New biography describes Baltimore intellectual

BOOKS & AUTHORS

July 26, 1992|By James H. Bready

Irony, irony -- when V. F. Calverton is finally the subject of a biographical study, the author is from New Zealand. But the face on the front cover is that of George Goetz (1900-1940), a once-famous Baltimore intellectual, and the brick rowhouse on the back cover is his old home, 2110 E. Pratt St.

By now, explaining is in order: in 1923, when Goetz, the son of middle-class, East Baltimore Germans, set out to call his new magazine the Radical Quarterly, title alone was likely to cost him and his wife, Helen Letzer, their jobs as public school teachers. So he became Calverton; she became Ruth Merdon; and the magazine, the Modern Quarterly.

In "V. F. Calverton: Radical in the American Grain" (Temple University, $44.95), Leonard Wilcox reconstructs post-WWI Baltimore, a "village of nearly a million people" marked by "constricting conformism" and "stifling puritanism." Calverton, sent to the wrong high school (Poly), was full of words and energy; in some ways he paralleled West Baltimore's German, H. L. Mencken. But Mencken was an entertainer; Calverton, an idealist.

Every Saturday was party night at George's, full of talk, booze and interesting people. Modern Quarterly's first contributors included Eli Siegel, Morton Levin, Savington Crampton and A. D. Emmart (as Richel North -- Emmart went on to be editorial page editor of The Evening Sun and art critic of The Sun).

Calverton sought, and got, articles from across the turbulent spectrum of the American Left. His local magazine (he moved it to Greenwich Village in 1931) was lit up by such bylines as John Dewey, Edmund Wilson, Lewis Mumford, Charles A. Beard, Max Eastman, Diego Rivera. Calverton was in time denounced byStalinists (the U.S. Communist Party), Leon Trotsky and many groups between.

George Calverton (as friends knew him) wrote too fast, drank too much, loved too many women (including Una Corbett of Baltimore's later civil rights years), and died too young. But he made a living as public, nonacademic intellectual, a rarity nowadays. All thanks to Mr. Wilcox, a monument to Modern Quarterly and its editor has appeared: a book masterful in its candor and clarity, superb in its scholarly grasp.

The winners in Baltimore Writers' Alliance's 1992 literary contest: Anne Curtin ("Fox Tale," fiction), Ed Vojik ("The Life of My Father," nonfiction) and Joyce Stevens Brown ("Death Disarmed," poetry). Runners-up were Maureen Zent, Dee Powers and Roberta Gale Tubis; third places went to Ben Levin, Marina )) Fink and Ed Vojik. BWA awarded $50 for first place, $30 for second, $20 for third; the respective judges were Rafael Alvarez, Mark Kelly and Harvey Lillywhite.

Niki Fortunato is BWA's president for the year ahead, succeeding Mr. Vojik; Judy Chernak is vice president; Mary Kearney, secretary; Annette Chappell, treasurer.

*

"Life Begins at 40" was Walter B. Pitkin's energizing message when he himself was 54). People have forgotten that book, published an even 60 years ago. But annually multitudes of people are still stricken with "the big four-oh," including, last year in Columbia, William K. Klingaman.

Assembling a zillion relevant quotations and cartoons -- today's mood is more rue than uplift -- Mr. Klingaman has revisited the subject ("Turning 40: Wit, Wisdom & Whining," Plume Books, paperback, $7). Gracefully, his authorities include Shakespeare, Ellen Goodman, Mae West, Nolan Ryan and Mr. Pitkin.

*

Back when Baltimore lionized the heads of departments at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine, those were male lions. But one Hopkins staff physician, who collaborated on "the foundation not only of pediatric cardiology but of heart surgery itself," was a woman.

"To Heal the Heart of a Child: Helen Taussig, M.D." (Walker, $14.95) is Joyce Baldwin's balanced, insightful study of "the First Lady of American Medicine," and part of a young-reader biographical series.

For Helen Taussig (1898-1986), the advantage of a Harvard-family upbringing was offset by dyslexia, partial deafness and medicine's anti-feminism. Jamie Wyeth did a curious portrait (here reproduced).

2& Her life story has enduring value.

*

For nine years, Denwood N. Kelly, Armand Shank and Thomas S. Gordon have been hunting for examples of the paper currency issued between 1784 and 1865 by Maryland banks, merchants (fractional scrip) and transportation companies. The book they have written, with more than 1,000 illustrations, will fill a void in local history.

But there's a holdup: Many specimens are rare or unique. Yet it is the scarcity of new money, from modern sponsors, that delays

publication.

*

The list of literary greats includes by now half a dozen contemporary Latin Americans, none of them easy reading for U.S.A. whitebreads. Sara Castro-Klaren of the Johns Hopkins University faculty eases the process with "Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa" (University of South Carolina Press, $29.95; paperback $12.95), a series book. Inside Peru and outside, fans of Mr. Vargas Llosa liken him to Honore de Balzac.

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