Parnassus on WheelsParnassus on Wheels
by Christopher Morley

This was one of Grandma’s favorites, and it still has a sweet aroma of Grandma in it for me. I like it myself for its good cheer, good sense, and good comradeship. It’s a book about books, finding a place for them in lives occupied with the daily round of chores and cares.

Helen McGill, the narrator, is an unmarried middle-aged woman keeping house for her brother Andrew, a New England farmer who has unexpectedly written a best-seller about the joys of country life. Since his book came along, Andrew has been less interested in the joys of farming, leaving Helen to attend to the practical side of daily life while he basks in the glow of being a minor Thoreau.  Helen is willing to admit that her brother’s book is actually a nice little thing, in its way, but the effects of fame on her brother’s personality are not.

One day, as she is on her way to the woodpile, she meets an unexpected visitor, driving a curious peddler’s wagon. The sign on the wagon advertises  “R. Mifflin’s Travelling Parnassus”.  Roger Mifflin is a red-bearded little firecracker of a man who sells books. But he’s more than a peddler — he’s a sort of missionary.  As he says, “When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue–you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night–there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.”  Mr. Mifflin is out to change the world, one book and one reader at a time.  

He has been on the road for seven years now, and while he has had the time of his life and enjoyed every moment of it, he’s ready to sell the shebang and settle down. Might Andrew be interested in buying it? Helen is dismayed at putting such temptation in Andrew’s way. But she is also intrigued despite herself — “I’m not literary, but I’m human enough to like a good book, and my eye was running along those shelves of his as I spoke. He certainly had a pretty miscellaneous collection. I noticed poetry, essays, novels, cook books, juveniles, school books, Bibles, and what not—all jumbled together.” Before she knows what she’s doing or why, she offers to buy it herself —  “I don’t know whether it was the neatness of his absurd little van, or the madness of the whole proposition, or just the desire to have an adventure of my own … but anyway, some extraordinary impulse seized me… “Right!” I said. “I’ll do it.” Mifflin agrees to travel with her for the first couple of days and teach her the ropes of the business.  And so they’re off!

The rest of this little book is the rollicking road trip of this odd couple through the New England countryside, their adventures in the book-peddling trade, their efforts to throw off pursuit by Andrew, and their growing affection for each other.  I love their conversations along the road, the counterpoint between Mifflin’s zealous excitement and Helen’s homespun practicality.  I always laugh at the comedy, but I’m also nodding and murmuring “Amen!” at so many pithy little nuggets of truth.

And I’m ready to stand up and yelp “Hurray” when Helen finally tells off her brother — “Now see here Andrew,” I said, “a woman of forty who has compiled an anthology of 6,000 loaves of bread and dedicated it to you deserves some courtesy. When you want to run off on some vagabond tour or other you don’t hesitate to do it. You expect me to stay home and do the Lady Eglantine in the poultry yard. By the ghost of Susan B. Anthony, I won’t do it! This is the first real holiday I’ve had in fifteen years, and I’m going to suit myself. I bought this Parnassus from Mr. Mifflin fair and square for four hundred dollars. That’s the price of about thirteen hundred dozen eggs. The money’s mine, and I’m going to use it my own way. Now, Andrew McGill, if you want to buy any books, you can parley with me. Otherwise, I’m on my way. You can expect me back when you see me.”

For such a short book, it’s irresistably quotable! Some favorites —

  • It’s all right for college presidents to draw up their five-foot shelves of great literature, and for the publishers to advertise sets of their Linoleum Classics, but what the people need is the good, homely, honest stuff–something that’ll stick to their ribs–make them laugh and tremble and feel sick to think of the littleness of this popcorn ball spinning in space.
  • What absurd victims of contrary desires we are! If a man is settled in one place he yearns to wander; when he wanders he yearns to have a home. And yet all the great things in life are done by discontented people…When God at first made man (says George Herbert) He had a “glass of blessings standing by.” So He pours on man all the blessings in His reservoir: strength, beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure—and then He refrains from giving him the last of them, which is rest, i.e., contentment. God sees that if man is contented he will never win his way to Him.

  • My favorite Christopher Morley quote of them all is actually not from this book, but from the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop — (the further adventures of Roger and Helen Mifflin, now married and operating a bookstore) — “It’s a good thing to turn your mind upside-down now and then, like an hour-glass, to let the particles run the other way.”  (And now I have a hankering to go re-read that book, too.)