Friday, January 28, 2011

Cobb Fights It Over Again

Irvin S. Cobb (1876–1944)
From At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing

On July 2, 1921, the “Manassa Mauler,” Jack Dempsey, defended the world heavyweight title against the French boxer Georges Carpentier at Boyle’s Thirty Acres, a wooden arena built in Jersey City especially for the fight. Tainted by accusations that he had avoided service during the Great War (a jury had exonerated him), the American was hardly the favorite of the nearly 100,000 spectators. 

Instead, the crowd had been whipped into a frenzy of support for Carpentier, a popular World War I hero, whom George Bernard Shaw had called “the greatest boxer in the world,” and the enthusiasm was encouraged by the publicity machine built by the event promoter, Tex Rickard. It worked: the “Fight of the Century” generated the first million-dollar gate in boxing (more than $1.7 million, in fact). The bout was officiated by Joe Humphreys, the sport’s most famous announcer, who would preside over more than 20,000 matches during a storied career. And in the stands of this modern-day “Circus Maximus,” wealthy industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller Jr., William H. Vanderbilt, and Henry Ford mingled with famous celebrities, including singer and comedian Al Jolson, the flamboyant cowboy film star Tom Mix, renowned cartoonist Tad Dorgan, and authors H. L. Mencken and Ring Lardner.

Enter Irvin S. Cobb, who was hired especially for the day by
The New York Times to report on the Dempsey-Carpentier fight from ringside. During the first decade of the century, Cobb had become famous as the highest paid journalist in the country. He then secured his status covering World War I for the Saturday Evening Post; early in the war, he was captured by the Germans—and escaped. He later took up the cause of providing relief for black soldiers returning from the war and spent the 1920s fighting the Klan in Kentucky through editorials and activism. During the four decades of his writing career, he became famous for folksy stories set in his hometown of Paducah, for his humorous tales about the fictional Judge Priest (played by Will Rogers in the movie directed by John Ford), and for numerous screenplays and film appearances. In 1941 he published his final book, the best-selling memoir Exit Laughing.

In spite of Cobb’s superstar status as a writer, Mencken brutally belittled the oft-voiced opinion that Cobb was the “heir to Mark Twain” and his writing eventually fell out of favor with readers. Today virtually all of his dozens of books and hundreds of stories are out of print. Cobb’s classic report from the Dempsey-Carpentier fight, offered in full as this week’s selection, is included in the forthcoming Library of America anthology,
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, which has just arrived from the printer.

It is recorded that, once upon a time, Aaron Burr, being challenged by Alexander Hamilton, bade Hamilton to meet him over in Jersey and there destroyed his enemy. Yesterday afternoon, also New Jersey history, in a way of speaking, repeated itself, which is a habit to which history is addicted. . . . 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, January 21, 2011


Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937

During Story of the Week’s first year, we have been gratified to learn (via e-mail messages, blog posts, and phone calls) that an increasing number of readers are using selections for reading groups, the classroom, and library events. And so it is with a bit of trepidation that we offer, in commemoration of Edith Wharton’s birthday on January 24, a story that makes fun of such gatherings by describing one of the more dysfunctional reading discussions in the history of literature.

Of course, Wharton is not mocking readers in general, but rather only the shallow frauds who use literature to show off their own cultural erudition (or lack thereof). In her 1903 essay, “The Vice of Reading,” Edith Wharton takes aim at the phenomenon of the “mechanical reader”—someone for whom the idea of reading becomes an obligation or a daily regimen (and we all know the type). The scholar Barbara Hochman, in Getting at the Author, which examines the culture of reading at the turn of the last century, notes that critical essays such as Wharton’s were common during her lifetime; the mechanical reader was “envisioned as an ‘eager devourer of fiction’ who ‘goes to a book just as he goes to a department store.’” Such consumers of goods are not the “creative” readers referred to by Emerson and extolled by Wharton—readers for whom literature is the means to attain their “own sight of principles.”

Exactly a century ago, Wharton turned her disdain for “devourers” into one of her more successful stories, “Xingu,” which takes aim particularly at the society women who gather in salons “to pursue Culture in banks” and to clash personalities rather than discuss literature. The occasions during which the group’s members discuss books are dreadful enough, but when they invite a famous author to meet with them, hilarity ensues. Or, as the Wharton fan at the blog A Striped Armchair puts it, “it’s a sharp satire of the intellectually pretentious that is as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. And it’s funny enough to hold its own against a Wilde play!”

Notes: On page 5 are several cultural references malappropriated by the members of the reading group. Robert Elsmere is an 1888 novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward. Prince Rupert’s manière noire refers to the art of mezzotint engraving, introduced into England in the early 1660s by Ruprecht of Pfalz. “The Data of Ethics” is a philosophical work by Herbert Spencer. On page 10, Professor Froude refers to the historian James Anthony Froude; a histologist is a biologist specializing in the microscopic anatomy of plants and animals.

*   *   *
Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous to meet alone. To this end she had founded the Lunch Club, an association composed of herself and several other indomitable huntresses of erudition. . . . 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, January 14, 2011

What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States

Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954)
From American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton

2009 postage stamp
In 1891 Mary Church, a German and Latin teacher at a high school in Washington, D.C., married Robert Terrell, a Harvard-educated lawyer—and she soon lost her job because of a District law banning married women from teaching in schools. Already a leading supporter of women’s suffrage and an activist for racial integration, she then turned her talents to writing and lecturing on social issues.

It is impossible to do justice to Terrell’s subsequent career without resorting to a litany of appointments, achievements, honors, and “firsts.” In 1895 Terrell began a long tenure on D.C.’s Board of Education and is believed to be the first black woman in the U.S. to fill such an appointment; the following year she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and became its first president. In 1909 she attended the organizational meeting of the NAACP and became a founding member. During her life, she associated with such prominent figures as Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, and H. G. Wells (a longtime friend who wrote the preface to her 1940 memoir, A Colored Woman in a White World).

A daughter of former slaves, Terrell was particularly concerned by the increasing spread and calcification of Jim Crow laws and the horrors of lynching, famously writing a rebuttal in the North American Review to “The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem,” an apologia for mob justice by Thomas Nelson Page that appeared in the magazine’s pages in 1904. Two years later, she appeared before a Washington women’s club and delivered “What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States,” sharing the stories and experiences of her and her friends living under the oppression of the Jim Crow regime; the text of the speech was published anonymously the following January.

Terrell’s remarkable career culminated when, at the age of 86, she led a three-year campaign of court actions, boycotts, and picketing that in 1953 ended the segregation of restaurants in Washington, D.C.—a practice that had been introduced (in defiance of the city’s integration laws from the 1870s) at the very start of her career. After six continuous decades of civil rights activism, Terrell died on July 24, 1954, only two months after the groundbreaking Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision—and just two months before the 25-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. assumed his responsibilities as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

*   *   *
Washington, D.C., has been called “The Colored Man’s Paradise.” Whether this sobriquet was given to the national capital in bitter irony by a member of the handicapped race, as he reviewed some of his own persecutions and rebuffs, or whether it was given immediately after the war by an ex-slave-holder who for the first time in his life saw colored people walking about like freemen, minus the overseer and his whip, history saith not. . . . 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, January 7, 2011

Celebration in Charleston

William Howard Russell (1820–1907)
From The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It

Bombardment of Fort Sumter; view from
Fort Moultrie. Lithograph by Currier & Ives.
(Library of Congress) Click to enlarge
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the commencement of the American Civil War, and during the next few years there will be countless commemorations, memorials, and reassessments of the conflict’s many battles and events. The clash that famously opened the devastating conflict was the Battle of Fort Sumter. On April 10, 1861, Confederate General P. Gustave Toutant Beauregard, commander of the provisional forces in Charleston, demanded the surrender of the Union garrison at Fort Sumter. After Major Robert Anderson refused, Confederate batteries launched their attack on April 12, the garrison capitulated the next day, and the fort was turned over to Confederate forces on April 14. The battle itself was “bloodless”—although an accidental cannon explosion after the ceasefire killed two Union soldiers and wounded two others.

Famous for his coverage a decade earlier of the Crimean War, London
Times correspondent William Howard Russell covered the first year of the American war and gathered his account in My Diary North and South (1863). He arrived in Charleston three days after the surrender and traveled out by boat to see the ruins of Fort Sumter. His diary entry for the day chronicles his tour of a jubilant city and includes astute observations of unruliness and disorderliness among the volunteer Confederate forces—including most memorably the drunk, self-appointed Confederate colonel Louis T. Wigfall, a Senator from Texas who had, without authorization, rowed out to the fort to accept Anderson’s surrender, negotiating terms that had not been approved by Beauregard.

The following is Russell’s journal entry for April 17, reprinted in the forthcoming anthology
The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Live It (which has just this week arrived from the printer).

Notes: Solferino (page 281) was a major battle in 1859 during the Second War of Italian Independence, in which the Austrians were defeated. Bobadil (page 287) is a fictional braggart soldier in Ben Jonson’s play Every Man in His Humour. St. Calhoun (page 287) refers to South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun; Ransome Calhoun (page 293) was his nephew. Ironsides (page 290) was the name given to cavalry led by Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War. Lord Lyons (page 292) was the British minister to the U.S. For more on the assault on Senator Charles Sumner, see the Wikipedia entry. The Latin text on page 293 is from Horace’s Odes: “The man of upright life and pure from wickedness, O Fuscus, has no need of the Moorish javelins or bow, or quiver loaded with poisoned darts.” (Aristius Fuscus was Horace’s friend.)

April 17th.—The streets of Charleston present some such aspect as those of Paris in the last revolution. Crowds of armed men singing and promenading the streets. The battle-blood running through their veins—that hot oxygen which is called “the flush of victory” on the cheek; restaurants full, revelling in bar rooms, club-rooms crowded, orgies and carousings in tavern or private house, in tap-room, from cabaret—down narrow alleys, in the broad highway. . . . 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.