With Christopher Morley In Roslyn Harbor

When Buckminster Fuller toured the world's great institutions in 1964, he sandwiched between trips to NASA, major educational institutions and the Institute for Behavioral Research was a stopover at Christopher Morley's Knothole in Roslyn Harbor, where in 1938 Fuller had delivered to Morley one of his prototype copper bathrooms.

It was not merely to see how his sink was doing. According to the Buckminster Fuller Institute, the noted inventor was great friends and a collaborator with Morley.

"In 1928 Bucky produced a document which he called 4D (for Fourth Dimension)," notes the Institute. "He sent a copy to Chris Morley because he thought he would be interested. Chris’ s father had been a leading mathematician and Bucky felt he might be supportive of his work." According to the Institute they became very close friends, seeing each other several times a week and the conversations they had with each other and with various friends influenced both their thinking. By 1940 Fuller was assisting Morley on lecture trips to promote the book ’Kitty Foyle.’ "While they traveled Bucky was very struck by the circular steel structures he saw everywhere --Butler grain bins. He kept talking about them as ’homes of the future". On their return to New York ’Kitty Foyle’ alias Chris sent Bucky a check to pay his expenses to travel West to see if he could pursue possibilities with the Butler Manufacturing Company. This marked a turning point in Bucky’s career."

Just one of the many great friendships of Christopher Morley, a man who cut a wide figure in American literary culture for half a century and traversed the globe promoting his ideas and opinions over what constituted a good read for the nation.

Now, gaining an insight into the private world of the public Mr. Morley is possible through a visit to the little studio in the woods in which he worked - Christopher Morley's Knothole, in Roslyn Harbor, Long Island.

After being closed to the public for many years, the Knothole reopened in 1999, and today offers an opportunity for the visitor to see the place where the influential critic and essayist retired. Though relocated to a public park where crowds gather in summer months to enjoy the public pool, it remains a quiet respite from the busy world, created by a figure of national importance as a retreat from the world.

Morley's Origins
In fact, Morley's story begins in Haverford, Pennsylvania, where he was born in 1890. The literary critic, author and popular journalist didn't find his way to Roslyn Harbor until having established a career in publishing through Doubleday, based up the road in Garden City. His first novel, Parnassus on Wheels, was written on a kitchen table at his Oak Street, Hempstead home in 1917 - a book which was an immediate success, glorifying the notion of hitching up a wagonload of fine books and going wandering through the world.

Morley's personal literary wagon may have been parked in the woods of Roslyn, but it took him straight to the top of the urban American cultural world. Valedictorian of his class and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, home of his English-born parents, Chris was soon writing an enormously popular and influential column in the New York Evening Post, entitled "The Bowling Green," and putting together an insert in the Post that would evolve into the Saturday Review of Books.

It was out of this that the Book of the Month Club was born, and through his editorial control Morley helped shape the literary tastes of a generation of America's readers - from the general public to the most discerning.

Through the 1920s and 1930s, in fact, Morley's name was synonymous with the nation's popular literary world. He helped to make Walt Whitman America's poet; edited and revised Bartlett's; founded literary clubs, like the Baker Street Irregulars and the Three Hour Lunch Club; and consorted with the nation's great writers and thinkers.

Morley's Writing
Through all that, Morley remained a hugely prolific writer himself. While not widely read today, Morley's creative efforts in poetry, prose and playwriting reveal a man very much of his time and society, who was fluent and playful with the conventional forms of his day.

His novels offer an easy familiar prose style, as in this passage from chapter 5 of Haunted Bookshop:

"....a friendly pedestrian was kneeling beside him.

'Say, are you all right?' said the latter anxiously. 'Gee, those guys nearly got you.'

Aubrey was too faint and dizzy to speak for a moment. His head was numb and he felt certain that several inches of it had been caved in. Putting up his hand, feebly, he was surprised to find the contours of his skull much the same as usual. The stranger propped him against his knee and wiped away a trickle of blood with his handkerchief.

'Say, old man, I thought you was a goner,' he said sympathetically. 'I seen those fellows jump you. Too bad they got away. Dirty work, I'll say so.'

Aubrey gulped the night air, and sat up. The bridge rocked under him; against the star-speckled sky he could see the Woolworth Building bending and jazzing like a poplar tree in a gale. He felt very sick."

Or this passage from Parnassus on Wheels:

"I jumped out of the bunk, cracked my shins against something, and uttered a rousing halloo. Parnassus stopped, and the Professor pushed back the sliding window behind the driver's seat.

'Heavens!' I said. 'Father Time, what o'clock is it?'

'Pretty near supper time, I reckon. You must have fallen asleep while I was taking money from the Philistines. I made nearly three dollars for you. Let's pull up along the road and have a bite to eat.'

He guided Pegasus to one side of the road, and then showed me how to light the swinging lamp that hung under the skylight. 'No use to light the stove on a lovely evening like this,' he said. 'I'll collect some sticks and we can cook outside.'

Chris Morley's poetry is frequently mannered as well, almost Edwardian, and too often steeped in the prejudices and predilections of his time. But like Nash or Lear, at his best Morley is playful enough to transcend the parlor values of his era, as in "My Pipe," excerpted here from his 1929 Collected Poems:

My pipe is old
And caked with soot;
My wife remarks;
"How can you put
That horrid relic,
So unclean,
Inside your mouth?
The nicotine
Is strong enough
To stupefy
A Swedish plumber."
I reply:

"This is the kind
Of pipe I like...

In "Confessions in a Hash House," he offers up a portrait of a pre-fast food counter girls' world which might pass for a contemporary truckstop poem:

...I'll bet the fresh guys
Who pull the jazz talk day after day
Have mighty little to say at home.
Men are a bunch of fakers:
If I ever get one where I want him
I'll make him behave.
I'll bean him with a sad iron.

I'm tired off kidding the bunch.
I'm tired of listening to their yap about what they like
And what they don't like.
Just for a change I'd like to see some one
Come in here and order his lunch and eat it
Without trying to be funny about it.

His literary musings make for splendid epithets:

"The American poet Lindsay/ (A mercurial fellow)/ Began his career/ By codifying the ways in which a poet/ Can get a free meal./ Here was a seer!"

"Whitman/ Did little to assist the razor industry,/ But he erected a plausible philosophy/ Of indolence/ Which, without soft concealments,/ He called Loafing.? This so irritated the American people/ (Who were busy putting up buildings/ And tearing them down again)/ That they never forgave him."

And he was not averse to imagistic painting, but even at his most reflective he tended to toy with ideas and give them a characteristic Morleyan twist, bringing works down to the personal idiosyncratic and playful moment:

The Surf

We took the baby
(Three years old)
To the beach at Lloyd's Neck.
A cold northern day and the wind was crisping surf on the beach.
She looked at the white foam
And heard its rhyming prosody.
"Snow," she announced.
"Snow saying, Sorrow to come in,
Sorrow to come in."

Then there is the matter of his playwriting. Recently the Hofstra Cultural Center on Long Island resurrected and staged the reading of a long-forgotten work by Morley produced in a small regional theater in Roslyn over sixty years ago - Soft Shoulders - The Commuters' Comedy. A combination of wit, irreverence, playfulness and a bit of social criticism, the work poked fun at the early suburban commuter milieux in which he lived, as well as the pretensions of the upper middle class. The story revolves around a group of "with-it" 30s era couples living on Long Island who commute to the city to work on the LIRR. There are a lot of surface airs of sophistication to be paraded around by the crowd, but beneath it, Morley explores the uptight character of the individuals, more likely to be scandalized than tantalized by unfettered behavior.

Though boxed up and stored on an archival shelf for over half a century after it was performed in 1940, the play remains a good chuckle which communicates itself well over 60 years during which the manuscript has gathered dust, and across the chasm of social culture that has been through so many revolutions that the ideas and values and attitudes of this long-forgotten era should be hopelessly out of date.

Yet, as in his novels and poetry, Morley's innate charm and intelligence shine through the decades.

The Knothole
How did a gregarious public figure like Christopher Morley balance all that with his family life as a devoted father of four children?

Answering that question means paying a visit to The Knothole. According to Nassau County officials tasked with interpreting Morley's use of the little cabin, the structure was built as a retreat where he could focus on his work. Inside the Knothole there was no telephone, we are told. But there was a huge desk, walls full of his favorite books, and only the quiet play of sunlight through the window into the one-room cabin. In fact, there was no bathroom in the place until Buckminster Fuller came along in 1934 and installed the patented pre-fab "dymaxion" just outside the front door.

What was it like at The Knothole? A glimpse into Morley's world is made possible thanks to the Christopher Morley Knothole Association, which is responsible for having preserved the little workshop in the first place, and having it moved to its current location on Searingtown Road. They published a small pamphlet in 1967, written by Helen McK. Oakley, entitled "Christopher Morley on Long Island."

Inside is a revealing passage from a letter from Chris' fourth daughter, Blythe Morley Brennan. "Once in a while when I was in high school or college age, I would have tea with my father in The Knothole," she wrote in 1966. "I well remember how pleasant it always was, in cold weather, to sit before a roaring fire in that booklined room, balancing one's tea mug and discussing books, especially poetry. The tea always seemed to taste of wood smoke and book mould - a smell familiar to most people in a damp climate."

Morley too expressed fondness for the place in many of his writings.

But ever the entertainer, he was also happy to tell a tale on himself - such as the story of how he one day was evicted from The Knothole by an owl. As quoted in the brochure, Morley went in one day and saw sheets of a manuscript of his strewn across the floor. "At first I supposed some human mischief," he wrote, but picking up the sheets of typescript, "I saw on them...unmistakable proof that the intruder was a owl, a handsome fellow with tall ears and speckled breast...had come down the chimney, of course. Flattened warily in the triangle of the rafters, he watched me steadily...It pleased me that the bird of wisdom would visit the place in person."

Nowadays Christopher Morley's wooded retreat is open to the public. We all have a chance to sit quietly, as an owl might in the rafters of The Knothole, and imagine watching one of America's great literary impresarios at work before a roaring fire.


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