Review: 'Where the Blue Begins', by Christopher Morley
Each in turn may call this a fairy story, a dog story, an allegory or a satire, but all will be moved by the beauty and the meaning--a beauty and a meaning that seems to live within the realm of those books that go on and on making friends and spreading enchantment.?? Gissing, its hero, is a dog who searches the world for an ideal, and then finds in the smoke of his own furnace fire a hint of the heavenly blue that he had been seeking. (blurb, slightly edited)
It is difficult to tell after ninety years just what an author was thinking, but I believe that Christopher Morley, a popular literary essayist and novelist, just wanted to have fun writing about a world of talking dogs. His last message to the public, written when he knew that he was dying in 1957, was, “Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity.”
Mr. Gissing, a gentledog of leisure contentedly residing in Canine Estates with Fuji, his butler (a Japanese pug), on an income of 1,000 bones a year, becomes dissatisfied and leaves home to search for where the blue begins (a purpose to life).
Garden City, NY, Doubleday, Page & Co., October 1922,  + 215 [+ 1] pages, $1.75.
Gissing becomes an eerily canine predecessor of the notorious Frank Abignale, Jr., who during the 1960s successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a college teaching assistant, a doctor, an attorney, a federal bureaucrat, and more. Gissing adopts some orphaned puppies to experiment with parenthood; he becomes a floorwalker at the Beagle and Company department store and is quickly promoted to General Manager; he takes up theology and is invited to become a lay reader and preach a sermon (he is disappointed that he is not allowed to wear priestly garb), until he shocks Bishop Borzoi and the congregation with the heresy that God may be a biped; he stows away on the steamship Pomerania and soon becomes second officer to Captain Scottie. Ultimately he returns home exhausted with intellectual riddling, satisfied to resume his mundane life.
Morley admirably creates a canine world through names alone. There are Mike Terrier, the curate Mr. J. Rover Poodle, the upper-class and working-class neighbors Mrs. Airedale and Mrs. Collie, the nursemaid Mrs. Spaniel and little Shaggy, her puppy, Gissing’s adopted puppies Groups, Bunks, and Yelpers, haughty Mr. and Mrs. Chow and their “intolerably spotless” little Sandy, the landlady Mrs. Purps, the salesclerk Miss Whippet, the matronly Mrs. Mastiff, the compulsive shopper Mrs. Dachshund, the parishioners Mr. Dobermann-Pinscher, Mrs. Griffon, and Mrs. Retriever. There are the place names like Dalmatian Heights and the little shrine of St. Spitz. These are intermixed with humanless real locales like Paris and Atlantic City, Murray Hill and Fifth Avenue and Broadway and Wall Street, Delmonico’s Restaurant and Trinity Church, and real historical personages like the Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, and Masefield; to make this our real world only inhabited by dogs, rather than some imaginary planet of dogs.
Gissing succeeds temporarily in his assumed positions through a confident manner and allowing his would-be superiors to project their own preferences upon him:
Gissing calmly swallowed his tea, and ate the meringue. He would have enjoyed another, but the capable secretary had already removed them. He poured himself a second cup of tea. Mr. Beagle junior showed signs of eagerness to leave, but Gissing detained him.
‘One moment,’ he said suavely. ‘There is a little matter that we have not discussed. The question of salary.’ (p. 67)
‘Yes,’ stammered Gissing. ‘I – in fact, I am hoping to – to enter the ministry.’
The Bishop was plainly amazed, and his long, aristocratic nose seemed longer than ever as he gazed keenly at his caller.
‘But have you had any formal training in theology?’
‘None, right reverend Bishop,’ said Gissing. ‘But it’s this way,’ and, incoherently at first, but with increasing energy and copious eloquence, he poured out the story of his mental struggles.
‘This is singularly interesting,’ said the Bishop at length. ‘I can see that you are wholly lacking in the rudiments of divinity. Of modern exegesis and criticism you are quite innocent. But you evidently have something which is much rarer – what the Quakers call a concern. Of course you should really go to the theological seminary and establish this naïf intuitive mysticism upon a disciplined basis. You will realize that we churchmen can only meet modern rationalism by a rationalism of our own – by a philosophical scholarship which is unshakable. I do not suppose that you can even harmonize the Gospels?’
Gissing ruefully admitted his ignorance. (pgs. 120-121)
But each time Gissing becomes dissatisfied. He has not “found the blue” yet. He flees, looking for he knows not what, until he finds himself alone on an unknown coast.
Suddenly, where the hill arched against pearly sky, he saw a narrow thread of smoke rising. He halted in alarm. Who might this be, friend or foe? But eager agitation pushed him on. Burning to know, he hurried up to the brow of the hill.
The smoke mounted from a small bonfire of sticks in a sheltered thicket, where a miraculous being – who was, as a matter of fact, a rather ragged and dingy vagabond – was cooking a tin of stew over the blaze.
Gissing stood, quivering with emotion. Joy such as he had never known darted through all the cords of his body. He ran, shouting, in mirth and terror. In fear, in a passion of love and knowledge and understanding, he abased himself and yearned before this marvel. Impossible to have conceived, yet, once seen, utterly satisfying and the fulfillment of all needs. He laughed and leaped and worshipped. When the first transport was over, he laid his head against this being’s knee, he nestled there and was content. This was the inscrutable perfect answer.
‘Cripes!’ said the puzzled tramp, as he caressed the nuzzling head. ‘The purp’s loco. Maybe he’s been lost. You might think he’d never seen a man before.’
He was right.
And Gissing sat quietly, his throat resting upon the soiled knee of a very old and spicy trouser.
‘I have found God,’ he said. (pgs. 202-203)
This is not quite the end of the book. Gissing suddenly finds himself back at home in Canine Estates with his adoptive family. Was it all a dream? He resolves not to worry about it.
Ah, he said to himself, it is all very well to wear a crown of thorns, and indeed every sensitive creature carries one in secret. But there are times when it ought to be worn cocked over one ear.
He opened the furnace door. A bright glow filled the fire-box: he could hear a stir and singing in the boiler, and the rustle of warm pipes that chuckled quietly through winter nights of storm. Over the coals hovered a magic evasive flicker, the very soul of fire. It was a pentecostal flame, perfect and heavenly in tint, the essence of pure colour, a clear immortal blue. (p. 215)
It would be easy to quibble about logical fallacies in Where the Blue Begins. Was it all a dream, or not? Where did the lone human tramp come from in an otherwise humanless world? Does Mr. Gissing find himself too easily accepted in his make-believe roles? But this is an enchanted story, meant for the emotions rather than for logical analysis. Does this make the reader feel good? Yes. (At least the 1920s reader. A scholarly dissertation should be written on the 1850s-1950s assumption that all animals really were in awe of humans and wished they could be owned by humans and become humans themselves.) It was a literary success at the time.