The literary fruitcake
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Sat, 7 Dec 96 00:30:12 -0800
Subject: The literary fruitcake
Forwarded-by: Mark Colan <Mark_Colan/CAM/Lotus.LOTUS@crd.lotus.com>
The Literary Fruitcake
by Don Webb (for Allen Varney and Mary Denning)
I bought the fruitcake from Mary Denning. Mary had opened a shop on Haight
selling Beat Generation memorabilia. Like most of Mary's enterprises, it
was open for a few months and then disappeared as quickly -- and like most
of her shops, I had the feeling that there was more going on than simple
commerce -- but as Mary remarked to me when she sold me the item, "There's
a mystery in money."
It was marked two hundred and fifty bucks, which seemed a bit much for a
frankly dusty piece of overhard pastry (even if Kerouac had owned it). I
said to Mary, "So what's the story here? Kerouac's mom bake this or what?
Genuine French-Canadian fruitcake?"
"Ginsberg gave it to him. Burroughs gave it to Ginsberg. In fact there's
quite a history on that little number."
She passed me a two-page pamphlet printed on pseudo-parchment.
The History of the Literary Fruitcake
You are what you eat.
The custom of giving fruitcakes was introduced to the English-speaking world
by Queen Victoria, and this wonderful example of the liquor-preserved
candied-fruit cake was actually among the first ever given. Like the
stollens of Victoria's native Germany, such cakes often had more than one
owner; and few cakes in the history of cakedom have had as distinguished a
pedigree as this piece of realia. (Author's note realia is a term from
library science for a non-book piece of literary remains.)
In 1843 Queen Victoria attended the first dramatic reading of Charles
Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Her Majesty was so impressed at the young
writer's ghostly Yule tale, she placed him on the royal fruitcake list.
This cake was dutifully delivered to Dickens's home on Christmas Eve 1843.
The original presentation card and box have since disintegrated. The card
bearing the inscription "To Boz Love Vicky" was added by Alice B. Toklas
when the cake was in the possession of Gertrude Stein.
Mr. Dickens treasured the cake as a conversation piece for a number of
years. When he began his affair with the actress Ellen Ternan, the cake
became a much talked-about item in the theater circuit. The young Bram
Stoker purloined the cake during the publication party of Our Mutual Friend
in 1865. He later confessed his cake-napping to Dickens and offered to
return it, but Dickens said that if the cake had such meaning for him he
could keep it. At that time Stoker was an unpaid drama critic for the
For years Stoker would show off the cake, indeed after Dickens's death swore
that he would eat it up and then finish Edwin Drood. However, Stoker's
theatrical guests tired of the tale and the cake went into storage. At the
publication of Dracula in 1897, Stoker mentioned the tale to Arthur Machen,
who asked to see the cake.
Stoker not only displayed the cake but presented the Welshman with it.
Machen was overjoyed at first. Here was a suitable offering to give to the
Spirit of Inspiration at a Golden Dawn ceremony that he intended to attend.
The Spirit of Inspiration was personified by a fellow ghost tale writer,
Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood took the cake home and put it away in a
The century turned. The cake aged, and Algernon Blackwood still seeking
mystical experience went to Gurdjieff's retreat at Fontainbleu. There he
met Margaret Anderson, publisher of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. He
presented her with the cake -- in the hopes that she would pass it along to
Stein. Stein, who had a low opinion of Dickens, was not thrilled with the
cake -- but it is rumored that Alice B. Toklas did come up with her famous
recipe for hashish brownies shortly after the cake's arrival.
Stein wrote a poem about the cake:
Four ghosts in a Carol
And five writers on one cake
And Carol is a carol is a carol.
Outed a ghostly cake.
Earnest Hemingway applauded the verse, when he first heard it (at a drinking
party Stein hosted for Picasso), and Gertrude rewarded him the cake.
Hemingway recorded the entire incident in A Movable Feast (including his
suspicions of Alice B. Toklas creating the "Love Vicky" card while under
the influence of hashish). Hemingway had for a long time wished to meet
the by-then blind James Joyce. Deciding that such an interesting cake would
be a suitable gift, Hemingway went to Joyce's home in Paris. He presented
the cake to Joyce's secretary Samuel Beckett, who told Hemingway that Mr.
Joyce no longer received visitors. Joyce did later send Hemingway a
At Joyce's death the fruitcake passed on to Samuel Beckett, who in the lean
years prior to "Godot" often thought of eating it. However, money, fame,
and his general dislike of sweets combined to keep the cake intact.
In 1959 William S. Burroughs came to Paris to work out details for
publishing Naked Lunch. He attempted to pay a visit to his writerly hero
Samuel Beckett. The reclusive Beckett allowed Burroughs in his home for
only half an hour -- then ordered him to leave. Burroughs, wanting a
souvenir of the visit, took what he believed to be a brick from the bottom
of Beckett's hall closet.
When he returned to Tangier he discovered that it was a fruitcake (and
borrowing Paul Bowles copy of A Moveable Feast read Hemingway's account of
same). He decided that it would make a great gift to one of the occasional
visiting writers from the States.
In 1962 Allen Ginsberg visited William S. Burroughs and briefed him on the
Naked Lunch obscenity trial. During the visit Burroughs wrapped the
fruitcake in a shoebox and wrote the words: REALITY SANDWICH FROM UNCLE
BILL'S DINER on the outside and gave it to Ginsberg - with instructions not
to open till Chanukah.
At the beginning of Chanukah 1963 Jack Kerouac was in New York for an
interview with William Buckley. Kerouac's drunken and slovenly appearance
coupled with his remarks about the then emerging hippie culture pretty much
ended his career and popularity.
As Kerouac prepared to leave New York, Ginsberg presented him with the
fruitcake, which he had opened the night before. Kerouac took it home.
Toward the end of his life, Kerouac regretted the remarks on the hippie
culture, and had the fruitcake shipped to Richard Farina. Kerouac had read
Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me in an advanced proof copy, and
realized that beatitude could live on in hippie writing. Farina received
the cake days before his tragic death, and like most of Farina's literary
remains, the fruitcake passed to Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon traded the
fruitcake to Mary Denning in exchange for her expert knowledge on pre-WWII
German organic chemistry texts. You can now own this wonderful piece of
literary history now entering its 150th year.
Of course I had to have it. To have my name associated with the great
stream of literary becoming was too wonderful to pass up. I never doubted
the story of the cake for I have never known Mary Denning to lie. In fact
her honesty is often what made her scary and powerful.
I wrote a check and took the fruitcake to my hotel, then on to my Austin
home. Slowly I began to wonder what spiritual energies the cake might
contain. Perhaps the ghosts of A Christmas Carol, the eroticism of Dracula,
the ultramundane horror of "The Great God Pan," the chill of "The Willows,"
the mind-freeing syntax of How to Write, the understanding of machismo in
The Sun Also Rises, the architectonic sweep of Ulysses, the alienage of
Malone Dies, well you get the idea by now. If there was even a chance that
some of those vibrations lay in Victoria's gift -- my writing would be
transformed and improved by the word of these masters. And if not, at least
the literary legend that could come from my eating the cake. I would earn
my place as a footnote in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes.
And in some sense hadn't I already eaten the fruitcake, before I even saw
it? Had not each of these writers nourished me, prepared me for my task?
I told a few close friends that I would eat the fruitcake on Christmas Eve
of 1993. I fasted all day. In the evening I attended a Christmas party,
but when my lovely wife and I returned home, we discovered our house had
been looted. TV, VCR, PC and even items of value not easily acronymed had
been taken. We called the police and consoled each other with love.
Then I found the fruitcake was gone.
No doubt some snacker-bandit had ravaged it-- or more likely bitten into it
and just tossed it away as hopelessly stale.
I looked around the neighborhood for awhile, but saw no cake fragments.
Then I saw the graffiti on the back of the 7-11. It, as you know, was the
beginning of the greatest novel in the English language. I called to the
store owner. She read along with me and wept at the beauty.
Over the next few months, the graffiti began to cover wall after wall -- as
the driven thief released the intensity of his soul. Soon people from far
away came to Austin. We never sought out the writer, for we feared our
presence might interfere with his process, but we grew fiercely proud of
the words that covered our walls.
Soon all of Austin was obscured by the words of perfection.
"We, who dwell in the holy shrines, will preserve this treasure unto the
ends of time."
© 1996 Peter Langston