Friday, June 25, 2010

A Virginia Barbecue

John M. Duncan (1795?–1825)
From American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes

Barbecues and picnics—activities that today bring people together in parks and parking lots, in backyards and back lots—were regarded as a regional Virginia curiosity by John Duncan, a Scottish visitor to the United States in 1818. But, as food writer Molly O’Neill points out in her preface to our latest Story of the Week, Duncan’s assumption was not quite accurate: barbecues had already spread across the young nation and would be ubiquitous by mid-century.

Duncan arrived at Mount Vernon as a guest of U. S. Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington (the first President’s nephew and the current owner of the estate). The first impression was a mix of awe and reverence:
You look round upon scenery which Washington often contemplated; you tread the turf over which he walked; you see the gardens in which he amused himself; the trees which he planted; the house, the rooms, the chair which he occupied; and the humble vault which he himself chose for the repose of his dust.
Yet, because the money for upkeep was in short supply, Mount Vernon was showing signs of decline:
The flower garden and greenhouse have nearly gone to decay; the tea-house on the bank of the river is almost in ruins. . . . Even the door of the vault is to all appearance so crazy that I think a kick would go far to knock it to pieces.
From Mount Vernon, Washington and Duncan went to the “rural fête” and, in this selection, he describes a daytime Barbecue at which slaves (“servants”) handled the “various processes of sylvan cookery” while “thirty ladies and somewhere about an hundred gentlemen” gave up the afternoon to eating, drinking, and dancing.

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After having spent an hour or two at Mount Vernon, Judge Washington politely invited us to accompany him to a Barbecue, which was to take place in the afternoon close by the road to Alexandria. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

Plus: See Thomas Jefferson's recipe for ice cream (PDF, also from American Food Writing)

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Friday, June 18, 2010

The Moonlit Road

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

In a recent issue of the journal Dead Reckonings, literary critic S. T. Joshi mentioned “The Moonlit Road,” proclaiming the story “poignant and terrifying” and “far too little known.” At first, Bierce’s tale reads like a simple whodunit: its three conflicting narratives seem to fit together and “what happened” might seem straightforward, but a closer reading causes hesitation: Where is “Caspar Grattan” living and what happens to him in the end? Who is “767”? Can we trust the “medium Bayrolles”? As Martin Griffin writes in a perceptive essay, the story’s “doubts and implications are not resolved but rather . . . bequeathed to the reader, to see if he or she can make any sense of them.”

Certain aspects of the story echo Bierce’s own life—particularly the themes of suspicion and infidelity. His wife died in 1905, only months before their divorce had been finalized, and he wrote the story the following year (it was published in the January 1907 issue of
Cosmopolitan). The couple had permanently separated two decades earlier when he found letters to her from a Danish man with whom she had become friendly. According to their daughter Helen, the long-distance friendship was never romantic but rather “a decorous and discreet fascination.” But Bierce walked out and never saw her again: “I don’t take part in competitions—not even in love.” Soon after their separation, a far more tragic love triangle occurred. Their seventeen-year-old son Day shot and killed his best friend, and then himself, after the latter had eloped with Day’s girlfriend.

A final note: Although it may be “far too little known,” “The Moonlit Road” became stepfather to one of the twentieth century’s greatest movies. Martin Griffin reminds us that Bierce’s tale was the inspiration for “Yabu no naka” (“In the Grove”), a story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which provided the plot and characters for Akira Kurosawa’s 1950
Rashomon. (Only the movie’s title and the setting are taken from another story by Akutagawa.)


I am the most unfortunate of men. Rich, respected, fairly well educated and of sound health—with many other advantages usually valued by those having them and coveted by those who have them not—I sometimes think that I should be less unhappy if they had been denied me, for then the contrast between my outer and my inner life would not be continually demanding a painful attention. In the stress of privation and the need of effort I might sometimes forget the somber secret ever baffling the conjecture that it compels.

I am the only child of Joel and Julia Hetman. The one was a well-to-do country gentleman, the other a beautiful and accomplished woman to whom he was passionately attached with what I now know to have been a jealous and exacting devotion. The family home was a few miles from Nashville, Tennessee, a large, irregularly built dwelling of no particular order of architecture, a little way off the road, in a park of trees and shrubbery.

At the time of which I write I was nineteen years old, a student at Yale. One day I received a telegram from my father of such urgency that in compliance with its unexplained demand I left at once for home. . . .If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Charmed Life

Katherine Anne Porter (1890–1980)
From Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories and Other Writings

In October 1920 thirty-year-old Katherine Anne Porter traveled to Mexico on assignment as a journalist for the Christian Science Monitor. During her travels she met William Niven, a Scottish-born American scientist respected for his fieldwork in archaeology and mineralogy (nivenite, one of four minerals he discovered, bears his name and is a source of uranium). But he has since inherited a reputation as a bit of a crank for his pursuit of long-discarded theories of the origins of native Mexican populations, as well as for his alleged discovery of a set of untranslatable tablets that an occult writer, James Churchward, used to “prove” the existence of the Lost Continent of Mu in the mid-Pacific. (The tablets have since disappeared.)

Niven impressed Porter both for his eccentricity and for his “authenticity,” and he proved a rich source of material for her writing. He appears as the character Givens in Porter’s first published story, “María Concepción” (1923), and he assumes the central role in “The Charmed Life,” a portrait that Porter published in 1942, five years after Niven’s death. The sketch is her vaguely fictionalized tribute to the “Old Man” who so charmed her and to the “curiously appealing unhumanness of his existence.”

“The Charmed Life” mentions a cache of letters that Porter asserts would have been “political dynamite” if they had seen the light of day. What is left unsaid in the story, as Darlene Harbour Unrue reveals in her recent biography, is that Porter had transcribed several of these letters, which included details of a plot to kill Mexican President Alvaro Obregon, and had leaked their contents to several acquaintances, including a journalist, a labor leader, and a man who claimed to be a Polish diplomat but who was simply “a complex and fascinating liar.” When five men were later executed, Porter worried that her indiscretion may have been the cause—which, Unrue insists, was doubtful, given the “betrayal and disloyalty” that saturated Mexican politics of the period. What is perhaps the most extraordinary coda to these complex machinations is that a special assistant to the U.S. attorney general was closely monitoring Porter’s activities in Mexico during 1920 and 1921. His name was J. Edgar Hoover.

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In 1921, he was nearly eighty years old, and he had lived in Mexico for about forty years. Every day of those years he had devoted exclusively to his one interest in life: discovering and digging up buried Indian cities all over the country. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, June 4, 2010


Shirley Jackson (1916–1965)
From Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories

In a 1997 appreciation, Jonathan Lethem observes that Shirley Jackson’s “forté was psychology and society, people in other words—people disturbed, dispossessed, misunderstanding or thwarting one another compulsively, people colluding absently in monstrous acts.” Likewise, Joyce Carol Oates in a recent interview describes her as a “literary Gothicist”; Jackson did not write “about the supernatural as an end in itself—only its psychological manifestations.” There is a conspicuous lack of ghosts and ghouls in Jackson’s fiction; instead there are haunted minds.

Although today she is better known for tales of psychological horror (especially The Haunting of Hill House and, of course, “The Lottery”), Jackson also wrote humorous, unsentimental tales of ordinary domestic life. “Charles” is the first of her numerous semi-autobiographical stories of life as a 1940s housewife raising children who sometimes seemed one step outside her ability to control them. Jackson originally published the story in Mademoiselle and included it in the collection The Lottery; or, The Adventures of James Harris, and she later incorporated this episode, stripped of its fictional veneer, in her memoir Life Among the Savages. Alternating between menace and whimsy in its description of Laurie’s impish classmate, the story draws its piquancy less from the outcome than from its humor and its sly winks at the credulity of parents.

Bonus story: Thanks to the generosity of the Jackson estate and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, we are able to make available a second story from the just-published Library of America Shirley Jackson collection to Story of the Week readers. Click here (PDF) to download “Trial by Combat,” about the unsettling showdown between a young woman and the not-quite-menacing widow who is her neighbor.

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The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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