Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Black Stone, by George Gibbs

George Fort Gibbs
In a typical used book store, well-known authors amount to only tiny islands in a sea of books by less familiar writers.  We know all about Hemingway, Steinbeck, Joyce Carol Oates and Hermann Hesse.  But what about the books in between?  What about F. Marion Crawford, Robert W. Chambers, and Frank R. Stockton?  These were once very popular authors, familiar to the reading public, but today they're effectively forgotten.  If their books were once popular, isn't there still some value in them though?  If nothing else, don't they tell us something about the readers who once enjoyed them?

George Fort Gibbs (1870-1942) is the archetypal Forgotten Author.  He was a talented and well-respected artist and illustrator, and the author of almost fifty novels. His illustrations were featured in such magazines as Cosmopolitan and the Saturday Evening Post. He created the cover illustration for the original edition of Anne of Green Gables.  He created murals for Penn Station and Girard College in Philadelphia.  As a "fine artist" he created lovely portraits that were exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Corcoran Gallery. Some of his novels were made into films (one of them, The Yellow Dove, twice!), and he co-authored the screenplay for a film version of the life of Voltaire.  He was  successful in many fields, and seems to have led a happy, prosperous life.

Yet today, you'll find few reference books that acknowledge his existence, and those that do only provide his birth and death dates and a partial list of his novels.
Cover Illustration by Gibbs. Note the "GG" logo in the upper right corner.
USS Ossipee
George Gibbs was born in 1870 in New Orleans. His father, Dr. Benjamin F. Gibbs, was a naval surgeon with the ironclad fleet stationed there. Dr. Gibbs had seen a lot of adventure in his naval career. He'd taken part in the Paraguay Expedition aboard the USS Memphis, and the battle of Mobile Bay aboard the steam-sloop USS Ossipee. He'd been aboard one of the ships that had chased the CSS Webb on its dash down the Mississippi.

In mid-war, on February 25, 1864, Dr. Gibbs married Elizabeth Beatrice Kellogg.  The bride's father was a homeopathic doctor brought to occupied New Orleans by General Nathaniel P. Banks, commander of the Army of the Gulf, and assigned to various duties as army surgeon,  and as medical advisor to the family of General Banks.  Nine months after their marriage, Mrs. Gibbs gave birth to a daughter, Aline.  In 1870 a son, George, was born.

Dr. Gibbs continued to rise in the navy, ultimately attaining the rank of  Medical Inspector and being designated Fleet Surgeon of the European Squadron on August 20, 1881.  He took Elizabeth, Aline and George with him, settling them in Geneva.  In September of 1882, while aboard the USS Lancaster sailing for Trieste, Dr. Gibbs became seriously ill.  According to most sources, he was suffering from some form of kidney disease (then called Bright's Disease).  When the ship reached port, he was immediately moved to a hospital, where he died on September 9.    His son George was twelve years old at the time.

Young George's tragedies didn't end there.  Elizabeth was extremely distraught over her husband's death.  The family returned to the United States in November of 1883, debarking in New York and then taking a train bound for Washington, D.C., where Elizabeth's father awaited them. George was then thirteen years old, and Aline eighteen.  The children were concerned about their mother, who had expressed thoughts of suicide.  As the train approached Union Station (at the site of what is now Penn Station) in Baltimore, Elizabeth left her children and entered the ladies' restroom.  She was gone for a long time, and the children began to worry.  When the train arrived at the station they tried the door of the restroom, but it was locked.  George climbed up to a transom and looked in, only to find the room empty, and its window open.

The children notified railroad officials, who sent an engine back down the tracks to look for Elizabeth.  Aline went ahead to D.C., to meet with her grandfather, and George stayed behind with the searchers.  Later that day Aline received a telegram from George, telling her that their mother had been found lying on the tracks a few miles from the station.  Her skull was fractured, and she was taken to a hospital, where she died soon after.  She had apparently climbed six feet up to the window and leapt from the train, landing on her head.

Following in his father's footsteps, George entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1886,  but he resigned in 1888.  According to critic Grant Overton, Gibbs "generally neglected trigonometry in favor of a sketch book and the writing of verses."  After leaving Annapolis, George returned to Washington and began taking night classes at the Corcoran School of Art and the Art Students' League.  During the day, he turned to writing.

George Gibbs in Philadelphia
He had little success until he moved to Philadelphia, where he was to spend the rest of his life, and began working for Cyrus Curtis, founder of the Curtis Publishing Company.  There, George created cover and interior illustrations for such Curtis publications as the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies' Home Journal.  He also began to have some success as an author.

In April of 1901, George married Maude Harrison, daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family.  In time, he became a pillar of the community and a well-known member of Philadephia society.  (When G.K. Chesterton visited Philadephia in 1921, he stayed at the Gibbs' home.)  He finally began to have a real career as a writer.  From 1901 until his death in 1942, he reliably turned  out novels, at a rate of about one per year.  Many of them were serialized in newspapers and magazines before being published in book form.  He continued to illustrate his own and other authors' books, and to create illustrations for many magazines and newspapers.  He also pursued a growing career as a fine artist.

Artworks by George Fort Gibbs, from


Most of his books were adventure novels, in the vein of John Buchan or E. Phillips Oppenheim's work.  They featured breathless chases through forests, across mountains, and through the sky. I hope to write more about Gibbs in the future, but for now I'd like to call your attention to one of his books in particular: The Black Stone.  This was the first of his books that I read.

The Black Stone was published in 1919, and follows the adventures a young American man as he thwarts a German agent's attempt to foment an arab uprising.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. You can read the book here:

Read The Black Stone at Google Books >>


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