Taken from Nicholas Shakespeare’s epilogue to Viva Mexico by Charles Flandrau
THE echoed sob of history. Coming to the final paragraph of Viva Mexico! one reader – a commuter from Pittsburgh – was stung to his own tears. “It was just so good that I had to have a good cry about it.” He was crying for pleasure, but the life of the author can also provoke a lachrymose response.
For most of it Charles Flandrau sought the same obscurity that his reputation has received since. If there was anything foppish about him, it was located in his fear of failure. “America’s most reprehensible loafer,” was the verdict of the New York Times when contemplating the modesty of Flandrau’s output. “His greatest book was the one he never wrote,” was the judgement of the Saint Paul Daily News. Flandrau’s view of himself was as stringent. “I always think that everything I have written is rotten.” Once, at New York’s Harvard Club – named after the university which had so unfit him for life – he was accosted by a tipsy alumni.
“Are you the Flandrau who wrote a lousy book?”
“I am a Flandrau who wrote five lousy books.”
About one of them, Viva Mexico!, he was wrong. Over eighty years on, despite numerous challenges, it remains where the critic Alexander Woollcott placed it when he applied the words “the best travel book written by an American”.
Charles Macomb Flandrau was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1871, in a house which became the bar of the Metropolitan Hotel. His father was a wealthy lawyer whose happiest eleven years had been spent as an Indian agent. In New Ulm’s Main Street, Colonel Flandrau situated a barrel of whisky laced with strychnine. He had marked it poison in several languages – except Dakotan. He meant the barrel for the Indians, but worrying that illiterate soldiers might get there first, he dumped it. He didn’t get on with his son.