By CARLO DE FORNARO
“A Titan in an inkstand.”—E. Saltus
FOR almost a score of years the writings of Benjamin DeCasseres have been admired by intelligentsia in Europe and America; he had been essentially an author’s author ; but in the last ten years magazines and newspapers have printed his articles, which covered every possible and imaginable variety of subjects.
A glance at the letters written to DeCasseres by Thomas Hardy, Rémy de Gourmont, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Jules de Gaultier, Edgar Saltus, James Branch Cabell, Jack London, John Macy, James Gibbons Huneker and a host of others as famous, are a glaring proof of the man’s genius.
His exotic culture, philosophical and Rabelaisian fantasy are responsible for the timidity of the publishers who, peradventure, divined the man’s originality, but dared not admit his opus as a commercial possibility. That amazing and unique volume of his poems “The Shadow Eater” went into its second edition, and “Chameleon” soon followed it ; but it has fallen to the discrimination of a Harvard scholar and efficient business man, Joseph Lawren, to issue, one by one, every one of DeCasseres’s works, about sixteen in all. No wonder the neglected genius called himself “the greatest
unpublished author in America.” The first one of the Lawren edition is James Gibbons Huneker A Tribute.” Mr. DeCasseres was an intimate friend and an enthusiastic admirer of the giant critic. He says, among other things : “Huneker was the American Columbus who discovered Europe for us. He was the robust Santa Maria that made many voyages and brought back curious loot and radiant gods clanking in the golden chains of his prose.” And about his books: “James Huneker’s books constitute the emotional bacchanalia of a Dionysius of the arts in the vineyards of that mystical vamp, Helena.”
If “The Shadow Eater” was as delicious caviar to the cognoscenti, so “The Mirrors of New York” will be turkey to hoi polloi.
A clever girl let carelessly drop a profound truth : “That to interest the public in an author’s work it was necessary to make it curious about his life.” Hence this short and limited sketch of the author’s life. He was Born in 1873 in the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, of distinguished Spanish ancestors, whose name, Caceres, was given to a city and a province near the Portuguese border.
The first impression of little Ben was of being kissed on both cheeks by a very tall and whitebearded gentleman, Dom Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil, then on a visit to the Centennial Exhibition as the guest of the nation.
Then followed musical memories, “Pinafore” and “The Mikado,” that he can repeat by the hour, when the spirit moues. The reading card at the Apprentice’s Library, founded by Ben Franklin, opened a new world to the avid and receptive young brain ; he became an inveterate reader and devoured, figuratively speaking, the philosophies, the religions, the literatures of the human race since historical times, In that period of incubation DeCasseres absorbed the exoteric and estoric knowledge which so puzzled and irritated so many readers. The disaster of the Johnstown flood left a deep impression on the astonished and frightened boy, who asked his father why a merciful God had permitted the destruction of so many innocent lives. The father could not answer the questions, and young DeCasseres slowly drifted away from the orthodox Jewish faith. The lectures of Bob Ingersoll accentuated the tendency. But the youthful doubter soon found his mind occupied as an office boy on the Philadelphia Inquirer—when after a dare to the chief, Chas. Emory Smith, he became an editorial writer and theatrical critic, aged seventeen; the youngest editorialist in the world. Then came the trek to Gotham, where he sold his time to the Sun and Herald and in his golden hours wrote “The Shadow Eater” as well as literary essays.
In 1906 there happened a wonderful adventure ; he was asked to join the staff of El Diario, in Mexico City, to assist the writer of, this article, who was then its Sunday editor.
Once DeCasseres was assigned to review a gala bull fight, the corrida of which contained fifty thousand spectators. The article was so brilliant and so Hugoesque in its fantasy that the next day a committee of literati of the capital came in a body to honor him and thank him for it. “Never,” they declared, “had any Spanish or Latin-American author written such stupendous stuff.” On his return to Manhattan he assisted the ex-Sunday editor of El Diario to write “Diaz, Czar of Mexico,” an arraignment of the existing régime and a prophecy of the revolution. Within two years the political storm swept from power the whole crew of tyrant greasers and grafters. Then came the publication of “The Shadow Eater” and “Chameleon.” Meanwhile, the climax of sixteen years of patient waiting took place. DeCasseres married a western lady with whom he had corresponded all these years.