True Story

ByJOHN HOLMES

A FEW years ago I worked on the book review page of a famous old metropolitan paper. The literary editor discovered, rightly, that too many reviews were being written by too few people, mostly the staff. We needed an extra by-line. In one of the weekly meetings we invented one. There were several tries, facetious and baffled, before the secretary came up with Preston Gurney. It was a combination, she said, of her middle name and the middle name of the girl who did the murder mysteries. It sounded all right — distinguished, plausible, safe; and for months thereafter Gurney did all sorts of books for us, and even conducted a librarians’ column.

Now and then we would run his name in with lists of authors. We would ask at staff meetings why Gurney never showed up. Someone dug out an old photograph of a man in a checked waistcoat and walrus mustache, signed it “Affectionately,”and we tacked it up. I found I liked to talk about Preston Gurney in my column fairly often, and eventually I turned him into a poet. I remember that once I said I doubted if the unpublished letters of any New England poets would ever turn up a word from him.

Another time I topped off a somewhat impatient review of a book on the life of a modern Greek imitator of Byron by saying that poets nearer home, and far more neglected, namely Preston G., might just as well be the subject of research. I went on to say, with what now seems a brazen ambiguity, that one wondered, etc., etc., what could be thought of a poet who wrote lines like the following, and I proceeded to write them. And why was Gurney so completely forgotten? By this time I had built him up. Or built him down.

The secretary wrote a letter thanking me for remembering her greatuncle, or whatever he was. We printed it. This was all very well, and a lot of fun, and strictly a newspaper office joke.

One afternoon I stepped into a bookstore to pick up some books I had ordered, and the clerk, who knew me, produced a book of poems by Preston Gurney. My first thought was that the boys at the office had gone to a lot of trouble. I must have had an odd look for a minute. Blank, maybe, or maybe shrewd. She said, “Well, you do want it, don’t you?” I said, “Yes, but — but it’s impossible. He — There isn’t any such person.” And she replied, “Why, you’re always writing about Preston Gurney in your column, so when his book turned up, of course I saved it for you.”

I took the book home and read it very carefully. Preston Gurney was a real man and a real poet. He lived uncomfortably near me, and might still be ttlive. He was rather a bookish fellow. A son had been born to him, and died an infant. No funny business from my whimsical colleagues could have invented this evidence. I could not find anything more about him, and I was worried. I’d made a ghost, and the ghost had come to life. I’d made him a poet, and he was already a poet.

I wrote town clerks, libraries, colleges. Then, when a few clues came in, I summed it all up in one of the columns. The paper was scarcely on the street when my phone rang at home and a man’s voice said, “Would you care to learn something more about Gurney?” I thought it was Gurney. But I said yes. It was the son of the bookseller whose clerk had sold me the volume of poems by the revived ghost named Preston Gurney.

Preston Gurney was a Baptist minister. He had independent means and a large library, he appreciated Emily Dickinson early, liked Emerson very much, and books, and evenings with friends who liked the books he liked. He had a sense of humor. He was shy. Seeing a member of his flock coming toward him he would cross the street rather than risk a meeting. He had died. Secretly I was relieved when I learned that. I’m not quite sure why I felt relieved, but I thought about Gurney and confusion, and decided that all book reviewers ought to sign their own work.

My locked files contain far more material on Preston Gurney than I may set forth here. His other book. Letters from people who knew him. The literary prizes he established at his college.

At a dinner party a few weeks after all this had come to light, I told the story, just about as I have set it down here. It was time to go into the living room for coffee, conversation, and the rest of the evening. I had had my big moment. I had never raised but one ghost, and Preston Gurney was his name. No one moved.

“Yes,” remarked my host when I had done, “Mr. Gurney was good company. He has given me many pleasant hours sitting at this table. He was a quiet man, but he talked well. That was his favorite chair.”