Friday, September 24, 2010

You Could Look It Up

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

While playing with a toy bow and arrow, William Thurber accidentally shot his seven-year-old brother, James, in the left eye. A local doctor bandaged it, but a few days later the eye began to cause pain again and a specialist determined it would have to be removed. Later in life, Thurber’s remaining eye began causing him problems and he underwent five operations in 1940 and 1941. (The operations were a failure, and he would eventually become nearly blind.) During this period he found it difficult to work, but somehow, after the first operation, he managed to finish one of his most famous pieces, which, his wife later recalled, was the result of the “fact that he couldn’t read” and instead listened to baseball. He finished the story too late for the 1940 baseball season, however, so the Saturday Evening Post published it in April 1941.

Many of Thurber’s fans have noted the similarity between the barely literate dialect employed by the narrator of “You Could Look It Up” and the vernacular of athletes portrayed in Ring Lardner’s stories. But, as Thurber biographer Harrison Kinney writes, “nothing by Lardner matches Thurber’s wild plot.” The story acquired additional notoriety in 1951, when Bill Veeck became owner of the ill-fated St. Louis Browns, a team that ranks, in his own words, “in the annals of baseball a step or two ahead of Cro-Magnon man.” During that lamentable season, Veeck hired Eddie Gaedel, who at 3 feet 7 inches tall remains the shortest player in the history of major league baseball and whose career lasted for all of a single at-bat in a game against the Detroit Tigers on August 19. Veeck denied that he got the idea from Thurber’s story, although he admitted he suddenly recollected it, with more than a little nervousness, during the game itself. As to what happened to Gaedal, whether he struck out, walked on balls, or even succumbed to the temptation of swinging at a pitch—well, you could look it up.

Note: “Damon and Phidia” refers to the legend of Damon and Pythias (symbolizing true friendship); “Pope-Hartford” was a motor vehicle manufactured during the first decade of the twentieth century.

It all begun when we dropped down to C’lumbus, Ohio, from Pittsburgh to play a exhibition game on our way out to St. Louis. It was gettin’ on into September, and though we’d been leadin’ the league by six, seven games most of the season, we was now in first place by a margin you could ’a’ got it into the eye of a thimble, bein’ only a half a game ahead of St. Louis. Our slump had given the boys the leapin’ jumps, and they was like a bunch a old ladies at a lawn fete with a thunderstorm comin’ up, runnin’ around snarlin’ at each other, eatin’ bad and sleepin’ worse, and battin’ for a team average of maybe .186. Half the time nobody’d speak to nobody else, without it was to bawl ’em out.

Squawks Magrew was managin’ the boys at the time, and he was darn near crazy. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Désirée’s Baby

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

In January 1893, Vogue published the up-and-coming writer Kate Chopin for the first time, featuring two of her stories in their January 14 issue. Both stories proved popular with readers, and Vogue would ultimately publish nineteen of her stories during the coming decade. One of the two debuts, “Désirée’s Baby,” with its bold treatment of race, marked a change for an author that had become known for her pleasant “Creole tales.” Set in a slave-owning plantation household, with a master whose “rule was a strict one,” Chopin’s bold treatment of race deliberately inventories the differences among the inhabitants: negroes, dark, yellow, quadroon, fair, La Blanche, white—arbitrary distinctions that would lead inexorably to the story’s tragic outcome.

A sensation upon its publication, “Désirée’s Baby,” has remained her most critically acclaimed, commonly anthologized, and widely known story until the present day. As early as 1906, the author of the Library of Southern Literature called it “one of the most perfect short stories in English.” Fred Lewis Pattee, in his ground-breaking 1915 survey, History of American Literature since 1870, compared Chopin to such French writers as Maupassant and Flaubert and exclaimed that the story, “with its culminating sentence that stops for a moment the reader’s heart, is well nigh perfect.” Daniel Rankin, who in 1932 would write the only full-length book on Chopin until her “rediscovery” in the 1960s, agreed, “Perhaps it is one of the world’s best short stories.” And in 1978, Cynthia Griffin Woolf, concluded that it is “a superb piece of short fiction—an economical, tight psychological drama.”

Note: A corbeille is a basket of gifts from a groom to his bride; cochon de lait ("milk pig") is a piglet.

*   *   *
As the day was pleasant, Madame Valmondé drove over to L’Abri to see Désirée and the baby.

It made her laugh to think of Désirée with a baby. Why, it seemed but yesterday that Désirée was little more than a baby herself; when Monsieur in riding through the gateway of Valmondé had found her lying asleep in the shadow of the big stone pillar. . . . 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, September 10, 2010


Raymond Carver (1938–1988)
From Raymond Carver: Collected Stories

Photo by Markus Spiske (Pixabay)
In a recent interview, William Stull and Maureen Carroll, the editors of The Library of America edition of Raymond Carver’s Collected Stories, summarized the fiction that remained unavailable to readers when Carver died:
Four stories uncollected and five unpublished at the writer’s death . . . That’s not a bursting cupboard, compared to the dozens of uncollected stories by John Cheever, say, or the shelf of posthumous books by Charles Bukowski. In life and literature, Raymond Carver didn’t hold much back. “I’ve always squandered,” he liked to say.
In her introduction to Call If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Prose, Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, recalls what led to the discovery of three of the five unpublished stories:
Early in 1998, as the tenth anniversary of Ray’s death approached, Jay Woodruff phoned to say he wanted to do something to honor Ray in Esquire. “There are these folders in the desk,” I said. “There may be nothing whole or worthwhile,” I told him. “But I could look sometime.” I suspect Jay heard the hesitation. At any rate he said, “Tess, when you get ready to look at those things I’ll be happy to come out and help you.”
Woodruff and Gallagher met in March 1999 at Tess’s home in Port Angeles, and Salon contributor Craig Offman spoke to Woodruff soon thereafter:
After rummaging through a drawer of notes, fragments and false starts, the two pretty much gave up on the idea of a “eureka!” file. “I felt discouraged,” he [Woodruff] says. "Many of the stories Tess and I found began well but fell off the cliff. But then, toward the end of the day, I heard her say, ‘Oh!’”
By coincidence, just a few months later, Stull and Carroll found the other two stories in Carver’s papers at the Ohio State University Library.

One of the three stories found in Port Angeles, “Kindling,” “hark[s] back movingly to that time in 1979,” writes Gallagher, “when Ray and I began our lives together in El Paso and he made his own fresh start at writing after a ten-year bout with alcoholism.” Requiring virtually no editing beyond obvious errors (like the regularization of names and spelling), the story was published in Esquire almost immediately after its discovery—in the July 1999 issue—and it became the sixth of Carver’s stories to win an O. Henry Award.

*   *   *
It was the middle of August and Myers was between lives. The only thing different about this time from the other times was that this time he was sober. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission.
To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Nature of Liberty

H. L. Mencken (1880–1956)
From H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series

During a recent interview conducted by The Library of America, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers reminds us just how popular a figure H. L. Mencken had become during the years following World War I:
It is difficult for modern readers to realize what an electrifying effect Mencken had. For the generation coming of age during the 1920s, Mencken cleared the air of Victorian stuffiness and cobwebs. . . . [His writings] made him, according to The New York Times, the most influential private citizen in the United States. Sherwood Anderson wrote that everywhere he went he was asked, “What do you think of Mencken?”

. . . Hundreds of newspapers printed his latest quotes and described the way he parted his hair, his fondness for cigars. In New York, a doctor used extracts of Prejudices to test his patients’ vision. Beauties of the Ziegfeld Follies held copies of Prejudices while hanging out at the Algonquin Hotel. . . . F. Scott Fitzgerald inserted Mencken’s name in the proofs of This Side of Paradise. His dalliances with blondes inspired Anita Loos to write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Journalists, motivated by his outspoken stands on controversial issues, imitated his vernacular style.
His popularity gave Mencken a freedom to write on subjects nobody else would cover. His writings during and after World War I supported woman suffrage, promoted African American authors, and championed the contributions of immigrants to American society. He inveighed against censorship, corruption, police brutality, the Ku Klux Klan, and (above all) Prohibition. In fact, as Rodgers points out in her biography, Mencken wrote at least forty-two newspaper columns about the ban on alcohol.

Most of Mencken’s opinions were underscored by a devotion to the protection and advancement of civil liberties. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “Echoes of the Jazz Age, “we didn’t remember anything about the Bill of Rights until Mencken began plugging it.” In a piece published in The Chicago Sunday Tribune in 1926, Mencken wrote:
Liberty, if it means anything at all, means that body of rights which the citizen reserves to himself, even as against the government. . . . Thus a conflict is set up between the rights of the citizen and the power and security of the government. In so far as the citizen prevails the government is weak, and in so far as the government prevails the citizen is not a citizen at all, but a subject.

Obviously no government, of its own motion, will increase its own weakness, for that would mean to acquiesce in its own destruction. . . . So governments, whatever their pretensions otherwise, try to preserve themselves by holding the individual down.
In the following satire, Mencken adopts an entirely different approach to the same topic, employing his trademark sarcasm to lampoon those (like himself) who defend the Bill of Rights and to assail those who would dispense with those rights “to safeguard public order and the public security.” We present this week’s selection both to honor Mencken Day (celebrated each year in Baltimore on the Saturday before his birthday, September 12) and to celebrate the publication of The Library of America edition of the complete Prejudices.

Notes to page 413: Mooney is a reference to Thomas Mooney, a labor leader convicted of murder in 1916 and pardoned in 1939. Also see Wikipedia for information on the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti.

*   *   *
Every time an officer of the constabulary, in the execution of his just and awful powers under American law, produces a compound fracture of the occiput of some citizen in his custody, with hemorrhage, shock, coma and death, there comes a feeble, falsetto protest from specialists in human liberty. . . . 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.