THE GINGER MAN LETTERS
"When I'm dead, I hope it may be said: his sins were scarlet, but his books were read."

J.P. Donleavy
THE GINGER MAN LETTERS
A review by David Hartzheim – The J.P. Donleavy Compendium

Kudos to editor Bill Dunn for taking on The Ginger Man Letters project and spending the many hours it took to put the book together. Being Donleavy’s archivist and a close friend for many years, there could not be a more qualified and dedicated soul to take on such an endeavour, the proof being this masterfully compiled look into the personal, early life of man of many talents, J.P. Donleavy, and cohorts Gainor Steven Crist (the model for much of Sebastian Dangerfield – protagonist in The Ginger Man) and A.K. Donoghue, (from whom the character Kenneth O’Keefe is partly drawn.)

The Ginger Man Letters begins before the publication of The Ginger Man when the working title was SD (Sebastian Dangerfield). Poverty and the strength to carry on despite it is the common denominator among the three men. Donleavy writes to Crist,

“My situation has not improved- it is a little clearer and slightly more impoverished. I am trying too live on eighty five cents a day in the back of a shop at the above address.” (in Boston). The complete letter is signed Guts, the moniker chosen by Donleavy throughout much of the correspondence.

It takes only a few letters to get hooked. I am a slow reader but being so intrigued I finished the book in one sitting and have since read it a second time enjoying it as much as the first. The Ginger Man Letters is a perfect companion to Donleavv’s autobiographical book The History of The Ginger Man. The book is sadly out of print but good copies can be found on the ABE Books website and eBay.

The Ginger Man titled then SD was shopped to dozens of publishers, many of them passing out of fear of litigation for obscenity. It would be years before Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Nabakov’s Lolita and The Ginger Man would win their legal battles to no longer be labeled pornography. Few of today’s writers know that the freedoms they enjoy over content in their work was afforded them by a pioneering few who fought to get bans lifted and make their work available to the general public.

The Ginger Man was finally published in France in 1955 by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press. Olympia offered a respectable literary catalog to which Donleavy expected to be included. Instead, Girodias publish Donleavy’s book in his pornographic Traveler’s Companion series along with titles such as: School For Sin and Tender Was My Flesh. Enraged, Donleavy swore:

“My solemn declaration was made aloud. I would, if it were the last thing I ever did, redeem and avenge this work that I’d put my very life into writing.”

The Ginger Man Letters chronicles Donleavy’s fight for control of his writings. His legal battles with Girodias over copyright went on for years.

Poverty dogged him after the Olympia publication of The Ginger Man. At one point Crist writes Donleavy asking for some copies of the book. Donleavy’s reply 40A Broughton Rd, Fulham, London S.W.6 September 14, 1955 states that Donleavy has only 4 copies and 3 are loaned out to trade businessmen and upon return will go out again. Neither he nor Crist could afford to buy retail copies.

O’ Donohue was equally plagued by money woes. He tried his hand at poetry receiving some success and considerable encouragement from Donleavy. Alas, as with most fledgling poets, the poems did not provide sustenance. One snippet of his writing goes:

God is a child
Therefore not mild

The Ginger Man Letters is a must read for anyone interested in J.P. Donleavy, an amazing opportunity to peer into the inner workings of the author of The Ginger Man – a modern classic never out of print and selling more than 45 million copies around the world.

Included is a memoir by Gainor Crist’s daughter, Mariana, fondly remembering her father.

Deep thanks is to publisher Antony Farrell at The Lilliput Press, Ireland for giving Donleavy fans and those wishing to learn about the trials and triumphs of this masterful and important writer with a handsome hardcover first edition. The Ginger Man Letters is available directly from the publisher The Lilliput Press, Ireland's Leading Independent Publisher and at fine book stores.

- David Hartzheim
Creator and administrator
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Editor, Bill Dunn
JP Donleavy at work on The Ginger Man