A Best Seller in 1938 That Remains a Fun Read, by Kevin R. Kosar, September 22, 2009
Margaret Halsey was all of 27 years of age when she published With Malice Toward Some. It sold 800,000 copies. Not a bad way to start a writing career, for sure.
The book’s birth was the product of a series of coincidences and happenstance. After completing her BA at Skidmore, she worked as an assistant to Max Eastman, the leftist editor and writer, and he helped her land a position at Simon and Schuster. In 1935, Halsey married a professor of English, and she went with him when he landed a short-term teaching position in England.
Halsey found the English odd if not ludicrous, and detailed her observations in letters to her family. Her husband’s brother was Richard L. Simon, one of Simon and Schuster’s founders, and he liked what he saw in her letters. In a short time, Halsey delivered to him what became a best seller in 1938.
The book frequently is funny, in a dark and spiteful way. It is a novel in the form of a diary kept by the bored and baffled American housewife of a professor visiting England. (Sound familiar?)
Some of the entries are well developed narratives. For example, Halsey describes the experience of landing in England, and having the desire to be free of the boat only to be bottled up in a customs line. Frustrated, the diarist’s wicked side emerges when forced to fill out travel forms.
[W]hen one of my blanks said OCCUPATION, I wrote down none, though I suspected this would not do…. So I crossed it out and wrote parasite, which, not to be too delicate about this, is what I am. This made the official relax a little and he himself put housewife in what space there was left. “Be a prince,” I said. “Make it typhoid carrier.” But he only smiled and blotted out parasite so that it would not show.
In other places, our diarist provides the reader with short observations, usually caustic.
NOTES ON A DINNER
….The soup, thin and dark and utterly savorless, tasted as if it had been drained out of an umbrella stand.
….It is possible to eat English piecrust, whatever you may think at first. The English eat it, and when they stand up and walk away, they are hardly bent over at all.
Henry, the diarist’s husband, is an easy-going, gentle fellow, who serves as an excellent foil for his salty, pain-in-the-rear, pistol of a wife. They are a Laurel and Hardy-esque pair.
About four-fifths the way through the book, the saucy schtick grows a bit tiresome. Still, With Malice Toward Some is a fun read, although the England that Halsey describes is mostly gone. Traces may be detected, but the quaint town-based provincialism, the fussy old ways, and the backwards-looking mindset —the real subjects of this book— have receded, replaced with noisy and more vulgar popular culture absorbed from TV and crude tabloids. And though one can still find marmite and other foul things (e.g., “spotted dick“) in grocery stores, England’s food is greatly improved.
(For more information on Halsey, read this 1997 New York Times obituary.)