Literary Success: It's In The Cards

Being A Writer History Bookselling

(Hopeful writers should know that there are many paths to literary success. Here's Alan Bisbort, author of books like Beatniks: A Guide to American Subculture and Cell 2455: Death Row, on how he stumbled into his best-selling series. -- Levi)

Can you tell me what two literary legends met for the first time on (or about) Dec. 20, 1946 at 1116 Amsterdam Avenue? What about a similar meeting of the pens on November 29, 1925 in Washington D.C., at the restaurant in the Wardman Park Hotel?

Give up?

The first is, as close as I can date it using published letters by all connected parties, the when and where for Jack Kerouac’s first encounter with Neal Cassady. This took place in Hal Chase’s Livingston Hall dorm room at Columbia University. Chase was from Denver, where he’d been friends with Cassady. For weeks, he had regaled his friends around campus about the “unbelievably crazy quixotic” Cassady, who was planning a New York visit with his wife, LuAnne Henderson. It was a less than exhilarating initial encounter for the future drivers of the Beat Generation; Kerouac was with a group of people and the two didn’t really bond. The more legendary meeting between the future Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty took place a few days later -- a meeting immortalized in On the Road -- when Kerouac visited Cassady by himself in the Spanish Harlem cold-water flat where he and LuAnne were staying.

The second was an encounter between a busboy at the elegant Wardman Park hotel and arguably the best-known poet of his time in America. That busboy was Langston Hughes and that poet was Vachel Lindsay. Hughes, a young poet whose mother lived in the LeDroit Park neighborhood of Washington D.C., could not resist the opportunity to give some handwritten copies of his poems to Lindsay, who was celebrated for his public performances of his own verse. The older poet was so taken with Hughes’ work that he read the poems that night at his own gig that night at the hotel auditorium, announcing to the audience “the discovery of a great American poet.” Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad wrote, “The next morning Hughes found several white reporters waiting to pepper him with questions about his poetic gift ... The item about the Negro busboy poet and Vachel Lindsay made its way into newspapers from Maine to Florida.” Lindsay didn’t “make or break” Hughes’ career -- he had already made a name for himself in Harlem’s literary circles -- but his championing of the poet helped break the “color line” for African American literature in mainstream culture.

I’ve always been fascinated by real-life literary encounters like these. What if they had not taken place? What if Kerouac had taken an instant dislike to Cassady? After all, he had done just that with Lucien Carr when they met at the West End bar in late 1943. At that encounter, Kerouac was with Edie Parker and Carr’s aristocratic playboy manner rubbed him the wrong way. Thankfully for American literature, Kerouac got over his animus and the two became close friends. Without Carr, Kerouac might not have met Allen Ginsberg or William Burroughs.

Thankfully, I’ve found an outlet for my literary (and other) obsessions over the years with Pomegranate, a Bay Area publisher that has tapped into my wellspring of such minutiae for many of their projects dating back to my days as a writer and researcher for the Library of Congress’s Publishing Office. At the time, the Library of Congress (just as the New York Public Library has done) collaborated with Pomegranate on a number of fine, meticulously-annotated wall and engagement calendars, perennial sellers like Literary Companions (on which I worked) and on subjects like the Civil War, Edward S. Curtis Native American photographs, classical music, Art Nouveau, women’s history and African-American history. After I left the Library of Congress staff and moved to Connecticut in the mid-1990s, I have continued to work on contract for the Library of Congress.

Meanwhile, Tom and Katie Burke, the driving forces behind Pomegranate, always seemed to have interesting and challenging projects up their sleeves, with or without the Library of Congress. They did not misplace my phone number when I moved to Connecticut. I’ve worked on projects with many publishers, but none of them are as loyal and generous to their writers and artists as Pomegranate. Before long, I was working almost full time on projects for Tom and Katie, including books (White Rabbit & Other Delights: East Totem West, A Hippie Company, Sunday Afternoon, Looking for the Car: The Aberrant Art of Barry Kite, Charles: Bragg: The Works!, Essential Einstein, Famous Last Words), calendars (A&E Biography, Baseball, Bob Marley, and my old faithful Literary Companions). The calendar market, however (in case you haven’t noticed), has become glutted with titles, their sheer numbers elbowing a lot of the good stuff to the margins or out of print.

Enter Knowledge Cards (a trademarked name), which arose from a Tom Burke brainstorm. Think of these decks as flash cards for intelligent adults and other autodidacts. Partly because they are portable and partly because they are smart, Knowledge Cards have become a staple of museum shops, gift shops, stationery stores and other venues not known for selling literary products, such as Restoration Hardware and Whole Foods. These decks of cards not only kept Pomegranate sailing, they have caught on in a big way.

I remember Tom calling me in 1996, when he launched the line, and enigmatically saying, “Bisbort, I don’t know why I’m so nice to you, but I’ve got something here that will be your retirement fund.” That was his way of assigning me my first deck of Knowledge Cards, Who Said?, a deck of 48 of my favorite quotations (the quotation on one side of the card, the name of the speaker/writer and a brief essay about the quotation’s significance on the other). Other titles soon followed, including Poet’s Corner (48 snippets from some of my favorite poems) and Quotable Shakespeare (the familiar and the not so familiar). I have compiled and written 15 separate decks some of which you’ve probably seen in museum and library gift shops. The Kerouac-Cassady meeting is included in a deck I compiled called What Happened Here? New York City. The Hughes-Lindsay encounter is documented in my deck What Happened Here? Washington D.C.

Among the other decks I’ve written are Famous Last Words, Famous First Words, What Happened Here? American History, What Happened Here? African-American History and What Happened Here? Boston. While compiling the latter, I came across another unusual literary encounter that, though of less importance than the two above, is curious enough to warrant mentioning.

On January 31, 1882, at Tremont Street and Hamilton Place, a sensation-making young Irish writer named Oscar Wilde kicked off his wildly successful year-long tour of America with a lecture and reading at the Boston Music Hall. He opened this event by stating, “I am very glad to address an audience in Boston, the only city in American which has influenced thought in Europe.” And he so successfully declawed a group of heckling Harvard students that they were shamed into abject silence (“As they put their head in the lion’s mouth,” Wilde later explained. “I thought they deserved a little bite”). While researching this one card for the What Happened Here? Boston deck, I learned that, while he was in the Boston area, Wilde made a pilgrimage to Craigie House in Cambridge to pay homage to America’s then reigning literary giant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (my, how literary tastes have changed!). Longfellow was old and sick (and would die two months later) but Wilde was smitten with him. By the way, Wilde’s visit to America is the subject of an entertaining book, Oscar Wilde Discovers America, 1882, by Lloyd Lewis (1936), which warrants being reprinted (hey, New York Review of Books, are you listening?!).

And speaking of celebrated lecture tours of the United States, there’s this curious encounter from my What Happened Here? New York City deck:

The address: 301 Park Avenue.
The date: December 12, 1900
Any guesses?

That was where Mark Twain introduced a young British writer and member of Parliament to an American audience at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on the first leg of a lecture tour of the U.S. and Canada. That young buck was none other than Winston Spencer Churchill, about whom Twain told the audience, “He is the son of an English father and an American mother ... behold the perfect man.” Though Churchill met President McKinley and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt on his tour, he was most happy about meeting Twain, one of his boyhood heroes. Twain inscribed Churchill’s copy of his stories, “To do good is noble; to teach others to do good is nobler, and no trouble.”

Twain was not all sweetness and light, however. At the lecture, he accused England (and indirectly Churchill) of “sinning” by starting a war in South Africa (against the Boers) “which she could have avoided, just as we have sinned in getting into a similar war in the Philippines.”

* * * * *

It’s safe to say that my fantasies of literary success as a much younger man did not include writing engagement calendars and decks of flash cards. My fantasies were more of the Great American Novel-that-reduces-readers-to-tears-and-compels-females-to-contact-publishers-for-writers’-addresses-and-phone-number variety. Alas, few people have chased me down the street demanding autographs for their wall calendar. OK, no people have ever done this.

Nonetheless, according to my figures, the biggest-selling title among the Knowledge Cards I’ve produced, What Happened Here? American History has, in the ten years it has been in print, sold 183,849 copies. Hey, those are Stephen King numbers! I’m a bestselling author!

Now, when I see my decks in stock at any museum shop or book store, I can’t resist sidling up to the counter and inquiring, “Do the Knowledge Cards sell pretty well for you?”

At this point, Pomegranate has published nearly 300 titles in the Knowledge Cards line including some with the Library of Congress, New York Public, Smithsonian, the Sierra Club, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and the British Museum. My most recent Knowledge Cards title is What Really Happened? A Quiz Deck on Myths of American History.

5 Responses to "Literary Success: It's In The Cards"

by Mayowa on

Oh I still have plenty of (no doubt futile) hope that when my novel is published, legions of leggy MFA students will descend upon my writerly abode all aglow with adoration.

The odds are slim hehe.

I love how open you've been to opportunities Alan. One never knows how things will turn out and you've made a great go of it. Congratulations on being a bestseller.

by Bill_Ectric on

It's the wave of the future.

I recently read about a music business model in which you buy a piece of merchandise, like a poster or t-shirt, and inside the package it gives you the code to download the CD for free. A deck of cards is a great item! People will buy a deck of cards because it's not as easy to make slick, high-quality pack of cards as it is to make a poster, or even to put an image on a t-shirt.

I had a deck of cards called "The Beat Box" - can't remember if it was Pomegranate or not, and now I can't find it.

But it had pictures of Beat writers on one side, and a brief paragraph or so about the writer.

This sounds a little bit like knowledge cards, or maybe it is. Wish I could find the darn thing.

I had so many different kind of trading cards when I was a kid, many of them now collector's items, but they are scattered to the four winds now. I had basebal cards including Mickie Mantle, Roger Maris, Sandy Koufax; a complete set of "Mars Attacks" cards that the Tim Burton film is based on (they reissued those, but I had vintage originals); also James Bond, Outer Limits, and others. I can still smell and taste the bubble gum. Alan, I guess nobody puts bubble gum in them anymore?

by Mary Nell Stone on

Great article! I have several boxes of your cards. Mostly given to me as gifts. My family and I went to Washington DC this past July and I can attest that your cards are alive and well and being sold in several of the Smithsonian's museum shops.

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