Why Few Of Us Are “Normal” Human Beings (And That’s A Good Thing)

According To Writer Donald Henderson Clarke, Normal Human Beings Are A Rare Breed

Man of the world bookDonald Henderson Clarke (1887-1958) enjoyed telling a good story. Clarke was able to accomplish that as a successful reporter for many New York newspapers including The New York World, New York Times, and the New York American. After his newspaper stint from 1907 through the 1920s, Clarke began writing books and screenplays which made him a tidy sum.

Born to a wealthy New England family, Clarke lived the life of a bon vivant, but always held a fascination for the underbelly of life. Besides writing about the famous and newsworthy, Clarke spent quite a bit of time with bootleggers, gangsters and prostitutes. Out of nowhere in his autobiography, Man of the World: Recollections of an Irreverent Reporter, 1951, Vanguard Press, Clarke makes an astute observation about the human condition.

64 years after this was written, this timeless description of normalcy and humanity still strikes a strong chord. Clarke’s quirky style comprises the longest run-on sentence I’ve read by a journalist, but I’ll forgive him the run-on, because he is right on the mark.

Good, normal human beings are a rarity, and we all should be thankful for that. They are dull, monotonously successful, exasperatingly even-keeled, always in good health. Of course, they should not be called normal.

Most human beings suffer from anxieties, worries, fears, suppressed desires, regrets for past sins, secret yearnings for future sins, aches, pains, toothaches, flat feet, ingrowing toe nails, body odors, hair in the wrong places, too little hair in the right places; they are too short or too tall or too plump or too lean; they wish they were married, wish they were unmarried, wish they could have a successful careers, are bored silly with successful careers, wish they had children, wish their children would hurry up and get married, wish their children would never marry, are afraid of hell, are afraid of the dark, are afraid of poverty, wish their noses were different, wish they were in society, are bored with society, wish they could know actors and actresses, wish they could get away from actors and actresses, shoot and poison their husbands, shoot and cut the throats of their wives, make love to the cook, make love to the chauffeur, talk virtue and think of vice, howl because Rossellini and Bergman have a baby without benefit of clergy – and wish they could be Bergmans or Rossellinis.

The average human being is full of imperfections which make him-her interesting. When the imperfections lead to explosions small or large, it makes the kind of news I like – the sort of news that reveals the human being for what he is – mortal and finite but clinging desperately to the idea that he is immortal and infinite; possessing nothing, no matter if he has millions of dollars, but soothing his fears with the false idea that he has possessions.

He is suddenly gone. Nothing is more ridiculous than the carcass left behind, unless it be the strangely patterned bits of cloth and leather with which he or she concealed that carcass from view. The discarded garments of one suddenly dead look tiny and silly.

Where did the spirit flit? Even several Christians will not give you the same answer. It depends on the particular belief of the particular Christian. Mohammedans will tell you Paradise, where warriors will have a bevy of houris to amuse them. Other religions, whose followers outnumber Christians, will give you other answers.

No human being ever went wherever it is and came back to tell about it in plain, everyday language. That would be one big, important, serious newspaper story I would like to cover.

The reference to director Roberto Rossellini and actress Ingrid Bergman was written soon after the director and actress who were married to other people, fell in love with each other and had a child out of wedlock.

This one section of the book in which Clarke explains the human condition is atypical of the rest of his memoir.

Clarkes’ memories of Park Row, the center of New York’s newspaper world at the turn of the century make for breezy reading. A good portion of the book is full of sketches related to a vanished brand of journalism with fascinating portraits of the newspaper business featuring editors and reporters now long forgotten. His stories of New York’s lowlife will resonate with anyone who wants to know about illicit fields and the criminal element in the first half of the 20th century. While Clarke writes freely about gambler Arnold Rothstein and famed lawyer William J. Fallon, he does not use the real names of many of the questionable people he writes about. Mostly because Gangster-Bootlegger and Pickpocket Number One as he refers to two of his subjects, were still living when he wrote the book. It leaves one wondering who many of these people were. Barring that slight annoyance, Clarke’s out-of-print autobiography is worth ordering online or searching for if you are browsing at a used book store.

3 thoughts on “Why Few Of Us Are “Normal” Human Beings (And That’s A Good Thing)

  1. Jeff Conner

    Thanks for the recommendations, B.P. I will for sure check them out. I catch an old TCM film that’s based on a novel that’s unknown to me, I will try to track it down. Sometimes the films are faithful adaptations, other times they might just take section of the book for exploitation, and sometimes the source material is just an “inspiration,” supplying little more than character names and a general theme or setting. The 1933 pre-Code film I Cover The Waterfront is a good example of the latter. The actual book by San Diego-based reporter Max Miller is a collection of vignettes (probably adapted from columns), not one of which relates to the final film (except for setting, of course). Not sure how the hit song of the same name figures into it but the wiki reveals that it too was inspired by the book (I don’t think it qualifies as a “novel,” but was bestseller none the less, for reasons which, after having read Miller’s tome, continue to elude me), and was added to the film at the last minute. So I guess it was “a thing” at the time.

  2. Jeff Conner

    I have just finished reading Clarke’s autobiography, and the passage you quote struck me as it did you. The book is a fast read and left me wanting more stories from the classic “Park Row” era of journalism. I picked up the title based on Clarke having adapted his own 1929 novel (based on fact), LOUIS BERETTI, for director John Ford. Released under the title BORN RECKLESS (1930), the film played TCM a few months ago, and stars Edmond Lowe and Catherine Dale Owen, and features the great Lee Tracy. I have a few other Clarke titles, such as THE IMPATIENT VIRGIN, and THE HOUSEKEEPER’S DAUGHTER (there seems to be a theme here), which was also adapted to film. Haven’t read them yet, but looking forward to enjoying them.

    1. B.P. Post author

      Thanks for your comment Jeff. I love watching those early Hollywood interpretations of lesser known 1920s and 30s books. Thank goodness for TCM. And as you say Clarke turned out quite a few screenplays as did many of his New York newspaper contemporaries, including Brooklyn Eagle columnist Rian James who wrote the screenplay to the classic 42nd Street, just one of his 39 Hollywood credits.

      If you want a good read about the whole Park Row era, I recommend Allen Churchill’s Park Row A Vivid Recreation of Turn of the Century Newspaper Days, 1958 Rinehart & Co. Also New Yorker columnist St. Clair McKelway’s True Tales From The Annals of Crime and Rascality, 1950 Random House or the recent compilation of McKelway’s writing Reporting At Wit’s End, 2010 Bloomsbury.


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