Dave Eggers

A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 16 1999 9:00 PM

Dave Eggers

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It was decided today by the McSweeney's brain trust that we will in the near future begin publishing new books, and reissuing old ones, in small print runs, provided we soon run into a great deal of untethered money. The first book we will be reissuing, assuming we are granted copyright permission by the author's estate, is Rats, Lice and History, written by Hans Zinsser and first published in 1934. Its full title is this: Rats, Lice and History: Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals With the Life History of Typhus Fever. It is perhaps the greatest book ever written about this subject that actually doesn't discuss this subject all that much.

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It was recently pointed out that someone has already made an all-black version of The Wizard of Oz, and that the movie, released in America sometime in the 1970s--my source says it originated in France--was called The Wiz. Though this seems preposterous, I must ask if anyone in Slateland has heard of such a thing. If you have any information, please post it in "The Fray" below, alongside the many warm and thoughtful comments already offered by the site's wonderfully no-nonsense (and why shouldn't they be, in these wintry economic times?) readers.

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These "Diary" entries are supposed to be 800 words only, but it's really essential here that we print a fairly extensive excerpt from Zinsser's first chapter. If you are uninterested, you may skip over it. But you should not be uninterested, especially if you remember that a) Zinsser is a genius and b) this passage appears in a book titled Rats, Lice and History.

So:

Rats, Lice And History By Hans Zinsser
Chapter I: In the nature of an explanation and an apology

This book, if it is ever written, and--if written--it finds a publisher, and--if published--anyone reads it, will be recognized with some difficulty as a biography. We are living in an age of biography. We can no longer say with Carlyle that a well-written life is as rare as a well-spent one. Our bookstalls are filled with stories of the great and near-great of all ages, and each month's publishers' lists announce a new crop. The biographical form of writing has largely displaced the novel, it has poached upon the territory that was once spoken of as criticism, it has gone into successful competition with the detective story and the erotic memoir, and it has even entered the realm of the psychopathic clinic. One wonders what has released the deluge.

There are many possible answers. It is not unlikely that, together with other phases of modern life, literature has gone "scientific." As in science, a few men of originality work out the formulas for discovery in a chosen subject, and a mass of followers apply this formula to analogous problems and achieve profitable results. In an age of meagre literary originality, it is a natural impulse for workers to endeavor to explain the genius of great masters. And for every novelist, poet, or inventor of any kind, we have a dozen interpreters, commentators, and critics.

Once biography was a serious business and the task of the scholar. When Plutarch wrote his Parallel Lives, his mind--as Mr. Clough rightly remarks--was running on the Aristotelian ethics and the Platonic theories which formed the religion of the educated men of his time. He dealt less with action, more with motives and the reaction of ability and character upon the circumstances of the great civilizations of Greece and of Rome. Scholarly biographies of later ages followed similar methods, even in such intensely personal records as Boswell's Johnson, or the Conversations by which so dull an ass as Eckermann managed to write himself into permanent fame. The minor details of intimate life were, in the past, regarded as having consequence only as they had bearing on the states of mind that led to high achievement. It was recognized that "les petitesses de la vie privée peuvent s'allier avec Pheroïsme de la vue publique." But they were utilized only when they were significant or amusing. But all this has changed. The new school sees the key to personality in the petitesses. Biography has become neurosis-conscious. Freud is a great man. But it is dangerous when a great man is too easily half-understood. The Freudian high explosives have been worked into firecrackers for the simple to burn their fingers. It has become too easy to make a noise and a bad smell with materials compounded by the great discoverer for the blasting of tunnels. Biography is obviously the best playground for the dilettante of psychoanalysis. ... Great men are being reappraised by their endocrine balances rather than by their performances. Poor Shelley! Poor Byron! Poor Wafner! Poor Chopin! Poor Heine! Poor Mark Twain! Poor Henry James! Poor Melville! Poor Dostoyevsky! Poor Tolstoy! And even poor Jesus!

Look for the McSweeney's reissue of this classic, in its entirety, sometime in the summer of 2000. If you cannot wait for our edition, copies of the original surely abound. It was originally published for the Atlantic Monthly Press by Little, Brown and Company, and can now probably be found and purchased through sellers of fine typhus-related books in your city and worldwide.

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Confession: Due to budget cutbacks and constraints of time, many of the dates, numbers and names in previous Diary entries were published before they could be confirmed or corrected. Here we will set things straight:

  • In Monday's entry, at 7:12 p.m. we listed the following names: "Louis Prima. Clark Gable. Maude Adams." The passage should have read "Louis Prima. Peter Lorre. Barbara Bel Geddes." Sorry.
  • In Tuesday's entry, Ty Cobb's numbers should have read as follows: 45, 3, 66, 9, 83, 982, 4, 34, 1611, as opposed to 45, 3, 67, 9, 83, 892, 4, 34, 1611. Again, sorry.
  • Wednesday's entry was supposed to be longer, and should have appeared on Tuesday.
  • Tuesday's entry, which was originally slated for Monday, was to include a long discussion of whether or not dogs care if they are being petted with one's hand or one's foot, including much relevant research on either side of this (still relevant) debate.
  • Both Monday's and Tuesday's entries were to include coherent and digestible remarks about issues of national interest, blended seamlessly into and applicable to the narrative of the diarist's uneventful day.

Sorry about all this.

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Rumor has it that Denice Williams, of "Let's Hear It for the Boy" renown, played the black Dorothy in this so-called The Wiz. Great casting if it were true, but I'm not buying it--seems unlikely in a French production. But I could be wrong. Again, any information on this would be most appreciated.

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