I welcome you to the second issue of Fence with a long yet pithy quote from a novel by Dawn Powell. The Locusts Have No King was published originally by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1948, reissued by Yarrow Press in 1990, then brought out again by Steerforth Press in 1995.To set the stage: Frederick Olliver is a writer of scholarly books scraping by with integrity in New York City. His venue-of-choice is a respectably obscure literary magazine called Swann, but he has recently been recruited by his book publisher, Strafford, to run a new money-making venture, a weekly humour rag called Haw, which he has agreed to do only under conditions of virtual anonymity.
“Strafford’s is being analyzed now,” Miss Jones gloomily stated. “That woman who’s always flying around here with her hat on and types memos standing up with one glove on is doing it.”
“Mrs. Caswell, ” Frederick remembered. “I thought she was publicity or something.”
“She’s from Berghart and Caswell, Trade Analysts,” corrected Miss Jones. “They analyze institutions and stores. They did Beckley’s Jubilee year and it seems it’s the talk of the trade. So of course the boss had to have them, too. Her name’s Eva Caswell.”
Frederick glanced idly at the latest memo on his desk, ignored up to that point.
“Mr. Olliver, please!” read the dashing handwriting in green ink. “What happens to Strafford’s concerns you just as much as it does everyone else. In order to get a clear picture of Strafford’s as a whole we need your help. You as much as anyone else are Strafford’s. Now that we’ve cleared out the deadwood and gotten focussed on our objective, do let’s work together on the new structure. Four o’clock today in the new conference room, then, for our final week of crystallization. P.S. Dear, dear Mr. Olliver, I know very well you’re busy, but this is the big moment in our firm’s life, so big we’re inviting our most important friends in for today’s conference. I know you will come. Yours, Topsy.”
“Topsy?” repeated Frederick.
“She signs her personal notes Topsy,” Miss Jones explained. “It’s just a cute way of saying her name’s Eva.”
“I see,” said Frederick. “Why do I have to go?”
“I guess to make a show for the editorial department,” Miss Jones offered. “There is so much sales and promotion and advertising that I guess it doesn’t look right to have hardly any editors. Ever since Court Lady’s been a bestseller Strafford lets the sales-force pick the books. He always goes a little nuts when he makes money or goes on the wagon. We just humor him.”
Frederick was in a dour state of mind since the Haw job, which was to be such a casual affair, was requiring more and more of his time due to its outrageous success. It seemed to prove that a magazine with no staff, no taste, no conferences or danger of improving the reader’s mind, could run on greased tracks. He spent an hour or two every morning in the office then left the routine with his instructions to Miss Jones and the make-up man. He was free to ascend the stairs to Strafford’s proper and devote the rest of his day to his own work, but what use was it? It disgusted him that he could handle Haw, which he hated, with belligerent efficiency, but was powerless to promote his own work. He checked and polished his own manuscript, planned his work for Swann, commented on works of other authors, but was corroded with the bitter conviction that he was victimized. His worst obstacle was his success with Haw. Strafford, he knew, realized that publication of his book with no more than his usual laurels would ruin the golden goose. Frederick was too proud to push his own cause, relying on his haughty modesty to elicit eventual justice. Moreover, the disturbed condition of his private life made him fear a direct showdown with Strafford. He mocked himself by sudden bursts of studying Haw’s success with the seriousness of Larry attacking a cigarette slogan for Hazelnut. That morning he had found sardonic amusement in discussing a new comic strip with an ex-convict’s ghost-writer. He described the moral value of a serial about a two-cent crook who was always caught and he spoke of the great artistic merit of such a project. He dictated a note to Miss Jones on obtaining a strip to popularize the adventures of Candide. He added a pompous editorial foreward on the intellectual beauties of the comic strip, the international good-will engendered, the crimes prevented, the seeds of social conscience planted through sheer economy of articulate or literate thoughts. He smiled inwardly when Miss Jones, who had her own opinion of a man whose books contained no conversation, suddenly looked at him over her notebook with the dawn of reverence. At last, her expression said, you have seen the great light, you really aren’t such a dope after all. You can learn . . .
“Mr. Olliver,” she breathed, “you’re a genius.” Art is a cigarette ad, then, Frederick mused, literature is a soap opera, integrity is getting your claptrap done by pay-day so you can take some trollop to some clip joint where she can double-cross you. . . .