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January/February 2013
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The Poet's Curse, By M. Y. Halidom (1911)

IN THESE days of reader unfamiliarity with the classics, how nice to find a novel that reveres literature's titans as men who could topple buildings, if not move mountains.

The Poet's Curse is the story of Phineas Vanderdecken, a zealous San Francisco millionaire who decides to pilfer the remains of William Shakespeare for enshrinement in his private museum of antiquities and curios. After he and his hand-picked crew smuggle the Bard's bones out of Stratford-on-Avon, a succession of misfortunes befalls them, all seemingly in fulfillment of the epitaph inscribed on Shakespeare's coffin: "Blessed be he who spares these stones,/And cursed be he who moves my bones." Harrying Vanderdecken all the way back to the United States, Shakespeare's curse triggers the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 (now there's a cause the seismologists never considered!).

Throughout the novel, Halidom mocks the crassness of the Americans. Vanderdecken describes himself as "a true American, ever pushing to the front, who, the more he has, the more his appetite increases." And he bombastically contrasts the respectful British unfavorably to "enlightened Americans, who are full of daring and enterprise, and proudly free from superstitious prejudices and absurd hesitations." The worst sin of the boorish Americans, however, is their irreverence (born of a dangerous ignorance). Though they covet Shakespeare's remains for their notoriety, none are familiar with a single work by the poet. One possible interpretation of Halidom's novel is that we neglect the classics at our own peril.

—Stefan Dziemianowicz

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