Friday, April 30, 2010

The Wives of the Dead

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
From Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches

Nathaniel Hawthorne probably wrote “The Wives of the Dead” in 1829, when he was twenty-five years old. The previous year, he had just published Fanshawe, his largely neglected (and largely unsold) first novel, and he hoped to follow up with a collection of his stories, but the effort came to naught. It wasn’t until the end of 1831 that “The Wives of the Dead” appeared, with three other Hawthorne pieces (all without attribution), in the 1832 issue of The Token, a holiday gift annual. He subsequently included the story in his third major collection, The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales (1852).

In the story, the wives of two brothers learn that both men have been killed abroad on consecutive days. In their grief, “sleep did not steal upon the sisters at one and the same time”; one woman slumbers while the other is awake. Far more than the tale of the grief of two widows, “The Wives of the Dead” deals with the “waking dreams such as Hawthorne explored again and again in fiction and in sketches like ‘The Haunted Mind,’ ” notes scholar Arlin Turner, and the ambiguity of the boundaries between the widows’ dream-worlds and their realities leaves readers wondering how much of the story the two women experienced and how much they imagined.


(Note: “the first wife of Zadig” is a reference to the hero of Voltaire’s Zadig, who, doubting the fidelity of his wife, has the news of his death announced and sends a friend to seduce her.)

The following story, the simple and domestic incidents of which may be deemed scarcely worth relating, after such a lapse of time, awakened some degree of interest, a hundred years ago, in a principal seaport of the Bay Province. The rainy twilight of an autumn day; a parlor on the second floor of a small house, plainly furnished, as beseemed the middling circumstances of its inhabitants, yet decorated with little curiosities from beyond the sea, and a few delicate specimens of Indian manufacture,—these are the only particulars to be premised in regard to scene and season. Two young and comely women sat together by the fireside, nursing their mutual and peculiar sorrows. They were the recent brides of two brothers, a sailor and a landsman, and two successive days had brought tidings of the death of each, by the chances of Canadian warfare, and the tempestuous Atlantic. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Lady on the Bookcase

James Thurber (1894–1961)
From James Thurber: Writings and Drawings

“I don’t think any drawing ever took me more than three minutes,” James Thurber once said of his work. Yet his style is instantly recognizable, his humor timeless and sometimes unsettling, his tableaus abounding with dogs, seals, birds, and (perhaps his favorite species) husbands and wives. His comic writings—stories, portraits, sketches, parodies, memoirs—spare no one, least of all himself.

In 1945 he wrote “Thurber As Seen By Thurber,” a whimsical assessment of his own cartoons, and published it in
The New York Times Magazine. Facetiously dividing his body of work into five “separate and indistinct” categories, the article presents ten sample drawings (all reproduced in the attached PDF), discusses their creation and content, and uses the opportunity to tease Thurber's colleagues and editors at The New Yorker. Three years later, “verging on his middle fifties, when he should be engaged on some work dignified by length and of a solemnity suitable to our darkening age,” he included the piece in a book-length collection, The Beast in Me and Other Animals, and renamed it “The Lady on the Bookcase.” In the book’s foreword, he remarks that the “imaginary” animals in his stories and drawings “emerged from the shameless breeding ground of the idle mind and they are obviously not going anywhere in particular.”

One day twelve years ago an outraged cartoonist, four of whose drawings had been rejected in a clump by The New Yorker, stormed into the office of Harold Ross, editor of the magazine. “Why is it,” demanded the cartoonist, “that you reject my work and publish drawings by a fifth-rate artist like Thurber?” Ross came quickly to my defense like the true friend and devoted employer he is. “You mean third-rate,” he said quietly, but there was a warning glint in his steady gray eyes that caused the discomfited cartoonist to beat a hasty retreat.

With the exception of Ross, the interest of editors in what I draw has been rather more journalistic than critical. They want to know if it’s true that I draw by moonlight, or under water. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

Friday, April 16, 2010

An Interview with Mark Twain

Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)
From The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works

In 1889, having published six short-story collections in a one-year period, the 23-year-old Rudyard Kipling left India for a tour of America and Europe. His travels brought him to New York and Connecticut, where he hoped to locate and “shake hands with” Mark Twain, the “man I had learned to love and admire fourteen thousand miles away.” His recollection of that encounter was published in newspapers from Allahabad to New York. “An Interview with Mark Twain” is more than a transcription of his conversation with the author of Tom Sawyer; Kipling also recounts how he hunted down his idol, his awe at actually meeting him, and Twain’s genteel demeanor to a stranger arriving unannounced at the door.

When Rudyard Kipling traveled to England the following year and soon became a literary celebrity, Mark Twain did not immediately connect the young visitor with the rising star of English letters—but Twain’s daughter Susy, enamored with the idea that anyone could hail from such an exotic locale, had kept Kipling’s calling card with its address in India. Twain then read Plain Tales from the Hills and wrote to a friend, “whereas Kipling’s stories are plenty good enough on a first reading they very greatly improve on a second.” Mark Twain later recalled his initial encounter with Kipling: “I believed that he knew more than any person I had met before, and I knew that he knew that I knew less than any person he had met before—though he did not say it, and I was not expecting that he would. . . . He was a stranger to me and to all the world, and remained so for twelve months, then he became suddenly known, and universally known.”

Note: The “Robert” to which Mark Twain refers during his conversation with Kipling is Robert Elsmere, an 1888 novel by Mrs. Humphrey Ward.

*   *   *
You are a contemptible lot, over yonder. Some of you are Commissioners, and some Lieutenant-Governors, and some have the V. C., and a few are privileged to walk about the Mall arm in arm with the Viceroy; but I have seen Mark Twain this golden morning, have shaken his hand, and smoked a cigar—no, two cigars—with him, and talked with him for more than two hours! . . . If you don't see the full selection 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, April 9, 2010

In France

P. T. Barnum (1810–1891)
From Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology

In the mid-1840s P. T. Barnum embarked on his first European tour. After scouting Paris for prospective venues and visiting the French Industrial Exposition of 1844, he returned the next year with “General” Tom Thumb. In a June 1845 dispatch for the New York Atlas, he wrote, “We have now been in Paris for nearly two months, and Gen. Tom Thumb’s harvest is still increasing! The excitable Parisians talk of nothing but ‘General Tom Pouce, les tres jollie [sic] charmant enfant!’” Two months later, he wrote to his stateside associate Moses Kimball, exclaiming that France “is the most charming country” but complaining about the onerous tax assessments, which he had handled with “a touch of Yankee.” The following selection from his 1869 memoir Struggles and Triumphs describes in greater detail the story of Barnum’s tour de France: the mobs that greeted Tom Thumb, the audience before the royal family, and the “Yankee trick” he pulled on the French tax collectors.

I stopped at the Hotel Bedford, and securing an interpreter, began to make my arrangements. The first difficulty in the way was the government tax for exhibiting natural curiosities, which was no less than one fourth of the gross receipts, while theatres paid only eleven per cent. This tax was appropriated to the benefit of the city hospitals. Now, I knew from my experience in London, that my receipts would be so large as to make twenty-five per cent of them a far more serious tax than I thought I ought to pay to the French government, even for the benefit of the admirable hospitals of Paris. Accordingly, I went to the license bureau and had an interview with the chief. I told him I was anxious to bring a “dwarf” to Paris, but that the percentage to be paid for a license was so large as to deter me from bringing him; but letting the usual rule go, what should I give him in advance for a two months’ license?

“My dear sir,” he answered, “you had better not come at all; these things never draw, and you will do nothing, or so little that the percentage need not trouble you.” . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Baiting the Umpire

George Jean Nathan (1882–1958)
From Baseball: A Literary Anthology

For American baseball fans, heckling the umpire is a perk of admission, a noble tradition that parents and children indulge in equally. Whether or not the call in question is correct is beside the point; when a call goes against the home team, the crowd shares one reflex: skewer the ump. Even a century ago, the rule of mob prevailed; the only noticeable change has been the number of referees available as targets.

Published in
Harper’s Weekly in 1910, “Baiting the Umpire” slyly punts its pokes at the Greek chorus in the bleachers while it simultaneously celebrates the play on the field. Its author, George Jean Nathan, would later become especially renowned for his wit and insight on American theater—and what is baseball if not theater? As the 2010 season opens, most reports will celebrate the players (and their salaries), but we offer this Story of the Week in homage to the unsung, brave warriors of America’s beloved pastime.

Baseball is the national side-show. The baiting of umpires is the real big-tent entertainment. In Spain, by way of passing the time, they bait innocent bulls on holidays. In America, by way of the same thing, they bait inoffensive men in blue suits every day in the week during the warm season, and twice on Saturdays. What the Latins call “fĂȘtes” the Americans call “double-headers.” Also, what the Latins call “matadores” the Americans call “bleachers.” Some years ago, the Spanish sport-loving public was satisfied with one bull in the ring, just as the American public was satisfied with one umpire. But, as taste became more hysterical and bloodthirsty, the Spaniards demanded at least two bulls for killing purposes, and the Americans, following suit, demanded two umpires. That is the real reason the Solons of baseball added the extra referee to the game. They told the second umpire he was supposed to “watch the bases.” It was a snare. He was put there simply to gratify the public’s augmented longing for “sport.”

In comparing the national sports of Spain and the United States, it may be readily seen that the bull has a marked advantage over the umpire. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!