Thomas Sugrue, recognizable by people familiar with Edgar Cayce as the author of There Is a River, spent his professional life as a writer. The New York Herald Tribune hired him as a reporter soon after he graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1930. Journalism remained a constant source of income, but he also wrote fiction and poetry alongside longer nonfiction works. He made a living by his wit, curiosity, and love of language. In his writing he could be acerbic or full of praise; empathetic or critical. He had his biases, and his work sometimes reflects the prejudices of his time. Nevertheless, I think it is valuable to look beyond his work about Edgar Cayce to the seven other books he published in his relatively brief yet prolific career.
Sugrue co-wrote his first book, The Crowning of Technocracy (1933), with John Lardner (1912-1960), a sports writer and later war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. The book is a satirical look at the theory of technocracy, defined as “government by technicians who are guided solely by the imperatives of their technology.”(1) The technocratic movement argued that economic downturns and social ills could be engineered out of existence. The theory was popular during the early years of the Great Depression, but lapsed as New Deal programs gained traction.
Tom switched gears for his first solo work, publishing the novel Such Is the Kingdom in 1940. A work of literary fiction, it is a semi-autobiographical story of an Irish American community in New England. Kirkus Reviews compared it to other works of realistic fiction popular at the time:
“Take Our Town and How Green Was My Valley; set the story in a more or less current industrial town in Connecticut, not far from Waterbury; make the characters Irish-Americans, warm-hearted, impulsive, with tears and laughter closely linked and with a sensitiveness to beauty and a rough and ready manner of meeting life; then tone down some of the realism, so that it is just edged enough to be modern, and just careful enough to escape censure; make some of the characters sympathetic and some of the others a trifle saccharine -- and you have Such Is The Kingdom. It does not quite come to grips with its story -- but the pattern of the lives is vivid. There is a tendency to shy clear of social implications or economic problems, seemingly inevitable, and this weakens its fibre. But it has a nostalgic quality that endears it to many readers, and Thomas Sugrue is worth watching.” (2)
Sugrue always had an Edgar Cayce project on the back burner. In the 1945 preface to There Is a River, he tells us he “made most of the preliminary notes and sketches for this book” when he visited the Cayces in 1927.(3) This visit replaced his initial skepticism of Edgar’s abilities with a fervor to create a literary following for the Work. He spent summers at Virginia Beach until the collapse of the Cayce Hospital and the Association of National Investigators, which also spelled the end of his fledgling publication program.
He remained committed to getting Edgar’s story down on paper (and to revive the publication series when the A.R.E. got underway) as his health deteriorated. From June 1939 to October 1941, he stayed in Gertrude and Edgar’s home. As the Cayces took care of him physically, he drew a literary picture of the family through extensive reading and conducting many interviews. Sugrue meant There Is a River to be novelistic in form and style: “…I have gradually acquired a knowledge of and a fondness for all these people which is comparable to a novelist’s feeling for the characters he has created. That is why the biography, in many parts, reads like a family chronicle.” (4) His stylistic choice aligns with the literary conventions of the time. He would take similar collaborative approaches with two other biographical works: Starling of the White House (1946) and We Called It Music: A Generation of Jazz (1947).
In Starling, an exploration of Colonel Edmund William Starling’s (1875-1944) career as the Chief of the Secret Service Detail in the White House, Sugrue writes in first person as Starling. Like with Edgar Cayce, he spent months interviewing the Colonel, from the winter of 1943 to May 1944. He also read the Starling’s diaries, notes and ephemera from his time serving presidents from Wilson to Roosevelt. “As a human relationship our collaboration was from the beginning a success. I assumed his personality as easily as if it had been a projection of my own, a slightly previous incarnation of the psyche. The realm of friendship is undoubtedly the fourth dimension; in so far as a man accepts in himself the supernal commonness of humanity he is a participant in all existing personalities.” (5)
Eddie Condon (1905-1973) was a banjoist and guitarist as well as a club owner and media personality. Sugrue co-wrote Condon’s first memoir. The book colorfully describes the musician’s transformation into an ambassador for Chicago-style jazz. Most of the prose is in first-person from Condon’s point of view. Sugrue contributes “the book’s strictly historical (italicized) passages,” in which he lays out cultural and historical context for the reader. However, although “they contain much valuable information,” these passages “ought to be read prudently.” (6) The introduction to the 1992 edition of We Called It Music points out several historical errors as well as dated language, concluding that the book has “the anthropological value of showing firsthand some common images of jazz in the 1940s.” (7)
Sugrue published his own memoir in 1948. Stranger in the Earth: The Story of a Search recounts his spiritual explorations written in a stream-of –consciousness style, framed by his experience receiving fever-cabinet treatments that were in actuality a serious detriment to his health.
His last two books continue this spiritual theme. Watch for the Morning (1950) came from his interest in the state of Israel’s development. Sugrue writes that after the British Mandate in Palestine ended, he wanted to see the results of this political change firsthand. In December 1948, his magazine editor sent him to the region, still an active warzone, on a plane carrying immigrants from Salzburg, Austria.(8) He traveled throughout Israel, interviewing people from all walks of life. He compiled this interview material into his customary narrative, almost novelistic format.
A Catholic Speaks His Mind (1951) was Sugrue’s last book, published before his death in 1953. The book is about his personal views on his Catholic faith and the American religious landscape. He felt compelled to send it out into the world:
“I have fled the writing of this essay as if it were the Hound of Heaven. I have tried to escape it; I have looked for someone else to do it; I have argued that the essence of its content…is known to everyone and therefore needs no announcement that it exists. I have considered my presumption in discussing it, my inadequacy in analyzing it. Such considerations in the end did not help me; I was cornered finally by the alternatives of writing it or ceasing to live with myself.” (9)
Thomas Sugrue’s books reflect his curiosity about the lives of individuals, and how these lives intersect with the global sociopolitical issues he cared about. They also show how his friendship with Edgar Cayce deeply influenced his perception of the spiritual world. I encourage you to read any of them that pique your interest. You will know Tom better.