Lytton Strachey advised the would-be historian to “row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.” Almost a perfect description for Angus Calder’s Gods, Mongrels, and Demons, an oddball biographical dictionary that crams together an assortment of deities and humans. The miniature and sometimes bizarre character sketches range from notorious figures like Billy the Kid and Billie Holiday to more cultish obscurities such as Matsuo Basho, 17th-century master of the haiku; Alexis Soyer, a chef who created a model kitchen to feed starving Irishmen during the famine; and Emily Pfeiffer, a Welsh poet who missed out on “her just posterity by sad, bad luck.”
Calder’s tome combats the idea of history written by the victors; he celebrates those whose lives snaked along erratic, sometimes radical paths. The result is like a mad hatter’s tea party attended by a hundred fascinating misfits all chattering at once.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 20, 2004