Brian Taves. Talbot Mundy, Philosopher of Adventure: A Critical Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006, 310 pp., $39.95 paper.
Brian Taves, ed. Winds from the East: A Talbot Mundy Reader. Atlanta: Ariel Press, 2006, 420 pp., $21.99 paper.
Both Talbot Mundy and Dawn Allen, the music composer who hoped to add another layer of media collaboration to his popular writing and who was the wife with him when he died in 1940, created new names for themselves that were not merely pennames but rather recreations of themselves into new lives. Mundy had married strong women prior to falling in love with Theda Conkey Webber, who became Dawn; and each of his wives seemed partly to be figures both for the strong philosophic women such as Mary Baker Eddy and Madame Blavatsky, whose ideas influenced his writing, as well as for his own great fictional character for the strong woman Yasmini. So it was clear that the rebellious and adventuresome writer who dominated the adventure pulps, the early movie industry, and even Jack Armstrong radio serials for a time and who had been born in Victorian London as William Lancaster Gribbon was attracted to varieties of spiritualism and to strong women. Perhaps a bit akin to H.G. Wells in both a driving libido and enterprising writing projects, Mundy was a fascinating and complex popular writer in the momentous first half of the 20th century. His life and his work need study. Almost as an uncanny anticipation of the second life virtuality of our time, the personal recreations of the man as adventurer and lover and his work suggest the multiple lives of art and belief that characterize a turbulent era. Both for the culture at large and for individuals, the moves out of the Victorian Age, through the Great War, and through a new scientism both challenged and created belief. Tolkien is an example; Hitler another, and now Mundy.
Thus these two books by Library of Congress film archivist Brian Taves are key for the study of Mundy and for his popular culture moment and "belief" moment that immediately preceded the virtual reality revolution that still drives us. Both biography writing and anthologizing, however, are old and traditional modes for book making. Taves seems to me much like his hero Mundy in his enthusiasm and his belief in what he is doing. Sadly, he may be like Mundy too in his cavalier attitude toward the old craftsmanship of building books. Mundy wrote sprawling narratives and liked to pepper his fast-moving prose with philosophic verse. Taves grounds his biography, in particular, on extensive original research and personal interviews with survivors. But the rush and energy of his writing itself lacks the elegance of development that I have enjoyed recently in the new Claire Tomalin biography of Thomas Hardy and, earlier, in all the work of Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson and on Robert Moses. I think Mundy's fascinating life and its reworking and continual appearance in his work in several media and genres still could use a fuller telling. For example, just on the small sideshow of his marriages and love affairs, Taves can be frustratingly brief and even confusing in places. Mundy's adventures were confusing. But all the women from Mary Baker Eddy to Sally Ames, who did not recreate a new name for herself, to Dawn to Yasmini need to be sorted out better and given fuller narrative treatment. Similarly, the anthology pieces that Taves has gathered at this same time constitute a collection that is frustrating in its omissions. I want to see Tros. But Taves does nicely alternate the pattern of verse and prose in a manner that emulates well one of Mundy's peculiar characteristics in book making, and the collection ends with a wonderful philosophic piece in prose from 1925 when Mundy was deepest into theosophy.
I think the strongest part of the biography when Taves is best, perhaps a result of his work as a media archivist, is the section that treats the Jack Armstrong radio scripts and the last of the "multiple lives" led by Mundy in the years just before Pearl Harbor. Mundy would get up very early in the predawn hours, as early as 3:00; and the amount of text he produced for the fifteen-minute radio serial was enormous. During the four-year period at the end of his life, he wrote over 700 scripts. Taves estimates this text to be over 5500 printed pages, and it represented nearly 120 hours of airtime. More important than the quantity of text was the manner in which Mundy introduced his notions of belief and spiritual reality into the more mundane materiality of the original Wheaties serial. Jack Armstrong of Hudson High began as merely another hero of the imperial, scientific values of the West; but in a subtle and subversive way Mundy introduced some appreciation of Karma and the sense of "multiple lives" as imagined in Eastern and more spiritualist philosophies. In fact, much of the creative nonfiction that Mundy had published in The Theosophical Path during the twenties reads to me much like Henry David Thoreau and so later serves to soften Jack Armstrong into a much more sensitive adventurer, ready to segue eventually into Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin--good, scientific adventurers but sensitive too. Science fiction and adventure writing can be as much about spirituality as about materiality; and as the physicists now demonstrate for us materiality may be more "multiple" and spirit-driven than we had suspected. Mundy knew this early on, and so these two books by Taves are long overdue and important even if we would wish them to have been more in some formal and substantive ways.
Reviewed by Donald M. Hassler