Jason, I'm glad you took the opportunity to continue your discussion here. I know that the Genii Forum only pays a fraction of what you make at The Magic Café, but at least it stays open later, eh?
It's interesting to have read both your and Richard Hatch's thoughts regarding Erdnase's engagement with magic. I think we're looking at the term "magician" in slightly different context, but I suspect we are all in general agreement in the nature of our speculations. Erdnase was the kind of nerd who would travel around with six decks of cards in his personal belongings, right?
We also agree about David Alexander and Richard Kyle's work. I have my own doubts, which is why I investigated their work thoroughly before devoting much time to examining Sanders. But while you and I probably share some questions and caveats, we disagree about the basic facts. David Alexander was not an amateur detective, he was a respected professional. He did not fabricate or insert evidence into the case they constructed. And he didn't modify their work to accommodate their conclusions.
I'm grateful that you bought four copies of the Winter, 2013 Montana: The Magazine of Western History
. Thank you. But please be sure to also pick up a copy of David Alexander's original article in Genii
, January, 2000. (It was also reprinted with my article in the September, 2011 Genii
.) In that text, Alexander makes clear the timeline that he and Richard Kyle followed, the standards they used and the method they followed. Their investigation was not arbitrary and their conclusions were not random. They weren't just spouting their own opinions and they had evidence behind their claims.
If you are like me and want to investigate a little further (it is, after all, quite a deductive leap they make!) you can track down the (exceedingly collectible) booklet The S. W. Erdnase Report
, which recounts Kyle and Alexander's process with the aid of contemporary notes and letters. Or you could contact Richard Kyle himself--he's quite clear about the events, and has retained a lot of evidence from that period. Penny Alexander has also shared her recollections, and many of Alexander's friends have related details about his long investigation into Erdnase--including his rigorous search for an "Andrews."
When considering the plausibility of Alexander and Kyle's hypothesis, I found it useful to learn how word games and anagrams were commonly played in America at the end of the 19th Century. Periodicals such as The Youth's Companion
, and books such as Magic No Mystery
and Cassell's Book of Indoor Amusements
are, I think, representative references. I've also looked into the authorial use of pseudonyms. See Carmela Ciuraru's book-length Nom de Plume
for a good overview of the phenomenon. And there are numerous examples of both pseudonyms and word games in all kinds of literature circa 1900.
I don't say all this to baffle you with facts. These are a few examples of investigations I've done. I have compared my subjective skepticism with objective answers. I consider it good reasoning, and I assume you've been at least as diligent.
I have not found any evidence that Alexander fabricated evidence or proceeded according to any random or personal whim. What evidence do you have?
Meanwhile, I also wonder: What evidence necessarily links the name "Andrews" with The Expert
? I think that insisting Erdnase's name must be "Andrews" is exactly like painting a target around a bullet hole. Aside from reading the author's name backward, what evidence links the name "Andrews" with the publication of the book? And if you do insist on reading the author's name backward, what evidence suggests that it is the only thing you should read backward? Why should anything be read backward at all? Why overlook the fact that the name "Erdnase" makes linguistic sense to a large portion of the world's population? (My grandmother, whose native language was German, thought Erdnase's name was a nickname, like "Jimmy Half-Thumb" or "Tom Rosycheeks." Why would you ignore a name like that?)
Devotion to the name "Andrews" has led to some of the most egregious examples of confirmation bias in the whole Erdnase investigation. Martin Gardner bent himself (and the truth) trying to justify "Andrews." He made a baseless claim to the Library of Congress, assuring them that he had evidence that the book was written by a "James Andrews." He also clearly demonstrated plenty of confirmation bias when, after Marshall D. Smith remembered Erdnase's real name as "something with a W," Gardner leapt in with "Andrews?!" I'm not saying Gardner's Erdnase work is all bad, but some of it gets pretty close to painting targets. And how about David Ben's self-citing, after-the-investigation "profile" of Erdnase? I have no reason to believe that it wasn't tailored to suit Richard Hatch's research into E. S. Andrews.
I think David Alexander and Richard Kyle tried explicitly to eliminate that sort of bias from their work, and I think they did a pretty good job of it.
Where we'll probably never agree is on The Expert
's status as a work of literature. Jason, if you can easily write an engine repair manual that will stay in print for more than a century, and which will inspire people with no interest or special knowledge in engines to take up engine repair as a hobby and a career, and even seek to understand Jason England the man and mechanic, to quote your book, to sell Jason England T-shirts and limited-edition Jason England wrenches--then I say: Why are you waiting? I assume it's at least as good a gig as being an instant download superstar.
Erdnase has attained a degree of literary success that few authors will ever attain. And I'm not just talking about more than 100 years in print and trophy prices for first editions. Erdnase wrote something much more sophisticated than a mere "how-to" book. Instead, he gives card manipulation the literary treatment of artistry. (Contrast the index entries for "Mechanics" and "Art" in the edition I just edited
. How's that for embedding a shameless plug?) Erdnase's legacy goes far beyond "the moves," which, frankly, seem to be in eclipse even among Erdnase "experts." Erdnase's success transcends the technical qualities of his educated prose and his adroitness with tricky literary qualities such as voice and perspective. Even more impressive than all that, is that Erdnase created a HE to talk about. The author of The Expert
not only wrote a great book, but he created the singular and indelible character: S.W. Erdnase.
Fortunately, we don't need to haul out our respective levels of experience and education in order to evaluate The Expert
's status as a work of literature. Generations of readers have judged the book for us. I've edited two editions for the general public, and I can assure you, readers find Erdnase's voice, topic, style, and the mystery of the book to be fascinating. They don't consider it to be the equivalent of an engine repair manual.
Not all writing is art, but every bit of writing is craft. And like card artists, verbal artists must master their craft. It takes practice to write well professionally.
But unlike card manipulation, writing leaves a trace--the writing itself. And while writing--they physical object--can be destroyed, some record almost always remains: snippets of compositions in notebooks, sightings in the company of papers and manuscripts, schedules that accommodate plenty of compositional time, a literary education and interests, habits of curious observation and note taking, abandoned poems and stories... I assure you that if you were to remove all evidence of the great first novels you named, you would still find evidence that their authors were professional writers.
I peg Erdnase as being someone who was a writer, a publisher, and had a reason to disguise his name. Everything else we say about him is pure speculation. Every conclusion we draw about how Erdnase handled cards, how much Erdnase cheated, to what extent Erdnase performed magic--it's all guessing. The only primary evidence we have is a book.