Literary Detective Details Sousa's Other Talent

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript

The music of the late American composer John Philip Sousa still fuels patriotic fervor. But did you know Sousa wrote novels, too? Literary detective Paul Collins unearths The Fifth String and other works of fiction.


This week of the Independence Day holiday, many of us have heard a lot of John Philip Sousa. But there's more. It turns out that the man known as "The March King" was also a late-life novelist who wrote books with the titles "The Transit of Venus" and "Pipetown Sandy."

We wouldn't have known this except our literary detective turned it up, Paul Collins, the man who uncovers these gems. He joins us as usual from Portland, Oregon.

Thanks very much for being with us, Paul.

Professor PAUL COLLINS (English, Portland State University): Oh, it's good to be here.

SIMON: Now, how did you find John Philip Sousa's novels? Because you go through his biographies it's almost not mentioned.

Prof. COLLINS: Yeah. I was actually in an antiquarian bookstore in San Francisco on Geary Boulevard and just picking through a random pile of books and I saw one had John Philip Sousa on the front. And my first reaction was, surely not that John Philip Sousa and started looking through it and sure enough it was him.

SIMON: Hmm. His first book was called the "Fifth String," right?

Prof. COLLINS: That's right. It actually was a story that he'd carried around, he said, in his head for about 20 years, always intending to write it. And the Ladies' Home Journal came to him in 1901. They wanted him to write a new musical accompaniment for "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." And he was not interested in doing that. He said, this is - this song is too familiar. I don't want to be the one who reworks it. But then he went to the editor and he said, but, I have this story idea.

SIMON: Well, that raises the question. As a novelist, was John Philip Sousa a great musician or was he in fact also a talented writer?

Prof. COLLINS: It's a very melodramatic and artificial sounding book in a lot of ways. It's not a particularly naturalistic voice in the narrative. But it was quite popular. The funny thing is, his second book, which came out three years later called "Pipetown Sandy" was actually much, much better, which to me indicates he was really thinking about his craft at that point.

I think he really put a lot of work in between his first and second book. And naturally the result was that it didn't sell nearly as well.

SIMON: I'm interested in his third novel, just having read a bit about it, called "The Transit of Venus," which is about a group of guys who were down under romantic luck who take a cruise.

Prof. COLLINS: It's a pretty curious notion. It's a group of divorced gentlemen, known as the Alimony Club. And they book a stag astronomical cruise. They're going to go observe of transit of Venus off of Africa. And it's going to be a guys-only thing. And they're well off onto their voyage when they discover, of course, that there is a female stowaway on board. And…

SIMON: Oh, boy. That's - of all the boats for her to steal aboard, huh?

Prof. COLLINS: Well, of course, these are all people who have pledged to never fall in love again and not get married and she melts their hearts.

SIMON: Can you give us some idea of John Philip Sousa's literary style? What about "The Fifth String" because that was the bestseller?

Prof. COLLINS: Yes. There's a scene on it. It's a story of a violinist named Angela Diotti. And he's touring America and taking the country by storm. But there's one thing in the world that he can't achieve, which is the love of a woman named Mildred. And he's…

SIMON: Oh it has been decades since a romantic heroine has been named Mildred.

Prof. COLLINS: It's a book very much of its time. And he calls out and despaired to the devil, finally, and Satan gives him a magic violin that he says will finally win this woman's heart. Allow me to explain the peculiar characteristics of this instrument, said his satanic majesty. This string, pointing to the G, is the string of pity. This one, referring to the third, is the string of hope. This one, plunking the A, is a tune to love, and this one, the E string, gives forth sounds of joy.

But that extra string? interrupted Diotti. That, said Satan, is the string of death. And he who plays upon it dies at once. The string of death?, repeated the violinist? Yes, the string of death, Satan repeated. And he who plays upon it dies at once. But, he added cheerfully, that need not worry you.

SIMON: Mercy, it's got to be impossible to play a violin without hitting all the strings, isn't it?

Prof. COLLINS: Well, he is a very talented violinist. That said, I think it's safe to - for readers to assume that the plot is going to hinge on that string - the string of death.

SIMON: Well - but it sounds as if he's got a narrative sense there.

Prof. COLLINS: It is quite effective actually. And in fact, one thing that I discovered, much to my surprise when I was researching this, was that "The Fifth String" was actually made into a movie. It was made into a silent movie in 1913. And of course, like many, many silent movies from back then, there's no trace of it anymore.

SIMON: Paul, we have the band all cued up. What should we listen to going out?

Prof. COLLINS: I think the "Liberty Bell" would really be necessary.

SIMON: Paul, always a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks very much.

Prof. COLLINS: Oh, thank you. Good to be here.

SIMON: Paul Collins is our literary detective. He's also a writing professor at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.

(Soundbite of song, "Liberty Bell")

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.