Illustration by Doug Skinner

As my astute readers know, "outsider" art is now big business. Many an entrepreneur has cleaned up by stockpiling canvases from some toothless psycho in Nowhere, Alabama. And why not? It beats the tepid fare in Soho storefronts. Outsider literature, however, has less cachet (hardly surprising, given our dirtball culture's contempt for the written word). Spurred by this shameful neglect, I've collected and catalogued this material for years; I hope to use this column to lay out some of my finds.

Before we dive into the bay of weirdness rippling so invitingly before us, I'd like to pause for a couple of points: first, to salute my precursors; second, to define my area of interest. The Surrealists were the first to examine seriously the output of the insane. Besides touting asylum paintings, they publicized such writers as Jean-Pierre Brisset and Raymond Roussel. (Brisset was a station guard who thought that men descended from frogs, that French was the original language, and that the origins of most words can be traced to demands for oral sex; Roussel was a highly eccentric millionaire whose hallucinatory novels were written by obsessive linguistic processes concealed from the reader.) The great French novelist and essayist Raymond Queneau scoured the Bibliotheque Nationale for "fou litteraires"(literary madmen) in the '30s, and Belgian poet Andre Blavier later followed his example. The American fringe has been chronicled by Martin Gardner and Ivan Stang. Dudley Underwood's delightful Mathematical Cranks covered the math beat, and Donna Kossy put out the newsletter "Kooks" (now a book and a website).

They all made fine contributions, but there is still so much to be done - especially given the volume and obscurity of the material. There are so many dedicated, misguided scribblers out there; we must not let their life's work be lost.

My particular affinity is for the solitary crank. There are, of course, gregarious wackos - our society is studded with a bewildering variety of cults and subcultures, many of them delectable. But for me, nothing beats a lone nut.

I'll never forget, for example, that idle day in San Diego when I came face to face with James Battell's Ellen, or the Whisperings of an Old Pine, from 1901 - an 800 page novel in which a young woman and an old pine tree debate the author's idiosyncratic theories of physics and acoustics, illustrated with snapshots of Vermont landscapes. Or the day a cashier in Buffalo laid before me Frank Noah's Great Abstruse Authors - a 1927 gem that claims (among other things) that Samuel Clemens wrote the works of Balzac, Goethe, Hugo, Poe, and Meyerbeer; and argues it by anagramming passages from Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Or that evening in San Francisco when I found Carl Wahlstrom's Ecliptic Spectral Philosophy - a 1965 treatise that applies occult philosophy to the design of Air Force training illustrations.

The best of these volumes offer beliefs so outlandish they redefine our conceptual boundaries. They take the brain places where it shouldn't really wander without a guide rail. At my editor's request, I'll start with H.H. Hyder.

I discovered Hyder's masterwork at a book sale in Manhattan. There, peering up at me from a cluttered table, lay a battered volume with this gilded title: H. H. Hyder's Double Golden Chains With Blazing Diamonds STRUNG. That sounded promising, so I leafed through it. Within seconds, I was hooked.

Henry Hampton Hyder was born in 1825 in Tennessee. He was raised in Illinois, where he became an orphan at ten. After years of dreary labor, he made his way back to Tennessee - with no job, no family, no friends, and no education. He worked as a millwright (look it up) and carpenter, then married the fascinating Sallie Massengill and moved to her family's farm in Green County.

He kept working until 1884, when his health finally broke. He took to his bed, convinced he was dying. One night, he had an experience that changed his life - either an intensely vivid dream, a religious vision, or what we would now call a Near Death Experience. He got a glimpse of the Eternal and saw the universe spread out vast and sparkling before him.

He recovered from his illness, but never forgot that night. For the next four years, he poured out an epic poem about it. It eventually spanned 150 pages and was published in 1889 with this magnificent title page: The Double Golden Chains with Blazing Diamonds Strung, by H. H. Hyder, Piney Flats, Tennessee. Embraces four fundamental subjects which the author term Chains, as follows: Roan Mountain, Space and Time, God's Existence and Beyond the River with Conclusion. Perfectly Original.

Unfortunately, Hyder didn't really have the training for such an ambitious project. Although his poem is cut into five sections, it thunders along with no apparent organization, veering at will between his pet topics - his poetic aspirations, his failure to realize them, and the hugeness of the universe - with occasional digressions into theology and prohibition.

In naive attempt to sound impressive, he lards his verses with long words, often misused or meaningless. Let's have a few examples:

It would lengthen my precontemplating reign,
And help me my delucidations to explain.
It would fertilize my mystic anthology
to sketch my troubadourmonodiology. (p. 31)

He that can my deep alpitoancies sound,
Could measure the whirling anemogroplies around;
Who could break Time's mystic apocalyptic seal
And her wonder consignificative reveal.
Who is he that does plumatology possess
My views with magniloquent word to express?
(pp. 14-15)

What on earth is "super-pre-consubstation"(p.37)? What make something "poly-chro-symophonious"(p.29)? And how is Chaos's night "endos-permo-goni-umized"? Whatever these words mean, they do lend sparkle to his couplets. They must be the "blazing diamonds"of the title.

He alternates these noisy effects with declarations of unaffected simplicity:

Would man but humble himself to take off his shoes,
He could see God in the burning bush if he'd choose. (p. 68)

Limitless space is all out of doors,
And has no canopy, neither has it floors.
It remains so unlimited and wide
That it has neither top, bottom, nor side (p. 108)

And so he goes on, rolling out his "sesquipedalian thoughts,"in a deeply felt and determined struggle to put into words a religious ecstacy poets have been trying to capture for centuries. He did his damnedest, but the odds were against him.

It's a pity Hyder has remained unknown. His book probably never made it past a few puzzled neighbors and disapproving in-laws. It's an unusual performance, a literary equivalent of those Bible gardens and home-cobbled castles that enliven our small towns. He deserves to be remembered, and (dare I say it?) to be read. So let's give him the last word:

In my eager surprise I was trying to behold
God's deathless, sapphire gemmed city of
burnished gold.

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