On Saturday at noon, as hundreds of people in shorts swarm the stalls of Market Square and defy the glaring sun at the café tables on Gay Street, another, slightly more formal group finds chairs at a long table at the air-conditioned Crown & Goose.
They’re here, ostensibly at least, in honor of one British novelist who died 37 years ago. It’s the summer meeting of the Knoxville chapter of The Wodehouse Society.
You know P.G. Wodehouse, even if you’ve never read any of his 100-odd books of humor about the English gentry, books full of artful whimsy that yielded quips like, “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” The Internet search engine originally known as Ask Jeeves is inspired by his most famous character, the encyclopedically resourceful if sometimes domineering butler. The 1990s PBS series Jeeves and Wooster (besides introducing Americans to Hugh Laurie, who portrayed the latter) brought a new tide of interest in Wodehouse.
“It takes all sorts to make a world,” Wooster is known to remark. It could be a motto for Wodehousians. That’s a real word, it turns out, and as all Wodehousians know, the author’s name is pronounced “Woodhouse.” The more common American pronunciation will elicit a polite correction.
The undisputed leader of the group assembling at the Crown & Goose is Kenneth Clevenger, who seats himself at the center of the table. A slender white-haired gentleman, Clevenger speaks crisply, carefully, as if each extemporaneous sentence is one he’s had time to write and revise.
Clevenger has written articles and books about Wodehouse, including a recent collection of essays called Rannygazoo that examines interesting minutiae like the mixed drinks mentioned in Wodehouse. He’s carrying a copy of his new book, The Mulliner Menagerie, a discussion of animals mentioned in Wodehouse’s series about Mr. Mulliner, a regular at the Angler’s Rest pub, known for his bizarre barstool tales.
“The Mulliner stories are a specialty of mine,” Clevenger says. “My passion for Wodehouse leads me to write articles. I call upon this group to be my guinea pig,” to test his theories before they’re published, most either in the English magazine Wooster Sauce or the American quarterly Plumlines.
Clevenger orders an Angry Orchard Cider, warning the less experienced that it’s a bit stronger than ordinary beer, and the pub’s distinctive English cheese plate. Most of his fellow Wodehousians go for the fish and chips.
Clevenger isn’t a quick read. A moment’s acquaintance might have you guessing the affably well-spoken gentleman is a charity fund raiser, an antiques dealer, or maybe a community-theater director. He seems just a little too well-groomed to be a liberal-arts professor.
In fact he’s a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army, which he served as an attorney with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He retired a few years ago with the rank of colonel.
“I’m all past that now,” he says, though his wife, Joan, who lured him to Knoxville in 2006, is a practicing attorney. They live in Alcoa.
Speaking of one point in his past when he was distracted by the mundane reality of a career, Clevenger remarks, “I couldn’t give all my attention to Wodehouse, as I should have.”
He began reading Wodehouse as a kid in Lakeland, Fla., in the 1950s, and never gave it up. A collector, he has 400 Wodehouse-related volumes at home, with the vague intention of acquiring the first editions of both the English and sometimes-differently titled American versions of the books. The rarity everyone keeps an eye out for is Wodehouse’s By the Way, a collection of stories from the Globe, from 1908. Only four or five are known to exist in the world.
Clevenger has read all known Wodehouse, but he says no one alive has read everything. Some early stories, published in defunct magazines over a century ago, are believed lost.
There’s a P.G. Wodehouse Society in England, but “the Capital T The Wodehouse Society,” as Clevenger calls it, TWS for short, was founded 33 years ago in the United States. Clevenger is a member of both the British and American versions; he joined the TWS in 1990, originally affiliated with the D.C. chapter—which, naturally, is known as “Capital! Capital!”
Its estimated 700-800 members are spread across the nation, though rather thinly in the South. Membership requires $25 a year, which included a subscription to Plumlines. (Plum was Pelham G. Wodehouse’s childhood nickname.)
“We have a number of secret members,” Clevenger says offhand. “People who join but don’t want their names down on the public roster. There are probably some people who wouldn’t want their membership trumpeted. If you have a public membership, everybody will know.”
“And nobody will care,” says Jeanne Davis, a retired mental-health nurse. Her “claim to fame,” she says, was serving as a witness at Ken and Joan Clevenger’s wedding.
The Knoxville chapter started soon after Clevenger’s arrival in town, six years ago. “To say ‘organized’ is a terrible misnomer,” says Clevenger. “To say ‘associated’ would be better.” It’s ostensibly part of a larger regional group called the Birmingham Banjolele Band, which also includes some members in Nashville. (The banjolele was one of Bertie Wooster’s passions.) But it is by a Wodehousian quirk that the Knoxville group, though it rarely numbers more than 20 attendees, may be bigger than Birmingham’s.
After making a few trips to Birmingham for the company of Wodehousians, Clevenger was moved to establish a Knoxville society. “I feel it is my privilege to create this chapter of The Wodehouse Society,” he says. “We’ve had as many as 20 at a couple of events. But any time I get a dozen, I feel pretty content.”
Some early meetings took place in the Bearden bookstore Carpe Librum. A few months ago, they met at its downtown successor, Union Ave Books, for spirited readings in which each member takes on a character for a comic dialogue. Last fall, despite the simultaneous distraction of a 5K, some sort of zombie event, a popular farmers’ market day, and an Occupy Knoxville march outside, his local society met at Union Ave and charmed a roomful of strangers with a funny dramatic dialogue.
Though it’s a bit too noisy today for a reading, the Crown & Goose seems agreeably English. “The beer garden seems Wodehousian,” says Clevenger of the pub’s unusual back patio, with its peculiarly urban view of the interior of a city block. “But it’s just too bloody hot.”
In age, the attendees today are mostly past 50, which may reflect the peers of the organizer, or the leisure of retirement—but some older folks may be drawn to Wodehouse as an inspiration.
Wodehouse published his first novel when he was only 20, and commenced writing at a rate that sometimes exceeded a novel per year, not counting plays and collaborative songwriting. It’s a surprise to some that he collaborated with Cole Porter on the musical Anything Goes.
But unlike most famous novelists, Wodehouse seems never to have peaked. After turning 65, he wrote 34 more novels, many of which rank with his best work. He was in his mid-70s when he moved to America, which became a new interest in his writings. He was working on another comedy when he died, at age 93.
For a writer so associated with funning the British aristocracy, Wodehouse has a surprising number of admirers among serious authors, like spy novelist John le Carre, who once wrote that Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves was the single most essential book for every home.
Another admirer was James Agee, best known for his serious fiction and journalism, who once described Wodehouse’s place in literature “a little below Shakespeare’s and any distance you like above everybody else’s.” (The life of Knoxville’s fiction laureate offers some perspective. Wodehouse’s first novel was published seven years before Agee’s birth. Wodehouse finished his last novel almost 20 years after Agee’s death.)
Wodehouse spent the last 20 years of his life in America, mainly in the New York area. Clevenger was one of 80 American Wodehousians who stood in the rain, this past April, to attend the dedication of a historical marker in his honor at the graveyard in Remsenburg, N.Y., where Wodehouse is buried.
Wodehouse did pass through the South on a couple of occasions. He’s not known to have tarried in Tennessee, but in one of his early stories, he did mention a remote place called “Melon-squashville, Tennessee.” Clevenger brings the phrase up as a potentially handy theme for the Knoxville group.
Clevenger remains active in the broader TWS, which sometimes hosts conventions in which fans come in costume. Clevenger last attended one in Michigan as Augustus Mulliner. “He was what the English call a drone, a clubman, a loose liver, a flicker from flower to flower.”
Beyond the fact that one came in an uncustomary bow tie, Knoxville’s Wodehousians don’t dress up, at least not yet. Still, they might not be out of place in a Wodehouse story. Besides Col. Clevenger himself, there’s an electrician rejoining the group after recovering from a particularly nasty ladder fall, a former choirmaster, and a retired Presbyterian minister who’s now an Episcopalian. Another member is Brian Miller, a book dealer who also raises pigs on his Loudon County farm, two of them named for Wodehouse characters Lady Constance Keeble and the Earl of Emsworth.
Perhaps the group’s most celebrated member is nonagenarian Nancy Tanner, the last living human known to have witnessed an ivory-billed woodpecker. She wasn’t able to attend today due to a family commitment, but at last fall’s meeting at Union Ave Books, she was the standout as a dramatic reader.
Today, a first-time guest is Kerri Seaton, who writes historical romances under the name Karen Hall. “Late Victorian,” she specifies. She says she likes Wodehouse’s character Bertie Wooster. “How can someone not like Bertie? He’s just so dim!”
For almost two hours the conversation circles around Wodehouse, bringing in some barely related subjects like comic North Carolina novelist Clyde Edgerton, the New Woman of the late Victorian period, and England’s Social Purity movement, a sincere attempt at reforming society by reforming people’s thoughts.
“How’d it work out?” asks Harry Hall.
“Not so well,” responds Col. Clevenger.
Clevenger brought with him an odd trophy: a first edition of Wodehouse’s 1933 collection, Mulliner Nights, signed “Douglas Scott-Kerr, Cambridge House, 1957.” While stationed in Germany, Clevenger and his late first wife took trips to England and enjoyed perusing bookshops with an eye out for Wodehouse. He found this copy in a shop in Ross-on-Wye in 1988. This year, after hearing some reports about interesting inscriptions in Wodehouse novels, Clevenger wrote an article about Wodehouse book inscriptions, published in the English society’s magazine, Wooster Sauce, earlier this year, mentioning his own inscription. Last week, Clevenger got a call. “This is Douglas Scott-Kerr, from England. How are you?” Scott-Kerr, who had worked in charity, remembered buying the book in 1957 and, later, selling it.
“I feel I have a new English friend,” says Clevenger.
A new British television series based on the Blandings stories about a dysfunctional aristocratic family is being filmed in Ireland.
What’s the appeal of an Edwardian humorist in 2012? Moreover, one who was often preoccupied with the landed English gentry?
“Wodehouse is a great uplifter,” Clevenger says, “a wonderful cure for depressive feelings. His stories are so idyllic I think the joy of Wodehouse is that he takes you out of your own personal troubles. His writing is so powerful he can create this other world you so easily enter, a light, romantic, sparkling, sunlit world with very few dark corners. Even the villains are comical. Of course, you do have to return to the world, which can be cold, hard, brutal, and short.”
Ralph Norman, a world traveler and semi-retired professor of religious studies, concurs. He says he’s been reading Wodehouse since he was a teenager. “But compared to what Ken is doing, I’m a real novice. I think he’s right, though, that there’s kind of an idyllic quality to it, a kind of feel-good thing.” It’s partly based, he says, on Wodehouse’s demonstrations “that there can be this kind of lunacy that’s unharmful.”
Membership is open to all Wodehouse fans. One can learn more about the national organization via wodehouse.org. (Carolyn Campbell, in Birmingham, can direct newcomers to the next Knoxville event.) They plan the next meeting for the fall, probably in late September, and will likely include Col. Clevenger’s latest insights, some reading, perhaps even a bit of singing.
“We do it as we can,” Clevenger says with Jeevesian rhythms, “or, as I’d like to say, as the inspiration strikes us.” They’re contemplating meeting for tea at Maryville’s Vintage Garden Tea Room. One phrase brings things back to the real world: “Because we’re in Knoxville, my scheduling has to start with UT home games.”