Friday, March 26, 2010

A Memorable Murder

Celia Thaxter (1835–1894)
From True Crime: An American Anthology

In a letter to her son dated March 27, 1873, the poet Celia Thaxter exclaims, “O John, my dear, we have had the fiend’s own month of March! Such a disastrous four weeks was never known in our experience at the Shoals.” She then describes at length a violent storm off the coast of New Hampshire, where a “brig struck on the outer rocks of White Island, a breaker carried away a portion of her stern and drowned five men then and there. Then the breakers pitched her upon Londoners [now Lunging Island], drove her fairly over and over, smashed her all up, broke her in two halves, drowned three more men, and there left her. The mate alone escaped of a crew of nine.”

What she doesn’t mention in this particular letter—nor does she need to—is the gruesome double murder of two women three weeks earlier, a crime that captured the attention of the entire nation and dominated newspaper headlines. She knew the victims and their families and was among the first to arrive at the side of the lone surviving witness. Two years later, Thaxter published in the
Atlantic Monthly her account, one of the milestones in American true-crime writing. The story served as the basis for The Weight of Water, Anita Shreve’s 1997 novel that was subsequently turned into a 2000 motion picture directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Sean Penn, Elizabeth Hurley, and Sarah Polley.

At the Isles of Shoals, on the 5th of March in the year 1873, occurred one of the most monstrous tragedies ever enacted on this planet. The sickening details of the double murder are well known; the newspapers teemed with them for months: but the pathos of the story is not realized; the world does not know how gentle a life these poor people led, how innocently happy were their quiet days. They were all Norwegians. The more I see of the natives of this far-off land, the more I admire the fine qualities which seem to characterize them as a race. Gentle, faithful, intelligent, God-fearing human beings, they daily use such courtesy toward each other and all who come in contact with them, as puts our ruder Yankee manners to shame. The men and women living on this lonely island were like the sweet, honest, simple folk we read of in Björnson’s charming Norwegian stories, full of kindly thoughts and ways. The murdered Anethe might have been the Eli of Björnson’s beautiful Arne or the Ragnhild of Boyesen’s lovely romance. They rejoiced to find a home just such as they desired in this peaceful place; the women took such pleasure in the little house which they kept so neat and bright, in their flock of hens, their little dog Ringe, and all their humble belongings! The Norwegians are an exceptionally affectionate people; family ties are very strong and precious among them. Let me tell the story of their sorrow as simply as may be.

Louis Wagner murdered Anethe and Karen Christensen at midnight on the 5th of March, two years ago this spring. The whole affair shows the calmness of a practiced hand; there was no malice in the deed, no heat; it was one of the coolest instances of deliberation ever chronicled in the annals of crime. He admits that these people had shown him nothing but kindness. He says in so many words, “They were my best friends.”. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Kerfol

Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937

World War I left Edith Wharton “haunted by the dead” and “Paris became for her a spectral and melancholy city,” remarks Hermione Lee in her recent biography. The decimation of Wharton’s beloved France affected and infected her writing, but the “strangest piece of fiction to come out of her war years was a story called ‘Kerfol’” (1916). A wealthy bachelor, urged by friends to purchase a home in Brittany, finds the estate of Kerfol devoid of human presence and populated instead by a pack of eerily silent dogs. Directed to a regional chronicle by a local resident, the narrator reads the 200-year-old account of a woman terrorized by her jealous husband, a mysterious and gruesome murder, and the sensational trial of the survivor—a mix that R.W.B. Lewis calls “one of Edith Wharton’s finest exercises in the imagination of violence, terror, and the erotic.”

You ought to buy it,” said my host; “it’s just the place for a solitary-minded devil like you. And it would be rather worth while to own the most romantic house in Brittany. The present people are dead broke, and it’s going for a song—you ought to buy it.”

It was not with the least idea of living up to the character my friend Lanrivain ascribed to me (as a matter of fact, under my unsociable exterior I have always had secret yearnings for domesticity) that I took his hint one autumn afternoon and went to Kerfol. My friend was motoring over to Quimper on business: he dropped me on the way, at a cross-road on a heath, and said: “First turn to the right and second to the left. Then straight ahead till you see an avenue. If you meet any peasants, don’t ask your way. They don’t understand French, and they would pretend they did and mix you up. I’ll be back for you here by sunset—and don’t forget the tombs in the chapel.”

I followed Lanrivain’s directions with the hesitation occasioned by the usual difficulty of remembering whether he had said the first turn to the right and second to the left, or the contrary. If I had met a peasant I should certainly have asked, and probably been sent astray; but I had the desert landscape to myself, and so stumbled on the right turn and walked across the heath till I came to an avenue. It was so unlike any other avenue I have ever seen that I instantly knew it must be the avenue. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!


Friday, March 12, 2010

Queen Victoria’s Jubilee

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels

While in London in 1897, Mark Twain was commissioned by William Randolph Hearst to report for the San Francisco Examiner on the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne. Evoking historical detail reminiscent of passages in The Prince and the Pauper and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Twain compares the jubilee to his own original and imaginative account of the 1415 celebration following the English victory at Agincourt, and he also reflects on the rapid changes in the British Empire during the Victorian age.

The two-part coverage of the Diamond Jubilee appeared in the newspaper on June 20 and 23 and was reprinted in other Hearst papers shortly afterward. In 1910—the year of Mark Twain’s death—the article was privately printed in a limited edition of 195 numbered books, and although it is not known whether this book version had the author’s sanction, a copy today can sell for several thousand dollars. The essay had not been readily available until it was included in the newly published Library of America volume of Mark Twain’s travel writings, and both parts are offered here for our readers’ enjoyment.

*   *   *
LONDON, JUNE 19.—So far as I can see, a procession has value in but two ways—as a show and as a symbol; its minor function being to delight the eye, its major one to compel thought, exalt the spirit, stir the heart and inflame the imagination. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Respectable Woman

Kate Chopin (1850–1904)
From Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories

By the early 1890s, Kate O’Flaherty Chopin had gained national prominence publishing pleasant sketches of local color—Creole stories—but she soon found the genre too restrictive. Her later work dealt with more mature themes, featuring young female protagonists trapped in traditional domestic settings, released by newfound independence, torn by emotional awakenings, or tempted by the stirrings of “guilty love”—to use the euphemism coined by William Dean Howells.

As Chopin expanded the boundaries of her fiction, she met the resistance of editors like Howells, who rhetorically asked (referring to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina), “what editor of what American magazine would print such a story?” According to biographer Emily Toth, while Chopin’s more daring stories were rejected by such magazines as The Atlantic and Harper's, many were gladly published by the society magazine Vogue, which “became her vehicle for escaping the ‘charming’ label attached to her work” and which permitted her “to experiment with a more radical realism.” As the decade progressed, Vogue “deliberately set itself against the censorious” and showcased Chopin’s stories, paying her “better and better rates.” One of these stories, “A Respectable Woman” (1894), describes a woman who is both attracted to her husband’s friend and unsettled by that attraction.

*   *   *
Mrs. Baroda was a little provoked to learn that her husband expected his friend, Gouvernail, up to spend a week or two on the plantation. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.