Friday, May 27, 2011

“This One Is Captain Waskow”

Ernie Pyle (1900–1945)
From Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944

Captain Henry T. Waskow
Indiana native Ernie Pyle was one of World War II’s most famous reporters, in an era when journalists covering combat were as celebrated as movie stars. One of his best-known dispatches concerned the death of Captain Henry T. Waskow on December 14, 1943, during the Battle of San Pietro Infine in Italy. The officer was twenty-five years old.

Pyle himself would live only sixteen months after the death of the “beloved” Capt. Waskow. On April 18, 1945, the forty-four-year-old journalist was traveling in a Jeep with Colonel Joseph B. Coolidge and other soldiers on Ie Shima, a small island near Okinawa, when a burst of machine-gun fire strafed the procession of vehicles. When the barrage of bullets finally stopped, Pyle asked Coolidge, “Are you all right?” before the sniper fire started up again, killing the reporter instantly. Hours after the tragedy, a “visibly shaken” Coolidge tearfully told a New York Times reporter, "I was so impressed with Pyle's coolness, calmness and his deep interest in enlisted men. They have lost their best friend."

The legacy of Capt. Waskow endures seven decades after his death. Lieutenant Bill Walker, the fictional hero played by Robert Mitchum in the 1945 movie The Story of G. I. Joe, was based in part on Waskow (and the death scene in the movie is notably faithful to Pyle’s dispatch). The high school at which Waskow was student council president bears his name. And, most poignantly, Capt. Waskow had written a widely quoted letter intended for his family on the event of his death. The opening and closing passages offer advice for those of us still living.
If you get to read this, I will have died in defense of my country and all that it stands for—the most honorable and distinguished death a man can die. It was not because I was willing to die for my country, however—I wanted to live for it—just as any other person wants to do. It is foolish and foolhardy to want to die for one’s country, but to live for it is something else.

To live for one’s country is, to my mind, to live a life of service; to—in a small way—help a fellow man occasionally along the way, and generally to be useful and to serve. It also means to me to rise up in all our wrath and with overwhelming power to crush any oppressor of human rights. . . .

Try to live a life of service—to help someone where you are or whatever you may be—take it from me; you can get happiness out of that, more than anything in life.

*   *   *
AT THE FRONT LINES IN ITALY, Jan. 10 — (by wireless) — In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Tex. . . . 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, May 20, 2011

Sunday Morning

Wallace Stevens (1879–1955)
From American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom

In the November 1914 issue of Poetry, Harriet Monroe wrote about one of the contributors: “Mr. Wallace Stevens [is] unknown as yet to the editor.” The following year, after she accepted another of his poems, “Sunday Morning,” for publication, Stevens would write to her the simplest of biographical notes. “I was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, am thirty-five years old, a lawyer, reside in New York and have published no books.” With the confidence of an editor dealing with a new author, Monroe would print only five of the poem’s eight stanzas, rearranging their order and altering the wording.

Eight years later, Stevens would finally publish the original poem—with all eight stanzas intact and restored—in his first book, Harmonium (1923). In the meantime, his poems and plays had achieved moderate notice from writers and critics; in 1916 he won a $100 prize for best one-act play in verse, Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise (staged by the Provincetown Players in 1920 for one performance), and his poetry had been published in a number of “little” magazines and reprinted in a scattering of anthologies. Yet, other than a few notices (incuding a positive review by Marianne Moore), Harmonium was largely overlooked and, in a letter to Monroe, Stevens indicated that his “royalties for the first half of 1924 amounted to $6.70.” Undoubtedly discouraged, Stevens wrote relatively little during the next few years, earning his living at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company (he would become its vice-president in 1934).

Nearly a century later many readers regard “Sunday Morning” as among the best of Stevens’s poems (as the scholar Robert Rehder puts it: “Stevens wrote many poems as good as this, but none better”). It was recommended as a Story of the Week selection by Richard Palma, a poetry lover from Jackson Heights, New York, who perceptively summarizes its themes: “drawing images from ancient mythology and the New Testament, the poem glories in ancient pagan rites and insists that beauty must be found in our ever-changing, ephemeral, perishing world.”

“Sunday Morning” opens with a description of a woman lazing in her dressing gown (peignoir). “In that comfort, that complacency or lack of urgency due to her presumed station in society,” critic Harold Bloom writes, “she is able to muse, to ‘dream a little’ on religious matters. So genteel are her environs that even the bloody Crucifixion becomes the ‘holy hush of ancient sacrifice.’ Her comfort seems to ‘dissipate’ the reverence of a Sunday. . .” The remainder of the poem is a meditation on her meditation; the woman “speaks” twice in the poem but the stanzas, notes Rehder, “record her thoughts and feelings—part meditation, part daydream.” She ponders and questions her beliefs—much as Stevens during his lifetime had questioned his own religious heritage.

*   *   *
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. . . .
If you don't see the full poem below, click the right button at the top of the reader to view the file in Google Docs or click here (PDF) to read it—free!

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Friday, May 13, 2011

The Hossack Murder

Susan Glaspell (1876–1948)
From True Crime: An American Anthology

Susan Glaspell is remembered primarily for her role in cofounding (with her husband, George “Jig” Cook) the Provincetown Players, a theater troupe that showed its first plays in 1915 at the avant-garde Massachusetts summer resort. The Players incorporated the following year in New York City, converting the first floor of a Greenwich Village townhouse into a theater before moving in 1918 to its famous Playhouse location at 133 Macdougal Street. The company showcased works by such writers as Djuna Barnes, Theodore Dreiser, Edna Ferber, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Reed, and Wallace Stevens, but it is most remembered for launching the career of Eugene O’Neill, staging fifteen of his early plays in just seven years.

In addition to managing the company, Glaspell was a dramatist in her own right—and the Players would perform eleven of her plays before the original group folded in 1922. She would go on to win the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for drama (for Alison's House), but perhaps her best-known play today is Trifles, which was first staged in Provincetown on August 8, 1916—with Glaspell and her husband playing the lead characters. The following year she turned the play into a story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” which has been her most widely read work since its “rediscovery” in the 1970s.

Elaine Showalter, who borrowed the title A Jury of Her Peers for her recent literary history of American women’s literature, writes that Glaspell “turned the drama of marital loneliness . . . into a parable of crime and justice.” Both the play and the story are based on the trial of Margaret Hossack for the murder of her husband. Glaspell herself covered the trial in 1900–01 during her previous career as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News. Patricia Bryan, coauthor of a recent book on the murder, reviewed the original transcripts and materials (including Glaspell’s original series of newspaper articles) and wrote in a 1997 Stanford Law Review essay: “The competing narratives told in the courtroom where Mrs. Hossack was tried for her life seemed limited and incomplete; neither the prosecution nor the defense offered a satisfying description of the Hossack family or a complete explanation of the crime.” Bryan also points out a cruel irony, “The abuse that Margaret Hossack had suffered [from her husband] was of great significance . . . because it provided a motive for the crime.” In fact, the stronger the evidence for domestic abuse (and, likewise, the more inhumane the abuse committed by her husband), the stronger the case against her.

For this week’s Story of the Week selection, then, we turn to the original series of articles that the 24-year-old Glaspell wrote between December 1900 and April 1901. In them, the reader can see her style change dramatically, from the purely “police blotter” entries of the initial investigation to the more far more socially engaged and troubled report published on April 9, before summation and jury deliberations. By the trial’s end, it becomes clear why the case haunted Glaspell for the next two decades.

Special note: Readers who prefer not knowing the outcome of the trial while reading the selection should postpone reading the introduction that accompanies the story in the PDF. Also, on page 187, “the celebrated ‘crowbar’ case” refers to a famous accident in 1848 involving Phineas Gage, who lived twelve years after a crowbar passed completely through his cranium.

*   *   *
Indianola, Dec. 3.— (Special.)— A foul murder was committed Saturday night near Medford, fifteen miles southwest of Indianola. A farmer named Hossack was struck over the head and killed by unknown parties, at his home a few miles out from Medford. . . . 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, May 6, 2011

The Night We All Had Grippe

Shirley Jackson (1916–1965)
From Shirley Jackson: Novels & Stories

One of the most popular Story of the Week selections last year was “Charles,” by Shirley Jackson. Many readers discovered a side of Jackson quite different from the horror writer famous for such classics as “The Lottery,” We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House.

This week’s selection, another of Jackson’s humorous tales of her adventures as the mother of three children, recounts the night her entire family caught the flu (what used to be called “the grippe”). When Gregory Cowles, a staff editor for The New York Times Book Review, first heard about the story a few years back, he admitted to surprise:
“Shirley Jackson?” I said. “The author of ‘The Lottery’?”

The very one. . . . For those of us accustomed to her position as Important Anthologized Story Writer, it’s a bizarre transformation, like learning that Chekhov had a second career writing jokes for Johnny Carson.
Intrigued, Cowles took the bait and found Jackson’s domestic tales “genuinely charming.” The breadth of her writing is beginning to be appreciated by academics as well. In a recent essay on Jackson’s “comic-satiric-fantastic-Gothic” modes, James Egan (a Renaissance literature scholar and an associate editor of Seventeenth-Century News) notes how her fiction extends “from domestically comic scenarios like those of Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck; to mainstream, conventional satires of manners such as Sinclair Lewis might have written; to the metaphysically fantastic idioms of Nathanael West and Franz Kakfa.”

It’s long-overdue respectability for a woman who arrived woozily at the hospital to deliver her third child, only to face the following exchange.
“Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.
“Name, “ I said vaguely. I remembered, and told her.
“Age?” she asked. “Sex? Occupation?”
“Writer,” I said.
“Housewife,” she said.
“Writer,” I said.
“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.
        [from “The Third Baby’s the Easiest”]
“Jackson sets down these lines without bitterness,” notes critic Ruth Franklin in another recent appreciation. “But they made me think of how many women writers—particularly American women writers in the postwar era, the era without servants—have both profited and suffered from the confusion of their dual role. . . . Then and still now, women write when the baby naps, while the children are at school, after the dishes are done and the lunches are packed and the house is at last quiet.” And so, for Mother’s Day, we dedicate this Story of the Week to mothers, writers, and mothers who are writers—as well as to their spouses and children.

*   *   *
We are all of us, in our family, very fond of puzzles. I do Double-Crostics and read mystery stories, my husband does baseball box scores and figures out batting averages, our son Laurie is addicted to the kind of puzzle which begins, “There are fifty-four items in this picture beginning with the letter C,” our older daughter Jannie does children’s jigsaws, and Sally, the baby, can put together an intricate little arrangement of rings and bars which has had the rest of us stopped for two months. . . . 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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