Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, May 6, 2016


Biltmore Oswald:  The Diary of a Hapless Recruit by J. Thorne Smith, Jr., U.S.N.R.F. (1918)

This week, many of your Forgotten Books crew are concentrating on debut novels.  Patti Abbott will have the complete links at pattinase.

Thorne Smith (1892-1934) is probably best remembered for his comic fantasies such as Topper, Topper Takes a Trip, The Night Life of the Gods, and Turnabout.  He was born at the U.S. Naval academy in Annapolis.  His father, Commordore James T. Smith, served as the supervisor of thee Port of New York during the first World War.  His maternal great-grandfather was the "Maxwell" of Maxwell House Coffee.  He was not an academic wonder, dropping out of Dartmouth in 1912, after which he wrote advertising copy for Lyon's Tooth Powder.  He loed the sea and looked forward to oyages with his father whenever they were possible.  In 1917 he joined the Navy and began to work on The Broadside, A Journal for the Naval Reserve Force, starting as a writer and quickly being named editor.  During his tenure, the publication expanded from five to fifty pages -- partly in response to a series of humorous articles Smith wrote about a fictitious recruit named Biltmore Oswald.  Long before No Time for Sergeants, See Here, Private Hargrove!, Don't Give Up the Ship!, and Gomer Pyle, there was Biltmore Oswald, one of the original miltary fish out of water.  These articles proved popular with enlisted men and officers alike -- so much so that many of the articles were collected in Biltmore Oswald, Smith's first book.  The remaining articles were collected in his second book, Out o' Luck:  Biltmore Oswald Very Much at Sea (1919).  Together, the books sold over 70,000 copies.

Smith's greatest ambition was to be a poet.  His next book would be his only book of poetry, many of them reprinted from The Broadside, Haunts & By-Paths (1919), which was a critical flop.  About this time Smith met and married Celia Sullivan and, licking his literary wounds, went back to advertising.  The following year Smith's father died, naming Smith his sole heir -- which is a little bit strange because Smith had an older brother.  Because his brother Skyring had a family, Smith gave him the family home, while he and Celia went on vacation to France.  Returning, Smith bought a home in New Jersey while he and his wife blew through the rest of his inheritance.  The couple were not good at money and spent most of their lives in debt.  Smith was also an alcoholic.

His next effort at a book was a literary novel with a tinge of fantasy, Dream's End, which he could place anywhere.  The book after that was Topper (1926), a rollicking fantasy laced with copious drinking and sexual innuendo, which was an instant success.  With Topper such a success, Smith was able to sell Dream's End (1927).  Dream's End was not neccessarily a bad book, but it was not a good book and it was unfocused.  (The Saturday Review of Literature called the book "a wallow of fevered flapdoodle.")  So it was back to the humorous fantasy that made Topper such a hit.

Smith's talent in that direction can be seen in Biltmore Oswald.  One section included "a true story if it were true and I'm not saying it is" related by an old salt about his encounters with a risque mermaid wearing a hat and nothing else.  Pure fun.

Oswald is surely the worst naval recruit in history, as narrated by his diary.  Physically, his chest would be mistaken for the lower part of his neck if there were not arms sticking from it.  His wide-eyed innocence and his incredibly bad luck combine to make his superiors try to turf him off to others.  (They refuse to give him an ineptitude discharge because, as loyal Americans, they refuse to saddle the civilian world with him.)  He fails at every job given him.  On the day of a big review, he manages to lose ten thousand men.  On top of this, his doting, over-protective mother keeps invading the camp on his behalf.  The entire story is told with a quiet, gentle humor that any enlisted man could relate to.

Biltmore Oswald takes our hapless hero through training and ends as he is about to ship out.  His adventures at sea continue in Out o' Luck.

An interesting and amusing book which clearly shows the author's burgeoning talent at humor.


  1. I read a lot of Thorne Smith back in the 1950s when his work was considered risque! You're right: Smith was a talented writer.

  2. I've read the TOPPER novels, TURNABOUT and scraps here and the end of the former, one could see the strain, but most of the work is very much in a class with Coward...terrible films from TURNABOUT.