Thursday, December 30, 2010

Aunt Cynthy Dallett

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
From Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels and Stories

When Sarah Orne Jewett published this week’s selection in an early January issue of Harper’s Bazaar 115 years ago, its title was the seasonally appropriate “The New-Year Guests.” She changed the title four years later when the story was reprinted in a book-length collection—an implicit acknowledgment of a heroine whose type appears often in her fiction: a New England woman living alone in her home. Such a character appears in a previous Story of the Week selection, “Going to Shrewsbury,” in which Mrs. Peet loses her home to an unscrupulous relative; we noted in our introduction how Jewett depicts the precariousness of solitude for women. Similarly, this week’s story, “Aunt Cynthy Dallett,” portrays how, for two women, such isolation can become unstable due to more benign reasons.

Still, Aunt Cynthy and her niece
, while sometimes lonely, value their isolation and their respective homes. Margaret Farrand Thorp, in her 1966 study of Jewett’s fiction, notes (using this story as a paramount example), “Misanthropy has nothing to do with this state of mind. Most of the solitaries like to mix with people and like to talk, but there are other things they value more, independence, the pleasure of being surrounded by their own possessions, freedom to order their lives and do things in their own way.” The tension in Aunt Cynthy Dallett” results when the two women, one growing older and the other poorer, are faced with the possibility that they can no longer sustain the households they have grown to love. But, since it’s New Year’s Day, Aunt Cynthy ultimately follows the tradition established by her father, who “made a good deal of it; he said he liked to make it pleasant and give the year a fair start.”

“No,” said Mrs. Hand speaking wistfully,—“no, we never were in the habit of keeping Christmas at our house. Mother died when we were all young; she would have been the one to keep up with all new ideas, but father and grandmother were old-fashioned folks, and—well, you know how ’t was then, Miss Pendexter: nobody took much notice of the day except to wish you a Merry Christmas.”

“They did n’t do much to make it merry, certain,” answered Miss Pendexter. “Sometimes nowadays I hear folks complainin’ o’ bein’ overtaxed with all the Christmas work they have to do.” . . . 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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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Horsefeathers Swathed in Mink

A. J. Liebling (1904–1963)
From A. J. Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings

“The names of those who came under Liebling’s assault are now mainly forgotten, but their bigotry and jingoism and fakery all have resonant equivalents today,” wrote David Remnick in a 2004 New Yorker essay memorializing the magazine’s former star columnist on the centennial of his birth. One of A. J. Liebling’s frequent targets was the media, particularly the newspapers of New York. In a monthly feature called “Wayward Press,” he exposed shoddy reporting, sensationalist or fabricated stories, and—a favorite object of scorn—headline writers. Between the end of World War II and his death in 1963, Liebling wrote more than eighty columns on the press, which proved to be one of the magazine’s most popular features. Summarizing Liebling’s contribution to the field of media criticism, John Lingan reminds us “that the issues concerning our current newspaper ‘crisis’—perceived journalistic bias, a relative dearth of proper foreign reportage, charges of elitism, the financial tenuousness of newspaper operation—are nothing new.” Indeed, Liebling himself often conceded the unoriginality and futility of his critiques. (“The longer I criticized the press, the more it disimproved,” he once quipped.)

One doesn’t have to look far in “Horsefeathers Swathed in Mink” to find today’s “resonant equivalents” referred to by Remnick. Liebling opens the piece by juxtaposing the still-common “neediest cases” articles that appear annually in the back sections of newspapers with the year-round front-page attacks on the “Undeserving Poor.” As an example of the anecdotal “welfare cheat” used to criticize poverty relief programs, the largely fictionalized “Woman in Mink” (soon promoted to “Lady in Mink”) dominated the front pages of every newspaper in New York City for a brief period in 1947. In his column Liebling revealed the truths behind the myth (or, one might say, the mange behind the mink), and he particularly directs his debunking efforts at the usually staid New York Times. Although he is careful to acknowledge that “exposures of maladministration can only be welcomed by the citizenry,” he insists that “such inquiries must be conducted on the basis of fair play and sound judgment” and, above all, with a regard for the facts.

Notes: The “report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights” referred to on page 751 recommended an end to segregation in the military and the passage of other significant civil rights measures. The “young American actor” Penrod Schofield, mentioned on page 756, is a fictional character in a novel by Booth Tarkington. Tommy Manville (page 758) was a wealthy New York socialite perhaps most infamous for his thirteen marriages to eleven women. PM was a liberal daily newspaper in New York, published from 1940 to 1948.

*   *   *
There is no concept more generally cherished by publishers than that of the Undeserving Poor. Newspapers may permit themselves a bit of seasonal sentimentality, like the Times’s 100 Neediest Cases at Christmas-tide or the Herald-Tribune’s Fresh Air Camps in summer, in which their readers are invited to send in money while the newspaper generously agrees to accept the thanks of the beneficiaries. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

(Because Liebling incorporated this essay in his collection The Press, the story begins down near the bottom of the first page of the PDF.)


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Friday, December 17, 2010

The Christmas Fireside
(for Good Little Boys and Girls)

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890

The year 2010 has become, somewhat unexpectedly, the Year of Mark Twain. And so, for this holiday season, we present a Christmas story that only he could write, about the wicked boy who got everything.

When Twain arrived in San Francisco in 1864, he quickly landed a job writing for a newly launched literary weekly called The Californian, which was co-edited by Bret Harte (future author of “The Outcast of Poker Flat”) and Charles Henry Webb. With their encouragement and guidance, he honed his skills as a satirist and within a few months he was paid $50 a month to write one piece per issue—a respectable amount at the time, although never enough for the young Samuel Clemens, whose financial woes were a recurrent theme in his journals and letters. The newspaper was a success, but turnover among owners and editors led to its eventual demise. Before the periodical ceased publication in 1868, it had also introduced Ambrose Bierce to its readers.

Published two days before Christmas in the newspaper’s first year, “The Christmas Fireside” features a character familiar to readers of Mark Twain: the naughty boy. Compared with the affably mischievous Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, however, “Jim” is a downright monster. But Twain’s satire isn’t really about boyhood. If anything, Twain has written what might be called an “anti-story”—less about what does happen to Jim and more about what does not. He has two targets: the laughably implausible Sunday school catechisms of the era and (particularly in the closing paragraphs) the American propensity for rewarding corruption and vice among members of its political and entrepreneurial class. “Bah, humbug!” one might think, but what keeps the young Mark Twain from being the Californian Scrooge is a sense of impishness to mitigate the cynicism.

*   *   *
Once there was a bad little boy, whose name was Jim—though, if you will notice, you will find that bad little boys are nearly always called James in your Sunday-school books. It was very strange, but still it was true, that this one was called Jim. . . . 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, December 10, 2010

All Parrots Speak

Paul Bowles (1910–1999)
From Paul Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings

During the early 1960s the New York poet and photographer Ira Cohen lived in Morocco for four years and, while there, he became friends with Paul Bowles (who was born 100 years ago this month). Cohen interviewed Bowles in 1965* and mentioned the author’s famous predilection for pet animals, resulting in a lengthy exchange about parrots, including the following bits:
Cohen: I somehow always think of you as a scorpion, with a cat somewhere in the background, a parrot maybe on its shoulder.

Bowles: I used to carry the green parrot around on my shoulder. I carried him all over the Sahara. They’re good to travel with. They’re happy, they’re not miserable traveling. You try to travel with a cat, and it’s miserable. . . .

My gray parrot lives in the kitchen in [Bowles’s wife] Jane’s apartment downstairs. It’s better for her to be with people and they worship the bird, talk to it, give it things. . . . It won’t let anyone touch it at all except Cherifa and me.

Cohen: I know it pecked a real piece out of my finger one day.

Bowles: Well, it bites everybody.
Bowles’s fondness for parrots (and his guests’ terror of them) dated back nearly three decades, when he first encountered the birds during his and his wife’s honeymoon in Costa Rica in 1938; afterward he was rarely without one or more of them. Although his household could sometimes be filled with exotic animals (the story below mentions an armadillo, an ocelot, and a tejon), he was particularly proud of his parrots, complaining in a letter to a friend about a “libelous” article that painted him “as distant, chilly, and eccentric, and, even worse, describing my parrot as skinny and featherless, which is certainly not the case.”

In 1956 he gathered some of the more memorable of his adventures as an avian aficionado in “Parrots I Have Known,” which was published in the popular travel magazine Holiday; he later retitled the piece when he included it in the 1963 travel writing collection Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue.

* Some of the interview was lost, and part of the extant portion was published in Conversations with Paul Bowles (1993).

*   *   *
Parrots are amusing, decorative, long-lived, and faithful in their affections, but the quality which distinguishes them from most of God’s other inventions is their ability to imitate the sounds of human speech. A parrot that cannot talk or sing is, we feel, an incomplete parrot. . . . 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, December 3, 2010

I’ll Be Waiting

Raymond Chandler (1888–1959)
From Raymond Chandler: Stories & Early Novels

In the 1944 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler described the type of crime fiction that he and his idol, Dashiell Hammett, had been writing during the past two decades:
. . . there are still quite a few people around who say that Hammett did not write detective stories at all, merely hard-boiled chronicles of mean streets with a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini.
By the time Chandler wrote “I’ll Be Waiting” in 1939, however, he had pretty much dispensed with the olive. All the other ingredients of a great noir martini are there: the hotel detective, the deceptively vulnerable girl, shady underworld figures, menacing shadows, an ominous threat of violence. The only thing lacking is a murder mystery for the “paunchy” hero Tony Reseck to solve.

“I’ll Be Waiting” is the shortest of Chandler’s stories; it is also the first—and only—one published in a “slick” magazine. Nearly all his previous works of short fiction had been published in the pulps Black Mask and Dime Detective, but Chandler wrote one for the Saturday Evening Post at the behest of his agent and was motivated primarily by the money such magazines paid.

Afterward, he seems to have worried that he sold out. That year he expressed disappointment in a letter to another pulp writer, George Harmon Coxe: “I didn’t think much of the story when I wrote it—I felt it was artificial, untrue and emotionally dishonest like all slick fiction.” Even twenty years later, in a letter to detective writer William Gault, he acknowledged that while “I’ll Be Waiting” had been “anthologized to death” and the “story was all right,” he preferred the free-spirited form of the pulps to the constraints in tone and substance imposed by glossy magazines:
I’m an improviser, and perhaps at times an innovator. Some slick writing is very good, on the surface, but it seems to lack something for me. . . . But perhaps I have a different idea about writing and shouldn’t be saying this.
In their anthology of hardboiled fiction, editors Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian regard the story as “a superbly atmospheric night-piece” and respond, “Chandler was a perceptive critic of others’ work, although less so of his own.” Indeed, still frequently included in anthologies, the story today is considered by many readers and critics as among his best and most polished (with a superb twist ending), and it has even been adapted for film twice, most recently in 1993 as an episode of Showtime’s Fallen Angels directed by Tom Hanks.

Notes: On page 570, Goodman refers to musician Benny Goodman. One page 572, there are several contemporary cultural references: The Last Laugh is a 1924 movie starring Emil Jannings; “Spring, Beautiful Spring” (also known as “Chimes of Spring”) was a song written by Paul Lincke in 1903; The Blue Bird was Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1909 allegorical play, which became a movie in 1918.


*   *   *
At one o’clock in the morning, Carl, the night porter, turned down the last of three table lamps in the main lobby of the Windermere Hotel. The blue carpet darkened a shade or two and the walls drew back into remoteness. . . . 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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