Friday, September 30, 2011

The Scavengers

Mary Austin (1868–1934)
From American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Raised in Illinois, Mary Hunter Austin moved west at the age of twenty, homesteaded near Fort Tejon in California, and then settled with her husband to the east in the arid Owens Valley, which she dubbed “The Land of Little Rain.” In 1903, following years of various hardships, she published under that title a collection of stories and essays about the American Southwest, which remains to date her most well-known work among her two dozen books. (It topped a 1999 readers poll by the San Francisco Chronicle of the top 100 books “west of the Rockies.”) One of its most celebrated pieces, “The Scavengers,” describes the splendor and squalor of the vultures, buzzards, ravens, coyotes, and other species that make their living from death.

Soon after the success of The Land of Little Rain, in March 1906, Austin separated from her husband—they would divorce in 1914—and joined the fledgling circle of literary Californians in Carmel. Only a month later, while she was visiting San Francisco, the legendary earthquake struck. Austin’s move to Carmel could not have been more propitiously timed; after the quake, dozens of shell-shocked and displaced Bay Area artists and writers migrated to her new neighborhood. Two decades later, she wrote a nostalgic essay about life in Carmel for The American Mercury magazine:
We achieved, all of us who flocked there within the ensuing two or three years, especially after the fire of 1906 had made San Francisco uninhabitable to the creative worker, a settled habit of morning work. . . . There was beauty and strangeness; beauty of Greek quality, but not too Greek, “green fires, and billows tremulous with light,” not wanting the indispensable touch of grief; strangeness of bearded men from Tassajara with bear meat and wild-honey to sell; great teams from the Sur, going by on the high road with the sound of bells; and shadowy recesses within the wood, white with the droppings of night-haunting birds. But I think that the memorable and now vanished charm of Carmel lay, perhaps, most in the reality of the simplicity attained, a simplicity factually adjusted to the quest of food and fuel and housing as it can never be in any “quarter” of city life.
The colony would eventually attract such visitors and residents as Jack London, John Galsworthy, Upton Sinclair, Robinson Jeffers, Clark Ashton Smith, and Ambrose Bierce; although Austin was an admirer of Bierce’s writing, they didn’t think much of each other after they’d met. (This seems to be a recurring theme in Bierce’s biography; he had a similarly chilly relationship with another area resident, Gertrude Atherton.)

In 1923, after living in New York City for a decade, Austin was convinced by the heiress and arts patron Mabel Dodge to relocate to the new artist colony in Taos, New Mexico. In 1930, she collaborated with neighbor Ansel Adams on Taos Pueblo, a 108-copy, hand-produced photographic essay, a copy of which can be yours today for a mere $85,000. One of Austin’s friends who stayed at her home in Taos was Willa Cather, who inscribed a copy of Death Comes for the Archbishop, “For Mary Austin, in whose lovely study I wrote the last chapters of this book.”

Note: Nearly all the place names mentioned by Austin are located in the southern Sierra and desert areas of central California and southern Nevada. For example, Canada de los Uvas is now known more commonly by its English name, Grapevine Canyon (at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley); the modern spelling for Haiwai is Haiwee (in Inyo Country, California); etc.

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Fifty-seven buzzards, one on each of fifty-seven fence posts at the rancho El Tejon, on a mirage-breeding September morning, sat solemnly while the white tilted travelers’ vans lumbered down the Canada de los Uvas. After three hours they had only clapped their wings, or exchanged posts. . . . 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, September 23, 2011

Why Don’t You Dance?

Raymond Carver (1938–1988)
From Raymond Carver: Collected Stories

Earlier this year at the Speakeasy blog of The Wall Street Journal, Julie Steinberg asked screenwriter and director Dan Rush what motivated him to turn a 1,600-word Raymond Carver story into a ninety-minute feature film. Rush responded with a description of how the story had haunted him:
After I read it, I started doing commercials, but it just kept sticking with me. The image of this guy, living on the lawn, as if he was living inside. I thought it was kind of an interesting setup for a movie. This is a moment of conflict for everyone to see. This is a crisis. I started asking myself, how did this guy get here? What I can create to put him in this position? Once I get him there, what can I do to get him off the lawn—or not get him off?
The resulting movie, Everything Must Go (featuring Will Ferrell in an atypically austere performance), was released on DVD earlier this month.

“Why Don’t You Dance?,” the story that inspired the film, is the opening selection of Carver’s breakthrough 1981 collection,
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Just two years ago, The Library of America prompted a fresh consideration of Carver’s achievement as a storyteller by publishing in one volume both What We Talk About and the original manuscript for the collection, Beginners. The editors for the LOA volume summarize the difference between the two versions: “As [Carver’s editor Gordon Lish] later said, what struck him in Carver’s writing was ‘a peculiar bleakness.’ To foreground that bleakness, he cut the stories radically, reducing plot, character development, and figurative language to a minimum. Some stories were shortened by a third, several by more than a half, and two by three-quarters of their original length. The overall reduction of the manuscript in word count was 55%.”

About 9% of the eight-page manuscript for “Why Don’t You Dance?” was cut by Lish for its publication in
What We Talk About. The story had appeared previously, in different form, in Quarterly West and The Paris Review. At one point, when the story was submitted to Esquire, Lish had changed its title to “I Am Going to Sit Down,” but this version was never published. We present here the original text, before editing, of Raymond Carver’s story.

This week’s selection was recommended by Greg Martinez of Gainesville, Florida, who reminded us about the release of the movie and suggested we offer the story to
Story of the Week readers. 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.

In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard. The mattress was stripped and the candy-striped sheets lay beside two pillows on the chiffonier. Except for that, things looked much the way they had in the bedroom— . . . This story is no longer available. Read other recent selections from Story of the Week.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Porcelain and Pink

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
From F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922

In the months prior to the publication of his first novel in 1920, twenty-three-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald revised several stories that had previously been rejected and then resubmitted them to various magazines: four were accepted by The Smart Set (co-edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan) and two by Scribner’s Magazine. Soon after, a half dozen stories were acquired by The Saturday Evening Post at $400 each. His story “Head and Shoulders” was also sold to Metro Films for $2,500. Then This Side in Paradise appeared and established F. Scott Fitzgerald as the newest literary wunderkind, selling 3,000 copies in three days; within months, magazines began paying the young author up to $900 per story; in two years, he would command $1,500. The young Princeton drop-out and Army veteran found himself suddenly, unexpectedly prosperous.

Originally appearing in the January 1920 issue of The Smart Set, “Porcelain and Pink” was the earliest of the stories Fitzgerald would later reprint in a book-length collection. The story is a bit of a lark, a one-act burlesque that opens with a splendidly droll parody of stage directions, featuring a blue porcelain bathtub. One contemporary reviewer praised the “playlet [as] purely nonsensical and amazingly funny,” but assumed that it was really written by Mencken or Nathan “since the name of the author was new to me.” (Two years earlier, Mencken had perpetrated his infamous “bathtub hoax,” which possibly reinforced the suspicion.) Another reviewer, however, huffed that Fitzgerald’s sketch was “mere sophisticated prurience”; a third condemned it as “bathroom stupidity.”

The perceived offensiveness of “Porcelain and Pink,” which wouldn’t even merit a PG rating today, helped create for the author a bit of notoriety (certainly in his own imagination, at least). In the table of contents for the 1922 collection Tales of the Jazz Age, he added the following note about the “playlet”:
       “And do you write for any other magazines?” inquired the young lady.
       “On, yes,” I assured her. “I’ve had some stories and plays in the ‘Smart Set,’ for instance—“
       The young lady shivered.
       “The ‘Smart Set’!” she exclaimed. “How can you? Why, they publish stuff about girls in blue bathtubs, and silly things like that!”
       And I had the magnificent joy of telling her that she was referring to “Porcelain and Pink,” which had appeared there several months before.
       And later, when Tales of the Jazz Age was in production, Fitzgerald sent his own advertising blurb to Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins :
Contains the famous “Porcelain and Pink Story”—the bath-tub classic—as well as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and nine other tales. In the book Mr. F. has developed his gifts as a satiric humorist to a point rivalled by few if any living American writers. The lazy meanderings of a brilliant and powerful imagination.
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Notes: The Nervii (p. 904) were a Belgic tribe defeated by Caesar in 57 B.C. Pebeco (p. 908) was a brand of toothpaste, while Lucile was the professional name of Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff Gordon, a celebrated British fashion designer. Evangeline, (p. 910) a long epic poem, and “The Skeleton in Armor,” a much shorter ballad, are both by Longfellow. The Ballad of Reading Gaol (p. 911) is a poem by Oscar Wilde (not O. Henry) after he left prison in 1898. Gaby Deslys was the stage name of a French dancer famous for her jewelry and her liaisons with royalty, and Mr. Bergson refers to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, but the quote Julie attributes to them was reportedly made by Isadora Duncan to George Bernard Shaw: "With my body and your brains, what a wonder [our baby] would be." "Yes," Shaw replied. "But what if it had my body and your brains?". “The Shimmies of Normandy” is a mangling of Robert Planquets’s comic opera The Chimes of Normandy.

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A room in the down-stairs of a summer cottage. High around the wall runs an art frieze of a fisherman with a pile of nets at his feet and a ship on a crimson ocean, a fisherman with a pile of nets at his feet and a ship on a crimson ocean, a fisherman with a pile of nets at his feet and so on. . . . 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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Friday, September 9, 2011

The Duel

O. Henry (1862–1910)
From Writing New York: A Literary Anthology

Last month Story of the Week featured O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief,” and we were surprised by the outpouring of enthusiasm for the story, which for some readers was a pleasant discovery—and for many others a welcome rediscovery of a tale fondly recalled from their childhood years.

Yet, in one significant way, “Red Chief” is not typical of O. Henry’s stories. Although he was raised in North Carolina, worked as a banker in Texas, lived as a fugitive in New Orleans and Honduras, and served time in a federal penitentiary in Ohio, the majority of his stories—and certainly most of his best fiction—are about New York and New Yorkers. He had initially set his earliest stories in Central America and Texas, but by the time he published his second book,
The Four Million, he was dedicating most of his writing to the residents of the city where he lived for the last eight years of his life. The vastness and diversity of the metropolis not only allowed him to escape and hide his past as a felon but also inspired the weekly pieces he wrote for the New York World. He was entranced by the city’s many distractions and temptations: “When I first came to New York, I spent a great deal of time knocking about around the streets. I did things I wouldn’t think of doing now.” His friend Charles Alphonso Smith agreed, “If O. Henry’s chief quest in New York was for ‘What’s around the corner,’ his underlying purpose was to get first-hand material for short stories.”

For the last decade New York City has particularly haunted as well as enchanted us each year on the anniversary of 9/11—which is also, as it happens, O. Henry’s birthday. And so we offer as tribute one of the many parables he set in New York, the city in which he rebuilt his image and re-created his own version of the American dream. A reminder of the resilience of New Yorkers, “The Duel” is a parable about two new additions to O. Henry’s “four million.” The first, a businessman, boasts that he has managed to grab the city by the throat in conquest; the second, an artist, seems world-weary and beaten down by the “challenge to a duel” the city offers to its newcomers. In the words of literary historian Shaun O’Connell, O. Henry portrays both men as addicted to a hallucinatory city with “vast powers to shape the wills and color the minds of its residents.”

Notes: O. Henry’s story is sprinkled with several New York City references of the period. Hendrik Hudson (p. 382) refers to Henry Hudson, the English navigator who explored the region around the area that became New York; it was also the name of a steamboat stationed in New York City in the middle of the nineteenth century. John L. Sullivan (p. 383) was the first heavyweight champion in gloved boxing. The hero Lockinvar, or Lochinvar (p. 384), was featured in a ballad by Sir Walter Scott. May Irwin (p. 384) was a popular vaudeville actress; E. S. Willard (p. 384) was a British actor who appeared in many successful Broadway productions between 1890 and 1905. Famous for his extravagant gambling habits, John W. Gates (p. 385) owned American Steel and Wire Company, which was eventually sold to J. P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel. Edna May Pettie (p. 385) was an American actress who became famous in the London production of The Belle of New York. Mandragora (p. 386) is the genus name for mandrake, which causes delirium and hallucinations when ingested.

The gods, lying beside their nectar on ’Lympus and peeping over the edge of the cliff, perceive a difference in cities. Although it would seem that to their vision towns must appear as large or small ant-hills without special characteristics, yet it is not so. . . . 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, September 2, 2011

The Apostate

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

Bibb Mill No. 1 in Macon, GA, 1909. “Some boys were so small they had to climb up on the spinning frame to mend the broken threads and put back the empty bobbins.” Lewis W. Hine (1874-1940). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Jack London worked a number of odd jobs during his childhood years in West Oakland, California: delivering newspapers, sweeping salon floors, and setting up pins in a bowling alley. After he completed grammar school in 1890 at the age of fourteen, he found employment at the nearby Hickmott’s cannery, where he spent twelve to eighteen hours a day stuffing pickles into jars—at ten cents an hour. The work was strenuous, tedious, and robotic, and the long hours kept the teenager from his favorite pastime: reading in the local library. As Alex Kershaw notes in his biography of London, “There had been no attempt to outlaw child labor in California, nor was there health and safety regulation, nor any limits on hours worked.” Toward the end of the century, some states began passing laws prohibiting factory and quarry work for children under fourteen, but evasion was widespread and enforcement was spotty.

Seeking to escape the grueling monotony, London became an “oyster pirate,” one of a covert gang of nighttime thieves who stole from privately owned oyster beds and sold their booty in the Bay Area fish markets—receiving up to $25 for an evening’s catch. When his sloop became damaged and no longer seaworthy, he switched to “the other side” and was hired by the California Fish Patrol. At the age of seventeen, he signed on as a seaman for a seven-month voyage. But by the end of 1893, London was back working ten hours a day, at ten cents an hour, in a jute textile mill. In four arduous years as a teenager, his life had come full circle: “Despite my increase in strength and general efficiency, I was receiving no more than when I worked in the cannery several years before.”

At the age of eighteen, he abandoned the ranks of the working poor, adopted the mien of a hobo, and joined Kelly’s Army, the western branch of Coxey’s Army—a national movement of so-called “tramps” who marched to Washington in protest. (See our introduction to Stephen Crane’s “An Experiment in Misery,” a previous Story of the Week selection, for more on Coxey’s Army.) London made it only as far as Hannibal, Missouri; he was eventually arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to thirty days in a New York penitentiary.

Twelve years later, in 1906, his life had turned around spectacularly and he used his nightmarish adolescent adventures as the basis for “The Apostate,” which originally carried the subtitle “A Child Labor Parable.” He had become one of the highest paid writers in the world; Woman’s Home Companion paid him $767.30 for this 7,673-word story. As The World of Jack London website points out, the boy who once toiled for ten cents an hour was now a young man earning ten cents a word.

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“If you don't git up, Johnny, I won't give you a bite to eat!” . . . 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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