Why does Steven Millhauser make his titles so long? The answer is:
It doesn't matter. His writing excuses any number of words on his
books' covers. Millhauser, who earned a Pulitzer nod for Martin
Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, wrote Edwin
Mullhouse... twenty-five years before he won that coveted
literary distinction. What's surprising is not that he received a
Pulitzer Prize, but that he didn't win it twenty-five years earlier.
Edwin Mullhouse... is the story of a young genius as told
by his best friend, brilliant in his own right, Jeffrey Cartwright.
Thrown together very early in their lives owing to the proximity of
their parents' houses, Edwin and Jeffrey quickly become inseparable.
Jeffrey develops speech much more quickly, but he remembers his own
language skills only in the context of Edwin's preverbal utterances and
the delight he takes in the nonsense sounds he utters. Edwin's father
teaches English at a college level, and it is Mr. (later Professor)
Mullhouse who feeds Edwin's fascination with language, reading and
reciting everything from bawdy shanties to classic literature, with
Jeffrey Cartwright ever-observing.
Jeffrey divides Edwin's biography into three sections: the Early Years,
August 1, 1943-August 1, 1949, concluding the summer after kindergarten;
the Middle Years, August 2, 1949-August 1, 1952, which end just before
the 4th grade begins; and the Late Years, which take Edwin through the
4th and 5th grades and up to his untimely death eleven years to the
minute after his birth. Jeffrey names the Early Years as the pre-literate
years, the Middle Years as the literate years, and the Late Years as
the literary years. These distinctions are quite relevant to Jeffrey's record
of Edwin's life, for what society
later recognizes as Edwin Mullhouse's genius is his literary masterpiece, Cartoons. But what makes these distinctions even more important is that
they help us see Edwin through Jeffrey's eyes, and it is Jeffrey's
vision of his friend that emerges as the true focus of this novel
masquerading as a biography.
Edwin's life juxtaposes the fresh innocence of a child's view of the
world with very adult-seeming solemnity, even cynicism. As viewed
through such a double filter, everything in this life of a child who is a
genius (or genius who happens to be a child) takes on greater
significance. A second-grade crush becomes a soul-consuming passion;
an inappropriate friend's failure to return borrowed objects becomes a
dangerous battle of wills. Matters of life and death to children in
Edwin Mullhouse... are not mere childish exaggerations, but
truly matters of life and death. Several children die early
and violent deaths in this novel; the importance of these deaths is in
how they affect Edwin, and, by-the-by, Jeffrey.
The "biography" moves ever toward the twin climax of the completion
of Edwin's masterpiece Cartoons and the end of his life. Not
surprisingly, the reader is underwhelmed by Edwin's great work, for as
an old acquaintance of Jeffrey's says in the Introductory Note:
I myself have sternly resisted the temptation to read
Cartoons, knowing full well that the real book, however much a
work of genius, can no more match the shape of my expectations than the
real Jeffrey could, should he ever materialize...Meanwhile, Edwin's genius
lives undimmed for me in the shining pages that follow. One can only regret
that his work has proved less popular than his life.
Truly, Jeffrey is to Edwin as Boswell was to Johnson. His need to
memorialize and immortalize his friend is what compels the reader. With
humor, light and dark, and astonishing insight into the mind of a precocious
child, Steven Millhauser's work here evidences the brilliance that would
some time later win him a major literary award, and, one hopes a wider
audience to revel in this hauntingly well-crafted backlist novel. Edwin
Mullhouse... is a must for any who would be thought well-read.