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The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger: chapter 22
By Allen Rich, with excerpts from The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger, 1899-1912
May 2, 2018
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Much to the chagrin of his folks back in Fannin County, in the spring of 1907 Harry Peyton Steger decided he had something more important to do than finish out the Rhodes Scholarship he had once cherished so dearly.

In Harry's case, though, he was right.

More specifically, in Harry's case, he was a writer.   Steger had eight years of the finest education possible under his belt--University of Texas, Johns Hopkins University, Balliol College at Oxford--but precious little time to leave his mark in literature, if he could even manage that feat.

"I hope it has not been very disappointing to you," Harry penned to his parents in Bonham.  "I do not know exactly when I shall come back to America.  It seems to me very inadvisable to leave Europe too hastily, for good.  I may never get back.  Furthermore, I can get some experience here.  Of course, if I follow the dictates of sentiment and feelings, I would unhesitatingly return at once and fish for years in the lake at Wichita Falls; but there's no salary attached, is there? and no career.  If I can get started over here, with a bit of prestige, why then I can continue on the other side.  Bedichek is coming to England in June.  We are going to give the news syndicate scheme, of which I gave details last summer, a modest trial."

Since all of those late-night brainstorming sessions with Roy Bedichek in Austin, maybe nothing ever intrigued either man more than making a living off their wits and the alphabet.  Neither seemed driven by the desire for wealth as much as a need for adventure, intellectual stimulation, rousing conversations and late-night writing sessions.

"Don't you think you and I can make a living together?" Steger had written from Baltimore to Bedichek two years prior.  "This matter of living has to be considered, you know.  I'm inclined to think we can do it -- how remains to be seen; perhaps by writing?  Tell me what you think.  In plain clammy English--can we pay for grub with work?"

Seems like a reasonable question, perhaps even intuitive, in retrospect.  In later years, Steger's flair with the pen would impress William Sydney Porter; Bedichek was eventually urged by J. Frank Dobie to capture his thoughts in a manuscript.  But retrospect has 20/20 vision.  Porter and Dobie possessed discerning eyes in the realm of literature.  What level of expertise would the publishers possess that analyzed the collaborative effort of Steger and Bedichek?

Well, in 1907 Harry is selling enough of his work to magazines to believe his time has come.  Bedichek would be sailing for England in June.  Maybe their ship had come in.

"I hope you and I are going in for this thing for all it is worth and that we are not to drop it before it has been given an adequate trial," Steger writes to Bedichek regarding the proposed news syndicate.  "I'll meet you in Liverpool; you'll come on to London where we can take a pause.  I don't know yet whether it is best to do England first or the Continent."

This was the opportunity the two men had waited for -- tramping around the most interesting sights in Europe would give them ample material.  The plan was to then document their adventures to launch the news syndicate.

Steger also had a novel started and four short stories well underway; plus, he was partnering with another Oxford student, Nixon, to complete a manuscript that Century Magazine Publishing Company in New York seemed anxious to publish.

And that was still only part of the writer's ambitious scheme.

"I want to start a first-class literary magazine to take over Holland's, to revive the old Southern Literary Messenger, or to start a new one, more or less typical of the South, but neither lurid nor cheap," Steger tells Bedichek.  "Can't we do it?  There's not only fun but money in it."

And, Harry reminded his old friend, if all else fails there was still Tristan D'Acunha, the most remote archipelago on the planet.

"There is no particular cause for alarm in my kidney," Steger adds.  "Beyond the fact that Dr. Osler told me to carry a Bible and a flannel rag around with me, I know nothing of the damned thing.  It doesn't interest me except when it hurts and that is seldom.  What an idiot you are to give up smoking.  You must take it on again.  I am playing tennis again within a few days.  This will put me in good shape.  You needn't be squeamish about disreputable language, unless of course the guts of your bag are like to drop out from time to time.  You might buy another suitcase; or, better still, a Gladstone-bag.  Don't, however, land with the external accoutrement of a Methodist minister."

Bedichek wrote that the two of them should avoid all outsiders, but Steger made it very clear that his old friend Cowie was beyond reproach.

"You don't know Cowie and that you and I might plot the King's destruction in one corner of the room while Cowie sat and meditated in the other," Steger explained point blank.

That last exchange of missives between Bedichek and Steger was late April or early May 1907.

Some 50 years later, in a letter to Dudley Woodard dated August 8, 1957 that was published in The Letters of Roy Bedichek, Bedichek would reminisce about tramping across Europe with his friend from Fannin County.

Dear Dudley:

       Yes, Harry Steger was one in a million. He had in just the right combination scholarship, companionability, wit, enthusiasm for things worthwhile, generous impulses, good looks -- but why try to enumerate. When I say he was the most lovable character, male or female, I have ever known that must cover it insofar as I am concerned.

I have a picture of him in his prime on my desk and I'm looking at it now. I have often told as illustrating the spontaneity of his with the crack he got off on me while we were returning from a walking tour of England and part of Germany in 1907. There was on our boat a bevy of sweet North Carolina lassies of an age to be interesting to young men. He rather cultivated them while I remained aloof, walking the decks alone.

One of the young ladies observed to Harry, "Your friend, Mr. Bedichek, seems to go around all the time with his head in the clouds."

"Oh no," said Harry, tapping his temple. "Clouds in his head."

The next letter in the Steger collection was written to his parents.  It was dated August 26, 1907, Quebec, Canada.  Steger and Bedichek had crossed over the pond.

So what became of the journal made by these two formidable writers as they detailed excursion after excursion across Europe?   It is quite possible and plausible that, tossed in trash baskets in a dozen different publisher's offices, was the best manuscript they never published.

You have to imagine that both writers poured their hearts into the journal in hopes of breathing life into the news syndicate.  There seemed to be scarce time for anything else during the summer of '07.  Whereas the long, lonely nights in Baltimore had produced voluminous letters, during what should have been the most remarkable summer of his life to date, Steger was simply too busy to write home.

It was 10 days on the Cassandra from Glasgow to Quebec.

"From here we go, up the St. Lawrence River, to Montreal," Harry wrote to his parents, "and thence by rail to New York City; Bedi to Texas."

The two men would never look on each other's face again.

Previous Steger articles:

Previous Steger articles: