Friday, August 26, 2011

Bill of Fare on the Plains

Annie D. Tallent (1827–1901)
From American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes

When gold was found in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory in 1874, prospectors were initially undeterred by the fact that the discovery was well within the boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation established by a treaty six year earlier. Among the most prominent groups to travel into the region was the Gordon Expedition, which arrived in December from Sioux City, Iowa. By May 1875, however, U.S. troops, operating under commands issued from St. Louis by General William T. Sherman, had intercepted and detained members of the expedition and returned them to their homes. Nevertheless, during the following months, an increasing number of individual fortune seekers slipped past the threadbare government cordon into Indian territory, and the cavalry was reduced to playing a largely ineffective game of cat-and-mouse with the outlaws.

The miners and panners would eventually prevail. The U.S. government initiated negotiations with the Sioux to modify the treaty on terms more favorable to gold prospectors; after the talks collapsed, the military barrier melted away. “Representatives of every trade and profession under the sun came rushing along, figuratively, tumbling over each other in their headlong haste to be the first to reach the New Eldorado, each individual sanguine of realizing fabulous wealth on reaching the end of his journey,” wrote Annie Donna Tallent, the lone woman in the original Gordon Expedition, who was among those returning to the area with her husband and son in 1876. The Sioux, for their part, waged war against the transgressors, and the most famous event during the subsequent hostilities was the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which ended the life and career of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.

At the end of the century, after her days of gold prospecting and her career as a county schools superintendent were behind her, Tallent published her recollections of the hardships and rewards of frontier life. Among the most memorable sections is “Bill of Fare on the Plains,” describing the food she endured during their long journey, which she summarizes in what might well be the only fitting word: “Ugh!”

Bonus item: In the Google Docs Reader at the bottom of the page, below the Tallent selection, we present an actual recipe from the 1876 National Cookery Book, on how to make shortcake in the outdoors. Note especially the advice on how to create a rolling pin.

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Perhaps some of my readers may like to know how we fared during our long journey over the plains. Well, until the settlements were left behind, we lived on the fat of the land through which we passed, being able to procure from the settlers along the route many articles which we were after compelled to do entirely without. . . . 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, August 19, 2011

The Ransom of Red Chief

O. Henry (1862–1910)
From The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion

Although William Sidney Porter had very little schooling, he was a voracious reader as a teenager. “I did more reading between my thirteenth and nineteenth years,” he wrote, “than I have ever done in all the years since, and my taste at the time was much better than it is now, for I read nothing but the classics.” This literary background proved valuable when, as a man in his late thirties, he was imprisoned in a Ohio federal penitentiary in 1898—after fleeing to Honduras as a fugitive—on a charge of embezzling from the bank in Austin, Texas, where he had been an employee. (Some of his more supportive biographers contend that the only crime he committed was sloppy and informal bookkeeping.)

During his exile and subsequent three-year incarceration, he wrote his first stories and, through an intermediary, placed a number of them in magazines under various pen names, particularly as “O. Henry.” During the decade after he was released from prison in 1901, until his death in 1910, the newly reformed O. Henry wrote between three hundred and five hundred stories—a count that varies depending on which of his works are considered “stories.” In an ironic denouement that surely would have astounded the author (who hid knowledge of his conviction from his readers until the day he died), the Austin courthouse in which he was convicted is now O. Henry Hall, which houses the administrative offices of the University of Texas system.

O. Henry became especially famous for twist endings, for creating endearingly humorous characters, and for fabricating new words and instantly understandable malapropisms. The term “banana republic” was perhaps his most lasting coinage, appearing in 1904 in Cabbages and Kings, his first book of stories, many of which were set in Central America. (For the last three decades, the O. Henry Museum in Austin has sponsored the O. Henry Pun-Off in honor of the author’s dedication to linguistic acrobatics.) Yet in spite of his love of wordplay and invented colloquialisms, his childhood friend and biographer Charles Alphonso Smith points out that O. Henry’s humor is “only marginally a thing of words and phrases. . . . His characters are not humorous because they say funny things. They say funny things because they are humorous.”

One of O. Henry’s most enduringly popular stories featuring this brand of “humorous” character is “The Ransom of Red Chief,” which appeared shortly after his death (in the collection Whirligigs) and has ever since been an inspiration for countless plays, movies, and adaptations for both adults and children. It was selected by comedian Andy Borowitz for the newest Library of America collection, The 50 Funniest Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to the Onion.

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It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you. We were down South, in Alabama—Bill Driscoll and myself—when this kidnapping idea struck us. . . . 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, August 12, 2011

When I Knew Stephen Crane

Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings

Irving Bacheller, the founder of the first major American newspaper syndicate, sent one of his young reporters, Stephen Crane, to Nebraska in February 1895 to report on the extreme drought and famine endured by the state’s residents during the previous two years. Only two months earlier the Nebraska State Journal had published the serialized version of The Red Badge of Courage. At the time, Willa Cather was a senior at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and the drama critic for the Journal, writing several articles each week. At some point during Crane’s stay in Lincoln, the 23-year-old author met the 21-year-old student, who was overwhelmed with a heavy course load and a full-time job requiring her to attend the local theater productions most nights of the week.

When Crane died five years later, in June 1900, Cather was living and working in Pittsburgh; under the pseudonym Henry Nickelman, she published a somewhat fictionalized account of their meeting. (The following month it was reprinted under her own name by a weekly paper in her hometown.) The piece is set on a warm spring day of 1894—before The Red Badge of Courage had been published—rather than during the cold winter months of Crane’s actual visit the following year. Stanley Wertheim’s Stephen Crane Encyclopedia notes, “The description of Crane's disheveled appearance seems true to life, but he is romanticized as having hands resembling those of [Art Nouveau illustrator] Aubrey Beardsley and carrying a little volume of Poe in his back pocket.” Biographer James Woodress remarks that it was Cather who was reading Poe at the time. Her portrait of Crane, then, seems somewhat modified to foretell his tragic fate and to reflect Cather’s own interest in writing and literature. Nevertheless, Woodress notes that their interview “sounds authentic” in part, especially when Crane discusses his double life as an author: how he wrote some things to please himself and how he wrote others to sell.

Our selection this week was suggested by an e-mail exchange with Dolores Schultz, an instructor at Saddleback College (Mission Viejo, CA), who finds that Cather’s “criticism and the book reviews she wrote for magazines were so brilliant compared with some of those written today.” And, in spite of whatever fictional elements may exist in her remembrance of Stephen Crane, the young Willa Cather still manages to offer her own opinions on Crane’s literary output (which she often admired and sometimes disdained) and on the writing of fiction and journalism in general.

One can only wonder what Crane might have thought of Willa Cather, only two years her junior. The only hint is a possibly apocryphal, secondhand account of Crane’s visit to Lincoln found in Willa Cather Living, the memoir published by Edith Lewis, Cather’s companion for forty years: “He was on his way to the Coast, and dropped into the Journal office one night about midnight. He was fascinated by the sight of a young girl . . . standing fast asleep. He said it was the only time he had ever seen anyone asleep on their feet like that.”

Notes: Mr. Howells (p. 933) is author, critic, and editor William Dean Howells. Mr. Davis (p. 934) is Richard Harding Davis, a prolific writer of fiction and journalism who is believed to be the model for illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s male version of the famous “Gibson girl.”

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It was, I think, in the spring of ’94 that a slender, narrow-chested fellow in a shabby grey suit, with a soft felt hat pulled low over his eyes, sauntered into the office of the managing editor of the Nebraska State Journal and introduced himself as Stephen Crane. . . . 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, August 5, 2011

Paul Bunyan

John Dos Passos (1896–1970)
From John Dos Passos: U.S.A.

Almost a century ago, about a hundred miles south of Seattle, the logging town of Centralia was home to a series of tense standoffs between the recently arrived Wobblies (members of the Industrial Workers of the World) and local business interests, particularly members of the American Legion. When the I.W.W. hall was raided and destroyed in 1918, with its members attacked and driven out of town, the organization regrouped, returned, and moved to a new hall the following year. By early November rumors swirled that a repeat of the previous year’s raid was imminent, and seven armed men were stationed in the hall to defend it during the Armistice Day parade, when an attack seemed most likely. What happened that day is summarized in an essay hosted on the University of Washington Libraries website:
There is little doubt, from later testimony, most notably that of Dr. Frank Bickford who admitted leading the raid, that the Legionnaires initiated the conflict. It is less clear who fired first, but it seems likely that the Wobblies fired first. In any event, shots soon came from all vantage points.
The details of this incident, with its shockingly grisly conclusion, form the basis of “Paul Bunyan,” one of the biographical vignettes in John Dos Passos’s 1919 (the second book in his U.S.A. trilogy).

This particular selection was recommended for Story of the Week by, coincidentally, two readers. Charles Saydah, of Nanuet, New York, notes that “U.S.A.’s twenty-six capsule biographies of early twentieth-century America’s most notable people are among the most compelling and moving sections of this remarkable novel” and that “each of the biographies can stand on its own as a separate story.” Ken Yellis, of Newport, Rhode Island, agrees, observing “Paul Bunyan” is one of the sections “that stand out in memory, partly because the techniques seemed so fresh and exciting and exerted so much influence on other writers.”

Notes: A century ago, many laborers were paid in scrip (p. 747), a currency that could often be redeemed only in stores owned or managed by the employer. The Big Four (p. 747) refers to the leaders of the United State, Britain, Italy, and France, who met at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. O.D. (p. 748) was a common abbreviation for olive drab.

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When Wesley Everest came home from overseas and got his discharge from the army he went back to his old job of logging. . . . 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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