Rediscovered: The Underworld Years

Let’s ease gently from Biography Month into LitCrit Month. . . .

In the intro to their bio on Jim Tully, Bauer and Dawidziak have this statement:

Frank Scully, who knew Tully better than anyone, had a warning for any biographer so foolhardy as to attempt to capture Tully in print: “Obviously such a hammered-down Titan needs a Boswell as good as himself, and the pity of it is that there is none.”

Well, he may not have been quite ready when Scully offered that opinion, but by 1987 when I interviewed him, Charles Willeford was more than qualified — in my opinion, his body of work not only equals, in its way, what Tully wrote, but easily surpasses it. More modern, likely to last even longer.

Yeah, as I’ve said from the first encounter, I’ve got my money on Willeford lasting for the long haul.

If you’ve got the book I did on Willeford, you can find info on the Tully bio he wanted to write on pages 54-55 — he had the title The Underworld Years, but his agent discouraged him from spending any time on that project vs. writing the fourth Hoke Moseley novel. I agreed. Unlike most writers, who seem to sputter out as they reach the end of their lives, Willeford went out on a series of masterpieces — and I can’t see how a bio of Tully possibly could have equaled one of those novels.

Instead of being unshackled, free to do what he felt like, Willeford would have had to stick to the facts. He was better when he could let loose. You can check out a couple of small pieces he did on Tully that are collected in Writing and Other Blood Sports — good enough, but not primo Willeford. And the book probably wouldn’t have been equal to Willeford’s autobiographical books, either. If it had been, Scully would have had his Boswell for Tully.

But as he told me in a letter dated April 21, 1986, “I have given up the Tully project, at least for now. The UCLA Library has 37 linear feet of Tully material, and to do it right I should look through that stuff, and I’m not up to it now, plus the expense, for what would be a non-commercial project.”

When Bauer and Dawidziak tumbled to Tully in the early 90s, they soon learned of the UCLA holdings, dug into the boxes, and did what Willeford knew he would have had to do for a regulation biography.

In Willeford, I do a follow-up bit on the Tully bio on page 274, and a bit more on pages 390-91 when we’re discussing Waldo Frank, like Tully another major bestseller of the 20s and 30s, whose writing no one would expect you to have heard of today.

The unwritten Tully bio, though — Willeford genuinely admired Tully, and laughed loudly when he told me about how Tully wrote a piece for Mencken’s The American Mercury reporting that he had been turned away from Jack London’s Beauty Ranch when he went there for a handout. London stormed that no road kid had ever been turned away hungry, and Tully confessed, yeah, he’d just made it up.

Bauer and Dawidziak cover Tully finally meeting London in their book, but nothing on this specific incident — if the incident took place and wasn’t just something Willeford remembered incorrectly.

In his brief essay on Tully, Willeford writes:

It took a lot of guts to dodge the draft during World War II (remember Pearl Harbor?), but can you imagine what kind of guts it took to dodge the draft in World War I? Well, then, if you are a middle-class reader, as most readers are, ponder the indifference to public opinion of Jim Tully, examining chains during World War I, and that of his buddy, and fellow road kid, Jack Dempsey, working in the shipyards during the war that was supposed to end all wars. But Tully — and Dempsey — weren’t as stupid as Muhammad Ali; they found legitimate ways to avoid the draft.

Bauer and Dawidziak cover the same territory like this:

When World War I drove up demand for chain, Tully hired on as a government chain inspector. It beat joining the doughboys overseas, he later claimed, as German Americans had treated him well during his years on the road and he had misgivings about shooting their relatives.

The same circumstances, somewhat different perceptions. I wonder if it was because Willeford was older, and had more of a sense of what was going on it that era? Details that get lost as the years pass by — and while Boswell dug into the research and set up the template for modern biography, he also had the huge advantage of hanging out with Dr. Sam: Johnson in person.

A pity that none of the Tully biographers ever got to meet the man, and never will.

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