Researching a review of David Stacton‘s reissued 1961 novel about John Wilkes Booth, The Judges of the Secret Court, I pulled up a 1963 Time article about the future of American literature. In “The Sustaining Stream,” the magazine’s editors (its articles didn’t carry bylines then) placed Stacton on a top-ten list of promising novelists that included Walker Percy, Joseph Heller, Richard Condon, John Knowles, John Updike, Philip Roth, H.L. Humes, Ralph Ellison, and Bernard Malamud.
You’ll see the pattern instantly, especially if you’ve been paying attention to the recent discussion of Esquire‘s list of 75 books every man should read, which included precisely one book by a woman. (Weirdly, this is a rebooted dustup: The article first appeared in 2008, prompting the blog Jezebel to create an alternative list at the time.) Perhaps sensing a slight potential cause for concern, Time did include Harper Lee on its list of additional authors of note.
But casual sexism in the early 60s about literary greatness isn’t much of shock; what’s more interesting about the piece is how it works as a piece of journalism. On the evidence of the article’s length (3,000 words), a list of writers deemed by Time to be important was something of an event (when the Huffington Post assembles a list of important writers, it’s a day that ends in “Y”), and at least a few of the included writers felt compelled to comment for it. Ellison voices his frustration with his never-finished second novel: “Some days I don’t even finish a page, and often that’s no good. But I’m not depressed about it. I like what I’ve done, mainly.” And the writers felt comfortable taking swipes at each other: Updike calls Roth’s Letting Go “overblown,” and Stacton says of Updike, “I wish he could find something important to say.”
Stacton was speaking like somebody with nothing to lose: As John Crowley explains in his introduction to the new edition of The Judges of the Secret Court, Stacton had written nine literary novels as well as “some crime and Western paperbacks under his own name,” but none had sold well. The Time appearance did help him get an American publisher for his novel about Horatio Nelson, but according to Crowley it sold only 5,000 copies. Stacton kept writing until he died in 1968, but he’s remained pretty much unknown since.
Crowley’s theory about Stacton’s obscurity is that he wrote trim, somber historical novels at a time when historical novels were supposed to be weighty and swashbuckling. “‘Colorful’ was the indispensable adjective,” Crowley writes. “Stacton, in a literal sense, is quite often colorless: his is a world of grays and sables and pallid dimness. Instead of acting, many of his characters only pretend to act; they brood or are brooded on by the author.”
Fair enough. The Judges of the Secret Court is the only Stacton novel I’ve read, and it’s as brooding as Crowley suggests. Indeed, its major flaw is that his portrait of Booth’s madness following Lincoln’s assassination is so intense that the novel loses much of its energy after Booth dies—there’s still a third of a book left, but with no one character nearly as interesting. Stacton’s approach may have made it hard for him to get an audience 50 years ago, when (if Crowley’s right) a successful novel about the Lincoln assassination would say more about dead statesmen and heroic investigators than triggermen and kangaroo courts. But a half-century of growing cynicism about statesmen, along with an increased interest in triggermen, makes Stacton’s novel feel almost contemporary. We’re ready for him now.