Saturday, July 07, 2007


John Philip Sousa, the.... Novelist?

I'm on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday to talk about the novels of John Philip Sousa.

Yes, the novels.

While pawing through a pile of old books a while back I came across this:

Not only did Sousa's debut novel get published, it sold amazingly well -- 55,000 copies, a very successful run even today, let alone in 1902. He wrote two more novels: Pipetown Sandy in 1905 (a Tom Sawyer-ish tale of his childhood in 1868 Maryland) and The Transit of Venus in 1920. Pipetown Sandy is a vast improvement in craft over his first novel, and consequently sold.... er, less than a third as many copies.

Transit of Venus did so badly that not only can't you find any copies now, Sousa himself scarcely bothered to mention it in his own memoir a few years later.

Still, one bestseller is more than most people have in them. Check the city-by-city bestseller lists that were a regular feature of Bookman magazine back then -- fascinating reading, especially for anyone under the misapprehension that the Times invented the bestseller list -- and you'll find that in the spring of 1902 The Fifth String was all over bestseller lists in Southern and Midwestern cities... Atlanta, Indianapolis, Louisville, Omaha, etc. Curiously, though, he's conspicuously absent from the bestseller lists of the Northeast and West coast.

One outright discovery in reporting this piece was that a movie was made from The Fifth String. I found an ad for it in a September 13 1913 issue of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. The sole modern reference I've found is a nearly blank listing on the British Film Institute database. So I can tell you this: the film was made by Selig Polyscope Company, and it was a 2000 foot film -- a "two-reeler." Silent films were literally advertised by physical length of the film -- the running time depending on how fast or slow the projectionist ran it, and in this case it would probably have been in the range of 24 to 28 minutes.

And like most films from back then, it doesn't look like any copies have survived...

UPDATE: Elizabeth Dalabahn from the Library of Congress sends this very happy news: they have a partial print! The cast includes one Thomas J Carrigan.

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