Friday, October 29, 2010

Artemus Ward on His Visit to Abe Lincoln

Artemus Ward (1834–1867)
From The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now

Caricature by H. L. Stephens (1860)
Saturday, November 6, 2010, marks the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln. During his first year in office, he would be confronted with crises that would test the very existence of the United States, but during the first few days he faced chaos of an entirely different nature. Years later, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward (who had been appointed by his father, Secretary of State William H. Seward) recalled the opening month of the Lincoln’s presidency in Reminiscences of a War-time Statesman and Diplomat, describing
the swarm of office-seekers that beleaguered the White House, filling all the halls, corridors, and offices from morning till night. The patient good humour and the democratic habits of the new President led him to give audience to everybody, at all hours. Even the members of his Cabinet, sometimes had to force their way through the crowd and get the private ear of the President in the corner of a roomful of visitors, before they could impart to him grave matters of state.
Such scenes had become de rigueur for new administrations during the nineteenth century and, immediately after the election, the humorist Artemus Ward (whose real name was Charles Farrar Browne) imagined hordes of applicants invading and occupying Lincoln’s home in Springfield, before the President-elect had even left for Washington. Ward’s satirical pieces, narrated by an uneducated traveling entertainer with a special knack for malapropism, were enormously popular and would sometimes acquire the aura of fact; the Daily Illinois State Register claimed that Ward had actually advised Lincoln to appoint to his cabinet “showmen, as showmen ain’t got nary darned principle”—a line lifted nearly verbatim from the following story.

But perhaps the greatest accolades for Ward’s satire came from Lincoln himself, who esteemed the humorist, often welcomed him to the White House, and even opened the September 22, 1862, meeting in which he announced the Emancipation Proclamation by reading to the mostly appalled cabinet members a chapter from Ward’s latest book. According to Judge Hamilton Ward, who claimed to have heard the story from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, it was on this occasion that Lincoln allegedly delivered the now-famous (but probably apocryphal) quote, “Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh, I should die.”

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I hiv no politics. Nary a one. I’m not in the bisniss. . . . 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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Friday, October 22, 2010

In Goldman, Sachs We Trust

John Kenneth Galbraith (1908–2006)
From John Kenneth Galbraith: The Affluent Society and Other Writings 1952–1967

This week (October 24–29) marks the anniversary of the Great Crash, a cataclysm pushed to the foreground by events of recent years—although for many Americans, the cause of the 1929 calamity is at best an incomprehensible, nebulous “house of cards” or “Ponzi scheme” (which, to great extent, it was). In his enduringly popular account, The Great Crash, 1929, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith explains, in very clear terms, exactly what happened. In one now-famous chapter, he describes how, during the late 1920s, it seemed everybody in the nation was buying stocks to get rich quick. Rather than wondering if the run-up was fueled by little more than unbridled imagination and misguided optimism, some Wall Street experts sincerely worried “that the country might be running out of common stock,” a problem they believed was a major cause of stocks’ high prices. So various ways to increase investment opportunities were invented and offered to the public.

One method of increasing the number of stocks, relatively new in the U.S., was the creation of the investment trust. Such companies did not really produce anything or foster new enterprises; instead, they “merely arranged that people could own stock in old companies through the medium of new ones”; that is, the trust’s sole purpose was to invest its funds in the stocks of other companies. The problem, however, was that there was often no relation to the amount of money invested in the trust to the amount of money the trust invested, in turn, in stocks. “The difference,” Galbraith writes, “went into the call market, real estate, or the pockets of the promoters.”

The investment trusts succeeded largely because the “product” they sold to the average trader was expertise: “One might make money investing directly in Radio, J. I. Case, or Montgomery Ward, but how much safer and wiser to let it be accomplished by the men of peculiar knowledge, and wisdom.” And the trusts were not really new companies; instead, most of them were sponsored by existing companies—for example, J.P. Morgan was behind the investment trust United Corporation. Furthermore, it almost goes without saying, investment trusts would sponsor investment trusts that would, in turn sponsor investment trusts; each of these companies issuing stocks that they would often sell to each other or to other investment trusts. Many of these companies learned quickly that through the “the miracle of leverage” (the degree to which borrowed money is used), they could “swing a second and larger [trust] which enhanced the gains and made possible a third and still bigger trust.”

Which brings us to Goldman, Sachs and Company. In the final section of his chapter on investment trusts, Galbraith describes the unique and outsized role the company had in the inevitable debacle, with total losses that, in today’s dollars, would equal about $475 billion.

Goldman, Sachs and Company, an investment banking and brokerage partnership, came rather late to the investment trust business. Not until December 4, 1928, less than a year before the stock market crash, did it sponsor the Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation, its initial venture in the field. However, rarely, if ever, in history has an enterprise grown as the Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation and its offspring grew in the months ahead. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Little Room

Madeline Yale Wynne (1847–1918)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

The reputations of some authors endure through the ages, even though (and sometimes because) they wrote only one memorable book. John Kennedy Toole, Harper Lee, and Margaret Mitchell are a few of America’s more famous one-hit wonders, but if readers today know of Madeline Yale Wynne at all, it is because of the six short pieces of fiction gathered in The Little Room and Other Stories—or more precisely, because of the collection’s title story, which continues to appear in anthologies more than a century after its initial publication in Harper’s in 1895.

Yet, had Wynne never written “The Little Room,” she would still be noted by a small cadre of regional historians and art scholars as a prominent leader of the Arts and Crafts movement in Massachusetts. The daughter of Linus Yale, who invented several types of locks and founded the Yale Lock Manufacturing Company, she became well known as an accomplished metal-smith and president of The Society of Deerfield Industries, a collective of local artisans, mostly women. After a revival of sorts during the 1970s, Wynne’s creations (ranging from shoe buckles to an iron-and-oak chest) are eagerly sought after today by collectors and museums.

The Little Room would not be Wynne's only publication. Her expertise as an artisan led her to write essays for home and style magazines, such as “Clay Paint and Other Wall Finishings” (The House Beautiful, 1902). The year before she died, Si Briggs Talk, a short book of humorous but unexceptional country-folk doggerel, would appear. An Ancestral Invasion and Other Stories is a posthumous anthology of uncollected and unpublished work selected and edited by Annie Putnam, her companion for more than three decades, and introduced by Edward Waldo Emerson (the youngest son of Ralph).

But it is “The Little Room” that remains Wynne’s most influential story, recently praised by literary scholar Alfred Bendixen as “one of the most effective ‘puzzle stories’ ever written.” Featuring a space whose contents anticipate the quantum quandary of Schrödinger’s cat, the mystery is set in a house inhabited by two unmarried aunts, who seem unperturbed by the different accounts they hear from visitors concerning what’s behind a particular door. The story’s themes have also invited modern feminist readings, such as Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s appraisal in Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women: “What haunts in this story, and what women are never able to find in the presences of their husbands, is an intimate feminine space—a space of refuge, healing, and play.” For some visitors, it becomes a “room of one’s own”; for others, it is a closet of domestic confinement.

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‘How would it do for a smoking-room?’ . . . 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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Friday, October 8, 2010

Baxter’s Procrustes

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932)
From Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays

In 1899 the Rowfant Club of Cleveland, an exclusive association of book collectors, issued a deluxe limited edition of the story collection The Conjure Woman, which had been written by city resident Charles W. Chesnutt and published earlier that year by Houghton, Mifflin. The author himself hoped to join the club and three years later applied for membership, only to be denied because “one or two members thought the time hadn’t come” for admitting black members to their ranks.

So Chesnutt did what any self-respecting author would do when confronted by such an injustice: he wrote a story satirizing the members of the club. Published in 1904, “Baxter’s Procrustes” would prove to be one of his most successful stories and is still considered among his best, in large part because Chesnutt’s mockery is, for the most part, even-tempered; in biographer William L. Andrew’s words, although the club’s “vulnerable idiosyncrasies” are tenaciously exposed, “the satiric underthrust is deftly made but well concealed indeed.”

The Rowfant Club’s members must not have been too offended by Chesnutt’s riposte; in 1910, they reconsidered their decision and admitted him as the first African American member of the club. (A century later, the club still exists, but it remains resolutely men-only.) Helen Chesnutt, in her biography of her father, recalled the pleasure he took in “Saturday nights at the Rowfant Club. . . . There he basked in the warm rays of friendship for which his lonely heart had yearned in the days of his youth in North Carolina.” Over the course of the next decade, he delivered lectures on Alexander Dumas, George Meredith, and other literary figures.

But there’s a delightful coda to this real-life happy ending: in an assessment of “Baxter’s Procrustes,” Chesnutt scholar Charles Duncan relates that, in 1966, the Rowfant Club itself reprinted the story in a limited edition of 150 copies. Understanding fully the irony of publishing a rare collector’s edition of a story mocking collectors of rare editions, the author of the book’s introduction admits that Chesnutt delivers “a soft-spoken ribbing of all whose hearts belong more to the physical world of rare tomes than to their spiritual and intellectual contents.”

Notes: Procrustes is the name of a mythical highwayman who tied victims to a bed, fitting them to its length by stretching them or cutting off their legs. Thus, something is Procrustean if it is senselessly made to fit some arbitrary standard. Joseph Jefferson, entioned in the first paragraph, was a famous American actor of the late nineteenth century. Doublures, referred to twice in the story, are ornamental linings on the inner side of a book cover.

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Baxter’s Procrustes is one of the publications of the Bodleian Club. The Bodleian Club is composed of gentlemen of culture, who are interested in books and book-collecting. It was named, very obviously, after the famous library of the same name, and not only became in our city a sort of shrine for local worshipers of fine bindings and rare editions, but was visited occasionally by pilgrims from afar. . . . 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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Friday, October 1, 2010

The Train

Flannery O'Connor (1925–1964)
From Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works

Readers of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood will recall Haze Motes, a soldier who, after returning to his family home only to find it abandoned, travels by train to locate his preacher-grandfather and establishes his own “church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.” For this week’s selection, we present Haze in his previous incarnation, Hazel Wickers, in the story that brought O’Connor to the attention of the authors and editors who would champion her.

O’Connor enjoyed enviable success soon after finishing her studies at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1947. On the basis of her student work and a draft of her novel-in-progress, she received the Rinehart-Iowa Award of $750 and an option for her first book. “The Train,” the last of six stories in her MFA thesis (titled The Geranium), was accepted by the respected quarterly Sewanee Review, which published it as simply “Train” in the April 1948 issue.

She was invited to stay at Yaddo, the renowned artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she befriended the poet Robert Lowell, who regarded her as a favorite protégé. In his recent biography Brad Gooch describes the transformation of her story into the novel’s first chapter:
She was making progress, thinning out and pacing the opening. “Well I can’t sustain that,” she told Sally [Fitzgerald] when her friend praised “The Train.” “I have to tone it down.” Haze Motes, in his “glaring blue” suit and “hat that an elderly country preacher would wear,” was coming into focus as a slightly demented saint in the making, a shift in direction that Sally thought perhaps “due to criticism by [Robert] Lowell.”
Another recent arrival at Yaddo was Alfred Kazin, who immediately took note of O’Connor’s work and alerted Robert Giroux, a junior editor at Harcourt Brace. When Lowell finally introduced her to Giroux in New York, O’Connor was faced with a dilemma rare for a first-time author: she had two publishers vying for her unfinished book. Angered by Rinehart’s criticisms (which she regarded as “addressed to a slightly dim-witted Camp Fire Girl”), she refused to agree to their extensive editorial changes. Rinehart ultimately released O’Connor from the option on her book, allowing Harcourt to publish Wise Blood in 1952.

In “The Train,” as in the novel, Haze is traveling to Taulkinham, but the story’s final destination is a night in the train itself. Instead of a “slightly demented saint in the making,” Haze is a nineteen-year-old youth, alone and nervous and clumsy and haunted by the death of his mother. His thoughts are disturbed by the resemblance of a black porter to someone back home, by a chatty woman sitting near him on the train, and by the prospect of spending the night in the coffin-like sleeper berth.

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hinking about the porter, he had almost forgotten the berth. He had an upper one. The man in the station had said he could give him a lower and Haze had asked didn’t he have no upper ones; the man said sure if that was what he wanted, and gave him an upper one. . . . 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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