Friday, November 26, 2010

Success in Entertaining

Ward McAllister (1827–1895)
From American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes

Caricature of Ward McAllister as “an ass”
telling Uncle Sam to imitate “an English
Snob.” Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
As we enter the holiday season and fret over the fĂȘtes and dinners we may be planning to host or attend, it is amusing to ponder the lengths to which wealthy Americans (and especially their servants) went to prepare society dinners during the Gilded Age. Their improbable chronicler was Ward McAllister, a Gold Rush millionaire who married an heiress and quickly attached himself to “the Mrs. Astor,” Caroline, whose husband, William, had inherited the vast estate of his brother John Jacob Astor III.

McAllister, who earned the sobriquet “Make-a-lister,” formulated New York’s A-list, which he dubbed the “Four Hundred,” a reference to the maximum number of guests who could comfortably fit into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom. Notably lacking at these events were artists and intellectuals; Edith Wharton attended once and was chagrined to note, in A Backward Glance, that instead of the “Bohemians” she had been led to expect, “the tiara-ed heads and bulging white waistcoats of the most accredited millionaires glittered between gold plate and orchids.” Evander Berry Wall, an heir to a fortune and the most famous of the New York “dudes,” quipped, “Remember that Broadway only cuts across Fifth Avenue—it never parallels it.”

In Who Killed Society?, Cleveland Amory summarizes, “without the slightest hint of a sense of humor, [McAllister] imparted such seriousness to his ideas, as well as to himself, that in the socially insecure times in which he lived he was soon taken extremely seriously even by people who should have known better.” But eventually this artifice imploded, and the fuse was his book Society As I Have Found It (1890). On its publication, William Dean Howells wrote in Harper’s, “It is always and everywhere amusing to see a plutocracy trying to turn into an aristocracy, and that is what Mr. McAllister shows us with no apparent sense of its comicality.” That the nation’s readers were suddenly laughing at McAllister’s prosperous peers did little for his standing among them, and he soon found himself persona non grata among the very society he thought he had made.

Yet, as a reviewer of his book in The New York Times noted, “our leader of society is not weak on all points. The man seriously knows something about eating and drinking. Being a cousin of Sam Ward must count for something.” The mention of McAllister’s cousin, Samuel Cutler Ward, brings us full circle, for not only was he a famous gourmet who ruled the Washington, DC, dinner circuit but he also married Emily Astor, the sister-in-law of “the Mrs. Astor.” The following selection makes reference to Ward McAllister’s “distinguished cousin” and his culinary authority as it describes with (mostly unintentional) comical aplomb the protocol for preparing a proper society dinner.

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The first object to be aimed at is to make your dinners so charming and agreeable that invitations to them are eagerly sought for, and to let all feel that it is a great privilege to dine at your house, where they are sure they will meet only those whom they wish to meet. . . . 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, November 19, 2010

Hunting the Deceitful Turkey

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891–1910

Pencil sketch of Mark Twain by Samuel Johnson Woolf, 1906. From S. J. Woolf, Drawn from Life (1932). 
As Americans get ready to prepare their traditional Thanksgiving dinners, it seems only appropriate to offer Mark Twain’s humorous yarn about turkeys of yore. The twist: first you had to catch (and, it should go without saying, kill) them. Filled with Twain’s trademark exaggeration and self-deprecation, this autobiographical childhood memory of the one that got away was eventually meant to be part of a chapter in a much larger undertaking that remained unfinished at his death.

During the late 1890s, Twain began gathering his recollections in a manuscript with the title, “My Autobiography (Random Extracts of It).” The project was very much on his mind; he told the London Times in 1899 that the memoir would not be published until a century after his death. In 1906 be began dictating his reminiscences more energetically and that same year he decided to publish fragments of the work-in-progress in twenty-five issues of the North American Review, with the disclaimer, “No part of the autobiography will be published in book form during the lifetime of the author.”

After Twain’s death, in spite of his wishes for a century-long embargo, his estate allowed various parts of the unfinished work to be published in a number of abridged and cobbled-together versions. But, finally, just a few weeks ago, the first of three volumes of the complete and unexpurgated autobiographical fragments and chapters was published by the University of California Press—and it immediately debuted in the #2 spot on The New York Times Best–Seller List.

The same year that Twain began publishing excerpts in the North American Review, he allowed Harper’s to print “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey,” which was an excerpt from the “Random Extracts” manuscript. (Those who own the Autobiography will find the text on pages 218–20, under the heading “Chapter”; what appears below is the minimally edited 1906 magazine version.) Over the years it has proved to be one of Twain’s most popular stories. Weeks after its publication in 1906, an anonymous reviewer in the Literary Digest wrote, “If the account which he gives is authentic, there are grounds for the belief that the mama-turkey is almost as much of a humorist as Mark Twain himself.”

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When I was a boy my uncle and his big boys hunted with the rifle, the youngest boy Fred and I with a shotgun—a small single-barrelled shotgun which was properly suited to our size and strength; it was not much heavier than a broom. We carried it turn about, half an hour at a time. . . . 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, November 12, 2010

Account of the Battle of Monmouth

George Washington (1732–1799)
From George Washington: Writings

Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth, c. 1852, oil on canvas by German American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816–1868). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“The father of our country remains a moving target for historians,” Janet Maslin writes in a review of Washington: A Life, the blockbuster biography by Ron Chernow. Jill Lepore agrees, “No biographer of George Washington has failed to remark on his inscrutability.” Although Chernow endeavors, in his own words, “to make him vivid and immediate, rather than the lifeless waxwork he has become for many Americans,” he admits that Washington “joined in this conspiracy to make himself unknowable.” Yet Washington’s famously dispassionate prose often made him an ideal chronicler of the details of a military campaign.

In mid-June 1778 Washington discovered that the British troops commanded by General Henry Clinton in Philadelphia were preparing to abandon the city and move their command to New York. The dilemma for Washington and his staff was whether the exhausted Continental army could take advantage of the opening to attack a retreating force. The majority of the generals (scorned as a “most honorable society of midwives” by Alexander Hamilton) favored caution over engagement, but Washington decided to send four thousand men against the British. He offered the command to General Charles Lee, who was recently released in a prisoner exchange. Opposed to the decision to attack the British and convinced it would fail, Lee turned the offer down as unworthy of his status. The young Lafayette, eager to prove himself, accepted command. Then Lee, apparently fearful of losing the laurels of victory to an upstart, changed his mind, so Washington forged a compromise and named him as Lafayette’s nominal superior for the battle, which occurred on June 28.

It was a recipe for confusion and, as nearly always happens in warfare, little went according to plan. The British, expecting an attack, posted their best soldiers in the rear. In the stifling summer heat, Lee sent his troops on an obligatory but feeble attack and Washington soon discovered to his dismay that Continental forces were in retreat. Several eyewitnesses, including Lee himself, attest that one of the rare moments when Washington lost his self-control during the war was when he encountered the fleeing general. (“Never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since,” one later recalled.) In his biography, Chernow makes special note of this display of “the temperamental side of Washington that he ordinarily kept well under wraps.” It was at that moment Washington took personal command, rallied the retreating forces, and turned them around—all while enduring enemy fire and having his own horse die under him from the heat.

Although the Battle of Monmouth was basically a draw, both sides were able to claim victory: Washington averted a near-catastrophe and showed that his ragtag troops were the equal of the enemy on the battlefield, while the British achieved their ultimate objective and reached New York. As for Lee, the battle was hardly over before he began telling others that Washington had “sent me out of the field when victory was assured” and that any successes that day were “entirely owing” to his own command. Washington responded with a written, angry rebuke, after which Lee virtually dared his commander to court-martial him—a challenge that Washington wrathfully fulfilled. Among the many things remarkable about his subsequent report to the president of the Continental Congress is how minimally he describes “the peculiar Situation of General Lee,” how scrupulously he assigns credit and praise to his senior staff, and how steadfastly he avoids mentioning his own bravery and conduct on the field.

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English Town, July 1, 1778
Sir: I embrace the first moment of leisure, to give Congress a more full and particular account of the movements of the Army under my command, since its passing the Delaware, than the situation of our Affairs would heretofore permit. . . . 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, November 5, 2010

A Journey

Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1891–1910

The period between Edith Wharton’s marriage in 1885 at the age of twenty-three and the publication of The Greater Inclination, her first collection of stories, in 1899 is, biographer Hermione Lee confirms, “more obscure to us than her later years as a famous novelist.” We do know that, after her marriage, Wharton was quite often afflicted with various ailments; we also know that she was disappointed by the lack of passion and intellectual affinity in her marriage (Lee agrees with other biographers that the union was a “disaster”). The formidable Wharton scholar R.W.B. Lewis attributes the recurrent illnesses not only to the unsatisfactory relationship with her husband, but also to “society’s and her mother’s distrust of a person of good family who took seriously to writing. One can only employ the phrase ‘severe identity crisis’ to describe the terrible and long-drawn-out period Edith Wharton was passing through.”

The upshot was that it took the author more than five years (rather than the six months promised to her editor) to complete her first book—a period of hesitation and self-doubt that virtually vanished afterward, when, Lewis notes, “her fiction-writing energy never let up.” She later wrote in A Backward Glance:
I felt like some homeless waif who, after trying for years to take out naturalization papers, and being rejected by every country, has finally acquired a nationality. The Land of Letters was henceforth to be my country, and I gloried in my new citizenship. The publishing of The Greater Inclination broke the chains which had held me so long in a kind or torpor. For nearly twelve years I had tried to adjust myself to the life I had led since my marriage. . . .
Although, Lee reminds us, some of Wharton’s illnesses were “real enough” and certainly didn’t vanish with her newfound respect as an author, there is little doubt that the success of her first book of fiction—which received strong reviews and sold a respectable 3,000 copies—served as an turning point in her life.

It is not surprising, then, that of the handful of stories written during the 1890s, three were tales of marital misery. “A Journey” features a wife traveling with her terminally ill husband by train to New York. (Lewis suggests that there may be a bit of wishful thinking here on Wharton’s part.) The journey itself becomes a metaphor for an unhappy marriage: “Life had a grudge against her; she was never to be allowed to spread her wings.” If there’s an epilogue to this story, perhaps it’s to be found in the increasing distance in subsequent years between Edith and Edward Wharton, leading to their inevitable divorce in 1913.

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As she lay in her berth, staring at the shadows overhead, the rush of the wheels was in her brain, driving her deeper and deeper into circles of wakeful lucidity. . . . 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.