Friday, March 4, 2016

Friday Finds: “Lower Than Angels”

Another in our growing line of vintage book covers we love.

Lower Than Angels, by Walter Karig (Popular Library, 1952).
Illustration by Rafael de Soto.

Most contemporary readers have probably never heard of Walter Karig (1898-1956). However, he was once well-recognized not only in literary circles, but in military ones as well.

Born in New York City, Karig went on as a young man to study art in both his hometown and in Paris. But any dreams he might have harbored about a life spent in creative circles, attending gallery openings or literary salons, were sidetracked by the start of the 20th century’s two world wars. According to Karig’s biography on the Naval History and Heritage Command Web site, “During World War I he served in the French Foreign Legion and Free Polish Legion, completing his service in the latter as Captain of Infantry. He was appointed Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve in September 1942, and subsequently attained the tank of Captain on 15 January 1946. Transferred to the Retired List of the U.S. Naval Reserve, effective 1 June 1948, he was immediately recalled to active duty.”

(Right) Walter Karig during his many years with the U.S. Navy.

Although Karig had battlefield experience, most of his assignments in the military seem to have revolved around public relations or public information endeavors. “In October 1943,” recalls the Naval History site, “he assumed additional duty as Officer in Charge of the Navy Narrative History Project, and two years later became Assistant Director of Public Relations. He received a Letter of Commendation, with ribbon, from the Secretary of the Navy, as follows: ‘For outstanding performance as a Public Information Officer from September 1, 1942, to October 10, 1945. Volunteering his services in publicizing naval activities during the early critical period of the war, Commander Karig organized and became Head of the Magazine and Book Section of Public Information. A brilliant writer and editor, he applied his fine talents and broad knowledge of the techniques of publishing to the production of hundreds of books and more than one thousand major magazine articles concerning the Navy at war.” Prominent among his wartime writing efforts were half a dozen volumes of Battle Report, a popular history of Allied engagements during World War II.

An ad for the Armed Services Edition of Lower Than Angels.

Karig didn’t spend all of his time on U.S. Navy business. During the early 1930s, between the wars, he took some work from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a publisher of mystery fiction for children. He evidently wrote—under “house names”—books in the Perry Pierce and Doris Force series, as well as three of Stratemeyer’s earliest Nancy Drew tales (all of which carried the “Carolyn Keene” byline). In addition, he was the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Newark Evening News and England’s Guardian, and contributed prose to both The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s magazine.

While sources often refer to Karig as having been “prolific” in a variety of fiction genres, I have yet to find anything resembling a complete catalogue of his book titles. The online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction explains that he penned a 1946 young-adult novel called War in the Atomic Age?, which “compresses into very few pages—beginning with a description of World War Three in 1976—a sequence of superscience duels between the USA and Galaxia, including nuclear warfare, force fields, biological weapons and underwater robot tanks. The USA wins hands down.” It adds that “in his science fantasy, Zotz! (1947), filmed as Zotz! (1962), a man—after deciphering an ancient screed that gives him the Psi Power or superpower of killing by pointing his hand and saying ‘Zotz!’—is frustrated by bureaucracy in his attempts to help the USA win World War Two; the effect is mildly but pervasively satirical.” Among Karig’s other works were Death Is a Tory (a 1935 crime yarn published under the pseudonym Keats Patrick—a moniker inspired by the names of his daughters Keating and Patricia), The Fortunate Islands (1948), Caroline Hicks (1950), Neely (1953), and Don’t Tread on Me (1954), a novel starring Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones.

Lower Than Angels—characterized briefly as “a realistic and unsparing account of the life story of one Marvin Lang, whose father ran a delicatessen shop on Staten Island”—was first published by Farrar & Rinehart back in 1945. (A paperback Armed Forces Edition was apparently released in the same year, though Popular Library’s more attractive softcover edition—shown atop this post—didn’t appear for another seven years.) Kirkus Reviews’ remarks about the novel might, initially, have brought the author some pleasure:
A story of a little man on his painful and tortuous way up the ladder—of adolescence and its revelations—of small business, always on the ragged edge—of knee-high aspirations, awkwardly achieved. It is that of Marvin Lang, told with an authentic sense of the psychology of the Langs of this world. The content, form and tempo of the dialogue carries conviction. Karig has a perfect ear for the need [sic] and mode that [one] hears in crowded subways, on New York streets, in any milling throng of people. The period spans the years 1905 to the present; Marvin’s parents here acquired the distinction of owning a deli shop in Staten Island, but live from hand to mouth, [their hopes] always bigger than [their] income. Marvin was in and out of jobs, but with the war, his job as butcher, briefly achieved, put him into the commissary until his father’s death brought him home, to run the business.
But that critique ends on a down note, applauding Karig’s sincerity and sense of realism but knocking his “lack of warmth, of humor.” Those faults, Kirkus opined, prevent Lower Than Angels from “reaching the status of greatness the publishers claim.”

By the 1950s, Karig’s naval career was coming to an end. (He was finally “relieved of all active duty” in 1954.) From 1952 to 1953, he earned a second paycheck as a “technical advisor” to the TV documentary series Victory at Sea. However, Karig wasn’t yet out of the writing business. A 2013 piece in The Washington Post (open to subscribers only) relates that Karig served for several years as that paper’s book editor, while he lived in a “handsome white house across from the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.” He was brought down by a heart attack in 1956, at age 57, and is buried with his wife, Eleanor, at Arlington National Cemetery.

1 comment:

Tom Johnson said...

An interesting biography of this gentleman. Thanks for sharing.