A Familial Artifact Out of the Blue
The caller had a faint accent and a question: Might I be the grandson of Jack Randall Crawford, who died in 1968?
"Yes, what business is it of yours?" I replied ungraciously.
He said that he had a book, a 1929 edition of "John Brown's Body" by Stephen Vincent Benet, and he believed it had belonged to my grandfather.
I knew that Benet was a student of my grandfather's at Yale and that the book, an epic poem, had won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1929. I had labored through it in school long ago. This, then, was a sales call, and I resolved to bargain.
Soon, I was on the defensive. The caller, a Canadian, offered to send me the heirloom for free. He had enjoyed discovering its provenance and felt it belonged in my family. Not long after the book arrived with a gracious note, I read it again. My grandfather's 83-year-old underlining and notes made the effort more rewarding this time. I was looking over his shoulder as we read the text together.
Born in 1878, my grandfather was infirm when I was a boy in the 1950s. My brothers and I would stay for weeks at my grandparents' summer cottage. Jack sat in his chair, smoked his pipe, drank sherry, read and teetered back and forth to the bathroom. When his legs allowed, we would troop out after breakfast to feed the birds and dance like Druids around the mulberry tree.
As the youngest, I sat next to him at dinner. He would rip into a story on occasion: for example, how, recently, a cohort of condemned lobsters had escaped — turning up periodically in sock drawers, behind peanut butter jars etc. A few were still at large. My relationship with crustaceans was never the same.
Jack could wax cantankerous, too: unripe melons and caterwauling grandchildren set him off. There was a literary civility to his pithy outbursts. Rather than take the Lord's name in vain, he would exclaim, "Christopher Beeswax!" When he bellowed, we scattered.
What I know of Jack Crawford's salad days derives from family yarns, an autobiography he wrote for us and a recent trip, prompted by the book's arrival, to view his papers in the Yale archives. He published an autobiographical novel in 1922 to understandably tepid reviews. He wrote other novels, many unpublished, slews of plays, and book reviews. His book "What to Read in English Literature" is a wonderfully engaging guide. My grandmother typed his manuscripts because he eschewed modern technology: he never learned to drive and declined to use the telephone.
Jack's life was Zelig-like. He was forever rubbing elbows with famous people. His father was a journalist, and Jack recalled the hubbub surrounding the assassination of President James A. Garfield, whose lingering death his father covered. He bumped into Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in a nursing home. His father also promoted Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and Jack met Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. He watched a command performance in London from a box within spitting distance of Queen Victoria (he wasn't impressed, she was minute and wasn't wearing her crown). He studied economics, taught by Woodrow Wilson.
Thanks to my Canadian benefactor, I now appreciate all of the acts in my grandfather's drama. As his voluminous writings attest, Jack Crawford was an unrelenting optimist. Getting published was nice, but it was not required. Catty reviews didn't slow his production. He loved the language, whether he was writing or reading it, producing amateur theater, editing or teaching. His young charges — Thornton Wilder, among others — would gather at his house to discuss modern letters, make bad puns and polish off his wife's homemade beer.
When he retired in 1946, it was announced in The New York Times, and letters poured in, one from Herbert Hoover. A missive from Mr. D. Anthony Matricaria of Derby is more representative; it reads in part, "You could hardly be expected to remember me. But I, and those who, like me, were privileged to form part of your student audience will never forget you."
Jack Crawford read till the very last. He may have been happier in that chair than we suspected.