THE WRITING LIFE: The Unappreciated Genius of John Stanwell

by Seth Fried

In discussions of the literary masters of the last century, no name has been more frequently omitted than John Stanwell, a man who is only now beginning to be recognized as one of the most brilliant and consistently overlooked writers in recent history. In his life, he published twenty-three books, each of which was a critical and commercial failure at the time of its publication. This, despite the fact that his body of work contains some of the greatest masterpieces that Western culture has ever overlooked.

Many have attributed the failure of his first book to a problem with the typesetting. His debut novel, titled Wind Burn, was a semi-autobiographical account of his experiences growing up as an orphan in Philadelphia during the Great Depression. Stanwell didn’t realize that it was customary for authors to tip their book’s typesetter, and so instead of the name John Stanwell the book was published under the name John “Small Penis” Hitler. This had a significant impact on sales. His second novel was properly attributed to him, but in this instance the typesetter replaced the correct title Of Time And Memory with the erroneous Trends in Pedophelia. Stanwell experienced similar difficulties with his third and fourth books until the typesetter in question finally quit.

Due to his general lack of success, Stanwell was largely ignored by his contemporaries. Though, once at a party Truman Capote threw him down a flight of stairs as a joke. And Nabokov once criticized Trends in Pedophelia as being one of the most disappointing books he’d ever read. Beyond that, his impact on the writers of his day was nonexistent.

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His career experienced further setbacks in 1952 when he was called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Stanwell had once done some yard work for Elia Kazan, who had provided the committee with his entire rolodex in exchange for a signed photograph of Joe McCarthy. The Committee attempted to denounce Stanwell as a communist, but due to the chairman’s poor penmanship it was officially reported that Stanwell was guilty of being a “cormorant.” He was therefore forcibly relocated to the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge where he lived for eleven years as an exotic bird. After some time he managed to clear his name, but the stigma of the accusation remained attached to him throughout his career. Even later in life he was occasionally followed around by graduate students who would attempt to measure his wingspan and collect samples of his droppings.

It seemed that some relief had finally come after the publication of his eighteenth novel in 1985, The Meek Shall Inherit, when he received a letter informing him that he was to be the recipient of a prestigious award from the Good Book Writing Council. Unfortunately, when he attempted to accept the honor he learned that there was no such award or council. Rather, a gang of neighborhood children who knew him to be a writer had invented both in order to lure him into an abandoned building and torment him with water balloons. By the time police finally happened onto the scene, the children had relaxed their bullying into a cabaret atmosphere, forcing Stanwell to sing jazz standards while they drank juiceboxes and continued to half-heartedly throw balloons at him. The officers stayed for a few songs, and then broke it up.

The incident left Stanwell deeply shaken. When he later received a letter from the National Book Critics Circle informing him that they wanted to present him with a lifetime achievement award, he tore the letter up and hid in his crawl space for a little over a month.

These hardships did not manage to diminish his literary output. In his last years, he published five novels in quick succession. These were among Stanwell’s best and most accessible works. However, due to a mix up, the books were all printed in Defaka, an endangered Nigerian language with only two hundred remaining native speakers. This fact significantly reduced their potential readership. Though he did manage to become wildly popular in certain parts of southeast Nigeria, a success that has only recently begun to trickle back to the United States.

But even though Stanwell did not live long enough to witness his work reach a wider audience, he was always perfectly happy in his writing and was often heard to remark that he felt blessed to have been able to know the joys of creative work. He died in his sleep on May 17th, 1995, while being mauled by an escaped jaguar from the local zoo.

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Illustrations by Matt McCann.
Matt McCann works at the photo desk of The New York Times, and in his free time draws pictures.

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