the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

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While reading Parnassus on Wheels, a novella written in 1917 by Christopher Morley, a bunch of words that I never use sprung to mind. Like the book itself they were fun and made me smile. “Jaunty” was one “snappy” another.

Parnassus is clearly written for book lovers. After seven years of selling books on the road out of a horse-drawn wagon, which was suitable for living in as well, traveling salesman Roger Mifflin longed to move back to Brooklyn and begin writing his novel. His hope was that Andrew McGill, a newly published author living in Upstate New York, would want to buy his outfit. Unfortunately for Mifflin, McGill is out in the fields farming when he arrives and it’s the writer’s sister, Helen McGill, who answers the door.

Since her brother’s literary fame, Helen has noticed that Andrew has been neglecting his farmly duties in favor of reading and writing. Resentful of the shirking, and out of necessity for their continued survival, Helen intercepts the many packages from publishers sent to her brother’s attention–either carrying word of new projects or asking for support for others–and burns them in the stove before they can be read by the intended recipient.

When Helen sees the wagon full of books meant specifically for Andrew, she knows it is one step too far. No way could her brother resist. After attempting to shoo the bookseller away before her brother returned, she decides to buy the wagon herself. Giddy with a sense of adventure, she takes to the road after 15 years of not having once seen a vacation. To get her on her way, Professor Mifflin–as Helen takes to calling him–accompanies her for the first few miles, teaching her how to sell books and familiarizing her with his loyal customers.

When Andrew finds out that his sister has taken off in a traveling bookstore he attempts to stop her by nearly any means necessary but, being a strong and largely unapologetic woman, Helen has none of it. In this comedy of innocent misadventures, there are a slew of adorable mishaps as Helen struggles for independence.

Throughout Parnassus on Wheels there are two powerful themes: the empowerment of women and the power of books.

Parnassus on Wheels is literature very much within the realm of first-wave feminism. Oftentimes while reading, I imagined Helen hiking up her billowing dress, waving off any boosts, and pulling herself up onto the covered wagon with a sturdy grunt. On the road she’s given the time and space to learn about herself and gains the confidence to stand by what she wants.

“Now see here Andrew,” I said, “you talk too quickly. A woman of forty (you exaggerate, by the way) who has compiled an anthology of 6,000 loaves of bread and dedicated it to you deserves some courtesy. When you want to run off on some vagabond tour or other you don’t hesitate to do it. You expect me to stay home and do the Lady Eglantine in the poultry yard. By the ghost of Susan B. Anthony, I won’t do it! This is the first real holiday I’ve had in
fifteen years, and I’m going to suit myself.”

Given equal devotion, books are seen as a mode of education. The professor stresses that he performs a valuable service to the people he visits, pointing out that while cities might have libraries and bookstores, rural areas do not.

You see, my idea is that the common people—in the country, that is—never have had any chance to get hold of books, and never have had any one to explain what books can mean. It’s all right for college presidents to draw up their five-foot shelves of great literature, and for the publishers to advertise sets of their Linoleum Classics, but what the people need is the good, homely, honest stuff—something that’ll stick to their ribs—make them laugh and tremble and feel sick to think of the littleness of this popcorn ball spinning in space without ever even getting a hot-box! And something that’ll spur ’em on to keep the hearth well swept and the wood pile split into kindling and the dishes washed and dried and put away. Any one who can get the country people to read something worth while is doing his nation a real service. And that’s what
this caravan of culture aspires to….”

Besides being an endearing story of independence, defiance, and, ultimately, love Parnassus on Wheels offers some some great riffs on reading, such as this one from Helen:

“I think reading a good book makes one modest. When you see the marvellous insight into human nature which a truly great book shows, it is bound to make you feel small—like looking at the Dipper on a clear night, or seeing the winter sunrise when you go out to collect the morning eggs. And anything that makes you feel small is mighty good for you.”

And humorous truisms: “And nobody knows anything about literature unless he spends most of his life sitting down.”

Parnassus on Wheels is a book for book lovers, especially book loving women who, like me, will see a hero in the feisty figure of Helen McGill. I’ve been fortunate lately to come across many books that make me cheer but none as much as this one and not with such force. As the book came to a close I resisted the urge to lift it over my head like a trophy and whoop with excitement. McGill and her traveling bookstore triumph is certainly a winner.

Find Parnassus on Wheels at your local indie bookstore
Find other books in Melville Houses’s Art of the Novella Series


Written by Gabrielle

August 21, 2012 at 7:00 am

One Response

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  1. Never heard of this book but sounds great. Love that line “anything that makes you feel small is mighty good for you.”
    I like the word ‘jaunty’ too!!


    August 23, 2012 at 5:01 am

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