Low Man On A Totem Pole
Partial Front Cover 


Low Man On A Totem Pole*



Fred Allen

THE BOOK you hold in your hand is the work of H. Allen Smith. It is published by Doubleday, Doran. Doubleday and Doran are enthusiastic about Mr Smith's book. But if Doubleday and Doran knew Mr Smith their enthusiasm would indeed be tested.

Mr Smith is no harbinger of humdrum. Mr Smith is no oracle of the orthodox. Mr Smith hangs many strange portraits in his gallery of fantastic people. To Mr Smith the world is a seething psychopathic ward, his fellow man just a pore-spattered husk that is concealing a story from Mr Smith.

To Mr Smith, the biographer who profiles the drab tycoon and the celebrity of the hour jousts with the trite. To Mr Smith, it is the little man, the neurotic nonentity, the tattered extrovert, the riff and raff whose lives are important. To those who slink through life fraught with insignificance he dedicates his pen. Mr Smith is the screwballs' Boswell.1

Who is this jetsam journalist H. Allen Smith? Longfellow wrote: "The smith, a mighty man is he." Longfellow gave no initials. The mighty smith couldn't have been H. Allen.

Nothing of Smith's was among the trivia buried in the Time Capsule at the World's Fair.

Ripley's records show that Smith has never gone over Niagara Falls in a beer firkin.

Smith has never thrown a forward pass that enabled Notre Dame to beat Army, or vice versa.

Who's Who lists several Smiths:

Smith, Adam, 1723-90. Scottish economist, lecturer on rhetoric and belles-lettres.

Smith, John, 1580-1631. American colonist. As Captain John this Smith gained some renown. An Indian girl, one Pocohontas, terminated a tribal peccadillo that involved Captain John from the neck up.

Smith, Brothers. Anticough crusaders. Popularized the snood-shaped beard and a licorice pellet to fend off coryza.

Smith, college for women, Northampton, Mass. H. Allen Smith has nothing to do with this.

Smith, Al, 1873_. American political leader. In 19362 gave practical demonstration of pedestrianism.

No, Who's Who makes no mention of H. Allen Smith. The Manhattan telephone directory lists four pages of Smiths. H. Allen is not among them. Who, then, is H. Allen Smith?

I have walked with H. Allen Smith. I know him like a book. It has been embarrassing knowing Smith like a book. I have caught myself several times making notes on his tongue so that I might refer back to some brilliant flight of fancy Smith has tossed off in casual conversation. As the man who knows Smith I have been asked to take him apart and see what makes him tick. If I get Smith apart my work done. I shall make no effort to reassemble him. H. Allen Smith will be the first American author to go down to posterity in pieces.

He is a little man. He might be a midget who forgot himself and overgrew a few inches. Physically, Smith is a waste of skin. He weighs about one hundred and ten pounds with his bridgework in and the complete works of Dale Carnegie under each arm. There isn't enough meat on him to glut a baby buzzard. At a cannibals' buffet Smith would be hors d'oeuvre. Jo Davison could sculpt Smith in a pebble and have enough stone left over to gravel the bottom of a bird cage.

Organically, Smith is complete with heart, lungs, appendix and routine accessories. His legs have no calves and appear to be two swans' necks that have been starched. His arms dangle from their pits like two limp buggy whips from which his fingers sprout at the ends, looking like five scallion shoots.

Smith's face, which seems to be receding (from what, I am not prepared to say), hangs down from his hair and rests on his Adam's apple.

If Smith were an Indian he would be low man on any totem pole. His epidermis boasts no incision, birthmark, wart or tattoo display. As a mural Smith would be pretty dull. His complexion is a sort of sloppy pastel. When he flushes he turns the color of a meerschaum pipe that has been smoked twice. If Smith passed you in a Turkish bath (which is improbable) you wouldn't turn around. You would simply look at him and shrug your sheet.

Smith, sartorially, baffles description. He is at once the despair of the tailor and the moth. His overcoat appears to be a tight Inverness with mess-jacket sleeves. His hat is felt at a disadvantage. Even the tiny feather that juts from his hatband seems to be moulting. His suit is a rhapsody in rummage. The coat cascades from his clavicle and sort of peters out north of his sacral plexus. The horizontal wrinkles in the cloth give one the impression that Smith is standing behind a tweed Venetian blind. His vest hangs down like a cloth noose. At first glance it appears to be a sarong with no sense of direction. His Elk's tooth has a cavity in it. His trousers bag from the hips down. From the front they look like herringbone funnels. In profile you find they are butt sprung and sag in the back like cloth jowls. Smith's haberdashery is the talk of surrealist circles. His necktie is a cross between a hawser that comes with a toy boat and three feet of twine in technicolor. His shoes can only be described as leather figments of a demented cobbler's imagination. In general appearance Smith can only be saluted as Saroyan's conception of a white-collar worker.

From tender infancy Smith has been an early riser. He sleeps so little that Morpheus barely knows him by sight. When he dreams he only has time for a synopsis. He was the first man to discover that you can cut a sleeping pill in half and enjoy a nap.

He eats as sparingly as he sleeps. A calorie, or two, constitutes a hearty breakfast. Einstein reduced Vitamin B-1 to B-½ to accommodate Smith. As a result of his infrequent eating Smith's teeth have become hypersensitive. He seldom uses a toothpick unless it has been warmed to the temperature of his gums.

As he stands today, Smith doesn't imbibe. He has nothing against alcohol, save that it arouses in his breast an urge to fly kites in two-room apartments. He smokes incessantly and is forever borrowing cigarettes and matches. Whenever he finds himself destitute of matches he creates fire by rubbing two Boy Scouts together.

His hobbies have been many and variegated. Until his eyes went bad his hobby was reading the literature printed on small breakfast-food boxes. With the exception of two bran barons and a nearsighted housewife in Jersey City, Smith at one time was the only man living who knew the vital information those flake sarcophagi held.

His current hobby is reading quickly. If a story in Liberty3 specifies: "Reading Time, 12 minutes," Smith will read it in five and save seven minutes. Last year the minutes saved reading Liberty stories under par added up to six days and enabled Smith to enjoy almost an extra week on his vacation (which he spent practicing). In a recent speed-reading exhibition Smith sat in a dark room, and a news photographer set off a flashlight bulb. During the ensuing split second of glare Smith read an entire "My Day"4 column and got halfway through Pegler5.

He has many other part-time hobbies. He enjoys looking at people who are looking at excavations. He stands in long lines outside of movie theaters and, at the crucial moment, doesn't go in. Displayed prominently in his study is an old-fashioned chamber pot (with handle) which bears the sign: "I'm going to get this full of money."

As for his work: By profession H. Allen Smith is a newspaperman. By choice he is a biographer to the dispensable man. His routine work on the paper is essentially a side line. On his way to cover an assignment Smith's beady eyes will fluoroscope his immediate vicinity. His nose samples each breeze for a chance scent of interview fodder. Doorways are scanned, alleys are rummaged, manhole covers are tilted_just in case.

Smith never knows where his next screwball is coming from. The world is his laboratory, the human race his clinic, the nearest disciple of monomania's story his immediate concern. He will walk twenty miles to hear a cliché_and frequently does. If there is one man in the world who knows how the other half lives (which half escapes me at the moment) and writes about it that man is H. Allen Smith.

Any similarity between the Smith taken apart in the preceding paragraphs and the author of this book is purely incidental. If this cameo were to appear in a digest magazine brevity and honesty would reduce an assay of Mr Smith to these simple facts:

He deals in legends of strange men and women.

He is gainfully employed on the staff of the New York World-Telegram.

He is a feature writer of renown.

He is known as one of the best rewrite men rampant in the newspaper world today.

He is happily married and the father of two children.

He is a good man.

His first name is Harry.

He has written a book I am sure you will enjoy. If you want to curl up with a good book start curling and turn this page.


*Reprinted from Low Man On A Totem Pole Copyright © 1941 by H. Allen Smith.

Back to page top

WebPost Footnotes:

1_ James Boswell, author/biographer 1740-1795.
2_ Al Smith, 1928 democratic presidential nominee supported republican nominee in 1936.
3_ Liberty Magazine, published May 1924-July 1950.
4_ "My Day", Eleanor Roosevelt's syndicated daily newspaper column published 1935-1962.
5_ Westbrook Pegler, journalist/columnist 1894-1969.


This page has been viewed times since July 14, 2020.

Version 1.2 W.A. Haugen
Last Modified: July 14, 2020.
Origination date of page July 14, 2020.
Back To H. Allen Smith Main Page
Back To H. Allen Smith Book List

If you have comments or suggestions, please email me at whaugen@flash.net