An audio recording of this post is available to Patreon subscribers, who also have access to several short stories by Webster that I’ve transcribed.
A few months ago, I praised Henry Kitchell Webster’s The Real Adventure on my Sunday Recommendations list. (The list is free: email DuranteDianne@gmail.com to join, or visit DianneDuranteWriter.com and click on the Sunday Recommendations tab.) Two members of the list who know that I’m always desperate for good fiction told me that they’d also enjoyed many novels by Webster that I hadn’t heard of. I’ve enjoyed every single one of the dozen novels and short stories by Webster that I’ve read so far. Webster’s sense of life is similar to that of Augustus Saint Gaudens and Maxfield Parrish, whose lives overlap with Webster’s. The premises of his stories are unusual and fascinating, and I’ve never yet guessed the endings. And I like Webster as a man, particularly when I read essays such as his “Making a Living by Literature,” published in 1911. More on that in a moment.
Many of Webster’s novels are available in scanned versions online, but the scanned text often makes me laugh at entirely inappropriate times. For example: “’/!’ he shouted.” It soon occurred to me that I could issue new editions of Webster’s works and share them with others. This gives me an excuse to spend more time in Webster’s world. I’m very good at laying out printed books (day-job skill) and creating ebooks (freelance writer skill). I have a daughter who’s willing to do cover design and a sister who’s willing to help me proof. All in all, producing new editions of works by Webster has made my life more enjoyable. As of July 2018, I’ve issued The Sky-Man and A King in Khaki (in Kindle and in print). NOTE: According to Amazon’s new policy, all public-domain works are lumped into the same online entry. If the version you purchase doesn’t have the covers below, you don’t have the version I edited.
This post is work-in-progress of the short bio I’m writing as an introduction to a collection of Webster’s short stories. Much of the information on Webster’s early career comes from “Making a Living by Literature,” which Webster published anonymously in the Saturday Evening Post in November 1911. He omitted some details and changed a few others so his identity wouldn’t be obvious. I quote from that essay extensively below, and fill in the titles of the novels he’s talking about. Because really, if anything’s going to persuade you to read Webster, it’s Webster’s writing, not mine!
Youth and early career
Webster was born on September 7, 1875, at Evanston, Illinois, near Chicago. His parents were Emma J. Webster and Towner K. Webster, a prominent manufacturer. Young Webster was sent off to law school, but while attending Hamilton College, he became more interested in writing than in legal matters. But …
How did one go about it? I wondered. Where did one learn to be a literary man? I often smile over the naiveté of my answer to that question. But after all it was natural enough. If you were going to be a preacher you went to a divinity school and learned how. You went to a law school to learn law. Well and good! I would go to Harvard or Columbia and put in a couple of post-graduate years at literature. That isn’t quite such a joke now as it was then because there are, I believe, men in some of the faculties who have made the sapient discovery that the way to learn how to write is to write. But in those days—well, you studied Gothic and Anglo-Saxon, and counted weak endings in Troilus and Cressida to determine whether it was written before or after Timon of Athens. It was Providence and nothing else that saved me from falling into that pit.
Fresh out of college, Webster was offered a job teaching rhetoric at Union College. (“I suppose I was tired of being a schoolboy. The opportunity to begin earning a living was an alluring one.”) While there, he had a minor revelation.
I got a shadowy notion of one real idea—namely, that the climate of College Hill was not favorable to the growth and production of fresh literary vegetation. When you spent all your time contemplating the bleak glories of antiquity it seemed a piece of impertinent presumption to try to create anything new on your own account.
Webster wasn’t asked to teach a second year … but he did publish his first novel that year. The Short-Line War was co-authored with Samuel Merwin, a fellow native of Evanston. Like many of his novels, the background is business, in this case a battle over a railroad. In “Making a Living by Literature” he doesn’t mention that his first book was a collaborative effort – presumably to preserve his anonymity. Years later he recalled:
I had a story in my head—a novel, and it suddenly occurred to me to sit down and write it without waiting to pursue researches into the origin of the English language. It was a pretty good story that had been brewing in my head for two or three years. I hadn’t any literary technic whatever, any ideas about creating an atmosphere or sustaining a scene. All I knew about telling a story was that you began at the beginning and told it as simply and directly as possible.
He sent the manuscript to one of America’s top publishers, where it was accepted within a week.
There’s never been another day like that. The thing was unbelievable, but it was true. I had reached the pinnacle of ambition at a bound. I was to have a novel published. The joy of it was untempered by the faintest misgiving. The door of the Temple of Letters had swung wide open at the slightest touch and let me in. I don’t believe my feet touched the pavement all day. I went to a musical show that night. You very likely went to it yourself, but you have forgotten the name of it. You probably grunted and said “Another of ’em” as you went out. To me that show has always been the most sparkling, witty, melodious thing that ever was put on the boards.
I plunged pell-mell into another novel …
In 1900 Webster’s first solo novel, The Banker and the Bear, appeared. Stories on business themes were unusual, and Webster was approached by several magazine editors for short stories, which paid $100 or $150 each. “The Wedge,” published in 1901 in The Saturday Evening Post, seems to be his earliest published short story.
In 1901 Webster married Mary Ward Orth, daughter of a coal dealer from Hiawatha, Kansas. In the same year, Calumet “K” was published, co-authored with Samuel Merwin. In “Making a Living by Literature” he doesn’t mention that his third book was a joint effort, again presumably to preserve his anonymity.
Number three, which was published just after my marriage, was the biggest success I have ever made. It, too, was an old story, one that I had been carrying round. It is by far the best of the three. I don’t know now exactly what the quality of it was that made it go; I think a sort of sincerity and fidelity to detail. I knew just what I was talking about when I wrote that book. Its sales were something over twenty thousand copies … I find people every now and then with the idea that I must have made enough out of that book to live on the income of it. All told it brought me in about five thousand dollars.
Today Webster’s fame derives from Calumet “K”, which Ayn Rand described as
my favorite novel. It is not a work of great literature—it is a work of light fiction … Its style is straightforward and competent, but undistinguished. It lacks the most important ingredient of good fiction, a plot structure. But it has one element that I have never found in any other novel: the portrait of an efficacious man.” (Introduction to a new edition of Calumet “K” published in 1967, p. i; cf. Rand’s Letters, p. 252).
Calumet “K” was based on an event in the life of Webster’s father, Towner Keeney Webster, who in 1897 constructed a grain elevator under pressure similar to that experienced by the book’s hero, Charlie Bannon. Thanks to Dr. Shoshana Milgram for sharing with me the transcript of a talk in which she mentioned this fact: “Calumet ‘K’: Ayn Rand’s Favorite Novel,” delivered at Objectivist Conferences, June 7, 2017.
Webster’s fourth novel, published in serial form as “The Copper King,” in book form as Roger Drake, Captain of Industry, appeared in 1902. The fifth, The Duke of Cameron Avenue, appeared in 1903 (serial) and 1904 (book).
The period I have been talking about covers the first four years of my attempt to earn a living by literature. In that time I hadn’t had a single refusal, even of a short story, or a single failure …. I considered myself—naturally enough, I think—an established person. Number four didn’t sell so well as number three, but there was nothing especially ominous in that. It went to seven or eight thousand copies—plenty to be called a success in the book-publishing world. I wrote novel number five, serialized it through an agent for five cents a word, the highest price I had been paid up to that time, and went off with my wife to Europe. We planned to stay about two years, living in Paris and working there and making little trips about the Continent and England.
The Websters had a lovely time in Paris:
We had a microscopic apartment over on the left bank. We got acquainted in no time at all with most of the American painters, sculptors and musicians who make up that colony, and we met a lot of pleasant French people besides. I particularly enjoyed the painters. Not being a painter myself, I was allowed to hang round and watch them work and ask innumerable questions. I began evolving esthetic principles, discovering parallels between their work and mine; my mind was full of “keys” and “values.” It was a wonderful revel, easily the most stimulating, exciting time I have ever had. … It wasn’t easy to work there. It was so much better for one’s soul to play. You learned so much playing you could fairly feel yourself grow.
During his trip, Webster finished his sixth novel, Traitor and Loyalist. His publisher reported that he hadn’t been able to sell the serial rights, and advised going directly to publication as a book, which came out in 1904. Webster was unshaken.
What if there were something radically wrong with the book? I knew an infinite lot more now than I had known a year ago. I was full of all sorts of brilliant technical ideas, fine little tours de force that I meant to pull off. I made up my plot like a pictorial composition. I worked, once I got started at it, with a good deal of the old exuberance that I had felt over number two when I was expecting that ten-thousand-dollar check. I was going to make a tremendous advance this time. The reviewers, who had always complimented me on “a rattling good yarn,” were going to find something else to say.
When Mary became pregnant with their first son (Henry, Jr.), the couple returned to America six months ahead of schedule. And then … an editor rejected, for the first time, one of his stories: “The story was beautifully done, he said, but it didn’t seem precisely to get anywhere.” Traitor and Loyalist wasn’t succeeding, either:
The book had fallen absolutely flat; had been an instantaneous and total failure. Even the advance sales had been much less than those of my other books and there had been practically no reorders whatever.
Not only that: a seventh novel was rejected by his usual publisher.
“There are scenes in it [said the publisher] that are completely charming; they have a power of lingering in the memory even of a man who reads as many manuscripts as I do. But I am sure it would be a serious mistake to publish this story in its present form. There is some vital essential quality wanting in it. Of course, if you want to try it on some other publisher I haven’t a word to say. But if I may venture to advise you, you will put it on the shelf and forget about it for a while, and then take it out and make of it the story that it deserves to be.”
I am rather proud to say that I took his advice. The event has proved that he was absolutely right about it. I read that story a year or two ago and arrested a destroying hand to preserve the thing for a horrible example of what an intelligent, conscientious craftsman can do when he gets off on the wrong tack. But at the time it was a stern rebuff not only as a blow to my confidence, my belief in my own powers, but as a question of plain bread and butter.
In 1905 and 1906, Webster earned his bread and butter by writing nonfiction articles of the muckraking variety for Leslie’s Monthly Magazine and the American Illustrated Magazine. Beginning in the early 1900s (the Progressive Era), muckrakers – who were as much reformers as investigative reporters – wrote sensational exposes of political corruption and waste, steel-making, railroads, sweatshop working conditions, public health, Jim Crow laws, and conditions in prisons and insane asylums. Magazines were the mass entertainment of the era, and muckraking articles sold magazines. Webster was hired to write them … but he wasn’t good at it and didn’t enjoy it.
I said to that sad-faced editor: “The real facts could be twisted into a confirmation of the story you gave me if I stretched them enough and suppressed all the facts on the other side. If I had a brief for that story, as a lawyer has for his client’s side of the case, I could make a pretty fair showing. But a magazine writer isn’t supposed to have a brief.”
“Well,” said the editor, “I can’t disagree to that. Make the best story you can.”
I had already written the first article of the series and I went to work on the others. When the first article came out the head man of the industry I had been investigating came and offered me the editorship of his trade paper! And if a would-be muckraker ever got a worse shock than that I have never heard of it.
They let me go on and write the other two articles of the series and then sorrowfully they fired me.
Webster shifted to writing short stories, but sold only one of a dozen or so over the course of a year.
I looked the situation over soberly and dispassionately. To all appearances I was a total failure. Of the last three novels I had written, the first, which I succeeded in serializing, had failed as a book [The Duke of Cameron Avenue]; the second, which I couldn’t serialize, failed worse as a book [Traitor and Loyalist]; and the third I couldn’t publish at all. I had a drawer full of shabby short-story manuscripts that had gone the whole editorial rounds of New York. I had made two separate attempts at article-writing and had failed at both of them.
I never laid the flattering unction to my soul that my work failed because it was too good, because people weren’t intelligent enough to appreciate me. That soul-destroying poison I wasn’t even tainted with. No, it was clear enough I had lost my grip, I had forgotten how to write.
It was possible that I might learn how again, but that wasn’t the form in which the great question confronted me. The question was, What could I do to earn a living? If I could make it by writing, well and good. But, in one way or another, I had got to make it.
Webster asked a prominent magazine editor for work writing the cheapest sort of articles, “the sort of thing they print in the feature supplement to the Sunday papers. It doesn’t matter much what you say in those articles so long as you say enough to fill in round the photographs.” The editor suggested that he instead write potboilers – run-of-the mill stories without any particular originality that would fill the demand for mass entertainment.
“We can use worlds of that stuff. We never get enough of it. Give it to us in sixty-thousand-word lengths, with a big bang at the end of every ten thousand for an installment ending, and a little bang at least every thousand words.”
“Do you pay real money for that stuff?” I wanted to know.
“I’ll pay you a cent a word,” he said.
A cent a word for a sixty-thousand-word story would mean six hundred dollars. It used to take me six months in the old days to do as much as that.
Webster hired a stenographer so that he wouldn’t be slowed down by his typing skills, and cranked out a story in three weeks flat.
I attacked the job in a spirit of savage hostility toward it. That editor wanted punch, did he? Well, he should have it! I had two deliberate murders, a suicide, an unsuccessful attempt at poisoning and three justifiable homicides in self-defense in the course of that sixty thousand words, together with a passionate love story that occupied at least one chapter in each installment. …
In the middle of the next week I got a letter. All the staff, said the editor, were so enthusiastic over my story that they wanted to know whether I wouldn’t sign my own name to it. In that case, he said, they’d run it in a higher-grade magazine than the one it was intended for and pay me a cent and a half a word for it. I wrote him to go to, that I meant to make that name worth a cent and a half or two cents a word, and in the meantime he could send on his six hundred dollars. He did by return mail.
Back in business
Webster found this a workable way to support himself and his family while saving some time for writing better-quality material.
I applied the brakes a little to my rate of production and have never written more than six novels a year. When I hit upon an idea that strikes me as an unusually good one I spend a little more time on it, caulk the seams a bit tighter and demand a higher price for it. When the plot is nothing more than a combination of the regular ingredients I slam it through as I did the first one and sell it at the old rate of a cent a word. About half the work I do gets published, after serialization, in book form with the imprint of some entirely reputable publisher on the title page. The other half runs a lurid course for six months or so in the pages of some cheap magazine and disappears. I have used altogether, since I started this business, five pen-names, and I try to classify the stories more or less by the signature, for I find that readers like to know what they are going to get.
Once a year or so, he’d publish a work under his own name.
During the last two or three years I have lowered my rate of production still further. I find that I can earn about five thousand dollars a year, which is a perfectly respectable living out in my town, and still save out a few months’ time every year for a different sort of work—work that I can put my whole heart and ambition into. I haven’t said goodby to ambition yet by any means. In other words, I am to a certain extent earning my living with my left hand and keeping my right hand free for experiments.
In 1907, Webster published Comrade John, co-authored with his friend Samuel Merwin. In 1908 came The Whispering Man; in 1909 A King in Khaki; in 1910, The Sky-Man.
At the end of “Making a Living by Literature,” published in 1911, Webster comments on his method of making money.
I said at the beginning of this article that I meant to put you into a position to decide whether earning a living by literature as I have done it was worth while or not. “Commonplace, sordid, cynical!” I fancy I hear some of you saying. “That man runs a fiction factory. He calculates his costs like a shop superintendent. He deliberately cheapens himself; does less than the best he can, with no better excuse than that it earns him a living.”
Well, it seems to me that earning a living is a pretty good excuse. I have come to the conclusion that to earn an honest living is the first duty of man. If he can earn it by writing poetic dramas or composing symphonic poems, well and good. He is in luck. But if his five-act tragedies fail, if the world says they are not good enough to pay money for, I am not sure that he is entitled to ask the world to go on supporting him.
There is a certain group of cultured people who judge a piece of work by its pretensions rather than by its intrinsic merit. To their minds the dullest piece of musical writing in the form of a string quartet is more admirable than an irresistible bit of melody in some ragtime tune; the feeblest dramatic failure, huddling under a corner of the mantle of Maeterlinck or Ibsen, is more admirable, better worth doing, than the best modern short story. I don’t agree with those people, but I don’t expect to convert them. To my notion a comic-opera lyric, or a set of pictures in a Sunday supplement, or a romantic thriller such as I turn out every three months or so from my fiction factory may be good enough to be worth doing. I try my best to make them good enough.
Putting artistic considerations aside and taking my way of earning a living as a commercial proposition, there are things to be said both for and against it. I work very hard—harder, I honestly believe, than most of the men of somewhere near my age who make as much a year as I do. There is an element of uncertainty about it: the possibility that I may lose my grip again, as I lost it once before. On the other hand, I don’t know any other sort of work that could give me so large a measure of independence. I haven’t any boss. I don’t have to keep a corner of my eye on the man just behind me, wondering when he will get my job. I don’t even have to commercialize my friendships—play golf with a man or invite him to my house for business reasons. When I have done what will satisfy me as a day’s work I am my own man.
Webster continued to publish novels under his own name more or less annually. He wrote at least one dramatic script: June Madness, staged in New York City in 1912. According to IMDB, he was involved with eleven film projects. He and Mary had two more sons, Stokely and Roderick.
Webster was a well-known and respected author. In 1916, the New York Times quoted at length his opinion of the committee of the Authors’ League that had recommended joining the Federation of Labor.
We shall go on doing exactly what we please [the committee implied] and the Federation will back us up. We shall be in the position of the small boy with a big brother able to lick anybody in the block, and willing to do so at our request. Only our big brother will never attempt to coerce us in any way. But I confess my mind misgives me about it all. I don’t quite like to think of asking a stereotype or a camera man to throw up his job and walk out of lucrative employment in defense of what I fancy to be my rights, unless I have similarly bound myself to boycott any publisher or producer who stands in the way of his getting what he fancies to be his rights. …
In 1921, the New York Times printed Webster’s lengthy essay,“What Is a Novel, Anyhow?” After discussing what makes a good novel he asks,
Is there any real reason, then, why a serious novel should not be a good story; why it should be dull, pompous, didactic; why it should move as slowly as a glacier and drag along its flanks as much extraneous matter as a glacial moraine? Dismembered and chaotic masses of Marxian socialism, of Freudian psychology – disquisitions even upon the flora and fauna of the sea?
Well, yes, it must be owned there is a reason. There is one of the best reasons in the world.
In brief, it involves our Puritan origins. We may think that, because we play golf Sunday, swear when we are moved to do so, and do other things that infallibly would have landed us in the stocks or the pillory had we lived in those diabolically good old days, we have emancipated ourselves from the old fetters. Also [i.e., “alas”?] we have merely – all too many of us – taken a transfer from the moral Black Maria to the esthetic one. It wasn’t because it hurt the bear but because it amused the populace that our sour old ancestors prohibited bear baiting. If you liked it it was bad for you. Unless you were miserable and atrabilious, melancholy enough to turn milk, it was perfectly certain that you weren’t good.
So, when our carefully cultivated ear is upon the point of surrendering to the almost irresistible charm of some new strain of music, an atavistic misgiving springs to the alert and hisses a warning. If it were really good you couldn’t like it like that – could you?
Webster eventually wrote hundreds of short stories and serials that were published in The Saturday Evening Post and other national magazines – some under his own name, some under pseudonyms. When he died of cancer on December 8, 1932, at age 57, he had completed twenty-seven novels, among the most successful of which were Calumet “K” (with Merwin), The Real Adventure, A King in Khaki, The Sky-Man, The Corbin Necklace, and Who Is the Next? His final novel, The Alleged Great-Aunt, was completed by Janet Ayer Firbank and Margaret Ayer Barnes (fellow Chicago writers) and published in 1935.
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