Burton H. Wolfe Interview: Award Winning Author, Journalist, and Humorist
Author: Burton h. Wolfe
Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of Bookpleasures.com is honored to have as our guest, author, journalist and humorist, Burton h. Wolfe.
Burton is the author of The Hippies, Hitler and the Nazis, Pileup on Death Row, The Devil and Dr. Noxin, The Devil’s Avenger. He was considered by many to be the foremost investigative journalist on the West Coast of the USA.
Winner of many awards, Burton’s articles have appeared in hundreds of newspapers and magazines from San Francisco to Athens, Greece. He is also listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the West, Who’s Who in California, Dictionary of International Biography, Contemporary Authors, and Outstanding Intellectuals of the Twentieth Century.
Recently, Burton launched Lucifer’s Dictionary of the American Language, published by Wild West Publishing House.
Good day Burton and thanks for agreeing to participate in our interview.
When did your passion for writing begin? What keeps you going?
At age 12, in Washington, D.C., I decided I wanted to be a sports columnist like Shirley Povich of the Washington Post. I abandoned sports writing for literary, philosophical, social, and political writing midway through college. Somehow the desire to communicate through the printed word remains as I navigate through old age, though mentally I do not feel old. Motivation is a difficult psychological factor to fathom. My onetime dear friend, Earl Conrad, author of such landmark books as Scottsboro Boy, kept writing until his death, and his answer to the motivation factor was simply: “For me writing is a habit I can’t break.”
Why did you feel compelled to write Lucifer’s Dictionary of the American Language?
Over the years I have become more and more aggravated by the way Americans butcher the English language, by the way members of the media misuse terms, by the charlatanical ways in which corrupt persons in power desecrate noble words such as “democracy” which, coming from their mouths, is the equivalent of the word “love” emanating from the mouth of a whore.
Satirizing all of that, much in the way that Ambrose Bierce and H. L. Mencken did the same in a previous era, provided a release for me. Also, I have an extremely slim hope, undoubtedly quixotic, that if the book becomes popular members of the media will become more careful about the way they put words into print or sound them on the boob tube, and that at least those who read the book will begin to try using the English language, a beautiful language when it is used properly, in a more accurate and original way, understanding that just as you are what you eat, also you are as you speak.
How long did it take you to compile all of the words contained in Lucifer’s Dictionary of the American Language? Can you explain some of your research techniques, and how you found sources for your dictionary? How did you come up with your unique and sometimes hilarious definitions?
I conceived the book around fifteen years ago. Every time I heard a word, term, or phrase used in the atrocious way English is butchered in the U.S., I would jot it down and provide a definition for it. There was no research, just observation, and with a few exceptions the definitions originated inside my restless brain. Where an exception occurs and I owe conception of the definition to someone else, even if I reformulated it, you will see an acknowledgment.
Your dictionary has been compared to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. Could you tell our readers something about Bierce’s dictionary and did you pattern your dictionary after his? If not, what is the difference between the two?
When Bierce lived in San Francisco, where I live now, he was a columnist for Hearst’s foundation stone newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, and later he journalized in his own periodical. As he became angrier and angrier at the phoniness and hypocrisy and the social injustice he saw everywhere, he became ever more cynical and satirical in his approach to commentary. He was called “Bitter Bierce.” Out of his bitterness and cynicism, his Devil’s Dictionary emerged.
I have followed his method of employing satire to demolish standard applications to words that mean something entirely different from the way they are generally used, to provide the true meanings of them, and to add iconoclastic commentary; but our styles are of necessity very different. Bierce wrote toward the end of the Victorian era, and so much of his writing appears stuffy and even archaic. More importantly, most of the words I define either did not even exist in Bierce’s time or were used in ways that have been drastically changed. I can only imagine how much deviltry Bierce would have found in villainizing words such as downsize and outsource as they emerge from charlatanical business moguls and politicians. But such words did not exist in Bierce’s time on earth because the conditions that have generated them did not exist.
Your dictionary has a broader mission than simply entertaining. Can you talk more about that mission and what you hope readers will take away from reading your dictionary?
For me to believe there has been a “mission” in publishing Lucifer’s Dictionary, I would have to be a Don Quixote, or at least a Pollyanna. The most I can hope for is that readers emerge from a reading of the book with a determination to use the English language accurately and with originality instead of conforming to so-called “pop culture,” that the readers will recognize when members of the media and business and socio-political leaders are spouting claptrap, that the readers will take time to write letters to the media or even op-ed pieces to correct some of the widespread butchering of the language, and that maybe, just maybe, some of all of that will have some effect.
You mention the game of Monopoly in your dictionary and it appears you have extensively researched the history of this popular board-game. Would you briefly inform our readers why Monopoly interested you and what did you discover?
I became interested in the origin of the Monopoly game when a San Francisco State University economics professor, Ralph Anspach, produced a game called Anti-Monopoly and Parker Brothers sued him for infringing on its patent and copyright. As the result of newspaper and television publicity about the lawsuit, Anspach heard from individuals who had played the game in varying forms and under different titles long before Parker Brothers began manufacturing it and suing everyone who tried to produce the game or any similar game or any similar board under any other name.
Out of his research and what is known in law as the discovery process which occurs during a lawsuit, a long-buried story merged.
It turns out that a follower of Henry George’s single tax theory, Lizzie Maggie, produced the precursor of the Monopoly game in 1904 as “The Landlord’s Game.” Using it as an educational tool through the same kind of entertainment Monopoly provides, Lizzie roasted the greedy acquisition of more and more property by landlords, real estate moguls, the railroads, etc.
That was quite a different purpose than providing fun via the Monopoly game of today in acquiring more and more property until the game is won that way or, as Shelley Berman put it, until you experience the fun of wiping out your friends. As the game spread across the U.S. under different names, including the name “Monopoly,” traditionally the players fashioned their own boards and rules.
The purported “inventor” of the Monopoly game as produced by Parker Brothers, Charles Darrow, joined with his wife in a group, mostly Quakers, playing the game in the Philadelphia-Atlantic City area. The Quakers had collectively put together the same board with all the same names, and had created the same rules, as exist today in the Monopoly game produced commercially by Parker Brothers.
Darrow saw the potential for making a fortune from it, copied the board and the rules, and passed off the game to Parker Brothers as his own invention. When the top officers of Parker Brothers learned the truth, they told Darrow to keep his mouth shut and they would all earn a fortune from this game that was stolen by them; and so they have.
I put the whole story into print in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and other writers for other periodicals picked it up from there and summarized what I had written. This was typical of the kind of pioneering journalism I practiced in the 1960s and 1970s. It is also typical that even with the kind of exposé I generated, you cannot eradicate a lie once it becomes part of a culture.
There is a plaque at Broadway and Park Place in Atlantic City commemorating “Darrow’s invention” of the Monopoly game, and the mass periodicals – New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly – continue repeating the myth that Darrow invented the Monopoly game, which is the equivalent of saying he invented fire and the wheel; and no amount of letter writing and telephone calling by Anspach and myself, no amount of excoriating the media and Atlantic City government prostitutes, can induce them to eradicate the Big Lie and tell the truth for history.
This is why I define Monopoly in the way I have, and this is an example of why I define many words in the cynical style I have used, in Lucifer’s Dictionary.
Can you tell us how you found representation for your book? Did you pitch it to an agent, or query publishers who would most likely publish this type of book? Any rejections? Did you self-publish?
I submitted the book to at least fifty literary agents, all but one of whom declined to try to market it. The agent who took it on gave up after a dozen rejections. Eventually I submitted the book to around 100 prospective publishers. Most rejected the book with the usual “not quite right for us.” Some of the editors, however, commented that they found the book to be as funny as it is truthful and even described it as “a great book.”
Some said they felt Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary had exhausted the potential market. Others offered no reason for not publishing the book. None would admit what I have always suspected: that the book is so controversial and pinches so many teats of so many of American society’s sacred cows that there was too much fear of boycotting or other repercussions. A program for authors offered by the BookSurge division of Amazon.com offered me a way to get the book into print in both online and quality paperback versions even while using the name of a small press I started and then abandoned in the 1970s: Wild West Publishing House.
How would you describe the quality of journalism today?
In some ways it is more accurate than that which existed in the days of so-called “yellow journalism.” But hundreds of the stories and ideas of most critical importance to humanity are being not only censored but also blocked from dissemination altogether, and the would-be authors of them are being blacklisted.
Terminology is being used in such a horrendously inaccurate manner that it amounts to nothing less than a form of brainwashing of the kind that George Orwell (Eric Blair) predicted in his definition of “newspeak” in 1984: words used in such a standard and commanding manner that they can have no meaning other than that which is provided by Big Brother and its cooperating media.
For example, the media universally refers to genocidal maniacs using themselves as weapons to kill and maim en masse as “suicide bombers.” That leaves them in the realm of martyrs for their cause. But “suicide” is an act of taking one’s own life, not an act of using oneself as a weapon to kill everyone who does not believe in an imam’s version of Islam.
There is another depressing way in which journalism in the U.S. today has deteriorated, become insipid: we have lost character writers such as Bierce, Mencken, Art Hoppe, Charles McCabe, Artemus Ward, Finely Peter Dunne (Mr. Dooley), Don Marquis (Archy and Mehitabel), or (however cornball) Will Rogers. There are no longer any flamboyant character writers in the newspapers, no longer any writers with guts. The only place you can find them is on the internet. I have a long essay about this on my web log, Wolfebites, [http://burtonhwolfe.blogspot.com].
What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while putting together your dictionary? How did you overcome these challenges?
The major challenges were to keep going in the face of rejection and to keep from allowing myself to slip from satire into tirades against all the cant and hypocrisy which exist. Belief in the value of my book made me determined to find a way to get it into print. My sense of humor, my ability to laugh at the foibles which can otherwise be depressing, rerouted me away from definitions that would emerge as tirades, kept me on the satire road. I was laughing all the way at what I wrote, and thus enjoying myself.
What’s your advice to achieve success as a writer?
Apply your butt to a seat in front of a typewriter or computer, or stand up with either machine mounted on a bookcase ala Ernest Hemingway who did that because of back problems, or lie down on a sofa and scribble on lined legal pads ala Truman Capote – but whichever method you choose, make sure you get to it part of each day or night, do not procrastinate, do not make excuses for not writing.
Even if you run into what is euphemistically called “writer’s block,” get into the writing position you have chosen and do nothing else for two or three hours, until you will write something out of sheer boredom from doing nothing at all. Either believe in the worth of your work or choose some other vocation or avocation.
Believing in it, send it out and keeping submitting it no matter how many rejections you get – unless you decide to self-publish. And forget about the supposed stigma against self-publishing. Some of the most renowned writers in the history of American literature began by self-publishing, and not just individuals identified as writers. Statesmen did so. Benjamin Franklin’s essays were self-published. And promote yourself, brag about yourself, pester anyone and everyone you can think of to pay attention to you. Follow the dictum of the longtime head of the coalminers’ union, John L. Lewis: “He who tooteth not his own horn, it shall not be tooted.”
In the last few years or so have you seen any changes in the way publishers publish and/or distribute books? Are there any emerging trends developing?
There are more and more mergers among the major houses, and more and more concentration of promotion on select books that are designated in advance to be the moneymakers, leaving the authors of the “lesser” books to do more and more of their promoting.
More and more the sales department of a publishing house is determining what will and will not be accepted for publication – with what seems to be a standard test: if the sales department does not envision sales of at least 30,000 copies of a book, forget it. More and more it becomes harder to find a major house that will look at a manuscript not submitted by an established literary agent. Fortunately, there are many small press publishers still available for non-agent submissions. When one of those publishers has some success, a major house has occasionally offered to make it a subdivision of its operation and help with distribution and promotion.
More and more the big discount distributors and sellers – Barnes and Noble is the major example – are taking the bulk of the market by offering discounts based on volume, and lesser distributors and booksellers cannot compete with that. More and more books are being remanded quickly and sold off at prices far less than the original cover price.
There is too much competition. An individual author has a dismally poor chance of making money on a given book. You have to be lucky as well as persistent with self-promotion. There is also an increasing trend for publishing houses to operate in the same way as vanity publishers: the author has to pay for printing and publicity. Prestigious publishing houses, especially those that produce books by scholars, are resorting to that method of operation out of financial necessity.
Although you are not leaving us just yet, how do you want us to remember Burton h. Wolfe?
As somebody who told the truth at all costs, bearing in mind my favorite quotation from George Orwell (Eric Blair): “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” 1984
Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered and in particular to Lucifer’s Dictionary of the American Language?
GET THE BOOK AND READ IT!
Thanks Burton once again for participating in our interview.