Edwin Mullhouse
Steven Millhauser
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Get *Edwin Mullhouse* delivered to your door! Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright
Steven Millhauser
Vintage Books
Paperback
305 pages
1972
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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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.

Curled Up With a Good BookEdwin 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.


Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Sharon Schulz-Elsing, 1997

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