Saturday, September 18, 2010

"But he bored me beautifully..." (Edgar Chambless' Roadtown)

[One of the next releases from Corvus Editions—or two of them, since there will be a pamphlet and an expanded hardcover edition—will be Edgar Chambless' remarkable Roadtown, an early "linear city" proposal that mixes all the fascinating imagination and obsession that one could want from any political "utopia" with the sort of clear thinking and basic doing-of-the-homework that sometimes lifts these things into the realm of the possible. In anticipation of that release, which kicks off a series reprinting some of the more "usable" of this sort of immodest proposal, I'm going to post a few of the responses to Chambless' book.—Shawn.]

EDGAR CHAMBLESS AND HIS RUNAWAY TOWN

GERALD STANLEY LEE

THE thing that came to me first when someone told me about Roadtown, was not any particular interest in the town itself, but a very great and immediate curiosity about the man who could have thought of it. I wondered how he came to. I thought how happy he must have been when, that first day, it all came over him. Owing, perhaps, to certain aesthetic pre-judgments and partialities, his idea did not quite seem important to me at once, but it did seem important to me that there should be, tucked away on this planet somewhere, a man who was really living to-day in my own generation and whom I had not seen, who could think of such a thing. The idea itself, this particular one, might or might not be important, but I could not but feel that any mind that could face a whole broadside of modern civilization so naively, so freshly and as if it had never been faced before, and that could conceive an idea offhand, with such boldness, with such a noble sweep of implications and inferences and with such a range of vision in it, and yet could conceive it at the same time with such quietness and thoroughness—must be an important mind. I decided that if that mind was still in New York the next time I went down, I would hunt it up in its little pigeonhole in the big city and get a look at it.

Mr. Chambless called on me not long afterward and in an alcove in one of the New York clubs, with his long roll of Roadtown in his hand and with a fine self-forgetfulness and forgetfulness of me, and with his long legs and his long arms and his eager eyes all sweeping graciously about him, he sat and talked.

Then a thing happened, which, as it turned out, proved to be the determining and conclusive factor in my attitude toward Mr. Chambless's important mind.

He bored me.

But he bored me beautifully.

There was not a single second while he was doing it when even in the utmost depths of my helplessness, as I watched his eyes and watched my mind struggling with his mind, my heart did not cry out within me, " Go on, go on, old boy, I glory in you! I envy you. I am proud of you and proud of being in the same world with you. May God's name be praised! " In short, I am bound to record that the one thing I have to say with regard to Edgar Chambless's boring me is that he emerged from it in my eyes a great man.

If there is anybody else who will bore me in the same way that Edgar Chambless did that day, who will leave me at the end of it in the same attitude toward the world and toward my own work, so that I come home singing to do it, they will be welcome. If there is some other man who will bore me so that when I wake up in the night and think of this old world of ours lying out there in its vast blanket of darkness, I shall find myself thinking of him a minute, as I think of Chambless—thinking what a great world it is that such people are born in it, men who build the lives of the next generation—if there is anybody else who will bore me so that with this strange happiness I shall find myself thinking of them suddenly when I hear church bells ringing or see young children playing, I wish they would do it.

One does not like, to-day, to call anyone a great man in so many words. It seems almost like hitting a man in the dark from behind to say to people that he is a great man. It makes him lonesome suddenly, and separates him helplessly from other people. And no really great man would like it. I would rather say that Edgar Chambless is a man who is working day and night in a great spirit on the fate of the world.

All the rest follows. When once you have caught a man's spirit and when once after a long groping or thirsting you have found him, and when once you have drunk deep at his single-heartedness and have seen that here is a man who has packed his world into one big, summing-up idea, an idea to which he is devoting his life and sacrificing himself and sacrificing everybody about him, there is not anything one can say or anything that all the world can do to keep that idea, in one form or another, from coming to pass.

And now that Mr. Chambless has written and published his book about Roadtown, perhaps I need not say that Mr. Chambless's book does not bore me, and that it could not bore anybody. The most lovable absent-mindedness in the world can be managed on paper. One can come to, any time, in a book, and go back and be sorry if one wants to, and cut it out. This is what Mr. Chambless has done. For that matter, what Mr. Chambless has to say about Roadtown, whether in conversation or in writing, is really and always has been, taken as a whole, absorbingly interesting. I have merely meant to intimate in making my main point about Mr. Chambless that my own interest in machinery, like some other people's, is selective. Probably I like to take for granted now and then in thinking of machinery, or in being talked to about it, too many cogs and things. It does not need to be said that the bleak places or streaks of mechanics which might keep Mr. Chambless's conversation, at least with me at times, like any other inventor's, from being too monotonously interesting, are all left out in his book.

I have wanted to say something about Mr. Chambless and his book, when it would be timely. But the subject is large and dazzling, and keeps coming back, and there will be no end to it, if I go further. There is one striking fact, however, I would like to mention with regard to Mr. Chambless's appearance as an author. It is a fact which is going to make many people read his book, who might think they were merely going to glance at it.

We have quite a few men who are writing books to-day, who seem, judging from their books, to have interesting minds. But what Mr. Chambless does in his book is to make his readers' minds interesting. He is not merely being original. He makes other people original. He sets them to talking back. Before they know it, they set to work on his book themselves—they begin building Roadtowns of their own. And the more they get to work on their own Roadtowns, I am inclined to think, the more seriously they will take Mr. Chambless's. He has not finished his idea. But he has made room in it for all the world to help. He has had a thought that it will take cities to think out, and great men and geniuses, architects, artists, inventors, and statesmen, and women and children—all grappling with civilization and with their own lives—will help on Edgar Chambless's book.

In the meantime he has made a tremendous start.

[Source: Forum. XLI, 1 (January, 1911) 94-96.]

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