Cover: © James A. Rock & Co., Publishers, 2002.|
John J. McAleer: The Making of
by Mark Fullmer
I did not intend, when I first began pawing through the Rex Stout papers at the John J. Burns Library, to write about the making of a biography.
Rex Stout was, after all, the subject of the papers. The definitive biography on the man would be my most useful reference, but it certainly couldn’t be a subject in its own right. Thinking this, I set out to turn up an undiscovered piece of the detective fiction writer’s life and to tell its story.
But as I pawed further, I began to realize that the 621-page biography had done a rigorous telling of every piece—so rigorous, in fact, that I was a little awed by the astoundingly thorough biographer behind the project.
I scanned a six-year long correspondence between the writer and his biographer. I watched the relationship—and the biographical project—develop from an initial, self-conscious fan letter, to mutual respect and attempts at scholarship, to, finally, a consuming labor of love: an authorized literary biography.
I read a memo that in 1976 was circulating at Little, Brown and Company. It declared that their forthcoming Rex Stout biography would be unique in American letters: researched during the subject’s lifetime and with his active participation, it simultaneously incorporated a historical retrospective at the time of the subject’s death.
I considered the materials. A biographer’s avocation turned vocation, dovetailing with his adored detective fiction writer’s death. Fascinating. A hefty literary research project, completed without the aid of email, online bibliographies, databases, fully searchable texts: the story had historical perspective on literary research. A professor writing about and teaching detective fiction: it even had something to say about the boundaries of the literary canon. And this story hadn’t been told.
Taking stock of the limited time I could devote, I determined a realistic scope: my project would offer a glance at some of the processes and problems in literary biography and would attempt to sketch a biographical glimpse of Rex Stout, and of his biographer, John J. McAleer.
The Little, Brown memo called the biography a “major publishing event.” What, I wanted to know, was the reception of McAleer’s biography in detective fiction circles? In literary scholarship in general? In 1896, Yale English professor William Lyon Phelps offered a “Modern Novel” course, unheard of at the time in large universities. Phelps helped make Howells, Hardy, James, Stevenson, and Kipling legitimate subjects of literary study. What, I wondered, was the lasting impact of McAleer’s efforts to make Rex Stout—and more generally, detective fiction—legitimate? I like to think this project offers a starting point from which to examine these bigger context questions.