Saturday, October 2, 2010

Meeting Mrs. Egg

Although Mrs. Egg was younger than the woman in this picture, she fed her 6'5" son with that kind of zest. Mrs. Egg was the creation of Thomas Beer, who wrote stories about the Eggs and other families for the Saturday Evening Post during the 1920s and 1930s. Most of his books are out of print. Reading about Mrs. Egg is like reading stories that Norman Rockwell would have liked to illustrate. Or was it the other way around--did Norman Rockwell, whose paintings graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post--inspire Thomas Beer?

I was referred to Thomas Beer by William Faulkner. During his question and answer sessions at the University of Virginia, Faulkner was asked who were the major influences on his work. He replied, Cervantes (whose Don Quixote he said he read once a year), Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and Thomas Beer. Thomas Beer?

Beer was actually a literary man, the kind of man that Faulkner said he wasn't. He wrote a biography of Stephen Crane, a book on the American culture of the 1890s titled The Mauve Decade, and three novels. He moved in literary circles in New York City (he lived and died in Yonkers), and his many literary friends felt sorry for him because he was chained to churning out popular stories for the Saturday Evening Post about everyday types of people--like the Egg family, who own and run the biggest dairy farm in Ohio, a world away from that which Beer made his home--to make the money he needed to live in style. Mrs. Egg and her son, Adam, champion Navy wrestler in the years of World War I, are the major characters of the stories, which are otherwise crowded with Mr. Egg, her three married daughters, Mrs. Egg's grandchildren, her parade of cooks, friends, neighbors, town folk, and various strangers who often are the occasion for the plot. These are fun stories of small-town family life.

Mrs. Egg, who weighs 250 pounds, thinks a lot about food and how to keep her strapping son well fed, and is a very down-to-earth person--a condition that Beer celebrates. Her strong suit is common sense, that always wins out against pretension. The dialogue is authentic, as if Beer secretly stalked Middle America listening to people talking in their homes or along their backyard fences or at the local store. And in fact, he had many correspondences with all different kinds of people all over the country.

In Beer's third novel, Road to Heaven, he attempted to write about people like the Eggs in a more literary style, but the book was panned by the critics, who considered this side of Beer's work to be too low-brow. Beer was writing at the same time as Sinclair Lewis was penning his caricatures of small-town life in Main Street and Babbitt, books the literati found far more praiseworthy.

Faulkner, however, said he never read literary criticism and so was free to find in Beer's stories a source for learning his craft.