The Little Bastard, The Dunking Booth, and the Scribbling Schutzes.

The Little Bastard, the debut publication of my late grandmother, Frances Schutze, is available for pre-order now from Anchor & Plume Press! With original artwork by my mother, Peggy Schutze Shearn, and an introduction by some lady called Amy Shearn.

The Little Bastard, the debut publication of my late grandmother, Frances Schutze, is available for pre-order now from Anchor & Plume Press! With original artwork by my mother, Peggy Schutze Shearn, and an introduction by some lady called Amy Shearn.

I’m not sure why it’s so fascinating – or surprising — to learn that there is some genetic precedent for one’s more questionable habits, but as I find myself in a busy time of life scrapping for bits of time in which to write, and then of course wondering why I do this writing thing at all when there is so much laundry giving me the stink-eye from where it slouches in the corner, it has been a comfort to connect with the other writers in my family.

I think this might be why this feels like just exactly the right time to be welcoming The Little Bastard into the world.

Frances “Peggy” Schutze, starlet. I mean, college student.

Frances “Peggy” Schutze, starlet. I mean, college student.

This novella was written by my Frances “Peggy” Schutze, my grandmother, inspired by a heady time in her life when she was a newlywed living in Neighborhood Gardens, a New Deal housing project. Peggy always wanted to write (which I wrote about for The Begats), never found her way to a career in publishing, and yet she always clacked away at her Royal typewriter (which I spoke about in this interview for The Hairpin). The manuscript of The Little Bastard was found, among others, in the trash after Peggy’s death. My aunt fished it and reams of other writing out, and eventually I got it together to retype and combine the drafts, and now, lo and behold, the lovely small press Anchor & Plume is publishing it as a chapbook.

Now, my aunt was uniquely positioned to differentiate the work of an aspiring writer from useless trash (often quite difficult to do!), being herself a writer – Mariana Greene, beloved columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Her husband, my uncle Jim Schutze (Peggy’s son) is also a journalist and author, and as it happens has written a book about his life as a newspaper man. Reading Jim’s book, The Dunking Booth, while working on Peggy’s book The Little Bastard, was a rather surreal experience.

One of my Uncle Jim’s true crime novels, and my first (and only – so far that is, ahem, people) book dedication. I'm telling you, once you get a reputation for being bookish you just can't shake it.

One of my Uncle Jim’s true crime novels, the first (and only – so far that is, ahem, people) book dedicated to me. I’m telling you, once you get a reputation for being bookish you just can’t shake it.

For one thing, before her four children were born, before her husband became a minister, Peggy had entertained hopes of a journalism career herself. She attended the well-regarded Journalism School at the University of Missouri, wrote a gossip column for a local newspaper, worked at a radio station, and had a life-long passion for politics. She was a devout newspaper reader. She carried on a decades-spanning correspondence with the war journalist Martha Gellhorn. (I wrote about Peggy and Martha’s correspondence here. I mean, you didn’t think I could resist that one, did you?)

A letter from Martha. She was married to Ernest Hemingway, NBD.

A letter from Martha. She was married to Ernest Hemingway, NBD.

And I couldn’t help thinking about all this as I read her son Jim’s words in his funny, insightful The Dunking Booth. His passion for journalism leaps off the page (er, screen – in a strange turn of events this love letter to print is an ebook!): “It was the meaning of life.” Today’s journalism students should probably be required to read the opening chapters of Jim’s book, with their wonderfully rich details about pre-computer newspapering: the typewriters, the copy pencils, the glue pots, the intense editorial conversations (complete with physical cutting and pasting) about how “every word had to make sense, had to ‘move the story’” – right up until the moment when the retyped sheet got ripped from the typewriter carriage’s, rolled up, and stuck in a pneumatic tube and zoomed to the linotype machine. It’s a delightful passage of print-media porn, zoomed futuristically to your Kindle in a way that makes its own subject matter seem even more historical.

An early author photo of my Uncle Jim. If you look into his eyes for a full minute without fear in your heart, you will become magically versed in all of urban politics.

An early author photo of my Uncle Jim. If you look into his eyes for a full minute without fear in your heart, you will become magically versed in all of the intricacies of urban politics.

Then there is the way Jim writes about the so-called “politics gene.” While describing a story he covered in 1980s Dallas, he writes the “thing about people with the politics gene is that relatively few of them go into politics…bright, creative, politically gifted men and women came forward from the neighborhoods and figured out how to solve this maddeningly complex conundrum, but when it was over and done with most of them disappeared right back into their woodsy retreats, far too busy with career, family, glass-blowing or gardening to think about a career in politics. So they are always out there, this enormous reserve of talent and leadership, waiting to be stirred up out of the shrubbery by the next major proximate threat or opportunity.”

I mean, this is precisely plot of The Little Bastard (which, by the way, I don’t think Jim had ever read). In Peggy’s story, idealistic young people are stirred up by a charismatic church dean to vote out the corrupt local neighborhood bosses. The Neighborhood Gardens crew – most of them blue-collar workers and new mothers – discover that they indeed have the politics gene, and with inspiration from the dean, some good advice from the League of Women Voters, and a couple ideas snatched from the mafia’s playbook, they are able to agitate for real change in their city. I don’t know how much of this was taken from real life, but many of the details match up.

The Neighborhood Gardens, St Louis, circa 1940. Architecturally inspired by the Bauhaus, this complex was one of the first publicly funded inner city housing projects in the United States.

The Neighborhood Gardens, St Louis, circa 1940. Architecturally inspired by the Bauhaus, this complex was one of the first publicly funded inner city housing projects in the United States.

Jim writes directly about this Neighborhood Gardens era of his parents’ lives too, describing it as “their great epiphany…They ate spaghetti and drank cheap wine with William Inge, and my mother met Martha Gellhorn…it was clear to me even as a boy that this was the time of their great joy and adventure in the world.”

Something that makes this passage a bit heartbreaking is that, as Jim points out, this was the time when his parents became acquainted with the charismatic, social activist dean of St Louis’s Episcopal cathedral. Peggy writes about this man in The Little Bastard; “the Dean” is the inspiration for the whole madcap political plot. She writes: “I’m trying to remember why the dean was so good to see. He certainly wasn’t like those mysterious, kindly old oracles described in most novels…But he had something other people don’t have. You got it right away when he walked in the door.”

But as Jim notes in his book, this Dean was probably responsible for how his father “got the call,” swept away by the Anglicans’ “elegant marriage of liturgy and the dean’s intelligent progressivism.” So here was this crossroads. And Peggy’s husband chose the clergy, which angled Peggy’s life decidedly away from the bohemian world of progressives and artists that their time in Neighborhood Gardens had been so enriched by (see also the recurring novella characters “the queers”). Read this way, The Little Bastard is, in a submerged way, a story of a tragedy in the life of a creative person. Peggy continued to be a progressive, and that political gene simmered – she became a teacher in a poor, all-Black school; she chafed against the expected role of meek minister’s wife and agitated for racial and social justice in ways that sometimes shocked her straight-laced church lady peers. But that other side of her, the writer side, was subsumed by life. Jim seems to be able to balance the two – the political and the literary. I come out decidedly on the literary side — I barely understand what I hear on NPR, to be honest —  so the way this family works my children will be politicians? I’m not great at those pattern recognition things, but there’s definitely something there. Presidents, probably, both of them.

Can you believe I didn’t write a blog post in 5 months and then put up this long rambling description of my extended family’s relationship with the written word? Yikes! What kind of blog is this, anyway? Well, if anyone is still out there, I’ll urge you to buy these two books — both are indie publications, bargain-priced, and PS you’ll be supporting the great Cause of the Written Word (personally, my only real political affiliation).

The Little Bastard (a limited-edition chapbook) by Frances Schutze
The Dunking Booth (e-book only) by Jim Schutze

And while we’re at it, did I ever mention my grandfather’s cousin was a poet, Progressive supporter of Hull House, co-founder of an art colony in Woodstock, and husband to the Photo-Secessionist photographer Eva Watson-Schutze ?

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 4.25.45 PM

Songs and Poems by Martin Schutze

See, there was really never any hope for me.

5 responses to “The Little Bastard, The Dunking Booth, and the Scribbling Schutzes.

  1. As Fidel always said (as we sailed on Granma towards Havana and the revolution), ” History will absolve us (me.).” The author often gives me credit (blame?) for her writing inclination. I am so pleased that she acknowledges the debt (blame?) she owes her grandmother and uncle for the whole “writing” thing. We plan to purchase many copies.
    We believe that others should as well.

  2. Wonderful piece. And fascinating melding of Bastard and its later-day companion piece, the very excellent “Dunking Booth.” Fact is, you Schutzes just can’t help yourselves. Rone “city editor” Tempest

  3. Hi Amy, I met you briefly in Brooklyn (via your play school) and a mutual friend (same play school) and I just stumbled across your blog from your recent post on KWT group. And I’m so glad I did! First of all, I love your blog name and the gorgeously lifted graphic on top. Second, I’m happy to be kept apprised of such wonderfully touching stories such as the one you tell here about your furtively writing grandmother Peggy.

    The book itself sounds fascinating. Even the title tells so much, as I’d imagine a pastor’s wife writing in that time was probably not throwing around words like “Bastard” in regular company. I love it. And I felt the deep cut of sadness witnessing, via this story, what happens when a woman’s creativity is set to simmer instead of boil.

    I will definitely check out these books. Thank you for helping unearth something so valuable. I too had a grandmother who yearned to write books, and we used to talk about them over tea when I was a little girl, but as far as I know she never wrote a word, yet hearing Peggy’s story, I wonder if she had a garbage bag of her own…

    Good luck with your own writing on top of all the domestic tedium being a writing mom requires (as I know all too well!),
    -Dana (formerly of Brooklyn, sniff, now living in the sprawling countryside of eastern PA)

  4. So far so good, though I do miss all the walking I used to do in Brooklyn, and the coffee shops… But I did (finally) start a new blog, about the attempt to juggle writing and mothering. I’m still working on it, but here’s a preview 🙂
    http://www.writingatthetable.com

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