June 5, 2014
5 other Melville House authors that ought to be on US currency
by Sal Robinson
US currency is decidedly unliterary compared to its international counterparts: no Jane Austen, air-brushed or not; no Alice Munro, weighing down your pocket on a $5 coin; no Gabriela Mistral on the Chilean 5,000 peso note.
So when illustrator Shannon May designed a series of hypothetical new US bills with great American writers featured on them, we here at MobyLives were happy to see that Herman Melville was represented on the $1 bill—probably the most “I Would Prefer Not To” of currency units, other than the penny. But he’s not the only author on the house’s list that we think should grace legal tender. Here are 5 other candidates from our ranks:
We haven’t even published a book by this guy yet (Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World— look for it at the end of this month!), but it’s clear that Gnarr would be a wonderful, bequiffed addition to US currency. He is not, repeat not, a politician and yet his Best Party won over Reykjavík in 2010 with its nonsensical promises, none of which they intended to honor, as they told voters upfront. This is the way money works, right? Gnarr is earnest, he is absurd, he is the walking, talking, trampolining embodiment of the $2 bill. Sure, he’s not a citizen—but he is moving to Texas soon. And when was the last time you saw Thomas Jefferson on a trampoline? I didn’t think so.
David Rees already essentially prints his own money: author of the definitive How to Sharpen Pencils, Rees’ Artisanal Pencil Sharpening Business in the heart of the Hudson Valley has been so successful that he’s been able to raise the price of his sharpening service multiple times. It is now at $40. This man understands capitalism.
MacLane was made for our money. She was, as she wrote of herself, “distinctly original,” not to be counterfeited or reproduced. Her life had mythic proportions: a bored teenager, stuck in Butte, Montana around the turn of the last century, she published her memoir-cum-barbaric-yawp I Await the Devil’s Coming and shocked the nation with descriptions of her sexuality, her amorality, and her genius. Her book became a bestseller, she left Montana for Greenwich Village and plunged into decadent city life, only to die in obscurity in a hotel room two months before the 1929 stock market crash. THIS IS THE GREAT AMERICAN STORY. Plus, as she writes in I Await, “I have gone into the deep shadows.” Chills, I’m feeling chills.
Though English-language readers are only just being introduced to Hilst, she is already on a iPhone case in Brazil, people. Her books are about the attempt to match language to ecstatic experience, about the torments and glories of the human body, about obscenity, laughter, and God. She lived with hundreds of dogs and tens of poets. If we put Hilda Hilst on the $100 bill, all the poets would be fed and all the dogs would be howling. Just the way it should be.
Houdini could escape from anything: handcuffs, straitjackets, sealed water tanks. Are we paralyzed by debt, shackled to an ever-more-unequal financial system, trapped in the market’s maw? This man might have the answers, possibly in his book The Right Way to Do Wrong. And if he doesn’t have the answers, he has a damn good rabbit trick. “Rabbit tricks,” he writes, “are positive successes.”
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.