Friday, June 24, 2011

Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
From Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches

Five years after Hawthorne’s Twice-told Tales appeared in 1837, Edgar Allan Poe (hardly the easiest of critics to please) reviewed the collection and declared, “emphatically, that they belong to the highest region of Art.” Poe had initially been skeptical, wary of the nineteenth-century equivalent of literary hype that had greeted Hawthorne’s debut: “We had supposed, with good reason for supposing, that he had been thrust into his present position by one of the impudent cliques which beset our literature; but we have been most agreeably mistaken.”

One of the stories Poe singled out was “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” which he found “exceedingly well imagined and executed with surpassing ability. The artist breathes in every line of it.” One supposes that the story’s fantastical and Gothic elements especially appealed to Poe, but decades later Henry James, who cast a slightly more jaundiced eye at the collection, also praised this story as one of several that shows “the ingenuity and felicity of Hawthorne’s analogies and correspondences.”

“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” (originally published anonymously as “The Fountain of Youth,” Hawthorne’s first contribution to The Knickerbocker Magazine) brings together two themes that appear in a number of his works: the hubris of science and the idea of eternal youth. Although, as Janice L. Wilms acknowledges, the intent of Dr. Heidegger’s experiment is “benign,” there is “a hint of the sinister in the setting”: the skeleton in the closet, the oversized book of magic, the long-ago death of his fiancĂ©e under questionable circumstances. The archetype of the demented scientist appears in other stories by Hawthorne, including two of his most famous, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Birth-Mark,” but here the theme straddles the boundary between the disconcerting and the comic. Similarly, the idea of an elixir of life or a fountain of youth, notes biographer Edwin Haviland Miller, fascinated the skeptical author throughout most of his career, from “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” which he wrote at the age of thirty-three, to“The Dolliver Romance,” the unfinished novel he was writing at his death, just shy of sixty.

Notes: The footnote on page 470, which Hawthorne added to the story in 1860, discusses Memoirs of a Physician: Joseph Balsamo (1846–1848), a novel by Alexandre Dumas written a full decade after Hawthorne first published his story. On page 471, folios, quartos, and duodecimos refer to common book formats, with folios being the largest (usually 9.5 x 12 inches).

This week’s story was suggested to us by Jay R. of State College, Pennsylvania. We encourage you to offer your own suggestion—a story, essay, narrative poem, or article from any Library of America volume (which can be found listed here)—along with two or three sentences noting anything that might be of related interest to our readers: a current event, a commemoration, a new publication, etc. Send your recommendation to with the subject line, “Story of the Week idea.” If we use your suggestion, we’ll send you a free Library of America volume of your choice and (with your permission) acknowledge you in the introduction.

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That very singular man, old Dr. Heidegger, once invited four venerable friends to meet him in his study. There were three white-bearded gentlemen, Mr. Medbourne, Colonel Killigrew, and Mr. Gascoigne, and a withered gentlewoman, whose name was the Widow Wycherly. They were all melancholy old creatures, . . . 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, June 17, 2011

A Box to Hide In

James Thurber (1894–1961)
From James Thurber: Writings and Drawings

Thurber’s illustration for “A Box to Hide In.” Copyright © 1935 James Thurber. Reprinted with permission.
James Thurber once wrote, “Everybody’s father is a great, good man, someone had said, and mine was no exception.” (The “someone” was actually Thurber himself.) His only child, Rosemary, learned that Thurber was her own “great, good man” in a roundabout way. Thurber and her mother, Althea, had divorced when Rosemary was an infant, and she didn’t see much of him for several years. “I thought Franny Comstock [her stepfather] was my father,” she told Harrison Kinney, author of James Thurber: His Life and Times. “I was somewhere around eight when my mother, who was about to divorce [Comstock], told me he wasn’t.” She then began to associate this new presence in her life with some of the fables and stories she enjoyed so much as a child (particularly Thurber’s “The Little Girl and the Wolf”). When Althea remarried, “some instinct” caused Rosemary to choose Thurber as her last name.

As a teenager, Rosemary became much closer to her father, often staying with him each summer. According to Kinney, Thurber “developed a full parental claim on her” during this period, paying her tuition at a private school and sending the headmistress a list of nearly thirty books that he thought should be required of students for summer reading: from Henry James’s Daisy Miller and Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy to Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris. When she graduated, her father gave her twenty-seven books as a graduation present, which she loved but says, “My father never got over the fact that I didn’t want to be a writer.”

When Rosemary became a mother, her husband was upset that their daughter screamed whenever he picked her up. Thurber wrote to her with advice for the new father:
Tell Fred that the feminine sex should start off in proper terror of the males. It shows that nature is preparing the girls to do something about the other sex before it is too late. By the time you get this letter, of course, your daughter will be in love with [him] as much as her mother. It takes time to adjust to the greatest menace on the earth, the male of the human species.
For this week’s selection, we offer “A Box to Hide In,” a short Thurber story published a few months before Rosemary was born (she turns eighty later this year). It is also the selection Keith Olbermann chose to launch a popular series of Friday night readings in honor of his own recently departed father, who had suggested just before he died that the broadcaster read Thurber as part of his Countdown program. Olbermann had initially demurred, but his father persisted. “How often have I ever suggested anything for your shows? Try it. You never know.” Sometimes, it happens that fathers do know best.

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I waited till the large woman with the awful hat took up her sack of groceries and went out, peering at the tomatoes and lettuce on her way. The clerk asked me what mine was. . . . 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, June 10, 2011

Abraham Lincoln

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896)
From The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now

All this month, American libraries and educational institutions will be hosting events to commemorate the 200th birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was born on June 14, 1811. Her masterpiece Uncle Tom’s Cabin is often considered the most influential work published in the nineteenth century, and one of the most famous apocryphal quotations attributed to Abraham Lincoln underscores the novel’s outsized reputation.

But what did Lincoln really say to Stowe? In an interview with The Library of America, Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Joan D. Hedrick tells us what we know—and what we don’t know—about what happened:
In 1862 Stowe traveled to Washington to meet with President Lincoln to assure herself that he was serious about proceeding with the Emancipation Proclamation. The meeting between the tall, lanky president and the literary woman who stood less than five feet gave rise to the story, told in family biographies and often quoted, that Lincoln greeted Stowe with the words, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.” One would give a good deal to know the details of this meeting, but the accounts leave almost everything unsaid. Stowe wrote to her husband Calvin, “I had a real funny interview with the President . . . the particulars of which I will tell you.”
Although no account of their meeting by either Stowe or Lincoln survives, the following year the novelist did write a portrait of Lincoln for the largely Baptist readership of the Watchman and Reflector. The reception with the president must have assuaged her concerns; Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation only weeks after their meeting, and Stowe’s article paints a flattering picture of his background and unreservedly supports his reelection. Stowe did quote Lincoln at one point, and it’s very likely she was recalling their famous conversation at the White House. The sentence is also the article’s most eerily prophetic line about “this dreadful national crisis”: “‘Whichever way it ends,’ he said to the writer, ‘I have the impression that I sha’n’t last long after it’s over.’”

Note: The Wilmot Proviso, referred to on page 87, would have banned slavery in any territory acquired during the Mexican-American War.

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The revolution through which the American nation is passing is not a mere local convulsion. It is a war for a principle which concerns all mankind. . . . 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, June 3, 2011

An Experiment in Misery

Stephen Crane (1871–1900)
From Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry

When the New York Press published Stephen Crane’s latest story toward the end of April 1894, the ladder-style headline read:
An Evening, a Night and a Morning with Those Cast Out.
But His Royalty, to the Novitiate, Has Drawbacks of Smells and Bugs.
A Wonderfully Vivid Picture of a Strange Phase of New York Life,
Written for “The Press” by the Author of “Maggie.”
Four years later Crane included the story in the collection The Open Boat, and he omitted not only this sequence of wildly sensationalist headlines but also a narrative that framed the piece, in which two men regard a tramp on the street and wonder what it would be like to live such an existence—thus the “experiment” of the title. Without the metafiction of the framing device, the later version of the story changes its perspective: instead of a man pretending to be a tramp, the lead character seems to be a man who has recently become one. The experiment becomes experience.

Crane scholar Michael Robertson has found that, just prior to the publication of the story, there had been two “real” sketches by New York Press reporters disguising themselves as homeless beggars. Newspaper stories on indigent Americans and the “Tramp Menace” were common during the late nineteenth century. The fears intensified after the Panic of 1893, when the nation entered its most serious economic depression to date and the middle class went into full panic mode about the increasing number of penniless migrants. The month before the appearance of “An Experiment in Misery” in the Press, a group of unemployed men led by populist businessman Jacob Coxey began a protest march in Ohio; by the time Crane’s story appeared, the national media had stirred up a fright when “Coxey’s Army” threatened to amass thousands of unemployed men demanding that the government create public works employment. At the end of April a mere five hundred marchers arrived in Washington, DC—where Coxey was arrested and his followers dispersed.

After he wrote his story for “An Experiment in Misery,” Stephen Crane recalled that he “tried to make plain that the root of Bowery life is a sort of cowardice. Perhaps I mean a lack of ambition or to willingly be knocked flat and accept the licking.” This ambiguous statement indirectly highlights all the items Crane never discusses in his story: “the Tramp Menace, politics, economics, morality, public safety, property rights, charity, reform, and revolution.” Instead, concludes Robertson, Crane focuses on the problems of “perception and understanding.” Unlike his fellow journalists, Crane had no interest in playing the spy, and his story “portrays a young man as a creature of his environment who assumes a completely new consciousness as his circumstances change.”

This week’s selection was recommended by Daniel Rattray from China Grove, North Carolina, who suggests that it “illuminates, better than our present political leaders have, the social issues that lie underneath” the plight of the unfortunate, and he hopes that reading it will encourage us to address “urgent social and fiscal issues responsibly, fairly, and humanely.”

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It was late at night, and a fine rain was swirling softly down, causing the pavements to glisten with hue of steel and blue and yellow in the rays of the innumerable lights. . . . 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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