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The Mysteries of Melville Davisson Post

July 13, 2009

Melville Davisson Post came from an important farming family in West Virginia and after a brief career as a lawyer he became one of the most highly paid magazine story writers of the early twentieth century. His characters, including backwoods detective Uncle Abner and crooked lawyer, Randolph Mason, brought him wealth and fame. He died in 1930 and since then several stories and inconsistencies about him have come to be thought of as true. The first of these concerns his birth year, which is given wrongly on his death certificate as 1871, a date that subsequently found its way into reference sources as respectable as Webster’s Biographical Dictionary. It was in fact April 19, 1869; 140 years ago this year. He was apparently nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1922 (except he wasn’t), and perhaps was also a candidate for President of the United States in 1924. Except that in that election, the famous ‘Klanbake’ election, Calvin Coolidge won by a landslide from Democrat John Davis. An excellent article on Post at First Things gives a more convincing explanation. In 1892, the year he graduated in Law, Post

was selected as one of the Democratic party’s electors in the national presidential election. (He was subsequently chosen by the Electoral College to serve as its secretary, the youngest person ever to hold the position.) But upon his return home, perhaps feeling that he was rising too fast, the West Virginia party chairman rejected him for a political run, and he settled down to practice law in Wheeling.

Post, who travelled widely in Europe, is an underrated writer whose reputation has perhaps been damaged by the sometimes overblown intensity of his religious and moral attitudes. But he does not need these myths; what Post did achieve is remarkable enough in itself. He was a highly successful writer and a supreme plotter and innovator in detective fiction. Among his admirers was William Faulkner, who studied his stories while writing the six mystery stories in Knight’s Gambit (1949).

More on the mystery of Post’s birth date on my personal blog.

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