Friday, July 29, 2011

Twelve Strangers in the Night

Elizabeth M. Bisgood (1905–1988)
From Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight

Anne Spencer Morrow and Elizabeth Mitchell Bacon were classmates at Smith College in the late 1920s. In a letter to her father dated 1926, Morrow identifies “that little Bacon girl” as one of her new friends away from home: “It is very nice to be with them and know them on the basis of reading instead of on a basis of just New York, if that makes sense at all.” During the spring of the following year, Bacon was in bed with the measles when Morrow shouted through the window of Elizabeth’s room in the infirmary, “Bacon, Bacon, a man has flown the Atlantic. His name is Charles Lindbergh. He flew all alone. He has landed in Paris.”*

Anne Morrow would meet Lindbergh just seven months later, during the Christmas holidays, when he stayed with her parents in Mexico City (her father was the American ambassador). Two years later they were married, and during their courtship Lindbergh taught Anne to fly; she would fly solo for the first time the year of her marriage and in 1930 she became the first woman to receive a glider pilot license. During the early years of their marriage, the couple would fly all over the world, pivotally charting possible air routes for commercial flights over the North Pole. After their first son was kidnapped and murdered in one of the most infamous crimes of the twentieth century, the couple moved to England to escape the intense American media attention, and Anne began fulfilling her earlier, collegiate ambition of becoming a writer, publishing thirteen books between 1935 and 1980.

“That little Bacon girl” also dreamed of becoming a writer—and it’s tempting to wonder if Anne’s career influenced the choice of topic for one of Elizabeth’s earliest articles, published under her married name Bisgood. Her perspective is different from that of her pilot-friend, however; she is one of twelve passengers, whose attitudes range from awestruck to petrified, on a commercial flight in 1933. And like her friend Anne, Elizabeth would go on to publish a number of other works (including, as Elizabeth Rodewald, the novel
At the Edge of the Shadow, about a wife who falls victim to alcoholism). Most of her works are long out of print, but “Twelve Strangers in the Night” is a gem of travel writing rescued from oblivion and included, alongside selections by both Charles and Anne Lindbergh, in the LOA anthology Into the Blue: American Writing on Aviation and Spaceflight, which has just arrived from the printer this past week.

* As related in Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg

Do you remember how we stared at those people in the airport who were waiting around with us? We tried to make out which were the ones who were leaving and which were being left behind. Even looking carefully in their faces we couldn’t tell.. . . . 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, July 22, 2011

The Striding Place

Gertrude Atherton (1857–1948)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Two weeks ago the Story of the Week selection was “The Eyes of the Panther,” from the Library of America collection of Ambrose Bierce’s writings. One of his admirers was Gertrude Atherton, an author also living in California. In 1887, after the death of her husband (who died at sea en route to Chile, his body reportedly preserved in a keg of rum for the return trip), the thirty-year-old widow took up writing and during the next fifty years published some sixty books and countless stories and essays.

Atherton regarded Bierce as “the blinding light of the San Francisco Examiner . . . there certainly has never been [a columnist] more brilliant”—although, given his well-known use of invective, she wondered “why he was never shot.” Following the publication of his Tales of Soldiers and Civilians in 1891, the pair corresponded and eventually agreed to a meeting, which she describes in her autobiography, Adventures of a Novelist:
Wherever Bierce happened to be staying was a shrine to which pilgrims wended their way to offer up incense and sit at the feet of the Master. . . . It was the most disagreeable afternoon I ever spent. We quarrelled incessantly. On every conceivable topic. He tore my book to rags. . . . I retaliated by criticizing his own work.
A few hours later, they walked together back to the train station—where, next to a sty filled with pigs, Bierce tried to kiss her, causing Atherton to laugh in his face and Bierce to call her a “detestable little vixen” and shout, “I never want to see you again.” In spite of this inauspicious beginning to their relationship, the two authors met many times over the years, although Atherton claimed, “I never spent a pleasant hour in his company.” Yet they became “almost affectionate” pen pals, and the older author offered “valuable advice” as a writer to her. “I must have a hundred of those letters, all expressed in a prose that made every sentence a treasure.”

In 1895, five years after their first meeting, Atherton would write one of her most famous Gothic stories, and one can see hints of Bierce’s influence in the psychological realism of subdued terror. The inspiration for the story was a visit to the Strid, a section of whitewater and whirlpool on the River Wharfe in Yorkshire, England. In the poem “The Force of Prayer” (1807, pub. 1815), Wordsworth retold the twelfth-century death of a young boy, the heir to a barony, who had drowned on that spot in the river; Samuel Rogers was also inspired by the tragedy to write “The Boy of Egremond” (1812, 1819). Atherton conflated the two poems in her memory, and writes in her biography, “I haunted that spot, fascinated, and consumed with a desire to write a gruesome story of the Strid.” She was too successful, apparently, since the story was turned down as “too gruesome” by the editor of The Yellow Book (the famed London journal that featured Aubrey Beardsley as its art director). It finally appeared under the title “The Twins” in The Speaker, a more established English periodical; in 1900 it appeared as “The Striding Place” in the second issue of The Smart Set—the American journal that would eventually be edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Nearly four decades later Atherton summed up, “It seems to me the best short story I ever wrote.”

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Weigall, continental and detached, tired early of grouseshooting. To stand propped against a sod fence while his host’s workmen routed up the birds with long poles and drove them towards the waiting guns, made him feel himself a parody on the ancestors who had roamed the moors and forests of this West Riding of Yorkshire in hot pursuit of game worth the killing. . . . 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, July 15, 2011

The Union Army Retreats

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

July 21 marks the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the First Battle of Manassas), the first major battle of the Civil War. The commander of the Union troops, General Irvin McDowell, had no experience in field command and “did not lack intelligence or energy—but he turned out to be a hard-luck general for whom nothing went right,” writes James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom. McDowell’s plan to capture the railroad junction at Manassas might have worked if he had had experienced troops and officers, but most of the troops were green and the ninety-day terms of many Union recruits were about to expire. He was reluctant to advance into Virginia without more time to train his troops, but his plea for a postponement was overruled by Lincoln himself.

In spite of the shortcomings, McPherson notes, “McDowell’s attack came within an ace of success.” During the early hours of the battle, Confederate forces were giving ground and “McDowell appeared to be on the verge of a smashing success.” But Confederate reinforcements arrived, and everything began to go horribly wrong. Into the thick of the resulting chaos, oblivious of the change in events, rode William Howard Russell, whose vivid and colorful account appeared in
The Times of London. (Russell’s earlier account from Charleston, describing the events immediately after the Battle of Fort Sumter, appeared previously on Story of the Week.)

Notes: Russell’s friend, Mr. Warre, is Frederick Warre, an attaché at the British legation in Washington. Viaticum (page 464) are provisions for a journey. Mr. Raymond (481) refers to Henry J. Raymond, cofounder and editor of The New York Times. Mr. Brady (483) is the photographer Mathew Brady. A chausée (488) is a causeway or highway. Alexis Benoit Soyer and Marie-Antoine Careme (489) were noted French chefs and authors. Lord Lyons (490) refers to Richard Lyons, 1st Viscount Lyons, British envoy in Washington during the Civil War.

Punctual to time, our carriage appeared at the door, with a spare horse, followed by the black quadruped on which the negro boy sat with difficulty, in consequence of its high spirits and excessively hard mouth. I swallowed a cup of tea and a morsel of bread, put the remainder of the tea into a bottle, got a flask of light Bordeaux, a bottle of water, a paper of sandwiches, and having replenished my small flask with brandy, stowed them all away in the bottom of the gig; . . . 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, July 8, 2011

The Eyes of the Panther

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)
From Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs

In 1887 William Randolph Hearst hired Ambrose Bierce as a writer, beginning a long association with the San Francisco Examiner. Hearst was just twenty-three years old and launching his career, while Bierce was pushing up against forty-four and had been floundering from job to job since the Civil War. According to Bierce’s later account, a young man from the paper showed up at his doorstep. “‘You come from Mr. Hearst.’ Then that unearthly child lifted its blue eyes and cooed: ‘I am Mr. Hearst.’” At the Examiner Bierce would publish a regular column, called “Prattle,” along with dozens of stories, and by the end of the century both he and the young man who hired him would be two of the most famous Americans in journalism.

Bierce’s employ under Hearst would last for nearly twenty years, but it was a tense and prickly tenure—the misanthropy for which Bierce became famous was not exactly a pose. A letter written by Bierce in October 1897 to fellow writer Percival Pollard indicates he was looking for work:

I have voluntarily surrendered a salary of $75.00 a week in order, partly, to preserve my self-respect, partly to do more congenial and in the end profitable work. . . .

The Examiner is unwilling to let me go, and I have consented to give it some work during the absence of the present editor in New York—have just sent it a story in fact. But Prattle is dead, and nothing but the direst straits would induce me to revive it.
It was to be only one of many resignations submitted by Bierce to his employer, yet for another ten years Hearst was always able to keep his top journalist from actually quitting.

The story referred to in the letter,“The Eyes of the Panther,” was the capstone of the expanded 1898 edition of his most famous collection,
In the Midst of Life (which had originally been published by a small press in San Francisco as Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and which is included in the omnibus edition of Bierce’s works soon to be published by The Library of America). Although many readers have interpreted the story as a tale of the supernatural, S. T. Joshi in The Weird Tale suggests that the “bluntness” of the story’s final sentences signals a “nonsupernatural resolution.” The ambiguity of the closing allows the reader to choose between two genres in which Bierce excelled: psychological studies and tales of the fantastic.

A man and a woman—nature had done the grouping—sat on a rustic seat, in the late afternoon. The man was middle-aged, slender, swarthy, with the expression of a poet and the complexion of a pirate—a man at whom one would look again. . . . 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, July 1, 2011

Immigrant Picnic

Gregory Djanikian (b. 1949)
From Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing

Gregory Djanikian’s poetry explores topics as wide-ranging as his boyhood in Egypt, the Armenian genocide of 1915, and the intersection of family, history, and culture. In other poems, such as “I Ask My Grandmother If We Can Make Lahmajoun,” “In the Elementary School Choir,” and “How I Learned English,” he takes a lighthearted but perceptive look at the American immigrant experience and the joys and frustrations of “that great melting pot that is the English language.” These themes also come together in “Immigrant Picnic,” one of his most popular poems, about a Fourth of July family gathering during which mangled English results in exuberant hilarity. When he appeared last year on PBS Newshour, he remarked on how “for many of us who have come from different countries, our difficulties with American idioms often lead to unexpected syntactic constructions and surprising turns of phrase which enrich the language and by which we all are enriched.”

We present this week’s selection in two formats. Below the usual PDF format, at the bottom of the post, you’ll find the video from the Newshour broadcast for Independence Day last year, during which Djanikian read his poem. Read the text while watching the video, or print out a copy and take it along to enjoy at your own family picnic.

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