Saturday, March 31, 2012

Story in Harlem Slang

Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)
From Zora Neale Hurston: Novels & Stories

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston, 1938, by American photographer Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection.
In 1942 Zora Neal Hurston published her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road and enjoyed a brief period of mainstream success. The book sold well, “most critics liked it, and it won the Saturday Review’s $1,000 Anisfield-Wolf Award for its contribution to the field of ‘race relations,’” writes biographer Robert Hemenway. “More than at any point in her life, Zora became a black spokesperson, whose opinions were sought by a white reading public.”

During the next three years she published seven pieces in national magazines, including “Story in Harlem Slang,” which appeared in American Mercury in July 1942. Yet Hurston had to make a number of compromises to achieve that fame; her memoir had been seriously watered down to make it palatable and inoffensive to white audiences—and she was criticized for selling out. Arna Bontemps, another writer prominent during Harlem Renaissance, wrote pointedly in his review of Dust Tracks, “Miss Hurston deals very simply with the more serious aspects of Negro life in America—she ignores them.”

Hurston would never again achieve the kind of recognition she enjoyed during the early 1940s; she died in 1960 in relative obscurity and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her works were largely forgotten until the late 1970s, when a number of scholars and writers began rescuing them from oblivion after Alice Walker published an appreciation in Ms. magazine. The Library of America published the restored and unexpurgated text of Dust Tracks on a Road in 1995.

In “Story in Harlem Slang”—the only piece of fiction she published during her brief period in the limelight—Hurston uses her career as a folklorist to celebrate the community’s linguistic expression. For her non-Harlem (and mostly white) audience, she included an appendix at the end of the story, reprinted as the last three pages of the selection below. In an anthology published in 1990, Alan Dundes remarks on “how a good many of the slang items are still current” and notes that one reason is that it has often taken decades for slang from Harlem to reach “middle-class white Americans.” Since the emphasis is on wordplay and banter, the story’s plot is simple: a man named Marvel (nicknamed Jelly), originally from Alabama, runs into his friend Sweet Back, and the two boast and joke around a bit before encountering a young woman from Georgia. One theme of the story, notes Hemenway, recurs in much of Hurston’s writing: “that the North was no utopia, just as the South was not necessarily hell.”

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Wait till I light up my coal-pot and I'll tell you about this Zigaboo called Jelly. Well, all right now. . . . 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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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Arson Plus

Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961)
From Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings

During his first year as a published author, Dashiell Hammett placed twelve stories in magazines before his pioneering “hard-boiled” piece, “Arson Plus,” appeared under the pseudonym Peter Collinson in the October 1, 1923, issue of Black Mask. Three years earlier George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken had launched the pulp magazine, but it was only after they sold it in 1922 (at a significant profit) that Black Mask, under new editorship, began to feature the gritty, naturalistic crime stories that would become so extraordinarily popular with its readers.

Hammett’s new style of stories was influenced in part by the success of another, less talented Black Mask writer, Carroll John Daly, and together they would change the detective tale forever. In “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler assessed how his literary predecessor finally brought crime fiction out of the parlors of the upper class:
If [English detective fiction writers] wrote about dukes and Venetian vases, they knew no more about them out of their own experience than the well-heeled Hollywood character knows about the French Modernists that hang in his Bel-Air ch√Ęteau or the semi-antique Chippendale-cum-cobbler’s bench that he uses for a coffee table. Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing.
Drawing on his own experience as a Pinkerton detective, Hammett created the nameless, paunchy, street-tough Continental Detective Agency operative who appears first in “Arson Plus” and later in three dozen stories, eight of which were incorporated into his novels Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. When he submitted the initial pieces for publication, Hammett explained that he “didn’t deliberately keep him nameless,” but the Continental op got through the first couple of stories “without needing one.” He continued: “He’s more or less of a type: the private detective who oftenest is successful: neither the derby-hatted and broad-toed blockhead of one school of fiction, nor the all-knowing, infallible genius of another. I’ve worked with several of him.”

Notes: Hiram Johnson (page 18) was governor of California from 1911 to 1917 before serving as a U.S. senator from 1917 to 1945.

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Jim Tarr picked up the cigar I rolled across his desk, looked at the band, bit off an end, and reached for a match.

“Fifteen cents straight,” he said. “You must want me to break a couple of laws for you this time.” . . . 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, March 16, 2012

A Problem

Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1864–1874

In June 1868 twenty-three-year-old Moorfield Storey, whose multifaceted career would eventually include becoming the first president of the NAACP, exclaimed in a letter to a friend, “I have just finished a most delightfully trashy story in the Galaxy by my friend or acquaintance, Henry James. Just the sort of dish-water which suits one in June.” The tale in question “is extraordinarily uncharacteristic of its author as he came to be known,” adds Storey’s biographer in a footnote. Readers may well be surprised that this “trashy” story, which is this week’s selection, is from the same hand that gave us Daisy Miller, Washington Square, The Wings of the Dove, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Turn of the Screw.

Only twenty-five years old when he wrote “A Problem,” James had already been publishing stories for four years, beginning with the anonymous “A Tragedy of Error” in the February 1864 issue of
Continental Monthly. As one critic put it a half century ago, “James’s struggle between realism and romanticism is clearly working itself out” in his early fiction. James’s stories from this decade are “carefully written and constructed, but rather prim and pale,” notes Robert Emmet Long. “They have a French lucidity, an accuracy of psychological observation, and all are concerned with social relationships.” Most of the stories have a Civil War setting, highlight interactions between the sexes, or feature supernatural elements, and several of them show especially the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne. James later published the literary biography Hawthorne (1879), and few authors—and certainly no other American author—influenced James’s writing to such an extent. As literary scholar Richard Brodhead contends, “although James’s writing life is fifty years in length, there is no time in it so early that Hawthorne is not already a part of it, as there is no time so late that we can confidently say that Hawthorne’s influence is definitely outgrown.”

While writing and publishing his early stories (many of which he never republished), James was the first to acknowledge that they were apprentice work, created to satisfy popular taste. The year “A Problem” was published, he wrote, “I write little and only tales, which I think it likely I shall continue to manufacture in a hackish manner, for that which is bread. They
cannot of necessity be very good; but they shall not be very bad.” Still, even when the young James was slumming it, his tales have an atypically breezy appeal and are of interest to anyone intrigued by the development of one of America’s greatest authors.

Note: In Catherine Maria Sedgwick's novel Hope Leslie (1827), Magawisca (p. 309) is the daughter of a Pequod chief.

September was drawing to an end, and with it the honeymoon of two young persons in whom I shall be glad to interest the reader. They had stretched it out in sovereign contempt of the balance of the calendar. That September hath thirty days is a truth known to the simplest child; but our young lovers had given it at least forty. . . . 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, March 9, 2012

Where Do You Get That Noise?

Ring Lardner (1885–1933)
From Baseball: A Literary Anthology

One hundred years ago this week (on March 15, 1912, to be exact), before the beginning of the new season, Cy Young announced his retirement from baseball, having chalked up a total of 511 wins—a record he still holds—over the course of twenty-two years. The end of one incomparable career marked the beginning of another. Only weeks before, a recently married and debt-laden 27-year-old named Ring Lardner got a break when his former employer, the Chicago Examiner, hired him back to write as a sportswriter under his own byline during the upcoming season.

Within a year, the rival Chicago Tribune lured him away to replace Hugh E. Keogh, who died after a career of thirty-one years and whose “In the Wake of the News” sports column had a loyal national following. It was an impossible task, noted The New York Times two decades later in Lardner’s obituary; “at first twenty letters a day to The Tribune told him how he failed.” Making things even more difficult was the mediocrity of the Chicago teams: the glory of the Cubs dynasty was a thing of the past and the White Sox were struggling to repeat the miracle of their 1906 World Series victory. And so (as biographer Jonathan Yardley puts it) Lardner was “faced with the responsibility of provoking readers’ interest in an essentially uninteresting situation.” He began focusing less on the game and more on the players, spicing up his columns with the vernacular and jocularity he heard on and off the field.

His journalism began to resemble short stories, and in 1914 Lardner submitted to the Saturday Evening Post an actual piece of fiction—the first of the series that would make up his 1916 book You Know Me Al—and it was promptly accepted. His stories proved immensely popular: he was inundated with requests from national magazines (although he favored the Post, which published nine stories in 1914 alone), his fee would increase from $250 to $1,500, and a decade later his baseball fiction would even earn an appreciative review from Virginia Woolf:
Mr. Lardner does not waste a moment when he writes in thinking whether he is using American slang or Shakespeare's English—whether he is proud of being American or ashamed of not being Japanese; all his mind is on the story. Hence, incidentally, he writes the best prose that has come our way. . . . It is no coincidence that the best of Mr. Lardner's stories are about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner's interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problems of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a centre, a meeting place for the divers activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games give him what society gives his English brother.
In the introduction to The American Language, H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan offered this assessment: “In his grotesque tales of baseball players, so immediately and so deservedly successful, Lardner reports the common speech not only with humor but with the utmost accuracy.” One of the earliest stories distinguished by its use of such “common speech,” “Where Do You Get that Noise?” portrays a young player whose new teammates at first provoke and then can barely stomach his penchant for spouting tall tales and know-it-all nonsense.

Notes: : The “Federals” (page 87) refers to the Federal League, a doomed attempt to start up a third major league that lasted from 1914 to 1915; one of the eight teams in 1915 was the Newark Peppers. The first World Series was in 1903, belying Hawley’s remarks on page 88 about a World Series in 1896, when there was only one major league. Willis Hawley (page 89) was a representative—not a senator—from Oregon. Ring Lardner often scattered joking references to real-life players in his baseball stories. Among those mentioned here are (on page 93) Henry "Heinie" Groh, Fritz Mollwitz, Fritz Von Kolnitz, Joseph Wagner, Peer Schneider, Charles “Buck” Herzog—all players for the Cincinnati Reds in 1915; the team’s president, August Garry Herrmann; and (on page 98) George Cutshaw and Zack Wheat—of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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The trade was pulled wile the Phillies was here first trip. Without knockin’ nobody, the two fellas we give was worth about as much as a front foot on Main Street, Belgium. And the fella we got had went better this spring than any time since he broke in. . . . 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, March 2, 2012

Golden Baby

Alice Brown (1856–1948)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Born in New Hampshire, Alice Brown lived most of her adult life in Boston and published seventeen novels, a number of plays, three books of poetry, dozens of essays, several children’s books, and over one hundred stories collected in eight volumes during the course of a career spanning five decades. In a scholarly study published exactly one hundred years ago, the Russian-born American critic Elias Lieberman acknowledged her influence at the dawn of the twentieth century: “For some peculiar psychologic reason, the field of New England portraiture has been monopolized by three women. They are Mary Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett and Alice Brown.” Yet, unlike her illustrious contemporaries (both of whom have been featured previously on Story of the Week), Brown’s writings were falling into neglect by the time she stopped writing at the age of seventy-nine in 1935, and in recent years a dedicated coterie of scholars have begun exploring and reassessing her work. Literary historian Susan Koppelman has speculated that Brown’s reputation suffered because her prominence as a writer of local-color fiction was simply behind the times: “she wrote during the years of declining interest in literary regionalism.”

“The Golden Baby” is a departure from the “typical” Alice Brown story, which usually portrays women, notably mothers and daughters, living in New England. Here we have an eerie tale that opens with a group of male travelers in the smoking room of a ship during an ocean voyage. Just when they seem to be getting on one another’s nerves, their boredom is relieved when they “scent” the beginning of a good story coming from a member of their group. We are then treated to the story-within-the-story, about the mysterious appearance of a slave woman and her child on a Caribbean cruise whose passengers have formed into cliques, divided by their “hatreds and the mildew of exclusiveness.”

Notes: The William Morris man is so described because his appearance evokes the artist and graphic designer of that name. One of the other men makes several references, which perplex his fellow travelers, to Sir Philip Sidney, who was killed in 1586 while leading an attack on a Spanish convoy near the Netherlands city of Zutphen. George Osborne (p. 375) is the self-indulgent military officer who dies at the battle of Waterloo in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. The lines of doggerel on page 378—“water wouldn’t quench fire, fire wouldn’t burn axe”—are from the nursery rhyme “The Woman And Her Pig.”

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We were in the Sycorax smoking-room, within an hour of turning the lights out for the night. The air was gray with smoke, and everybody, even the men that made it, looked dulled by it. . . . 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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