RARA-AVIS: More on Tully

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 29 Oct 2002

Jim Tully is a very interesting writer and I would be surprised if he did not influence the early hardboiled writers of the 20s & 30s. Certainly his muscular writing as well as his combative life, including many bouts with censors, were well known in those decades. Thanks to Jim Stephenson for bringing him up.

He first came on the literary scene through H.L. Mencken's Smart Set and remained close friends with Mencken thereafter. Tully had had a hard life as his father blamed him for his mother's death. She had begged the 6 year old for water in her final illness and he gave it to her. Medical science of the day believed withholding water in some illnesses would save lives. They were wrong but Tully's outraged father put him into an orphanage where he remained until the age of 11, when he ran away..

Tully's best known work is BEGGARS OF LIFE (1924), which was subtitled by the publisher "A Hobo Autobiography." Tully wrote that this was misleading as it was "a compilation of dramatic episodes in the life of a youthful vagabond." He also said he was a "road-kid, and not in the strict sense if the word, a hobo." As examples of other later famous road-kids, he mentions the boxers Jack Dempsey, Kid McCoy and Stanley Ketchell and writers Jack London and Josiah Flynt. Decades later, Charles Willeford would be another road-kid who became a writer.

In Tully's revealing opening note ("To Those Who Read") to his 1931 BLOOD ON THE MOON, he said BLOOD was the last of a series of five volumes that he hoped would be grouped as the "Underworld Edition."

BEGGARS OF LIFE was the first volume followed by CIRCUS PARADE (1927), after which Tully said "...it aroused the ire of circus owners and their sycophants" and "I was attacked by paid press agents and others interested in morals for money." It was banned in Boston but chosen by the Literary Guild, making it the easiest to find of the Tully books.

The third volume was SHANTY IRISH (1928). "Down the avenue of years my grandfather, who dominates the book, has been very real to me. I can still hear, on quiet nights, the whisky rattling down his bony throat. That he talked a great deal was natural, of course, being Irish. He was a sad old man with a broken dream in his head and a fear of death in his heart.'" I do not have this book but these lines make me long for it.

As an aside, I just checked Mencken's THIRTY-FIVE YEARS OF NEWSPAPER WORK and read that the title piece "Shanty Irish" ran in the June 1928 issue of the American Mercury. Mencken was in Ft. Worth for the 1928 Democratic Convention and the article by Tully offended the Sheriff of Ft. Worth, an Irishman who appeared at Mencken's hotel drunk. To get rid of him, Mencken assured him that Tully was Irish and considered "Shanty Irish" a epithet of honor. This sent him away muttering but he kept returning to continue the debate. This worried Mencken as the Sheriff was "a gigantic fellow, always drunk, and carried in a holster a huge pistol studded with rubies--a gift from his admirers among the Fort Worth bootleggers."

The fourth book of the series was SHADOWS OF MEN (1929) which "contains the tribulations, vagaries, and hallucinations of men in jail."

BOOD ON THE MOON (1931) was the last of the five and of which Tully said: "I have written of the period which led to social adjustment, and of the people who, before and after, curdled their dreams with mine."

Jim Stephenson noted that despite the publisher's "novel" label CIRCUS PARADE was a series if sketches and not a novel. The mislabeling was the responsibility of the reprint publisher as Tully wrote this in his 1931 introduction to the final volume of the series:

"To those critics, however kind, who contend that I am a novelist trying to find myself, I will answer here for the first and only time. If I have not been able to invent a new medium in my picaresque books, I have at least been strong enough not to conform to one that is outworn. I did not study the people in these books as an entomologist does a bug on a pin. I was of them.
 I am still of them. I can taste the bitterness of their lives in the bread I eat today."

Despite the dismissal of the novel form, Tully wrote novels before and after making that statement. His THE BRUISER came out in 1936 and is dedicated "To my fellow road-kid Jack Dempsey."

Tully made a fortune in early Hollywood primarily through articles for
"Photoplay" and other fan magazines and had a nice house on Toluca Lake. He was feared as well as respected as an interviewer. He worked for Charlie Chaplin for a time and wrote one of the earliest biographies of the comedian in 1926.

Tully died at the age of 59 in 1947. His serious writing was descibed specifically as "hardboiled" by his friend Frank Scully and another critic noted at his death that at his best his writing was "a succession of direct blows straght from the shoulder. The prose has the defiant blare if trumpets; all of it is speed and force and action...It is not art."

Well I think this is similar to the reluctant praise of Hammett, Chandler, Cain and others of that period when critics could not ignore the power but also would not acknowledge the art of the writing.

Richard Moore

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