Saturday, July 07, 2007

Swapping the Baton for a Pen

If America’s Fourth of July celebrations could boast a soundtrack, it would be dominated by the rousing patriotic marches of composer-conductor John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), and would have to include two familiar pieces of music: “Stars and Stripes Forever” (heard here in a 1909 cylinder recording) and “The Washington Post March” (available here in an 1897 recording). But as “literary detective” Paul Collins, a writing professor at Oregon’s Portland State University, recalled this morning on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition, the American “March King” was also a novelist.

During his lifetime, Sousa wrote five books, including the novels The Fifth String (1902), Pipetown Sandy (1905), and The Transit of Venus (1920). Asked by Weekend Edition host Scott Simon to characterize The Fifth String, Collins said:
It’s a very melodramatic and artificial-sounding book in a lot of ways. It’s not a particularly naturalistic voice in the narrative. But it was quite popular. The funny thing is, his second book, which came out three years later, called Pipetown Sandy, was actually much, much better, which to me indicates he was really thinking about his craft at that point. I think he really put a lot of work in between his first and second book[s]. And naturally, the result was that it didn’t sell nearly as well.
It is a fun exchange Collins has with NPR host Scott Simon on the subject of Sousa’s literary legacy. You can listen to all of it here.

HEAR MORE:Commemorating John Philip Sousa’s 150th,” with Scott Simon and Fred Child (NPR).

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