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  • Julian Hawthorne's "Between Two Fires" and the New York Herald; or, How to Fix a Novel-Writing Contest
  • Gary Scharnhorst (bio)

The New York Herald on February 3, 1895 announced that it was sponsoring a novel-writing contest, the winner to receive ten thousand dollars. The contest was open to both professional and amateur American writers, and the manuscripts were to be submitted anonymously with only the authors' initials or "other private identification marks" on them. All manuscripts were to be submitted by July 1, after which a committee of three readers would select the best three. Each of them would be serialized in the Herald "beginning early in October 1895," and the readers of the paper would then vote for the winner. 1 The Herald declared, with pardonable hyperbole, that it was "the greatest prize contest known to literary history." 2

At his home in Jamaica, Julian Hawthorne read the announcement and "marked it for a time when I should feel more disposed to industry," or so he remembered. 3 At the age of forty-nine, he had earned a living as a writer since 1872. The exact moment he felt "more disposed to industry" occurred nearly four months later, on May 26, when he decided to enter the contest. Characteristically, he had waited until virtually the last minute. He worked for seven hours a day for the next twenty days on the manuscript of a novel he entitled "Between Two Fires." As he noted in his diary for June 6, "I am now at the 75th page—26250 words. I have to write 50000 in all (or more if I choose) so I am more than half through. ... I have till June 20 to finish—14 days. So I am two days ahead of time." 4 He finished the manuscript "at midnight of the twentieth day," or June 15. He recalled that "I was up at dawn next day and down the mountain to the steamship wharf, nine miles as the crow flies, but there were no crows. I handed the packet to the purser with 'strict injunctions,' which, strange to say, he must have followed. But time went by again; no news, and I [End Page 180] didn't expect any, and my money kept on dwindling. But I had done my darndest." 5 Predictably, the story, given the haste in which it was written, is utterly forgettable: part roman à clef, part (s)light novel of manners, part murder mystery featuring characters with such weird names as Murgatroyd Whiterduce, Christopher Plukerose Agabag, and Devereux Scaramanga. 6

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In the version of events he later recorded, Hawthorne eventually was visited by "an old negro woman striding up from the town, with something pinned to the top of her head, which she unloosed and handed to me in silence. A cablegram from New York. ... I opened the envelope and read, 'You win prize on condition of abandoning anonymity.' 'Anonymity,' indeed! I hate to think what I wouldn't have abandoned for ten thousand dollars. I wired my consent later in the day." He ostensibly left for New York within the week and was met at Grand Central Station by a "confidential friend" who conducted him first "to the newspaper office, where they actually gave me a check for the money" and afterwards "to the Hoffman House café," where they "fared sumptuously." Of the three judges, he later learned, one "was drunk all the time and couldn't function. The second was a woman novelist" who "was so offended by the queer names given to the characters that she refused to give any verdict." The third judge, "the leading literary critic of the period, ... accepted it with enthusiasm: of the three thousand and odd competitors it was my tropic-born progeny that landed the bacon; the cable was sent to me asking who I was; and you know the rest." 7

It's a pretty story, though demonstrably untrue. Hawthorne was neither so innocent nor as deserving of the prize as he pretended. In fact, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that the contest was [End Page 181] fixed, with Hawthorne complicit in...


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