Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lost Chicago: The Expert at the Card Table

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One of my goals in writing Artifice, Ruse & Erdnase
has become giving back to Chicago a little bit of
its history.

Living in the section of Chicago known as Old Town,
watching the neighborhood lose its architectural
distinctiveness to the desire of home owners for more
space and all the amenities without the corresponding
vision or taste to escape the cookie cutter like building
plans which appeal to contemporary urbanites, I am
uncomfortably aware of how much of Chicago's
heritage has been lost simply to the superabundance 
of life in a vital city.

Usually these losses are irreparable and will never be redeemed,
but occasionally, you can get a little back.  With this book,
I'm hoping to give S. W. Erdnase and the publication of
The Expert at the Card Table back to Chicago.

In the August 2011 issue of Magicol, a journal for magic
collectors, I go into why Erdnase may have decided to
publish in Chicago.  (A slightly abridged version of this
article is also a chapter of Artifice, Ruse & Erdnase.)

When I started I had no inkling of a connection between
S. W. Erdnase and Chicago.  In fact I knew very little of
Erdnase.  I answered a query from looking
for an author to write on an undisclosed subject.  I was
interested, because I had in recent years grown fascinated
with an area of magic known as mentalism.  I was looking
for a way into the magic world, and having started
performing after I was 40 years old, all I had to offer
were my skills as a writer.

The publisher was not put off by my ignorance concerning
Erdnase, the identity controversies surrounding him or
even card work in general.  He wanted someone to come
to the subject with fresh eyes and no stake in the argument.
He envisioned a monograph, summarizing the different
theories, weighing them against each other and then coming
to whatever objective conclusions the evidence would bear.
He did not necessarily expect the piece to answer the question
of Erdnase's identity.  He thought it might take until October
to finish.

When I told him I didn't even know where to start, he
directed me to Erdnase Forum on the Genii Website.
I was immediately captivated.

I was also overwhelmed.

I told Chris, the publisher, that a monograph was too little;
it had to be a full book, and it would probably take about a
year to finish.  As the year drew to a close, I was drowning
in research, but I was not ready to come up for air.

I was frank.  I said I wanted to do more research and ad-
mitted I had no idea how long it would take.  I also wrote
an introduction to show I was actually working my way
through the material.  I felt the need to study all sorts of
things I would never have guessed at in the beginning of
the process, such as the stability or lack thereof of long
term memory.    Chris didn't blink an eye: he told me to
take all the time I needed.

It's now been more than 2 and a half years, and the book's
coming out - in less time I must admit than I sometimes
thought it would take.  There comes a point when you realize
time must have a stop.  At least I came to believe that any
more research, except for the loose odds and ends which
came up during the writing would be counterproductive,
that I could not usefully synthesize any more information.

Also, I came to suspect that to keep researching less and
less likely possibilities may have been my way to put off
the hardest work of the book:  the literary analyses.
In any case, the research stopped, the literary analyses
started and the writing got done.  The finished work is
now about to come out, and I realized that one of my
goals has become to take a very small part in the con-
versation shaping the history of Chicago, and by doing
so, to give the gift of Erdnase back to the city, which
provided Erdnase a secure base from which to launch
his magnum opus and then never bothered to read it,
promptly fogetting about him in fact, probably just
because there was too much else going on.

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1 comment:

Irene E. McDermott said...

It's a fascinating topic. In tone, it reminds me a little bit of Nelson Johnson's Boardwalk Empire, which has, of course, been turned into a hit show on HBO!