Wadsworth Camp Revisited

I’m happy to know someone besides me is writing about Charles Wadsworth Camp, even if it was three years ago and I just found it yesterday.

Here’s a review by Mary Reed of  Camp’s novel, The Abandoned Room, courtesy of The Mystery File.

And in case you missed it, here are the results, so far, of my research. It’s not enough for the Master’s thesis I was hoping to write, but I’m still looking for more.

The Charles Wadsworth Camp Mystery


Passport photo of Charles Wadsworth Camp

The following is an edited collection of my various blog entries on Charles Wadsworth Camp, all brought together in one place for easier access. The “mystery” lies in this question: Is Charles Wadsworth Camp’s minimal internet presence due to lack of interest in his work, or is the lack of interest due to his minimal internet presence?

“No one,” the doctor answered, “can say what psychic force is capable of doing. Some scientists have started to explore, but it is still uncharted country.”  – from The Abandoned Room, By Wadsworth Camp (1879 – 1936)

Why is there almost no biographical information about Charles Wadsworth Camp on the internet? Almost all references to Mr. Camp appear in the numerous biographies of his famous daughter, Madeleine L’Engle. But Camp was also a writer. There are movies based on his work. His books are available for purchase in both used and new editions. The ebook versions range from free to 96¢, and some of his novels are freely accessable online.

Camp’s The Abandoned Room (Public Domain) is a little gem of a murder mystery with supernatural overtones. The story is briskly paced, for the most part, with a sustained  atmosphere of spookiness.  The denouement is no less satisfying than many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures. The Gray Mask is a fun crime serial, part Dick Tracey and part Green Hornet.

Charles Wadsworth Camp, also known as simply Wadsworth Camp, was born on October 18, 1879 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and died on October 30, 1936 in Jacksonville, Florida. This intrigues me because I live in Jacksonville, and it is my intention to find out exactly where Mr. Camp lived and if he wrote any of his novels or articles while residing here.

I sent an email to the Madeleine L’Engle website. After all, L’Engle’s parents were Wadsworth Camp and Madeleine Hall Barnett, and, although L’Engle passed away in 2007, maybe the mangers of her web site can fill me in. Maybe they are even planning a big Wadsworth Camp publicity campaign, even as I write this, which will make my research moot. Maybe my email will inspire them to initiate a big publicity campaign. See, that’s one of the problems with research. It’s like when scientists try to observe the position of a sub-atomic particle, the very act of observing the particle changes it’s position.

The reply from L’Engle’s web site came back the next day, “Bill, we are not aware of any resources online about Mr. Camp. Sorry. Thanks for your interest.”

Continuing my web search, I found some vital information in a New Yorker profile of Madeleine L’Engle, written by Cynthia Zarin, which gives us the spectacle of an alligator climbing up the steps of L’Engle’s Florida home before she moves to New York and lives in an apartment below Leonard Bernstein.

“Madeleine L’Engle Camp was born in 1918 in New York City, the only child of Madeleine Hall Barnett, of Jacksonville, Florida, and Charles Wadsworth Camp, a Princeton man and First World War veteran, whose family had a big country place in New Jersey, called Crosswicks. In Jacksonville society, the Barnett family was legendary: Madeleine’s grandfather, Bion Barnett, the chairman of the board of Jacksonville’s Barnett Bank, had run off with a woman to the South of France, leaving behind a note on the mantel.” – from Cynthia Zarin’s profile of Madeleine L’Engle in The New Yorker.

Zarin goes on to say, “Madeleine found Florida stultifying and surreal. “One afternoon, she watched an alligator pick its way up the porch steps.”

She’s lucky she wasn’t here in Florida during the vote recount/hanging-chad debacle, which was stultifying, surreal, and felt like an alligator creeping ever closer.

I hold in my hand the official death certificate of Charles Wadsworth Camp. The trade/profession section contains the one word I can only hope will appear someday on mine: Writer.

According to this document, a Dr. E. C. Swift attended the ailing author from Octber 29th until his death at 1:40 PM on October 31st, 1936. This differs from what I found online at sites like IMDb, which always list his last day as October 30. Could it be that he or a member of his family wanted to avoid any mention of Halloween?

The cause of death is blocked out, but only because I’m not a member of the family, and we know that Camp died from pneumonia at age 57. The most common story is that Camp’s lungs were already weakened by mustard gas during WWI, leaving him especially vulnerable to respiratory disease. But the April 14, 2004 issue of the New Yorker features a profile of Camp’s daughter, author Madeleine L’Engle, in which a member of Camp’s family tells Cynthia Zarin, “(Camp) used to smoke Rameses cigarettes… he used to drink a lot…Uncle Charles was not ailing in his life. He was a big, handsome man in a white linen suit smoking cigarettes on the porch and drinking whiskey. He was a favorite of my mother’s, and she was a talker, and she never mentioned anything about him being gassed in the war.” This strikes me as a very weak argument that Camp’s medical problems were related to anything other than mustard gas. For one thing, many people choose not to talk at great length about war experiences.  An off-hand remark by a relative that their mother didn’t talk about Camp’s war-time brush with mustard gas it doesn’t make it untrue. And a lot more people smoked cigarettes in those days, and millions of people drink whiskey.

Charles Wadsworth Camp

Camp’s novel “The Gray Mask” was first published as a serial in Collier’s magazine in 1915. Evergreen Cemetery in Jacksonville, FL is the resting place for Charles Wadsworth Camp and his wife, Madeleine Barnett Camp.

Camp’s residence is listed as “Red Gables” at Jacksonville Beach, Florida. It says that he had lived in this area for three years before his death, which means he probably did not write any of his mystery books here, but he was also a critic and an editor, so it’s possible that he did some work in Jacksonville.

The following is a cropped section of an image I found in an excellent ebook called World’s Finest Beach by Donald J. Mabry (used by permission). Mr. Mabry informs me that the phone book listing is dated incorrectly and should actually say 1936. This explained why only Mrs. C. W. Camp is listed, as 1936 is the year Camp died.

Jacksonville Beach 1938 - 1936 Directory

And thanks to the Beaches Area Historical Society at Jacksonville Beach, Florida, for these photos of the Red Gables “beach cottage” where Charles Wadsworth Camp lived out his final years. At the next opportunity I will drive to the spot where Red Gables once stood, find out what’s there now, and hopefully find a few local beach people who remember the place.

Red Gables

”Illyria” or Red Gables beach cottage built by Mrs. William Johnson L’Engle on ocean front (a section of 1st Street). The photo is property of the Beaches Area Historical Society.

On January 7, 2010, someone named W. Orth made an excellent suggestion in the comment section of one of my blog entries, “Some biographical material can be found in Madeleine L’Engle’s book Summer of the Great Grandmother, written primarily about her mother, although including info about her father as well. L’Engle’s other non-fiction works include info about her parents via stories of her own growing-up years.”

I’ve considered myself a Madeleine L’Engle fan since I first read A Wrinkle In Time as a 10 year old in the 1960s, but only recently have I come to appreciate L’Engle’s formidable abiltity to address serious issues like life and death in prose that is both simple and profound.

Thanks to a comment by W. Orth on my last Wadsworth Camp installment, I have discovered the wonderful world of  The Crosswicks Journals, which consists of the following four autobiographical books by Madeleine L’Engle:

I read Summer of the Great-Grandmother first. It is actually the 2nd book in the list. The “great-grandmother” in the title is Madeleine L’Engle’s 90 year old mother, the great-grandmother of L’Engle’s grandchildren. The “summer” refers to a time when all four generations were gatherd together in the large Connecticut farmhouse known as Crosswicks, the home of Madeleine and her actor husband, Hugh Franklin. It’s a moving and honestly human account by L’Engle about caring for her mother, a once-brilliant and adventerous woman in the throes of advancing senility.

Now I’m reading A Circle of Quiet. Years ago, in a creative writing class, we read excerpts from this book. I had almost forgotten about it, but the wit and wisdom must have entered my subconcious mind. It feels like I’m picking up where I left off with an old friend. A Circle of Quiet may very well be one of my favorite books of all time. You don’t have to be an aspiring writer to enjoy the book, and it can be enjoyed by children, teenagers, or adults.

One thing I admire about L’Engle is that, according to Donald Hettinga in Christianity Today, “(L’Engle) has been perceived as too worldly by some conservative Christian audiences and too dogmatically Christian by some secular audiences . . . Ministers preach sermons against her; books and articles denounce her and any Christians who evaluate her work favorably or even evenly; librarians in Christian schools and churches handle her books as though they carried dangerous heresies, sometimes relegating them to back shelves where patrons must ask specifically for them, and sometimes banning them altogether.”

I can’t recall reading anything by L’Engle that seemed remotely dogmatic. In the book I’m reading, for example, she says, “The artist’s response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, not to impose restrictive rules but to rejoice in pattern and meaning, for there is something in all artists which rejects coincidence and accident.” That almost sounds like a William S. Burroughs sentiment.

L’Engle is not afraid to express doubt, nor does she downplay the importance of common sense and and mental health science to get through a hard time. She was apparently the way I imagine Maud Newton to be, although I don’t know if Maud would approve of that statement.

But this blog entry is supposed to be about Wadsworth Camp, so let me move on to Mister C.

In The Summer of the Great-grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle tells us that her mother, Madeleine Hall Barnett and her father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, were married in Jacksonville, Florida and went to nearby Saint Augustine for a brief honeymoon, where they stayed at the Ponce de Leon hotel. They then moved to New York, where Camp worked as a newspaper reporter, writing reviews of plays, operas, and concerts. Camp dressed elegantly every evening, whether he was eating dinner at home or taking the horse-drawn trolley a theater or concert hall. Many of their friends were msuicians.

L’Engle tells this story:

“One hot summer evening, long before I was born, (my mother) walked through the hall and glanced at the etching of Castle Conway and said, ‘Oh, Charles (Camp), it’s so hot. I wish we could go to Castle Conway,’ ‘Come on!’ he cried, and swept her out of the house without toothbrush or change of clothes, and into a taxi, and by midnight they were on a ship sailing across the Atlantic. In those days a trip could be as spontaneous as that. My parents were not poor, but neither were they, by today’s standards, affluent. Father was a playwright and journalist, and their pocketbook waned and swelled like the moon; this must have been one of the full-moon cycles.”

My research on Charles Wadsworth Camp will continue. For now, in honor of Jacksonville Beach, here is another quote from Madeleine L’Engle:

If I frequently use the analogy of the underwater area of our minds, it may be because the ocean is so strong a part of my childhood memories, and of my own personal mythology. If I am away from the ocean for long, I get a visceral longing for it. It was at the ocean that I first went outdoors at night and saw the stars. I must have been very little, but I will never forget being held in someone’s arms – Mother’s, Father’s, Dearma’s, someone I loved and trusted enough so that all I remember is being held, and seeing the glory of the night sky over the ocean. – Excerpt from The Summer of the Great-grandmother (1974, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Chapter 8, by Madeleine L’Engle