Preface to “Soldier Boys” Short Story Ebook Collection (now published)

(Below is the preface for the Soldier Boys ebook.  The book page contains purchase links and discount coupon codes. Further Readings on Civil War Fiction — an annotated bibliography which appears in the ebook’s appendix — is also online.)

During his lifetime Jack Matthews (1925-2013) wrote hundreds of short stories and published seven short story collections. Some of the stories won awards, and all the story collections were positively reviewed by major publications. Why then has it taken 23 years for his next story collection to be released?

The answer is interesting and perhaps a little sad. After Jack Matthews retired from his university teaching job in the 1990s, he continued to write full time (and teach an occasional class). But aside from publishing a smattering of pieces in smaller literary magazines (and getting a few plays produced), Matthews had absolutely no luck getting any of his books published. It must have been frustrating, but Matthews rarely dwelled on the vagaries of the New York publishing market. He knew that short stories rarely sold well and lacked the cultural impact of a novel or screenplay. But he spent a significant portion of his retirement years writing them. Continue reading

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New Story Collection: Soldier Boys: Tales of the Civil War

Book Description

Over the decades, Jack Matthews collected memoirs and personal correspondence by actual U.S. Civil War soldiers. Eventually this interest led him to write a group of stories from the vantage point of teenage soldiers. The stories are less about specific Civil War battles or the horrors of war than about ordinary adventures and heartbreaks of young soldiers.

One soldier constantly composes new epitaphs for himself (much to the irritation of his comrades). A wounded soldier finds himself abandoned by his regiment and accidentally strikes up a friendship with a soldier from the other side. One soldier starts seeing ghostly visions of his dead brother and wants to know why. In the opening story, a courier is sent by headquarters to deliver an urgent (and tragic) message only to learn that the local commander has forbidden him to deliver it. In the final story, two soldiers have to hunt down and stop a hidden sharpshooter nicknamed “Old Mortality” and in so doing have to face (and understand) their fears. Told in an accessible, humorous and even old-fashioned way, these stories have a philosophical bent and give readers a sense of how 19th century young Americans must have pondered their world.

This 8th story collection (published posthumously) is the first Jack Matthews story collection to be published in 23 years.

This special ebook edition is illustrated by Barbiel Matthews-Sanders (the author’s daughter) and includes two introductory essays by Personville editor Robert Nagle. The author’s website ( ) also contains a study guide for teachers and an annotated bibliography of Civil War fiction prepared especially for this ebook. The volume includes 9 original stories published digitally for the first time, plus a preface, literary obituary and bibliography of Civil War fiction. The stories themselves are about 45,000 words.

Jack Matthews (1925-2013) published 20+ books and taught literature at Ohio University over four decades. His story collections were praised by authors such as Tim O’Brien and W.P. Kinsella and received positive reviews in places like New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He is the author of Hanger Stout, Awake, a modern coming-of-age novel about a teenage boy’s obsession with cars (which was praised by Time Magazine and called by National Book Award winner William Stafford “one of the most neglected works of the 20th century.”) He has published multiple essays and several works of fiction about life in 19th century America.


Retail Price:  $4
Publication Date: April 5, 2016 (Version History)

Places to Buy:  | Smashwords | BN | Apple | Amazon US | UK |
Coupon Codes:  Don’t forget to get the Smashwords coupon code for significant discounts on Jack Matthews ebooks!

Note about Ebook Sample: Smashwords doesn’t let you view a free sample (but Amazon does). But the ebook’s preface is published in its entirety below. Also, smashwords has a 100% free ebook of Matthews stories.

Related Content:

Praise for Previous Story Collections by Jack Matthews

“Mr. Matthews is a master of prose conversation and deadpan charm. He is ironic, cool, and shrewd, and he writes a lucid prose.”

Tom O’Brien,  New York Times Book Review

“Jack Matthews proves once again that he is in the top one percent of American fiction writers. Witty, polished, wise, ironic, with deep insight into the dark recesses of the human heart, Matthews’ stories are often intense and humorous at the same time.”

W.P. Kinsella (Author of Shoeless Joe)

“Few contemporary writers can – or want to – compose stories in the narrow tunnel of the interior, the rutted trail of memory between mind and heart, sometimes shutting out other people as well as time and place and usual props. Matthews takes us there, carrying a bright light.”

Art Seidenbaum, Los Angeles Times

“Matthews stories are like friends from small towns: They are honest, warm, occasionally lyrical and as strange and idiosyncratic as the rest of us.”

Arthur Sabatini, Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Arthur and Adele: A Philosopher’s Strange, Complicated (and Tragic) Relationship with his Sister

(Here is an extended excerpt  from the recently published book, Schopenhauer’s Will: Das Testament by Jack Matthews about the life of  19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.  In this excerpt, Matthews reflects  on Arthur Schopenhauer’s  relationship with his sister Adele.)

The Lonely Life

If a philosopher cannot live philosophically, what good is his philosophy? Schopenhauer understood the ancient ideal of philosophy as the study of how to live wisely and well, and once argued that all great thinkers think concretely, their ideas rooted in perception, with their minds never dismissive of phenomena, and yet. always from a noumenal perspective.  In one sense, the ultimate triumph and validation of such thinking is our ability to govern our passions and live reasonably. And one manifestation of this, is our ability to budget our resources, live within our means, and thereby preside over our lives in ways unknown to those who are subject to the tyrannies of appetite and emotion.

One of the great practical decisions is where to live, and Schopenhauer deliberated over this with great care. After long and serious study, he narrowed his choice to Frankfort and Mannheim, then in English listed their advantages in a double column, as follows:

Healthy ClimateNice weather (in spite of intolerable heat)
Fine countrysideSilent & uncrowded
Comfort of a large cityMore politeness
Better reading room in libraryBetter foreign bookseller
Natural history museumThe Harmony & its library
Better plays, operas, concertsThe Heidelberg library
More EnglishmenGreater sociability
Better coffeehousesBetter baths in summer
No bad waterFewer thieves

Choosing Mannheim, he moved there, where his first decision was to join the Harmony Society. And yet, within a year, he realized he was unhappy. For some reason, he did not feel completely at home. He began to grow restless, dissatisfied. And shortly, the prospect of Frankfort, with its larger English population and better medical care and more congenial coffee houses won him over. It appears that his second choice was a judicious one, for he lived there the rest of his life.

In 1845 his peace of mind was once again disturbed when Adele visited him on her way south to Italy. She was travelling with her dearest friends, Ottilie von Goethe and Sybelle Mertens. It was obvious that in many ways she was living a miserable life, largely dependent upon those two friends simply for subsistence. But she did have friends, at least; which was more than her brother could claim.

She had come to think of herself as a poet, a creator of delicate verse, who would have prospered from her writing if she had been a man. Schopenhauer disagreed, of course, but managed to treat her with something like kindness, even when she read some of her wretched verses aloud one evening, pausing after every stanza to ask if her brother understood its meaning. Twice in speaking of their mother, she broke down and cried, which infuriated Schopenhauer; he was infuriated simply by the notion that anyone could feel pity for that hopeless bitch. But here, too, he somehow managed to behave himself, and the next morning when Adele and her two friends departed, brother and sister could almost have passed for friends.

In solitude be a multitude unto thyself.  — Tibullus

His Sister’s Will

This was the last time he would see Adele. In four years she was dead. Her will specified that her pathetic savings were to be distributed evenly between her two friend, while her brother, identified as the “bachelor philosopher who lives in Frankfort” was to receive her reading glasses (still smudged with her small fingerprints), a broken gold locket concealing their mother’s portrait, a soft-paper notebook containing thirty-one of her pastel drawings of birds, flowers, and the naked human foot, along with the following poem, written in her own hand, written in her own hand, on peach-tinted paper, and dedicated simply to “my brother, Arthur”:

By Adele Schopenhauer

The winds wail at evening. I can hear its broom
Sweeping the air in the alleyways at night.
I can hear it crying from my small, lonely room
Knowing each and every syllable of fright.

“Why is one born to suffer?” the heart asks;
“And why should we yearn for what can never be?”
In my little room I busy myself with tasks.
They quiet the mind, knowing the heart can’t see.

One day Kierkegaard would write that man is an egotist, thus essentially tragic and condemned to depair. He would also argue that God is beyond the reach of human reason. And he would say that Eternity matters, not suffering. Finally, he would conclude that all huamn understanding leads to either error or paradox. Upon all this, the shadow of Schopenhauer’s thought had fallen…

That person is happiest, whether king or peasant, who finds peace at home
— Goethe


Reproduced  from Schopenhauer’s Will: Das Testament by Jack Matthews,  with permission from  Nine Point Publishing. Related: See an extended book review.

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Book Review: Schopenhauer’s Will (Das Testament) by Jack Matthews

Title: Schopenhauer’s Will: Das Testament
Print Editions: $29.95 (Hardcover price as of October, 2015). 167 pages.  (Ebook not available).
Purchase Information: Publisher’s Site | | BN | Read an extended book excerpt
Summary: A genre-bending work consisting of a series of 2-3 page biographical vignettes (with some fictionalizing thrown in).
Recommended if you like:  Penelope Fitzgerald’s “Blue Flower” or compact biographies

What better person could there be to write a creative meditation and dramatization of Schopenhauer’s life than philosophical novelist Jack Matthews?

Arthur Schopenhauer is a strange complex man whose life story is as engrossing as his philosophies. Already two wonderful biographies have been written about him:  Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy by Rüdiger Safranski  and – more recently —   Schopenhauer: A Biography (2010) by David Cartwright. Both are scholarly works with ample footnotes and close reading of original sources. The earlier Safranski work — though organized  in rough chronological order — focuses  more on Schopenhauer’s philosophies and how life events  influenced these ideas. The Cartwright biography has a little bit of that too, but is more concerned with describing Schopenhauer’s relationship to  19th German society, how his family and friends influenced him and the  personal qualities (and quirks) which accounted for his preeminence among Continental philosophers. The Cartwright work makes sure to present a variety of different perspectives (delving more deeply for example into  the belletristic lifestyle of his mother).
Arthur Schopenhauer
Jack Matthew’s book on Schopenhauer  has different aims. Intended more for the general reader than the scholar, it’s compact by design and consists   of  2-3 page meditations on various episodes  in Schopenhauer’s life.  Every chunk has a title (“Hearing from Momma,” “And Now the Third Mountain,”  “Escape to Venice,” etc) and  ends with a relevant  quotation  from Schopenhauer or a contemporary. Generally these vignettes stay faithful to Schopenhauer’s biography; I compared Matthews’ treatment of certain events with the two Schopenhauer biographies and found them generally consistent. This work reads like a novel (indeed, it reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald’s retelling of the life of Novalis in her  brilliant novel, Blue Flower). Continue reading

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Book Announcement: Schopenhauer’s Will by Jack Matthews

Arthur Schopenhauer I am happy to announce the publication of a new book by author Jack Matthews. It is being published by Nine Point Publishing.  This book was written a decade ago and arose out of a fascination with Schopenhauer’s life and philosophies. Schopenhauer’s philosophical writings are well-known for their gloomy outlook, but Matthews had always found his writing style so beautiful and witty that it more than made up for the philosopher’s ostensible pessimism. Matthews talked briefly about this project in a 2010 audio interview and in another 2009 interview alluded to the amusing fact that it was published first in translation by a Czech publisher before it was published in English.

With permission from Nine Point Publishing, this website features an  extended excerpt from the book titled, Arthur and Adele: A Philosopher’s Strange, Complicated (and Tragic) Relationship with his Sister.

I will be posting a review of this book  (update: here it is).  I just skimmed the first page or two and was admiring the lovely cover art by Barbiel Matthews-Saunders (Jack’s daughter). Another odd fact. A few years ago Matthews sent me an unpublished novella manuscript called “The Evil Sparrow Sings” which concerns an imaginary love triangle and philosophical dialogue involving Schopenhauer and Lord Byron. I’m sure this novella will be published eventually (probably sooner rather than later), and it’s an interesting read — not just for historical/philosophical reasons, but the story frame is about a modern production of this imaginary play and the creative tension existing between those who stage a play and the person who created it.

Publisher : Nine Point Publishing.
Info: 167 pages, Hardcover, (No ebook available)
First US Publication Date: June 15 2015.
Buy: From or directly from the publisher

Book Description:  The book is a mélange of biography, novel, and philosophical treatise, and it is basically constructed in narrative summary (structured in the form of a narrowed text, somewhat like poetry, although not, strictly speaking, for poetic reasons) often interrupted by a variety of quotations, most from the works of Schopenhauer himself, but many from the works of such Schopenhauerian figures as Napoleon, Byron, Gracian, Wittgenstein, Goethe, et al. Then there are frequent, narrative interludes, much like short stories but cumulative and thus serving the text. While invented, these narrative interludes are all based upon well-documented events in Schopenhauer’s life. The book’s tone often verges upon the ironic, frolicsome and light-hearted, designed to serve in counterpoint to the familiar stereotype of Schopenhauer as a relentlessly grim pessimist. But it is intrinsic to the book’s very conception that this tonal counterpoint is not as incompatible with the “real” Schopenhauer as that of his familiar image, because the enormous vitality of his style simply could not have grown out of the quagmire of utter despair, in that the voice of despair is silence, whereas there is enormous energy and brio in all that Schopenhauer wrote.

“Jack Matthews’ creative biography explores Schopenhauer’s days and works. Rarely has philosophy been so vital and interesting. Matthews transforms gray ponderings into the red blood of life and white bone of story. A man and his times spring quick from the page. Schopenhauer’s Will is beautifully written. The prose is clear, and the great philosopher’s ideas stretch taut and well–defined as muscles. The book delights and teaches, and as readers turn pages they will so turn through ideas that their lives will be enriched.”

– Sam Pickering (inspiration for John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society)

“What better person could there be to write a creative meditation and dramatization of Schopenhauer’s life than philosophical novelist Jack Matthews?… this work reads like a novel (indeed, it reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald’s retelling of the life of Novalis in her  brilliant novel, Blue Flower)… The best thing about Schopenhauer’s Will is that it balances the need to convey Schopenhauer’s ideas with Matthews’ need to tell a good story;  it’s just as much a book about dog walking as it is about one man’s  gloomy  philosophies.”  (Robert Nagle’s Book Review: Schopenhauer’s Will (Das Testament) by Jack Matthews)


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Site/Publishing Odds and Ends

Some news. First,  I just posted the book page for Schopenhauer’s Will. It was published 2 weeks ago. I have a review copy and will be reviewing it soon.  It is only available in hardcover.

I’m still working on the Soldier Boys short story collection ebook.  I’m only finished — though official publication date will probably be in about a month or two. But certainly before September.

I noticed that the free ebook no longer seems to be free on Amazon. Now they are charging 99 cents for it. The web page for the free ebook will always contain a free link, so be sure to check that.  Three Times Time is a good mini-collection, but you shouldn’t have to pay for it.

In related news, Personville Press will start distributing ebooks through Smashwords. In addition to providing more promotional opportunities than might, it might be easier to publish free stuff there. Stay tuned!

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10 Books to Better Understand America (by Author Jack Matthews)

Two years ago Matthews created  this list, writing, “Gordon Graham, founder & erstwhile editor of the periodical LOGOS in the UK asked me to list 10 books I’d recommend to educated, English-speaking foreigners to understand the US, so I happily obliged & am attaching my list, for I managed to sneak in HANGER as one of those books. (In token modesty I backed out at the last minute & substituted Michael Connelly’s THE LAST COYOTE for HANGER, thinking Connelly’s book would help balance the east-of-the-Mississippi character & old-fashioned focus of the other 9, but Gordon wanted me to keep HANGER in, so I of course agreed).”


I’ve found this an interesting challenge, perhaps in one way more interesting than most would have found it, because I’ve personally experienced little of the greater world, leading a rather provincial existence, most of it in the wooded hills of southeastern Ohio. Obviously, I could never pass for a cosmopolite.

As for the challenge, I’ve tried to keep in mind Gordon Graham’s caution about not just listing books we love, but books that are important revelations of what it is to be “American” (the quotation marks are necessary, for the word is exasperatingly elusive, precisely as it is meaningful). Still, I’ve tried to list those that I love among those that are informative, having my cake and eating it, too – in a manner of speaking..


An inevitable choice and a beautiful book, although a seriously flawed novel (strictly speaking, PUDD’NHEAD WILSON is better as a novel). Still, HUCKLEBERRY FINN is on just about everybody’s list of the best whatevers, and can even inspire people to such insipidities as Harold Bloom referring to one of the paragraphs as the most beautiful paragraph in the language. Unutterably silly, to be sure; but his silliness does convey something of HB’s mindless enthusiasm.

Hemingway once famously said that all American novels grew out of HUCKLEBERRY FINN, but elsewhere he said that war was the only subject worthy of a writer. Of course, he said a lot of things, and it would be curmudgeonly for us to insist too seriously upon his making sense whenever he opened his mouth.

As for HUCK FINN’s inclusion in this list, I would prefer qualifying it by listing LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI in its place – making this a dual listing and perhaps not playing the game. Still, LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI seems to me Mark Twain consistently at his very best. The book is lyrical, witty and informative. And it teems with delightful definitions (e.g., An “Alligator Pilot is a man who can smell alligators from as far away as a Christian can smell whiskey.”


In this short, complex novel, Eudora Welty has created a world that is paradoxically regional (“southern”), even clannish, and yet generically “American” – even universal.Eudora-Welty

Most of the action is in the deep south and it follows the death of old Judge McKelva (the “optimist”), and is focused upon his daughter, Laurel, who is the novel’s protagonist, as the title proclaims. After he dies, Laurel’s and Fay’s (his young 2nd wife’s) family go about revealing themselves and creating scenes of delicious comic confusion.. One of the novel’s motifs consists of birds, and as one of the women is expressing her disapproval of Fay (who is, indeed, a superlatively nasty specimen), she is interrupted: “Singing over her words, the mockingbird poured out his voice without stopping.”

Indeed, throughout the novel, the birds constitute a strange voiceless Chorus, creating a delicate thread of ironic symbolism, in which near the end of the novel, a bird is even trapped in the dead man’s house with Laurel (the trapped bird symbolizing bad luck, of course), causing her to say, “Birds fly toward light – I’m sure I’ve been told.” Just as good novels try to work their intricate ways toward the light.

This is a beautiful novel, justly celebrated; and it will not easily reveal its deeper secrets, nor will those secrets entirely fade from a reader’s mind.

 JOURNALS, Ralph Waldo Emerson

A repository of the wide-ranging thoughts of a man who was once known as “the wisest American” – a term that is not as foolish as many such superlatives. These journals, ostensibly written for himself, teem with observations that open up parts of the world, and that world is Emerson’s New England as well as . . . well, America and the World!

Consider these short samples: “Some play at chess, some at cards, some at the Stock Exchange. I prefer to play at Cause and Effect”; “Our moods do not believe in each other”; “Poets learn to relieve themselves of misery by shoveling it into poems” (exquisitely appropriate for the “confessional poets” of the 20th century), and, finally, this gem: ”Old men are drunk with time.”

The journals are available in a 10- volume edition, but the one volume edition, edited by Bliss Perry, provides a useful introduction.

 THE GREAT GATSBY, F. Scott Fitzgerald

How could Fitzgerald’s magical novel not be on this list? Jay Gatsby is a symbol of how everyone in America can become a king. Maybe. Sort of. (“Maybe” and “sort of” are necessary qualifications, of course, relating to virtually all that is problematic and human.)

In a way, and for many, GATSBY can be elected to that pinnacle of “the great American novel” – which is an unfortunate label, but to the extent that it makes any kind of sense, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece would make a strong bid for the job.


No matter how the word is defined, Hemingway was just about as “American” as a writer could ever be, and yet most of the places celebrated in his books are European or African. In this collection of the Nick Adams stories, however – culled from his other story collections and published after his death – the American scene is a vivid and unmistakable presence, especially Michigan, where much of Hemingway’s youth was spent.

The American love of nature and the “wide open spaces” is both a distinguishing American trait and an inheritance of our British origins; in many ways, it can be said that the Brits invented the love of nature as we know it, but, of course, we have expanded and changed it in response to the unique geography of our land..

Some of the stories gathered in this volume are familiar to all who know Hemingway’s work (e.g., “The Killers”; “In Another Country”; “Big Two-Hearted River”). But there are lesser-known short pieces here worth reading, and they all to some extent savor of the land they’re in, as well as being about Nick Adams, who is of course Hemingway himself – as well as of course not.

 KITTY FOYLE, Christopher Morley

KittyFoylePOSTER-02This is perhaps the most successful novel of one of the great, and greatly neglected, American writers of the 20th century, and it is simply a delight to read. It was so popular that a movie was made from it, starring Ginger Rogers, who for her starring in it, won an Oscar as best actress. (The novel is much better than the film, of course.)

In my reading of what I consider the worthiest books, I take notes on a sheet of paper that I fold into their pages, and if I find the book especially interesting, my notes may number as many as 50 or 60; but my notes for KITTY FOYLE number 72.

To understand the book, one must first realize that it was published in 1939, near the end of the Great Depression in America. Kitty is a “working girl” in Philadelphia, and she tells her own delightful and richly thoughtful story. And her voice throughout, along with her many obiter dicta (in a manner of speaking) are wise and lovably sensitive.

Indeed, her casual observations are often exquisite; consider these two, which appear on the same page: she’s feeling her drinks and says, “I was like somebody walking in somebody else’s sleep.” And then later, on the same page, she says: “It wasn’t anybody’s fault; what is?”

 THE WORLD OVER, Edith Wharton

This collection of Edith Wharton’s stories contains her masterpiece, “Roman Fever” – whose action takes place in Rome, as its title proclaims, and yet the story is as “American” as baseball and the unassisted double play.

The story opens with two wealthy, middle-aged American ladies standing together as they enjoy the view of Rome from the terrace of a restaurant. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley have been lifelong acquaintances, if not exactly friends, for it has simply been their destiny that has woven their lives together.

What happens in this story is too good to relate, but let it suffice to say that “Roman Fever” is a splendidly developed Contest story that the reader will not soon forget.

And, of course, the values of these two women, including the brand of snobbery that decorates the arena of their contest, are all distinctly “American”.


H_l_menckenHere, it’s best to quote from Mencken’s Preface to the First Edition:“[This book’s] chief excuse is its human interest, for it prods deeply into national idiosyncrasies and ways of mind, and that sort of prodding is always entertaining.  I am thus neither teacher, nor prophet, nor reformer, but merely inquirer.”

Also, Mencken’s delightful HAPPY DAYS says a lot about American life as he remembered it over a century ago. But it no doubt remains much the same, although with our hypocrisies dressed in different clothing. Then, too, one should mention Mencken’s delightfully acerbic essays in his PREJUDICES series.


Authoritatively and perceptively written about a truly extraordinary man, a general with an unmistakable flamboyance and histrionic flair. Manchester is often considered one of the best biographers of our time. (I also very much enjoyed his THE LAST LION, about Churchill; but of course that doesn’t belong here, in spite of WC’s American mama.)

As for AMERICAN CAESAR: it is splendidly researched, vividly written and worthy of its subject.


At the risk of disgusting those who realize that my final choice may be rooted in nothing more than vanity and ignorance, I’ll list HANGER – crossing the line of taboo and violating all the proprieties in sight. Nevertheless, the novel has been praised for its grasp of the American idiom, and so I’ll risk listing it here.

It’s a first-person narrative by Hanger Stout, an Ohio teenager in the 60s, who doesn’t know a past participle from a cephalopod, but he has a good heart and in his own way, a clear head. He works in a filling station back in the days when attendants were hired to fill customers’ gas tanks. Hanger gains his nickname by his ability to hang by his hands longer than just about anybody else (a mild spoof on America’s obsession with athletics here), which threatens to make him, well, famous. Hanger is gentle, undemanding, quasi-illiterate and something of a funny saint.

Hiram Haydn, my editor at Harcourt Brace, said that Hanger was “all of us before we ate the apple.” Eudora Welty was one of many good people who praised the novel, and William Stafford, NBA-Award poet, listed it as his only title in an ANTAEUS series on “Neglected Books Of The 20th Century”.(With luck, it might become one of the neglected books of the millennium. Dare I aim so high?)

Jack Matthews (1925-2013) is the author of philosophical fiction. He has published over 20 titles, and his next collection of short stories, Soldier Boys will be published by Personville Press in April, 2014.  In 2011   Etruscan Press published Jack Matthews’s latest novel, THE GAMBLER’S NEPHEW.




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Is Sarah Palin smarter than Barack Obama? (By Author Jack Matthews)

(Editor’s Note: Author and distinguished professor of literature  Jack Matthews wrote this provocative essay in 2010 — publishing it first in the Athens News.  Over his writing career Matthews rarely wrote about politics — although he certainly kept up with scandals and the news.  He had always considered himself to be a conservative in the Teddy Roosevelt sense and admired Sarah Palin’s  populist and anti-elitist  rhetoric — critics be damned!)  

No doubt that title will astonish most readers, and as nearly as such things can be measured, 82% of you will be so irritated that you’ll be tempted to forego whatever ensues. Nevertheless, you should be patient, for it is a real question and it opens up real possibilities, not confined to the obvious difficulty in clearly defining exactly what “intelligence” is, as used by rational people–which is to say, people who are …  well, intelligent.

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin

The greatest problem in recent political discourse, however, is the inability of the more rabid blue-state liberals, obsessed with feasting upon Sarah Palin’s image, to distinguish general intelligence from sophistication. Sophistication is a sort of intelligence, of course; but only a sort, and not the best, for it is superficial and of the moment; it is, in the old locution, simply being “with it.” It is epitomized by a recent New York Times piece  on Scott Selby, a photographer whom the Times once labeled “an arbiter of cool”; then later we’re told that his website is “part who’s who of global hip” — I mean, how sophisticated can a mere human being be? Continue reading

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RIP Ohio Author Jack Matthews (1925-2013): Book Collecting Enthusiast & Author of Philosophical Fiction

John Harold Matthews, Ohio fiction writer, essayist and book collector, died last week at the age of 88. He is survived by his wife Barbara, his  two daughters Barbiel and Cynthia and his son John.

His writing spanned  six decades, covering a variety of subjects and styles. In the sixties he published a volume of poetry (An Almanac for Twilight), a short story collection (Bitter Knowledge) and a novel (Hanger Stout, Awake!).  This  novel received commercial success, receiving positive reviews in  Time, New York Times  and praise  by people  as diverse as William Stafford and Eudora Welty (who described it as “blessed with honesty, clarity, directness, proportion and a lovely humor.”) Hanger  was about a thoughtful but happy-go-lucky small town boy  whose world revolves around cars and who is duped into participating in an imaginary sports event. The main character is accepting of his world and yet a keen observer of  people around him. The book’s  style shows a combination  of Hemingway’s restrained stoicism and Updike’s careful attention to surrounding detail.  Matthews quickly published several other novels: Charisma Campaigns is about the emotional life of a used car salesman who possesses an almost magical ability to persuade people; Beyond the Bridge is about a middle-aged man who escapes death when a bridge collapses and many people die. Tale of Asa Bean relates the crazy obsessions of a brilliant philosophy student   who plans to stage a very public protest about an art exhibition he abhors and  ends up making a fool of himself in the process. Pictures of the Journey Back tells about three  people who take a long road trip to Colorado to confront their pasts.

Book Collecting

Starting in the late seventies, Matthews turned his focus towards shorter forms.  He also cultivated a passion  for book collecting which was excessive even for literary/professorial types. Matthews  once estimated that his quest to buy and sell books at estate sales and library sales led him to travel  over a million miles in his cars. At some point, he had bought an old saloon in a small southeastern Ohio mining town specifically to store his ever-increasing book collection. In 1977 he published a practical guide on book collecting,  Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure and Profit, which contains a mixture of advice about appraising   antique books and anecdotes about his most notable finds. Matthews was fascinated by the marketplace of the used book trade  and how the relative value of books as collectibles   varied  over the decades.  When author and bookstore owner Larry McMurtry told Matthews that his store didn’t like customers who regarded book purchases simply as investments, Matthews scoffed, writing,

It is …. silliness to pretend that buying books “as an investment” is incompatible with scholarship or the true love of literature; Quite the contrary; it is the man who divides his love of literature from the material life who is the true heretic, using only the public library or the niggardly functional paperback for the leavening of his sensibility, and investing his money in Ford Motor Company and AT&T stock. What a dreary divarication is this, and how schizoid and truly mercenary is the man who plays such a nasty game against himself! To invest in books does not imply that the collector intends to sell them; he merely buys them with the conviction that his taste in honoring them will be validated by posterity and that – with effort and know-how comparable to those of other investors – this validation will have a dimension of financial profit.

Matthews believed that the psychological rewards of amassing a collection — any kind of collection — were considerable. “This joy to collect seems intrinsic,” he wrote, “for very young children possess it and soon extend the simple delights of touching and owning to include those more sophisticated delights of building and ordering.” There is the pleasure of the journey and stumbling upon a rare or brilliant title at the most unexpected time or place. Matthews’ penchant for book collecting led to various literary adventures, many of which he detailed in  essay collections (Booking in the Heartland, Booking Pleasures and Reading Matter) , published in the 1980s and 1990s. These humorous first-person essays would usually start by describing an odd  book or diary which Matthews acquired  during his booking adventures. Each of these  books might  seem “worthless” and poorly written  by contemporary literary standards, but Matthews would find beneath this inarticulateness all sorts of insights into how ordinary people thought and spoke.   Some examples of unusual books described in these essays include: a  Latin translation of the life of George Washington, a  19th century medical guide, math schoolbooks written entirely in verse,  steamboat schedules and  written accounts by preachers, young Civil War soldiers and  weary settlers about the new society emerging on the frontier.  Each essay would describe the book in a gently mocking way, but use the book to raise philosophical questions about the past and our difficulties in understanding it.

Finding Inspiration in 19th Century America

His passion for early Americana books provided lots of literary inspiration for Matthews. He started in the late seventies by publishing Tales of a Ohio Land, stories based on actual historical incidents from the 18th and 19th century. One typical story,  “Lucinda Hill is Born Again“ tells the tale of  a teenage girl who miraculously heals from a serious illness and seeks out John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) to explain whether her nagging sense that she is already dead is actually true.   In this depiction, Johnny Appleseed is not a folkloric figure but a  sage who asks metaphysical questions. In the early 1980s, Matthews wrote Sassafras, a long comic epic novel about a junior phrenologist from the 19th century who travels through the midwest prairies in search of adventures, a woman and another phrenologist who stole his belongings.  Of this  novel, a New York Times critic wrote,  “the backwoods humor is entertaining, the masculine camaraderie dead center in the tradition of 19th-century frontier whoppers.”  During the 1980s and 1990s, Matthews wrote three more major works about the Civil War era — a still unpublished novel titled   Boys from Elm Grove, the Gambler’s Nephew (published later in 2011) and the Soldier Boys story collection (published as an ebook in  2016). Gambler’s Nephew relates the tale of how the accidental shooting of a runaway slave by an ardent abolitionist uncovers a whole web of hidden relationships in the community. Unlike the allegorical and satirical Sassafras, Gambler tackles more social and ethical issues, depicting 19th century morality in ways that would make the modern reader squeamish. Matthews doesn’t  pass judgement on beliefs and superstitions which might seem repugnant to the modern reader. Instead Gambler’s Nephew  shows how people lived with such beliefs while still professing  themselves to be religious and upstanding.  The soon-to-be-published story collection Soldier Boys depicts how Civil War soldiers try to maintain a semblance of civility and boyish playfulness  amidst the horrors of war.  Not simply anti-war, these stories use the personal stories of  young soldiers as an opportunity to meditate on life and death itself. In the  collection’s first story, “Requiem on the Rappahannock,” a junior messenger from General Grant is tasked with delivering to another general the sad news that his wife died giving birth to a dead infant.  This messenger encounters all sorts of unexpected obstacles — including the frenzied celebrations by the regiment after a recent military victory. The messenger  begins to question his own commitment to deliver the message and wonders whether a society could ever deteriorate to the point where one man’s personal tragedy is no longer noteworthy.

Parallel to his interests in historical subjects, Matthews continued to write short stories about modern living throughout his career.  In the 1980s and early 1990s, Johns Hopkins U. Press published several of his short story collections:  Ghostly Populations, Crazy Women, Dirty Tricks, Dubious Persuasions and Storyhood as We Know It. (You can download a free Jack Matthews story sampler ebook here).   These collections are generally easy to read, realistic,  dialogue-driven, tightly-written with occasional rhetorical flourishes.  They involve  people who work at  supermarkets or gas stations or hair salons; they go to class reunions, cocktail parties or kill time in the company break room. Many characters are just unsophisticated folks with ordinary  problems. They have worries, obsessions and blind spots. Usually they don’t have grand ambitions, but are focused on the here-and-now. A number of them  foolishly cling to certain notions or secretly seethe about things they could not change. They are jealous or spiteful or seemingly irrational. Many have secrets or links to the past.   A number of  these stories focus on the mundane (and sometimes hilarious) struggles of  married couples  during various stages of married life (Mr. Matthews himself was happily married to his wife Barbara for 66 years). In the story “Family Plots,” a terminally ill attorney and his wife have a vicious  argument over his will and whether the wife should  cremate him. Each tries to trick the other into acceding to that person’s wishes. Eventually, one of them prevails, but only at the price of considerable anger and hurt feelings. The long argument may not have accomplished anything but it revealed  an emotional chasm between the two which neither had been aware of.

Although some of Mr. Matthews’ stories emphasize plot, usually there’s  not a lot of melodrama; often they end after a character stumbles upon a surprising self-revelation. Many end quietly, but explosively. Matthews wrote in many  genres, but it could be argued that  the short story genre made the best use of his literary talents. Matthews had a knack  for conjuring memorable characters  out of a few sentences  and then using the story as a vehicle to explore their inner lives. The short story genre also gave Matthews  ample opportunity to display his ear for  the  American vernacular  and describe people’s lives  with wit and irony.

Growing Up and Literary Influences

Jack Matthews grew up in Columbus neighborhood of Clintonville, Ohio (which he described as “virtually woodland and fields” when he was a boy). His father was born on a farm but later studied law under a country judge and eventually had his own law firm in Columbus. Jack Matthews himself once said “I had a wonderful childhood and didn’t know there was a Depression….though (I) remember World War 1 veterans selling apples on the street, but for some reason that didn’t register as a hardship.” He described himself as a “relaxed underachiever in high school.” Before college he served with the Coast Guard from 1943-1945;  Matthews remembered reading Jack London’s  The Sea Wolf  while working as a radioman on the Coast Guard Cutter Maclaine in the North Pacific, on anti-submarine patrol out of Sitka & Juneau (the very sea that the book’s protagonist Wolf Larsen sailed in).   He later studied English literature and  classical Greek at Ohio State University and married his wife Barbara at the age of 22. After  college, he worked at various jobs which (according to Matthews)  “gave me an excuse to knock on doors.” That included selling things door to door as a Fuller Brush Man and  selling encyclopedias. For a short time he worked as a private detective and later as a produce warehouseman. By the time  he and wife had started to raise two daughters, Matthews began working at the Post Office on afternoons and nights (which he did for nine years); that gave him time to write and attend graduate classes in the morning.

He published his first story in 1950 in an Irish literary magazine, and in 1959 he started teaching at Urbana College. After teaching there for five years, he switched to teaching  at Ohio University in Athens where he later became distinguished professor of English. He taught creative writing classes and critical approaches to drama and fiction. (In 2011, he published    A Worker’s Writebook, a writing guide based on  handouts he gave  to his creative writing students).

In high school, Matthews recalled being assigned to read Joseph Conrad’s “The Rover” and  “pausing on a page to contemplate how wonderful it must be to create such realities.” In college he read Balzac  and Twain and aspired to write “philosophical novels.” During college he majored in classical Greek, and his later essays  frequently brought in his knowledge of Greek literature into his essays.  This knowledge and passion  in classical Greek literature is most evident in his play Interview with the Sphinx which he wrote in the 90s and revised years later.  The Sphinx from ancient Greece is interviewed in modern times as though she were a celebrity pop star, and the interviewer guesses that Oedipus had not actually solved the riddle of the Sphinx but had only been  fooled into thinking so. (In fact, Matthews  published an essay in a classical journal during  the 1960s arguing the exact same thing). In the play — a philosophical comedy centered around  the paradoxes of language– the female Sphinx talks about the most famous literary characters of Greek mythology in a gossipy way — as though everybody was  still around.  ON HOMER: “I never was exactly sure which one Homer was. I’m positive he wasn’t the blind one, though; that was just a silly story they started telling a few centuries later.” ON OEDIPUS: “Eddie was terribly conceited, you know … of course he was smart and handsome and, oh, just had a way of carrying himself that impressed everybody. In spite of his foot.”

After college Matthews started reading the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who was  known for his pessimism. Throughout his life Matthews   continued to return to Schopenhauer, finding him fascinating as a thinker, author and person. In the 90s and 2000s, Matthews used  Schopenhauer’s biography as the basis for two fiction projects. The first was Schopenhauer’s Will which Matthews described as  “somewhat freakish — not exactly fiction, biography or philosophy, but a mélange of all of these (with a one-act play thrown in).” Although no American publisher dared to publish this cerebral and experimental work, in 2002 a Czech publisher published the book in Czech translation. (Note: This year Nine Point Publishing announced plans to publish it in the US.) Another unpublished work,  The Evil Sparrow Dies Again is a play-within-a-novella about an imaginary battle between Lord Byron and Schopenhauer to win the love of an Italian countess.

Two other writers for whom Matthews had a special affinity were Ambrose Bierce and Christopher Morley. Bierce was not only from Ohio, but Matthews admired his gifts for aphoristic expression and caustic satire. In an essay on Bierce’s poetry, Matthews wrote that Bierce “had a gift for enmity, and loved to lampoon and pillory any living target that proved worthy . . . or unworthy, as the case may be.” Matthews  also admired the writings of Christopher Morley who he believed was  neglected by the literary establishment. In a 2007 essay on Morley, Matthews writes:

By some mystical combination of upbringing, nature and nurture,  (Morley) seems to have been inoculated against the existential ANGST so fashionable in twentieth-century literature. He could not help but LOOK at the world, seeing things in the humdrum quotidian that no one else could see, and rejoicing the plenitude of everyday life. Happily extroverted, he was gifted with passionate attentiveness that illuminates his prose in virtually every sentence, just as it evidently illuminated the hours, days and weeks of his life.

Final Years

Despite Matthews’ early desire to succeed as a “philosophical novelist,” and his lifelong fascination with gloomy Continental philosophers, the last two decades awoke in Matthews an admiration both for Morley’s writing and  Morley’s appreciation for the small, fleeting aspects to life. In his  final decade  Matthews continued teaching part time while spending time with his wife and family. He continued writing of course — stories and plays and essays — but also polishing longer manuscripts in various stages of completion. Among his most notable projects in that last decade  was a series of prose pieces called Abruptions: 5 Minute Tales to Open the Mind  (named because of the abrupt way each piece ended) which he published  under the pseudonym Matt Hughes. Not exactly short stories, these 1 or 2 page pieces read more like fables;  there was no plot .. only incidents with poetic and philosophical resonances.  They are less concerned with delineating individual character than demonstrating how ordinary  situations can change the way one perceives the world. The book’s introduction summarizes how these pieces work:  “By what is both presented and judiciously excluded, abruptions can reach down to dimensions of wonder and speculation that are commonly thought to be the proper domain of poetry…. it is the narrow and pointed instruments that penetrate deepest.”

One of Matthew’s favorite abruptions was the first one — which hints at farewells and transformations:


This was one of his first memories.  He was five years old and begged to join the older boys in their baseball games.  They finally relented, gave him an old glove that hung almost to his knees when he put it on. And to keep him out of the way, they placed him in the “outfield” beyond a ragged row of barberry shrubs.

From this position, the little boy couldn’t see any of the other players.  Nevertheless, he faithfully kept gazing up into the sky above the little shrubs.  Waiting, waiting, day after day.

Then late one afternoon it happened.  He saw a dark point in the sky.  It grew swiftly bigger and bigger until it hit him in the face, knocking him down and bloodying his nose.
This was a mystical experience for him, and he never forgot the lesson, which is that there are some things which grow bigger and bigger, and then there is this brief blunt painful spasm of darkness, after which they are gone and you find yourself lying on the ground, looking up at the sky.


Here’s a brief collection of works by and about Jack Matthews.

Robert Nagle is a Houston-based writer and founder of Personville Press, which produces ebook versions of Jack Matthews books. He is working on a collection of  essays about the life and writings of Matthews. The contents of this essay are shareable under a Creative Commons Attribution — No Derivatives license.

Do you have any memories or anecdotes about Jack Matthews? If you do, this website will soon run a story featuring these reminsciences. Contact Robert Nagle (idiotprogrammer AT gmail com ) to send your contributions. 

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Funeral information for Ohio Author Jack Matthews: Saturday December 7

The funeral service is to be December 7th, with a 12:00-2pm visitation, and 2pm service at Jager & Sons Funeral Home, Morris Ave., Athens, Ohio. After a minister speaks, there will be invitations to whomever wishes to get up to speak briefly about Jack.

Here’s a link to the official obituary in the Athens Times and a link to the guest book. (By the way, my “literary obituary” should go up in a day or so). The official obituary is printed below:

John H. “Jack” Matthews, age 88 of Athens, died Thursday morning, Nov. 28, 2013 at his home. He was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at Ohio University. He published seven novels, seven collections of short stories, a novella and eight volumes of essays. He was an avid book collector, and many of his book finds served as a basis for his essays and the historical topics he explored in his fiction. He was also the recipient of numerous literary and professional awards.

He was born July 22, 1925 in Columbus, the son of the late John H. & Lulu Grover Matthews. He received his B.A. in classics and English and his M.A. in English from The Ohio State University. He was a U.S. Coast Guard veteran of World War II serving aboard the Cutter Maclaine in the Northern Pacific Theatre on anti-submarine patrol out of Sitka and Juneau, Alaska. He was a member of the Athens Rotary Club, where he was a Paul Harris Fellow, and the Aldus Society.

Jack is survived by his loving wife of 66 years, Barbara Jane Reese Matthews; his children- Cynthia Ann Warnock, married to Wyman Warnock of Dacula, Ga., Barbara-Ellen Matthews-Saunders, married to John Saunders of Chesterhill and John Matthews, married to Cathy Hart Matthews of Lore City; seven grandchildren- Jed (Lori) Warnock, Casey (Kelley) Warnock, Catherine Warnock, Smith (Natalie) Weir, Eric (Sarah) Platt, Jack (Lindsay) Matthews and Clay Matthew and his fiancé Casey Passen; six great grandchildren- Brandon, Ansley, Hailey & Peyton Warnock and Aidan & Noah Weir.

Besides his parents he is preceded in death by a sister, Dorothy Matthews Donahue.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, Dec. 7th at 2:00pm at Jagers & Sons Funeral Home, Athens with Pastor Lynn Miller officiating. Friends may call Saturday 12:00 noon until time of service. Military rites will be conducted at the funeral home.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in Jack’s memory to the Athens Rotary Club, P.O. Box 681, Athens, Ohio 45701.

Please share a memory, a note of condolence or sign the online register book at

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