An author dies, but the work lives on. Even death cannot stop some authors from publishing new books, and such is the case with the late John McMaster. Obscure during his brief life—he died in 1989, shy of his fiftieth birthday—McMaster published fugitive pieces in forgotten literary magazines, and none that made a splash. Yet in the decades since, his bagatelles and books have issued with alarming frequency.
Now, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of his friend, assistant, typist, and long-suffering servant, Silvio Bugiardo, yet another title springs up, like a fragrant hyacinth from the moldering soil, The Tyranny of the Quotidian: A Book of Days.
Versatile to a fault, McMaster dabbled in fiction, memoir, nature and travel essays, poetic criticism, and a lyric prose that blurs the line between truth and fantasy, a form he called “inflected reality.” Exhibit A in this vein would be A Likely Story, a string of tales set in some vague netherworld of the imagination—dream sequences, except that common sense keeps poking its head in, like a nosy neighbor.
Admirers compare McMaster to Edgar Allan Poe, and they point a finger that quivers with emphasis at the recurring character of Edgar, who appears in “Spectral Evidence” and “The Hollow Log,” as proof. Skeptics, on the other hand, wonder aloud just how much of this literary abundance flows from the pen of the master, and how much is due to the skill of the transcriber. The situation recalls that of Socrates and Plato, of Dr. Johnson and Boswell, or of a certain Jewish preacher from Galilee and his disciples.
Of the pet phrases and enigmatic sayings that McMaster was so fond of repeating, one that lodged in my mind was “the tyranny of the quotidian.” If I complained about chores or the running of the household, he would trot out this tag, until one day I was driven to ask what the devil he meant by it. “Dear Silvio,” he said, “you labor under a load of cares. You groan as if from the lash of an overseer. Who asks you to do these things? Not I—your own need for order compels you. Throw off this daily grind and live!”
Easy enough for one to say who never lifted a finger to cook a meal or scrub a bathroom. In the calm of the present, I reflect that others may benefit from that deep, insistent voice. So I pluck here and there from his handwritten notebooks the flower and pith of McMaster, and I arrange these pickings as a sort of almanac.
Bugiardo goes on to explain that McMaster loathed religion of all stripes. The last thing he would have wanted knit from his yarns was a devotional scarf, an inspirational doily, or a prayer rug. So the collection is simply a “book of days.” The reader may scan it at random, or open to a particular day, or sink in the stream of words until he goes under. “If this volume finds a place on the bedside stand in the guestroom, or on a coffee table to beguile an idle moment, it will have achieved its modest purpose.
For all that, the plan of the book follows the course of the calendar year, 366 entries, with one for February 29, or Leap Day. Many of the entries are seasonal, weather-related, evocations of nature, or sketches of plant and animal life. Several extracts hail from Sphagnum Moss, McMaster’s garden book.
Spring is laden with flowers and aching hearts. Late summer hymns the harvest, and basks in the shimmer of heat and haze. Autumn gathers families to feast and squabble, and it mourns the turning leaves “like an arboreal self-immolation.” The bleak landscape of winter inspires sober thoughts, with ice and snow laid on like a sinister erasure of the world. And always the sky is present, with endless shifts of color and clouds.
Entries allude to ancient solar divisions of time instead of contemporary holidays. The selection for February 2, for example, mentions groundhogs only in passing, and entirely omits Candlemas and the Purification of Mary. Cross-quarter days, it explains, fall midway between solstice and equinox—May 1is another—and they celebrate the waxing and waning of sunlight. Midsummer, or June 21, accordingly gets the full treatment. December 25, on the other hand, falling as it does near the longest night of the year, rates one of the darkest passages in the book. Evidently, McMaster had a moody side.
Other entries depart from the obvious to suggest a loftier goal. The page for July 4, for example, mentions the hot, dry weather we endure in July, picks up the throb of a beating heart, then asks the reader to “declare your independence from the tail-swishing herd, from the rhythmic buzz of leaf-devouring insects, from the mad tick-tock of standard time itself.”
“Transcend” is a favorite word in McMaster, as in: “What else can we do with this petty niggle, this polite nag of insipid fact, but transcend?” On principle, it would seem, he seldom quoted a source or acknowledged an intellectual debt. Still, he read widely, and he was clearly influenced by the American Transcendentalists—Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau.
McMaster’s style owes something to the rapturous passages in Melville’s Moby Dick, or to Whitman’s more frenzied poems in Leaves of Grass. He hints as much in his autobiographical sketches, collected earlier by Bugiardo as My Peregrination, when he says: “If an English teacher in a public high school can escape the classroom without the din of the nineteenth century clanging inside his skull, he is made of sterner stuff than I was.”
He spoke his mind, and the echo resounds. Perhaps the great author can enjoy a quiet moment now. If only the busy Silvio Bugiardo would let him rest in peace.