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The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger: chapter 24
By Allen Rich, with excerpts from The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger, 1899-1912
May 4, 2018
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Harry Peyton Steger and Roy Bedichek returned to North America at the end of August 1907 following their long-awaited tramp across Europe. 

Low on funds, Harry was fortunate to take up temporary residence with Hutchings, an old friend from his days at Oxford who now lived in a large home in Englewood, New Jersey.  Roy headed back to the farm in Texas.  The two writers had started out with big dreams of jump-starting a news syndicate by documenting the "residence abroad" and they poured themselves into the project, visiting as many renowned landmarks in Europe as possible and writing late into the night while the visions of these places were still dancing in their heads.

After all, only 27 years earlier a version of this concept had worked for Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad, his travelogue describing the experiences of a pair of Americans on a journey from Germany, through the Alps and into Italy.  Steger and Bedichek were quick with the quill, but certainly no equal to Mark Twain, the man whom even William Faulkner called "the father of American literature."

However, even the immortal Twain was no stranger to failure; much of his work reflected on somewhat unsuccessful ventures as a printer, a soldier, a miner, and, of course, a steamboat pilot.  You get the feeling Twain would have lowered his head and nodded knowingly had he seen a penniless Steger and Bedichek scrambling to board a tramp steamer bound for North America. 

Later on, Steger would joke that after the steamer landed in Canada, he hurried down to New York and "shaved at once," but his letters reveal an idealistic writer that had grown fond of a bohemian lifestyle.  Harry went as far as to chide his former traveling companion for conforming far too quickly.

"You have never been seen in San Angelo with a beard; while I, staunch soul that I am, wore mine in New York City and Englewood until a combination of Sampson, Delilah and public opinion wrested it from me," Steger wrote to Bedichek in late December of 1907, almost four months after the two men made it back to America.

It was here that the old UT college roommates truly parted ways.  While Bedichek still had several lean years ahead, Steger settled into a somewhat privileged existence in Englewood, where his Oxford friend who offered a place to stay while he introduced Harry to the inner circle of top publishers.

"This town lies in the lap of gentle hills, far from the clatter of New York," Steger wrote Bedichek of his new abode in New Jersey.  "I am at present Americanizing my manuscripts writ in the air of England and beginning my campaign against the prejudices and envy of American editors.  I have an appointment soon with Phillips, head of the company that publishes The American Magazine."

Henry Watson, editor-in-chief of Dun's Review, happened to be an associate of Hutchings and lived nearby in Englewood.  Almost immediately, the Watsons and Harry became close friends.  Now that he was moving in the right circle, Steger had even met Page of Doubleday, Page & Co.  Harry had lunch with the president of the McClure Newspaper Syndicate, another of the movers and shakers in the publishing world.

"I have the chance of my life right here, and I'm going to take it," Steger accurately predicted in a note to Bedichek.

At the same time, John W. Hopkins, Superintendent of Galveston City Schools was offering Harry $1,500 a year to come teach Latin and German in the Ball School, with the extra incentive that the same contract would be extended to Bedichek should Steger agree to the terms.

"What a cunning rascal Hopkins must be!" Harry exclaimed in the next letter to Bedichek.  "I think Guy Witt must have put him in possession of our inordinate fondness for each other's company."

Keeping all options on the table, Steger told Hopkins that it would take time to correspond with Bedichek in regard to the teaching positions.

Poor finances continued to be the weak link in the chain Harry was assembling, but good friends held his plan together.  Watson, Hutchings and Steger attended the New York Civic Federation annual dinner to listen to Andrew Carnegie speak.  Steger was getting to know Arthur Page, an affable young man about the same age as Harry and the son of Walter H. Page, editor of World's Work and a partner of Doubleday, Page & Company. 

Steger had a novel in the works, several short stories underway, plus a variety of tramp articles.  Friends were starting to hint that Harry should lean on Walter Page.

"I had much rather have his company disinterestedly than resort to machinations whereby, through being his guest at his home here in Englewood, and having him dine with me, I could get him in such a tight place that he would have to squirm in rejecting a manuscript of mine," Harry explained to Bedichek.  "Bedi, the truth of the matter is that I am lonely, lonely as hell.  I had an impetus on reaching here, a super-induced fever of ambition, ordinary soul-killing ambition, a desire to get the better of the other fellow; but the fever has spent itself and I find myself in the midst of people who are steady and constant and purposeful and everything else that is inconvenient and disconcerting to a free man."

Evenings were spent dining with the Watsons or in a private box at the Metropolitan Opera where, as a guest of the New York Director of Grand Opera, Herr Heinrich Conreid, Steger was mesmerized by Boito's Mephistopheles.

On that particular occasion, Harry listened to the Russian bass Chaliapine sing the role of Mephistopheles and Geraldine Farrar sang the part of Margaret.  During intermission he visited with the Duchess of Marlborough.

"No cash profits, however," Harry noted when he relayed the events to Bedichek.

Harry had become acquainted with the Conreid family while recuperating from kidney disease in Austria; Heinrich Conreid's son had invited Harry to join him for a two-week tour of Bohemia.

Other memorable nights found Hutchings and Steger taking in George Bernard Shaw's Candida at the little Berkeley Theatre or Ibsen's Masterbuilder.

He had made it from the world of horse traders circling the Fannin County Courthouse to rubbing shoulders with the world's elite.  As any true son of Fannin County can attest, it is farther from the Steger Opera House and the dirt streets of Bonham to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City than mere miles on any map might indicate. 

So it would seem Harry was doing quite well, wouldn't it? 

"I am doing so well here that I only want you to send me ten dollars," Steger penned Bedichek.

Harry tried to leverage the loan by offering to send, upon receipt of the ten dollars, Fabian pamphlets describing the social democracy movement gaining a foothold among early 20th century British intellectuals. 

Evidently Bedichek was more interested in holding on to the $10 bill than in learning about principals the vanguards of this new movement held dear, because Steger had to ask again.

Although he didn't want to admit it, even to his closest friend, Harry had been forced to accept a job with Frederick Stokes Company that paid a scant $1.50 per day -- once the realization his manuscripts wouldn't sell finally sank in.  To make matters worse, the job necessitated Steger trade the spacious opulence of Hutching's home in Englewood for a lodging house in New York City where he could only afford a hall bedroom.

"Can you possibly send me a money order for ten dollars?" Steger asks Bedichek again.  I can show you how much I need it, if you have forgotten my habitual state.  Really, I have a most pleasant job, literary work and all that; but I am on $10 a week for two months.  Stokes have my London record with the Express and expect me daily to flee.  This job necessitates clean linen, etc.  The cold weather has caught me drawers-less, two-pair-socked, two-shirted (over), one-suited, un-overcoated, three-shirted (under), one-pair-shod.  I have held off you as long as I can.  Particulars of work if you wish them.  I still hold option on Galveston."

Harry had no one else to turn to; his father was also facing financial duress.

"My low state of pocket is due to the petitions of the man who sent me that soul-saving money order at Quebec," Steger explains to Bedichek.  "He is now hard up and has asked me for $80.  I have sent him thirty, which leaves me two in my possession."

But then, there is always the offer to teach school, Harry reminds Bedichek.

"And Galveston!" Steger writes Bedichek.  "Ever before me as a soft spot on which a fallen angel may rearrange his halo.  God is indeed good.  I like God.  I was speaking to Jesus about him just last night."

Previous Steger articles: