A hobby and a discovery
Sean Donnelly is a scholarly 28-year-old native of Norwalk, Conn., with a master's degree in library science from the University of South Florida. Leland M. Hawes Jr., a 75-year-old Tampa native, retired recently after a lengthy and distinguished career in professional journalism.
The pair met last year when the head of the University of Tampa Press, Richard Mathews, invited Donnelly, his part-time assistant, to join him and his friend Hawes for one of their frequent lunches at the Valencia Garden, a popular Spanish restaurant within walking distance of the campus and an easy drive from the Tampa Tribune, where for the past 20 years the gentlemanly Hawes edited the "History & Heritage" page in the paper's Sunday edition.
Given the difference in their ages, Donnelly and Hawes were surprised to discover they had almost identical interests – interests that eventually led Mathews to agree to publish a collection of the rather idiosyncratic but charming writings of W. Paul Cook, a Vermont-born author who in the 1930s spent the most productive years of his life in North Montpelier.
One of those shared interests was in the science fiction and fantasy writings of a once-famous Rhode Island author named H. P. Lovecraft. And it was through their knowledge of Lovecraft that they also knew that both Cook and Lovecraft were major figures in the early days of an unusual hobby known as amateur journalism. What surprised Donnelly – himself a recent recruit to amateur journalism – that day at lunch was the discovery that Hawes, though a professional, was also one of the few still heavily engaged in that hobby.
"Probably one of my first thoughts after meeting Leland was: 'So there really are such people as amateur journalists,'" Donnelly remembers. "To me the hobby was a historical curiosity of the 1930s and before. It was surprising to learn that the hobby is still going strong and promoted enthusiastically by members like Leland."
Hawes, who has pursued the hobby since he was 12 (he printed his own neighborhood newspaper, complete with advertisements that he later learned were paid for by a relative), still publishes, at sporadic intervals, two private journals that he shares with friends and fellow hobbyists. Donnelly also has his own private journal, but unlike Hawes he utilizes modern printing technology.
"I was totally impressed with his obvious intellect, the broad range of his reading interests and his ability to express himself so articulately," Hawes recalls from that first encounter. "We have a lot of interests in common and we've become good friends."
Cook may be very much a part of Vermont's literary tradition, but neither Donnelly nor Hawes have any ties to the state. Donnelly admits to only the faintest memories of early family vacations to the Bennington area, and the otherwise well-traveled Hawes confesses to never having set foot in the Green Mountain state. Their book was produced not because of any fondness for or familiarity with Vermont; it was published for the most part with other amateur journalists and fans of Lovecraft as the target readers.
So, this is the story of how exactly their project came into being. Their book is titled "Willis T. Crossman's Vermont: Stories by W. Paul Cook." (Cook used Crossman as his pen name when these stories were first published.)
After that initial luncheon meeting, Donnelly and Hawes began an almost-daily exchange of e-mails and other correspondence, and they met weekly for lunch or dinner. They also spent many an evening in the special collections department of the University of South Florida library, searching for references to Cook or to his work.
"We each read the Crossman pieces and agreed 90 percent of the time about which ones to include in the book," Donnelly relates. "We both worked to gather the information, but I wrote the introduction. Leland read it several times and made helpful suggestions. And, yes, we were a good working team. Not a cross word was ever uttered."
Cook's writings are not quite prose and not quite poetry, at least in pure form, and even at the peak of his career he neither sought nor attained widespread literary fame. But within his own relatively small circle, one dominated by other men who indulged in amateur journalism, Cook was a highly respected figure. In fact, if you were to "Google" Cook's name on the Internet, the first citation would be of Cook's book about his literary hero, "In Memoriam: Howard Philips Lovecraft."
"Originally written in 1940, this work by W. Paul Cook, who was a close amateur journalism associate of Lovecraft's, is one of the finest memoirs ever to be written," the unsigned Google entry comments. "Filled with amusing and thought-provoking anecdotes, it helps create a portrait of Lovecraft which shows him to be a normal human being who possessed great literary talents."
Lovecraft, incidentally, was not universally admired. One famous critic, Edmund Wilson, described his writings as "bad taste and bad art" while another, Colin Wilson, said Lovecraft was a neurotic. Yet long after his death in 1937, the controversial author developed a loyal following among fans of science fiction and fantasy literature.
If Cook's literary reputation is virtually non-existent today – except among amateur journalists – it is largely because when he was writing his stories he had no intention of making money by doing so. In fact in his earlier years, he had once published a magazine with the motto "For Love Only, Not For Sale." Primarily, he saw himself as a printer and a hobbyist, not an entrepreneur.
"Throughout his life he showed little inclination to profit from what he wrote and published," Donnelly comments in the new book's introduction. "The Crossman books and pamphlets, set in type and printed by his own hands, impress one, above all else, as labors of love." That love, Donnelly adds, was for "his native Vermont's history, her land, and especially her people."
And, appropriately, it is their deep love of printing and writing, rather than any dreams of profit, that drew Donnelly and Hawes to the Cook project. In fact, the printing order for the book they've edited will be determined by the public's demand for it, and it's difficult to predict how large that will be. Modern technology enables the publisher to print just enough copies to fill orders and avoid accumulating a roomful of unsold books.
"Amateur journalism came into being after the Civil War, when small, cheap printing presses were developed, and young boys, primarily, used them to start their own little newspapers or home printing businesses," Hawes explains. "They charged minimal amounts at first, circulating them locally, but then organized into 'associations' and exchanged copies with each other."
Hawes says that the associations held conventions and members were serious enough that they sometimes had "hard-fought political battles" for their elected offices.
"In the early 20th century, the hobby ebbed and flowed, reaching a literary zenith under the influence of H. P. Lovecraft and W. Paul Cook in the 1915-1925 period," Hawes continues. "In the 1930s, a new resurgence of youth brought a mix of fine printing with quality material as well as crude leaflets produced on small hand-presses and mimeographs."
Today, he notes, there are fewer than 500 hobby printers in the United States and Canada. Membership in their associations is dwindling because, like him, most of the hobbyists are in their 60s or older. Only a handful of teens are involved, and Hawes speculates that's because federal safety rules eliminated the motorized printing presses that had intrigued so many boys in America's classrooms in the past. There's been a revolution in printing in the past few decades, and the art of hand-setting type is being lost.
"The era when someone like Cook could sit at a Linotype machine and turn out type for a massive journal is long gone," he observes.
Cook was born in 1880 in Mount Tabor, Vt. His mother died giving birth and his father, George, presumably felt that taking care of his new son was beyond his capabilities, so the child was raised by George's brother, William, and his wife, Alma LaBounty.
Their research, which provides the basis for his detailed introduction to the book, revealed to Donnelly and Hawes that Cook had spent his youth in both Vermont and New Hampshire and was intrigued by journalism at an early age, perhaps because another uncle was a printer. Cook wrote for the West Rutland Grade School's The Epoch and co-founded and edited The Red and Black, the student newspaper at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H., while he lived in nearby Hanover. His involvement in amateur journalism began in 1901 when he joined the United Amateur Press Association, which had been founded six years earlier. That same year, Donnelly relates, Cook published his first edition of Monadnock Monthly, a literary magazine that brought him almost-instant celebrity status among amateur journalists. Later he also joined the older National Amateur Press Association.
"The amateur spirit is a very genuine thing, but quite unanalyzable," Cook wrote at the time. "A recruit either has it and recognizes in amateur journalism his rightful home, or he lacks it and quickly passes out."
Also while living in Hanover, where he studied English literature at Dartmouth and worked for the Dartmouth Press, Cook continued to publish the Monadnock Monthly. But in 1906, he began to drift around the country, finding work here and there as a printer. According to Donnelly, he may even have traveled as far as England and Jamaica before he returned to New England in 1910. It was then that he met his future wife, Adeline Emmeline Smith, who owned the boarding house where Cook lived in Danvers, Conn.
They married in 1912 and the next year moved to Athol, Mass., a place that Cook described as "absolutely devoid of historical, architectural, scenic, archeological, or sentimental interest." And yet, Donnelly notes, it was the move to these drab surroundings that "marked the beginning of the most settled and productive period of his life."
Taking a job at the local daily newspaper as professional journalist, Cook made enough money to buy his first home and add many books to his collection. And, as the introduction to this new book notes, Cook was able to use the newspaper's equipment to print "more and larger amateur journals for himself and his fellow hobbyists." Donnelly writes that Cook's own journal for that period – he called it The Vagrant – "remains one of the most substantial contributions ever made toward promoting a high literary standard for amateur journalism."
It was during this period that Cook befriended Lovecraft. After their first meeting, in 1917, the Rhode Island author wrote to another friend: "I was rather surprised at his appearance, for he is rather more rustic & carelessly groomed than I had expected [with an] antique derby hat, unpressed garments, frayed cravat, yellowish collar, ill-brushed hair, & none too immaculate hands … [But] Cook's conversation makes up for whatever outward deficiencies he may possess."
The two writers began taking sightseeing tours, traveling from Brattleboro to Providence and paying special attention to such coastal communities as Marblehead, Mass., and Newport, R.I. They were taking note of 18th century architecture and looking for Old Farmer's Almanacs and traces of their New England roots. That quest naturally took them to old cemeteries, and it was on their headstones that Cook apparently found inspiration for many of the unusual names he would use for characters in his later Vermont tales.
(Cook insisted he found it unnecessary to invent names out of thin air, "and I question if a name can be invented that has not really been used." His names were certainly colorful and seem unique. In one of his brief narratives, for instance, he came up with "Willingly Woodbury" as the name for an undertaker. But despite such imaginative efforts, he said, "I expect any day to hear from someone bearing one of my synthetic appellations.")
By 1927, when he was still living in Athol, Cook realized he really wanted to publish books and magazines of higher quality, so he founded The Recluse Press and a magazine called The Recluse. The most notable feature of the only issue was the first printing of Lovecraft's highly esteemed "Supernatural Horror in Literature." The magazine's cover featured an illustration by Vrest Orton, who in 1946 would establish the Vermont Country Store. The magazine also featured an article about "Early Vermont Minstrelsy" by a Walter John Coates, a Universalist minister.
Later, Coates would play a major role in Cook's life. He was the editor of Driftwind magazine and the owner of The Driftwind Press, which he published from his general store in North Montpelier. Coates and Cook met sometime in the 1920s and spent time together at Coates's home in North Calais. Also present at these gatherings was Orton, whom Cook described as "one of my dearest friends. … I envy him his energy and his resurgent power to dream and make his dreams come true."
In time, Cook would wind up working at the Driftwind Press, essentially a commercial enterprise, but initially his Recluse Press was busy cranking out volumes of poetry by friends whose talents he admired, including Arthur H. Goodenough of Brattleboro, and a book by Coates. But Cook's wife of 16 years, Adeline, died in 1929 after a long illness, and his life was turned upside down.
"I suddenly found myself struck down from a comfortable condition of life with an income of about $5,000 to a grade of no income and in debt about $1,000," he wrote to a friend. "I have discarded everything; have given away or thrown away everything, including my job, my real estate, my household furnishings, my library."
Depressed, Cook moved around New England, living for a time in Boston, then in Sunapee, N.H. (where his sister, Cora, lived), in East St. Louis, Ill., and with Coates in North Montpelier. Coates gave Cook a chance to work as a printer, choosing his own pace and his own projects. And it was about this time that Cook introduced his penname 'Willis T. Crossman' as a poet and began writing the passages that so intrigued Donnelly and Hawes. As Donnelly notes, it was in the early 1930s that "Crossman became the mouthpiece of Cook's anger and speculations" as he expressed his dismay with the effects of the Great Depression and began to question his own beliefs. His political views were left of center and he did not care for organized religion, although he had spiritual leanings and a belief in "something greater."
But the Crossman volumes weren't enough. Cook needed to earn a living and there is evidence, in his letters to friends, that he sought jobs in Boston and New York City before taking a job as associate publisher of a newspaper owned by a fellow amateur journalist in Illinois in 1936. But by October of the following year, he was back in New England, although it's not clear why he had moved again. Donnelly notes that Cook was depressed by the unexpected death of his friend Lovecraft at the age of 46.
Once again, Cook turned to Coates and North Montpelier. It was then that Crossman really blossomed as a Vermont storyteller. The Driftwind Press published two volumes of his tales in 1938 and 1939; some of them had originally been published in the Driftwind magazine and in The Rutland Herald, but most were previously unpublished.
As Donnelly notes, the Crossman stories "don't even look like stories at first glance. With their short broken lines and stanza arrangements they appear to be verse. But they are really prose pieces set in creative typography. Cook's innovation had a practical purpose: to make brief texts more substantial on the printed page."
And he had another "more subtle" purpose, Donnelly observes: To provide visual clues for the reader "like what to emphasize, where to pause. … They suggest unobtrusively how best to read them."
For the remainder of his life Cook divided his time between his sister's home in New Hampshire and the North Montpelier print shop. He was busy. During this period, he produced his most notable work, the aforementioned appreciation of Lovecraft. In 1941, Coates suffered a fatal heart attack, and Cook agreed to stay on as foreman and business manager at the Driftwood Press.
"I am busier than a guy my age ought to be," Cook wrote to a friend in 1946. "At the present moment I have five books on hand beside the regular monthly magazine, and haven't the time I would like for my own little amusements." However, he did find time to publish five issues of his own amateur journal, The Ghost. Donnelly describes the journal's name as "revealing" in that its contents "lean heavily toward his abiding interest in supernatural literature."
Although the five books Cook mentioned were Driftwood Press projects – as opposed to his own literary creations – and are not especially valuable today, Donnelly points out they are difficult to obtain. Cook himself published one hardcover and one paperback Crossman book during this period, plus a dozen Crossman pamphlets. His unfinished volume on Lovecraft ("The Shunned House") sells for $6,000 or more, Donnelly notes.
In 1947, Cook took ill and on Jan. 22, 1948, he died. Later, his sister wrote: "I feel that he was happy there at No. Montpelier as he was practically his own boss and had a chance to do a great deal of writing." And Donnelly speculates that perhaps he finally found happiness in these last years.
Donnelly and Hawes hope that, besides appealing to hobby printers and Lovecraft admirers, their book will introduce Cook's writings to a New England audience that may never have heard of him and restore him to what they believe is his rightful place in the pantheon of regional authors.
"What his exact place may be is not for us to say," Donnelly says. "His fellow New Englanders will judge best."
Editor's note: The book will be available through the University of Tampa Press and will be printed on an as-ordered basis. Orders can be placed online at www.booksurge.com, and bookstores can obtain copies through distributors (Baker & Taylor and Ingram). Donnelly said the price has yet to be determined.
A.C. Hutchison was editor of the Times Argus before he retired several years ago. He lives in Inverness, Fla.
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