Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, January 6, 2012


Haunts & By-Paths and Other Poems by J. Thorne Smith, Jr. (1919)

At one time, Thorne Smith was one of the most popular writers in the country due to his combining sex and fantasy in such humorous novels as Topper -- a book that is still being read today.  Smith, born in
Annapolis in 1892 and the son of a Navy commodore, enlisted in the Navy in 1917.  While there, he began writing stories about a hapless Navy recruit named Biltmore Oswald; these stories formed his first two novels and brought him some success.  He had ambitions as a poet and, in 1919, he published his third book and only book of poetry, Haunts & By-Paths.  A number of those poems were about the sea and were first published in a magazine for Naval reservists; several were written in a Navy hospital in 1918.

     His poetry could be at times pedestrian and at times moving.  I doubt if much, if any, of it could stand the test of time.  In fact, Smith later dismissed the book, saying he wish he could destropy every copy of it.  Strangely, it has been rumored that he was working on another volume of poetry at the time of his death, although no manuscript has been found.

    Smith's fourth book was Topper, the classic about a hapless banker and the two alcoholic and oversexed ghosts that haunted him.  This was an instant success, due in part to the sexy-for-its-time illustrations and to Smith's mixing of humor and double entendre.  His fifth book, Dream's End, a serious novel with undertones of fantasy, failed spectacularly, so he went back to the well and poured out such humorous fantasies as The Night Life of the Gods, Skin and Bones, The Stray Lamb, The Glorious Pool, and Topper Takes a Trip.  He also wrote several non-fantastic humor novels, a mystery (Did She Fall?), and a juvenile.

     He had a severe case of pneumonia when he was a child and was struck with Spanish influenza as a young man.  This, combined with his serious drinking, may have contributed to his death of a heart attack at age 42.  His final novel, The Passionate Witch, was completed by Norman Matson, made into the Veronica Lake/Frederick March movie I Married a Witch, and was (at least in part) the inspiration for the Broadway play Bell, Book and Candle and the television series Bewitched.

     Typical of most poetry books, Haunts & By-Paths is a slim offering -- 139 pages, with 62 poems.  I found it an interesting read, in part because it had a few hints of his prose style and in part because the passion I found in some of the poems.

     You can decide for yourself.  The link below should get you to the book from Internet Archive.


  1. Well, even TOPPER has some serious undertones...George Kerby is genuinely jealous of Marion's attention to Topper, for example...

  2. I discovered Thorne Smith as a teenager, encouraged by the risque illustrations in the hardbacks and on paperback covers. My favorites were NIGHTLIFE OF THE GODS and RAIN IN THE DOORWAY.

    In a long history of book collecting probably my most unusual book is a 1st edition of Smith's rare juvenile LAZY BEAR LANE (Doubleday 1931) signed by the author and with an original illustration on the flyleaf by George Shanks, who illustrated the book. Even as a teenager 50 years ago, I realized this was special and borrowed against my allowance to buy it.

  3. Funny I have a friend reading Thorne Smith right now. I never thought about there being a novel about Topper but I loved the movie and TV show.