in the amateur press I have said or written that an amateur press convention begins when I close my apartment door and buzz the elevator…. Each convention produces much wit and situational hilarities, few of which can be remembered…. Convention attendance forges bonds of common interest and fraternal warmth, impossible to describe, impossible to break. This is best expressed in a post-convention note from someone attending her first gathering: “When we came home, swimming in nostalgia and sadness…” This was my feeling on July 9 when I was last to leave. While I was sitting in the airport limousine several small boys in semi-hippie attire passed by. The leader held a sheaf of burning incense. It reminded me of small religious processions which appear suddenly in Puerto Rican villages. This seemed a fitting end to the convention because conventions are, if not quite religious, somewhat ceremonial, somewhat tribal.
The National Amateur, September 1954:
This critic, who seldom clips or saves anything, finds he did clip a poem from a commercial magazine because of its last line: “Before a scarlet cinder fell from the salvia’s stalk.” Which leads to the question, “How many poems in the amateur press are quotable or clippable?” Very few….
Why must amateur editors make the title of an article a part of the introductory blurb…. Is it a crime simply to print a title and an author’s name? When, too, will the typographers, who turn out those glittering showcases, put something into them by negotiating on an individual basis with writers who, given the space, might turn in other than fragments of flotsam and frivolity which defy either criticism or contempt?…
These are but minor irritations, however, brought on by August moods. In spite of them we, along with all other amateur journalists, are eternally condemned to the enjoyment of searching the monthly bundles and private mailings for the scarlet cinders.
Ajay Journal Guidebook, August 1956:
The amateur press is known as a free press, but writing for it is not entirely free of the restraints and disciplines of writing for the commercial press. Space limitations, style, subject matter, manuscript preparation and marketing: all are factors for attention.
Space limitations are paramount because most journals are small in page size and the number of words that go on each page. Also, when a journal is handset, what begins as a labor of love turns into drudgery without the variety of going from one short piece to another.
It is only the occasional de luxe journal that offers the prose writer an opportunity to expand. Even in writing for such journals one cannot go on writing – Thomas Wolfeishly – forever, page after page. Even in poetry the number of lines, rather than the length of each line, must be watched.
Most printers prefer short sentences and frequent paragraphs. Therefore, a writer’s style is influenced – favorably – by these space limitations. These limitations should be approached affirmatively. Look upon them as a method of pruning – of eliminating the complicated phrase, long words, too many compound words; of increasing readability and decreasing fog count.
A good way to meet such limitations is to write broadly in first draft, then reduce the wordage in successive drafts to whatever limit has been set. This method preserves the initial ideas but sharpens their presentation. It also gives the short piece invisible depth that it might not have if extreme word economy were applied in the first writing.
Fiction is in short supply because of the space limits. It is difficult for a writer to develop all of the elements needed in a good short story – plot, characterization, suspense, climax – even in the leanest narrative style, and still stay within the physical framework of the average journal. In consequence, what does appear in the amateur press approaching fiction amounts to little more than a sketch or vignette.
Keeping space limitations again in mind, non-fiction offers a wide range of opportunities. Publishers welcome non-fiction and it can deal with almost any subject, with a few exceptions. To most publishers, articles on partisan politics, religiosity or the extremes of rightist or leftist ideology are not acceptable. And, if such articles are accepted and published, they bore most readers.
The amateur press still wants the now almost extinct familiar essay, and it can be as whimsical and light as the category implies….
Poetry for the amateur press is controversial. Like the population explosion there is a poetry explosion. Journal publishers and manuscript managers are deluged with verse. Sweetness and light, religious tractism, sing-song dominate. Thus, the poet who is sparing in his output and emphasizes quality will find acceptance rather than indifference.
The discipline of the sonnet is always good for the poet and appeals to the precision of the printer/craftsman. Quatrains and haiku are good – they make wonderful fillers. Try to make the poem meaningful in thought and execution and keep one idea to one poem.
Since the amateur press is a non-paying market, what rewards are there, if any, in writing for it? There are several: The sense of individual achievement when the writer sees his prose or poetry in an attractive journal. Critical comment in the official organ or in journals. (Welcome this comment whether it is constructive or not. It is better to be noticed adversely than not to be noticed at all.) The occasional laureate awards or honorable mentions, which honor both the writer and the publisher who gave him audience.
CAMPANE is published in the interest of organized amateur journalism and the National Amateur Press Association by co-editors Hazel and Harold Segal, Margo Gardens, Bristol, Pa. 19007.