Friday, November 25, 2011

Jim Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels

When Mark Twain was midway through the composition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he and his family embarked on a sixteen-month sojourn in Europe, from April 1878 to August 1879. He used the opportunity to write and publish a travel book in the vein of his earliest success, The Innocents Abroad. When the sequel, A Tramp Abroad, was published in 1880, it sold over sixty thousand copies during its first year and remained his best-selling book until his death thirty years later.

But, like Huckleberry Finn, which would take him eight years to complete, A Tramp Abroad did not come easy. From Europe he wrote to William Dean Howells, his friend and occasional editor, about the frustration of writing while touring.
I wish I could give those sharp satires on European life which you mention, but of course a man can’t write successful satire except he be in a calm judicial good-humor—whereas I hate travel, & I hate hotels, & I hate the opera, [&] I hate the Old Masters—in truth I don’t ever seem to be in a good enough humor with anything to satirize it. . . . I want to make a book which people will read,—& I shall make it profitable reading in spots—in spots merely because there’s not much material for a larger amount.
Alongside his skewering of European customs and language and culture, Twain padded his book with a number of American reminiscences, including one of his most famous “stories,” the blue-jay yarn. Twain had originally heard it from his friend Jim Gillis when they were prospecting for gold in the winter of 1864–65; Twain transforms his friend’s campfire tale into a satire of human perseverance and social behavior—and perhaps he meant the tale to be a profile of a writer trying futilely to fill his book with “profitable reading” in the same way that a desperate blue jay might try to fill a hole with acorns.

Some commentators have also read the story as an allusion to an ill-received speech given by Twain at John Greenleaf Whittier’s seventieth birthday dinner the year before he left for Europe. In lieu of a speech, Twain told a fanciful, off-color tale of “Mr. Longfellow, Mr. Emerson & Mr. Oliver Wendell Holmes” showing up drunk at a California miner’s cabin. His attempt at a jovial roast backfired with the bluebloods of New England who, like the owl that visits Yosemite, “couldn’t see anything funny in it.”

This week’s selection—the 100th in the Story of the Week series—was recommended by Errol Van Stralen from Memphis, Tennessee, who remarks that it is “every bit as good as ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’; I believe Twain collected the blue-jay yarn from the same source.” Errol’s recollection is very close to the mark. During the same winter that Jim Gillis and Twain were together prospecting in the California hills, they heard from a old-timer at Angels Camp the celebrated frog yarn that would make Mark Twain an internationally famous celebrity.

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Animals talk to each other, of course. There can be no question about that; but I suppose there are very few people who can under stand them. I never knew but one man who could. I knew he could, however, because he told me so himself. . . . 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, November 18, 2011

Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban Seasonings

Ana Menéndez (b. 1970)
From American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes

At the 2009 National Book Festival, Ana Menéndez opened her remarks by admitting that she had once decided not to write any more fiction about Cuban exiles. Yet, in spite of herself, the book she had most recently begun working on was about Cubans. As she noted in a recent interview with The Rumpus,“trying to escape Cuba, [she found] herself curating yet another book in debt to its traditions.”

The daughter of immigrants who fled Cuba in 1964 (fully expecting to return), Menéndez was born in Los Angeles and raised in Florida. For the last two decades she has worked as a journalist, including a tenure as a columnist for The Miami Herald. Both she and her husband, also a reporter, are globetrotters; she recently counted up the number of locations where she had resided during since the early 1990s and realized the total came to sixteen different “homes” on four continents. A little over a decade ago she began to write and publish fiction. Her debut story collection, In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, was a 2001 New York Times Notable book of the year, and the title story won a Pushcart Prize. She has also published two novels, Loving Che (2004) and The Last War (2009); the latter was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the top 100 books of the year. In August she published her latest book, Adios, Happy Homeland!—the collection of stories she had once sworn she wouldn’t write.

Like much of her fiction, “Celebrations of Thanksgiving” is about the experience of exile; it briefly chronicles her family’s course of assimilation through the medium of food, as they navigate between the boundaries of their Cuban heritage and American traditions. At the end of the narrative Menéndez has included her recipe for mojo, which readers may want to try for themselves, to add a Cuban flavor to this year’s holiday bird.

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We called it “Tansgibin” and to celebrate, we filled our plates with food that was strenuously—almost comically—Cuban: black beans and rice, fried plantains, yucca. Back then we didn’t know enough to know we were being ethnic, much less trendy. . . . 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, November 11, 2011

A Horseman in the Sky

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

The Library of America published its Ambrose Bierce collection in September, and we were taken by surprise when the first printing sold out barely three weeks after publication. Extensive reviews have appeared nationally in newspapers and magazines, including The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and most recently The New York Times Book Review. Although Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary has always remained popular, who knew there was such pent-up demand for the short stories written by a writer who vanished forever in the Mexican desert nearly a century ago? Needless to say, we’re delighted to have contributed to what may well be the beginning of an Ambrose Bierce renaissance.

We have previously offered two of his works (“The Moonlit Road” and “The Eyes of the Panther”) to Story of the Week readers; both were tales of the supernatural. But Bierce was (and is) also famous for his war stories, which he based on his own tenure in the Union Army during the Civil War. Motivated by a youthful patriotism, Bierce enlisted for three months’ service in April 1861, merely a week after the attack on Fort Sumter that opened the war. By early June, he was seeing action in western Virginia and was present at the Union victory at Philippi. A month later, a newspaper report commended his heroism when, under enemy fire during the battle of Laurel Hill, he carried a wounded soldier to safety. Soon after, he reenlisted for three years and subsequently participated in several of the war’s major battles, including Shiloh and Chickamauga; he was seriously wounded by a bullet to the head at Kennesaw Mountain.

As S. T. Joshi, the editor of the LOA collection, said in an interview, “we can learn much of what it was like to be a soldier in the Civil War” by reading Bierce’s stories. Terrence Rafferty, writing in The New York Times, agrees:
In story after story, he begins with minutely detailed descriptions of the hostile landscapes his soldiers—often sentries or scouts—find themselves in: terrain that must be attended to closely, and with sleepless vigilance, for signs of an enemy’s movements. . . . It’s as if every charged moment of his military service were still etched in his memory, persisting as only the most disturbing sensations can. Fear is indelible.
The scholar David M. Owens has called “A Horseman in the Sky” Bierce’s “most memorable use of the lone sentry motif,” and it is certainly one of his most well-known and widely anthologized stories. Joshi has remarked on the vast influence stories like this one had on other writers, including Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, and readers who recall Jack London’s “War” (a Story of the Week selection from last year), which was written two decades later, will notice a few similarities to Bierce’s tale. But unlike London (or Crane), Bierce is writing from his own experiences as a soldier; “A Horseman” is set near Grafton, a town now in West Virginia that was occupied in late May 1861 by Union troops whose number included Bierce himself, newly enlisted and only nineteen years old.

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One sunny afternoon in the autumn of the year 1861 a soldier lay in a clump of laurel by the side of a road in western Virginia. He lay at full length upon his stomach, his feet resting upon the toes, his head upon the left forearm. His extended right hand loosely grasped his rifle. . . . 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, November 4, 2011


Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1898–1910

Guy de Maupassant’s famous story “The Necklace” (“La Parure”), published in 1884, describes a young woman from a higher social station who has married a clerk of limited means. When the couple is invited to a fashionable gathering, she borrows an extravagantly lavish diamond necklace from a friend—and loses it after the party. Afraid of embarrassing herself, she borrows money to purchase another necklace that resembles the lost one. Years later, after she and her husband have worked themselves to exhaustion to pay off their debts, she confesses to her friend that the original necklace was lost—only to discover that the “original” was a fake.

Henry James met Maupassant on several occasions (Gustave Flaubert introduced them in 1875) and read his work avidly, but with mixed feelings. In 1885 he protested to a friend, “I languish for a new volume of Maupassant; there has [been] none since Yvette—a full three months ago!” Later, after reading Bel-Ami, he wrote, “It is as clever—as brilliant—as it is beastly, and though it has very weak points, it shows that the gifted and lascivious Guy can write a novel. . . . [It] strikes me as a history of a Cad, by a Cad—of genius!” As Maupassant scholar Richard Fusco notes, “Already, fascination was intermingling with moral misgiving in James’s effort to rate Maupassant’s achievement on a rigid aesthetic scale.” Their personal interactions were plagued with the same ambivalence; James was particularly alarmed and embarrassed by the French author’s overt attempts to flirt with women during a London visit.

By the time James wrote “Paste,” then, he had been reading Maupassant’s writings for nearly two decades and he readily acknowledged “The Necklace” as its source: “It seemed harmless sport simply to turn that situation round.” In James’s version, the diamonds become pearls and the plot is reversed, but he realized these superficial changes weren’t quite enough: “a new little ‘drama,’ a new setting for MY pearls—and as different as possible from the other—had of course withal to be found.” The story also includes his back-handed tribute to Maupassant, in the character of Mrs. Guy, the vivacious and somewhat vulgar woman around whose neck the “dull” and “opaque” pearls become “alive” and “might have passed for frank originals.” Incidentally, James may have meant the story title itself as a pun. On a previous occasion, he had misremembered the French title as “Le Collier” (which also means “The Necklace”); the French verb coller means to paste.

Modern critics have noted several themes running through the story, including an examination of “the social dynamic, both in terms of class structures and conflicts within families” (Patrick A. Smith) and “an exploration of the dramatic impact of a woman’s secrets being uncovered by death” (Deborah Wynne). Another scholar (Amy Tucker) remarks on how the story appeared in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, “with its whopping 121 pages of ads touting corsets and depilatories and quack cures for drug addictions. . . . carnivalesque surroundings [that] surely compromised the author’s well-known objections to Maupassant’s vulgarity.” At its most basic level, however, “Paste” describes what happens to a young woman who, alone among the characters in the story, chooses to do the right thing.

Notes: Mrs. Jarley (p. 138) is the fictional owner of a traveling wax museum in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Speriamo (p. 144) is Italian for “Let’s hope.”

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I’ve found a lot more things,“ her cousin said to her the day after the second funeral; “they’re up in her room—but they're things I wish you’d look at.” . . . 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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