Signs of the Signs: The Literary Lights of Incandescence and Neon
By William Brevda
Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2011, 2011
Hardcover, 405 pages, $129

Reviewed by Paul Sherman

I must admit I got more of a charge out of author William Brevda’s descriptions of mammoth incandescent “spectaculars” and elaborate neon displays than I did out of his attempts to relate such advertising signs to a variety of literary works in Signs of the Signs: The Literary Lights of Incandescence and Neon.

Brevda’s book is primarily a compilation of journal articles that the Central Michigan University English professor (now emeritus) wrote in the 1990s and 2000s, supplemented with a few more recent chapters. (Full disclosure: we’re a tad late getting to this 2011 publication.) F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, Nelson Algren, and Jack Kerouac are among the authors Brevda tackles.

Sometimes the connections between literary works and signs that provide jumping-off points here are very specific, as in the resemblance between the original Great Gatsby dust jacket and the “Wrigley Girl” incandescent sign that long hung over Times Square, or the fact that Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer takes its name from an actual, signed location. In other instances, neon signs circumscribe Algren’s skid-row Chicago, Chandler’s corrupt Los Angeles, and Kerouac’s outsiders’-refuge Manhattan.

Throughout, Brevda digs to find what metaphorical and philosophical signs these advertising signs emit for the authors—hence, the “signs of the signs” of his title. In Brevda’s readings, sometimes a sign can signal a personal emptiness (Gatsby) or a cultural emptiness (in several Faulkner titles), sometimes an unfulfilled spiritual yearning (in much Kerouac) or a sense of something missing (in Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels).

Brevda works with a set of authors whose portrayal of signage, particularly neon, can be seen as negative and who worked at a time that generally pre-dates both the postwar hollowing out of American cities and the later arrival of the preservation movement, two developments that made the neon signs hanging at gathering places such as bars and greasy spoons seem much more benign than these writers found them. At one point, Brevda acknowledges that his writers found little of the “sense of place” in neon signs for which the preservation movement embraced them—fittingly, the author quotes an issue of the Society of Commercial Archeology News at that time.

But the book’s focus on writers using incandescent arrays and neon displays to signal ailments in character or society is not what makes Signs of the Signs a slog, though. Instead, it’s Brevda’s writing.

This being an academic book, Brevda writes in a specific style, often attempting to apply the theories of others (including semiotician Sanders Peirce, philosopher Oswald Spengler, and Jean-Paul Sartre) to the subjects at hand and build upon that prior work. He also writes with a specific audience—other English professors and academics. This can be troublesome to those of us here more for the social, economic, and cultural meanings of signage. The context Brevda offers to the points he makes can be flimsy, particularly for those of us not well versed in the theories from which he draws. Despite the centrality of literature and signs in the book, the emphasis is not on popular culture. To further the sense that there is a specific audience in mind for Signs of the Signs, when discussing canonical books such as The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury, Brevda does not offer even a passing synopsis to refresh a lay reader’s memory.

But the real problem is not what Signs of the Signs is; the real problem is how Brevda writes. To say he loves quotations, and goes overboard with them, is correct, but not the real issue. Brevda doesn’t merely use too many quotes from the books he’s covering or from other writers to enrich the points he is making—he uses what you might call micro-quotes, two or three at a time, to string together sentences, without (save for a reader’s repeated trips to the footnotes) letting the reader know where these micro-quotes are from and providing substantial context. This sourcing is incredibly frustrating as a reader and a serious challenge to the credibility of any author.

For instance, in the Raymond Chandler chapter, one paragraph begins, “Like Fitzgerald, Chandler invented a narrator who would be ‘simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety’ of America’s ‘material dreams.’” The footnote attached to this sentence reveals that the first quote is from Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, and the second is from Kevin Starr’s Material Dreams, a history of early California. Huh? Brevda couldn’t express the sentence’s sentiment in his own words or include language telling the reader from where (and hinting why) he is pulling quotes.

That sentence leaves the reader scratching their head, but at least it makes sense. As I read further into the book, my reaction went from “what’s up with all these microquotes?” to “what are these micro-quotes?” and I started to flip back and forth between the text and the footnotes. Many of these sentences made up of micro-quotes struck me as almost gibberish, cobbled together from sources that were tangential at best to the author’s line of argument. For instance, Kevin Starr’s Material Dreams is not cited any other times during Brevda’s Chandler chapter. It’s tangential, at best, especially if Brevda can’t offer any context for it save from borrowing its title in his sentence.

There are hundreds of these micro-quote sentences in Signs of the Signs. They struck me as more than just bad writing, but an abuse or misunderstanding of academic writing that I am surprised the editors of such journals as Texas Studies in Literature and Language and Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, two places where these chapters originated, would welcome. If an author’s job is to create confidence in a reader’s mind before making their arguments, then Brevda fails. By the time he opens his chapter on Nelson Algren with two sentences featuring six unidentified micro-quotes that turn out to be from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, another author’s journal article on Algren, and two separate Algren works (one short story, one novel), my faith in Brevda as a guide into the world of literature and signs was gone.

Paul Sherman is the author of the 2008 book, Big Screen Boston. He continues not to rush the resource.

This book review originally appeared in the SCA Journal, Spring 2023, Vol. 41, No. 1. The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.

More Book Reviews