Elmer Kneale. Could anyone ask for a better name to go with Vladimir Nabokov’s comic portrait of a flagpole lover? The Russian author of Lolita wrote about him in a letter to his wife from Springfield in 1942, which was excerpted in The New Yorker magazine last year in its June 13 issue. He didn’t name the man who fingered the Lincoln tomb flagpole, “looking up anxiously” for fear it might rival his own flagpole in height, but some research in the public library led me to the identity of Nabokov’s “club secretary.” I proceeded to find one too-funny-to-be-true item after another about Kneale.
Much of it was included in an article I wrote for the Illinois Times, but there were some bits I couldn’t fit in. His 1944 Illinois State Journal obituary called him “the quiet voice of Springfield, summoning alike the leaders and the masses of the world to the tomb of Abraham Lincoln, placing the name of his city before the dignitaries of politics, statesmanship, and religion.” Such grandiose language was no doubt more common back then, but it is in such contrast to Nabokov’s portrait as to be laughable.
The same article remarked on how Kneale, as secretary of the Mid-Day Luncheon Club, was able to convince celebrity speakers to come to Springfield. “His habits made him unique in Springfield. He depended upon the New York Times for the arrival or prospective arrival in this country of men and women of prominence in other countries. Immediately he got in touch with them. How he did this so successfully was more or less of a secret with him. Through other channels he contacted leaders in other lands, asking them to make special journeys to this city. Often he was successful.”
Perhaps an incubator for Kneale’s talent for buttonholing the prominent was a journal article he wrote for The Forum a few years before the Mid-Day Luncheon Club formed. He wrote letters to “the greatest intellects” in science and religion in “the principal countries of the world” asking their views of Darwin’s teachings. (If only Nabokov had gotten an inkling of this intellectual side of Kneale!) Those surveyed included the educator Booker T. Washington, Mormon founder Joseph Smith, and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. The article was titled “Darwin, Science, and the Church: The Last Word of Science and the Church on the Teachings of Darwin.” The consensus was pro-Darwin, but as we all know, it wasn’t the last word at all. The Scopes Trial, in which Bryan argued against evolution, was more than ten years in the future.
Online searches flushed out other letters he’d written to “the famous of the earth,” (as ISJ put it) including Winston Churchill, whom he invited to speak to the Mid-Day Luncheon Club in 1929 (not successfully). He also invited the Duke of Windsor in 1937, according to a tiny item in The Daily Independent of Murphysboro, Ill. It ended with, “Kneale admitted the club members did not expect the duke to come, but said, ‘It doesn’t hurt to ask.’ “
One guest Kneale may have wished had declined his invitation in 1936 was Eugene Talmadge, Governor of Georgia. Even though he was an avowed racist and an opponent of FDR’s New Deal, Talmadge was asked to speak at the annual Lincoln birthday dinner with FDR’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Ickes was a target of Talmadge’s attacks, according to the Danville Bee. Some Illinois Democrats resigned from the Mid-Day Luncheon Club in protest over Talmadge’s invitation, and the Springfield branch of the NAACP adopted a resolution calling it “an insult to every colored citizen who cherishes the name of Lincoln.” Illinois Governor Henry Horner refused to let him stay in the Governor’s Mansion, according to the Saturday Evening Post, which also reported that Talmadge and Ickes exchanged barbs and glares during their speeches.
Ida Tarbell, the muckraking journalist and Lincoln biographer, was at least one guest speaker who appreciated Kneale. In a letter begging off his invitation for a return visit in 1928 because of a prior commitment, she wrote, “I recall vividly my experience with you six years ago–how interesting I found your organization and how kindly you greeted me.” She ended with “At any rate, my dear Mr. Kneale, you know that I appreciate your wanting me.” (Could it be, Mr. Nabokov, that Ms. Tarbell was actually flirting with the little man?)
Nabokov called Kneale “the little man” in a letter to literary critic Edmund Wilson printed in Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya. This letter, more bluntly derisive, perhaps even contemptuous, of Kneale than the letter to his wife, says, “Blurts out some obvious question (‘how long have you been in this country?’) in a ventriloquist’s voice and then is dismally silent again. Profession: secretary of several clubs. Bachelor. Sexual life either limited to a poor little solo once in a while, or non-existent.” Nabokov put Kneale at number two on his list of “aberrations of homo saps and homo sapiens” he encountered on his lecture tour through the U.S. in fall 1942.
Still, it’s hard to feel sorry for Kneale when you learn that he provided much of the copy for the newspaper coverage of the club activities. “He prepared all the advance publicity for every meeting of the club and turned it into the newspaper offices, giving each one a fair division of the fresh, spot news regarding the club and its activities,” says his ISJ obit. In one article, the newspaper printed his entire report of the club’s past year highlights verbatim. It probably didn’t hurt that he worked in the Illinois State Register business office as a bill collector. This article and others about the club harp incessantly on the increasing numbers of members and speakers, including endless lists of speakers who have appeared and those tentatively scheduled–the more famous the better. This kind of puffery hardly fits the meek, self-effacing image the newspapers ascribe to Kneale.
In any case, if Nabokov unjustly belittled poor Elmer Kneale, Springfield may have paid him back with a case of indigestion. He complained to his wife in the letter to appear in the forthcoming book Letters to Vera (edited by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd) that he’d had an attack of fever and pain between the ribs. Well, who’s the sap now, Mr. Nabokov?