Friday, February 25, 2011

To Build a Fire

Jack London (1876–1916)
From Jack London: Novels and Stories

“As he looked apathetically about him, his eyes chanced on the dog.” Illustration by American artist Frank E. Schoonover (1877–1972), which appeared in black and white with “To Build a Fire” in the August 1908 issue of Century Magazine.
In 1902 Jack London published a story in Youth’s Companion, a magazine for young boys. Six years later he recalled the story, wrote a new version, and sent it to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine. It was accepted and published, but questions were raised about the provenance of the story. A few months later, after the magazine was printed, London responded to Gilder:
[The original story] was purely juvenile in treatment; its motif was not only very strong, but was very true. . . . As the years went by, I was worried by the inadequate treatment I had given the motif, and by the fact that I had treated it for boys merely. . . . I had no access to the boys’ version of it, and I wrote it just as though I had never used the motif before. I do not remember anything about the way I handled it for juveniles, but I do know, I am absolutely confident, that beyond the motif itself, there is no similarity of treatment whatsoever.

I can only say that it never entered my head that there was anything ethically wrong in handing the same motif over again in the way I did. . . .
The stories are so dissimilar that it’s surprising the matter came up at all. Except for the basic premise and the title, everything about the second version is different: London’s more mature and confident style, the story's length (the “adult” version is nearly three times longer), and—most significant of all—the outcome. The version for boys is instructional and moralistic; the later version is a classic in naturalism (indeed, Nature is as much a character as the unnamed traveler of the story). And, while the original version of “To Build a Fire” would surely have been lost and forgotten in the dustbins of yellowing magazines, the 1908 version is still considered by many readers as the best short story London ever wrote.

This week’s selection was recommended by Story of the Week reader Ben Ostrander of Austin, Texas, who thought it “appropriate for the cold winter in the United States or anywhere the cold winds are blowing.” Fortunately (unless you happen to live on the northernmost shore of the continent), it’s still 50 to 120 degrees warmer than the temperatures endured by the man and his dog in “To Build a Fire.”

*   *   *
Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. . . . 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, February 18, 2011

Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder

Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)
From True Crime: An American Anthology

Last year’s publication of the unapologetically preposterous Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer stirred up a predictable amount of eye-rolling (“the most inane idea imaginable,” snorted Richard Norton Smith, the founding director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum) and garnered a few unexpected fans (including novelist Lev Grossman, filmmaker Tim Burton, and—if the author can be believed—even historian Doris Kearns Goodwin).

Yet, as amusing (or perplexing) as the latest rage in mashup books might seem, a far more plausible idea for such a novel might have been
Abraham Lincoln: Private Eye.

After all, in Springfield, the future President practiced law and handled thousands of cases for nearly twenty-five years in the Illinois courts, actions ranging from debt and divorce to petty crime and murder. And he is known to have been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe (who was less than a month older than Lincoln). One friend from his Springfield years wrote that Lincoln “read and loved ‘The Raven’—repeated it over and over” (a copy of the book containing the poem is known to exist among his personal papers), and biographer Michael Burlingame reports that Lincoln especially liked the stories “The Gold Bug” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

One of Lincoln’s court cases stands out, however—especially because he turned it into a story that shares a few similarities with some of Poe’s fiction. In June 1841 Lincoln wrote to his friend Joshua Speed a letter that began, “We have had the highest state of excitement here for a week past that our community has ever witnessed . . . and the curious affair that aroused it, is verry [
sic] far from being, even yet, cleared of mystery.” Five years later, he rewrote his account of the affair as a front-page narrative for the tri-weekly local newspaper, the Quincy Whig. At the trial, Lincoln stood as the defense attorney for William Trailor, a man accused of the murder of Archibald Fisher. Lincoln’s only true-crime story is regarded by many readers as an early example of the genre and, more than a century later, it enjoyed wider prominence when it was reprinted in the March 1952 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Note: It is helpful to know that William Trailor’s youngest brother and the alleged victim were both named Archibald; thus, in the story Lincoln refers to the victim simply as Fisher.

IIn the year 1841, there resided, at different points in the State of Illinois, three brothers by the name of Trailor. Their Christian names were William, Henry and Archibald. Archibald resided at Springfield, then as now the Seat of Government of the State. He was a sober, retiring and industrious man, of about thirty years of age; a carpenter by trade, and a bachelor, boarding with his partner in business— a Mr. Myers. . . . 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, February 11, 2011

Mon Amie

Randolph Bourne (1886–1918)
From Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology

“It is impossible to speak of Randolph Bourne,” eulogized Floyd Dell in The New Republic upon Bourne’s death at the age of thirty-two during the influenza epidemic of 1918, “without paying some tribute to the magnificent will which until the end triumphed over his physical frailty.” Bourne was, to use his own word, handicapped and he wrote about his experiences in a landmark essay, “The HandicappedBy One of Them," published in Atlantic Monthly in 1911. At birth, his face was badly disfigured by a doctor’s forceps; at the age of four, he contracted spinal tuberculosis, which left him a hunchback; as an adult, he was five feet tall.

A young rebel of sorts, he infamously wore a black cape around the streets of New York, and Theodore Dreiser referred to him as “that frightening dwarf.” Yet by all accounts he was a genius, and he commanded the respect of the ablest minds of his age, from his teacher (and eventual political enemy) John Dewey to the novelist John Dos Passos, who included an homage in the
1919 section of his famous U.S.A. trilogy:
      Randolph Bourne
      came as an inhabitant of this earth
      without the pleasure of choosing his dwelling or his career.
      He was a hunchback, grandson of a congregational minister, born in 1886 in Bloomfield, New Jersey; there he attended grammarschool and highschool. . . .

      This little sparrowlike man,
      tiny twisted bit of flesh in a black cape,
      always in pain and ailing,
      put a pebble in his sling
      and hit Goliath square in the forehead with it.

      War, he wrote, is the health of the state.

      Half musician, half educational theorist (weak health and being poor and twisted in body and on bad terms with his people hadn't spoiled the world for Randolph Bourne; he was a happy man, loved die Meistersinger and playing Bach with his long hands that stretched so easily over the keys and pretty girls and good food and evenings of talk. When he was dying of pneumonia a friend brought him an eggnog; Look at the yellow, it’s beautiful, he kept saying as his life ebbed into delirium and fever. He was a happy man.) . . .
After he graduated from Columbia University—and before he became a scathing opponent of America’s entry into the First World War—Bourne traveled through Europe. While in France, he met a nineteen-year-old French woman (he was twenty-seven) after posting a note at the Sorbonnethe Edwardian-era equivalent of a personal ad. During their friendship, the pair walked through Parisian parks and museums and talked about family and religion and her “brimming idealism.” Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, Bourne had cause to wonder where she might be, causing him to write and publish the following little valentine recalling this mysterious girl, his “intellectual flirtation” in Paris.

Notes: In the first paragraph: the fictional characters Jean-Christophe and Olivier can be found in Jean-Christophe (1903–12), a ten-volume cycle of novels by Romain Rolland. Elsewhere: devoir means duty; malhonnête, dishonest. Other French terms are either translated by Bourne in the text or should be clear from the context.

She was French from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet, but she was of that France which few Americans, I think, know or imagine. She belonged to that France which Jean-Christophe found in his friend Olivier, a world of flashing ideas and enthusiasms, a golden youth of ideals.

She had picked me out for an exchange of conversation, as the custom is, precisely because I had left my name at the Sorbonne as a person who wrote a little. . . . 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, February 4, 2011

Was It in His Hand?

Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979)
From Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters

In a 2007 interview, on the occasion of the publication of the Library of America edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems, Prose, and Letters, volume editor Lloyd Schwartz remarked that Bishop was serious about writing fiction as far back as her student days. And some of her stories are every bit as good as her poems. Some are wilder than her poems, fantastical. . . . And she had an exclusive contract with The New Yorker for her poems, but The New Yorker took three of her stories.”

Schwartz noted that one of the stories included in the LOA collection was discovered and published by Bishop’s friend and editor Robert Giroux (who co-edited the LOA volume) several years after her
Collected Prose had been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1984. When “Was It in His Hand?” finally appeared in Grand Street in 1990, Giroux described how he found the story, which was almost certainly written in the mid-1930s:
In preparing for publication Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Prose, I found among her papers an unfinished story with the odd title, ‘Was It in His Hand?’ It was an account of something that had happened to Elizabeth in the 1930s, an accidental encounter with a black woman who had a little white boy living with her. . . . Unable to find the conclusion, despite repeated searching (the pages I originally found got as far as the boy’s toy typewriter), I regretfully had to omit the story from her Collected Prose.

Had she abandoned it? Why had she kept these opening pages among her papers? The story must have been in some way important to her. Early this year, while leafing through my files of Elizabeth’s vast correspondence, I happened onto some handwritten pages, obviously not letters, that proved to be the missing conclusion to ‘Was It in His Hand?’
This week, on Tuesday, February 8, readers and scholars of Elizabeth Bishop will be celebrating the centennial of her birth. In honor of the anniversary, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has just reissued an expanded paperback edition of the Prose—which now includes “Was It in His Hand?”

Notes for two allusions on page 562: The lost Dauphin refers to the second son of king Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, who died in prison, although rumors persisted that he escaped. A character in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn claims he is the lost dauphin. Little Eva was the angelic young daughter of a slaveholder who buys Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

We wore two coats apiece and mittens over our gloves and Louise drove the car with all the side-curtains snapped on. The snow swept from the surface of the fields, across the bare state road in front of us in long glittering flakes, struggling as if to rise and, when the sleet hit the side of the car, tinkling like tapped glasses. The wind plucked and jerked at the top of the car, trying to pick it up and float it off the road. We hit seventy-five, eighty. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click the right button at the top of the reader to view the story in Google Docs or click here (PDF) to read it—free!

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