Friday, April 27, 2012

The Cask of Amontillado

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
From Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales

“The Cask of Amontillado” by Irish book illustrator Harry Clarke (1889-1931) for a 1919 edition of Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Raven (directed by James McTeigue and starring John Cusack) opens this weekend in theaters. The movie is the latest of many attempts to adapt the works of Edgar Allan Poe for the big screen; it depicts a serial killer whose methods are inspired by various Poe stories. Although none of us at The Library of America has seen the movie, we do hope that it attracts new readers to Poe’s fiction and poetry.

One story used in the film is “The Cask of Amontillado,” which is not only among Poe’s most famous works but also one of the best-known revenge fantasies by any author. What is not as well known is that the story itself was an act of revenge. For several years Poe had been feuding with a former friend, Thomas Dunn English. Their quarrel began when, in 1843, Poe publicly ridiculed English’s poems; things escalated from there. Three years later, Poe sued English for libel for a letter that appeared in a newspaper (Poe won $225 in damages), and English published a novel, 1844, or, The Power of the S. F., featuring a Poe-like character named Marmaduke Hammerhead—a journalist who “never gets drunk more than five days a week,” becomes famous for publishing “The Black Crow,” grows increasingly crazy as the novel progresses, and ends up in an asylum.

One of Poe’s responses to this malicious portrayal was “The Cask of Amontillado,” pitting the scheming Montresor against his buffoonish nemesis Fortunato. The author Andrew Barger has noted some of the story’s references to English’s novel, to wit: “A chapter of 1844 takes place in an underground vault” and “English uses the phrase ‘For the love of God’ in 1844 and Poe spits it back to him in this story.” The motto of Poe’s fictional Montresor family is Nemo me impune lacesit (“No one insults me with impunity”); it could just as well serve as a theme for Poe’s own career.

Incidentally, another Poe story that probably included a caricature of Thomas Dunn English (among other writers) is “Hop-Frog,” which we featured previously on Story of the Week. In a number of interviews, John Cusack cited this story as his own personal favorite—but he has revealed that you won’t see it in the movie. “I'd have loved it if we’d used ‘Hop-Frog,’ but we couldn’t fit that one in.”

Note: Amontillado is an expensive variety of sherry; a pipe is a cask or barrel used for wine.

*   *   *
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. . . . 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, April 20, 2012

The Fog

Berton Roueché (1910–1994)
From American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Photograph taken at noon on October 29, 1948, in Donora, Pennsylvania. Courtesy NOAA Ocean Service Education.
“Before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, before there was an Earth Day, before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, there was Donora.”
—W. Michael McCabe, Regional Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1998
On a Sunday evening at the end of October 1948, famed radio broadcaster Walter Winchell took to the airwaves and alerted the nation to an emergency then happening in Donora, Pennsylvania. An impenetrable, toxic, and ultimately lethal fog had blanketed the steel mill center during the previous week and had silently infected its residents. Communication within the darkened town (which had no radio station, no hospital, eight doctors, two full-time firefighters, and three undertakers) was so bad that many of the 12,300 residents didn’t realize the extent of the tragedy until they began hearing from relatives and friends living outside the region who called in a panic. Within a few hours after Winchell’s broadcast, the chief counsel for American Steel and Wire, fearing the inevitable aftermath, reached the superintendent of the zinc works and told him to shut down the furnaces.

The most famous account of the Donora incident is “The Fog,” written two years later for The New Yorker by Berton Roueché, who remains one of the most esteemed writers of medical thrillers, a genre he practically reinvented during his fifty-year career. Roueché’s articles combined elements of several popular genres—true crime, detective fiction, suspense and horror—yet explained and explored with admirable accuracy the minutiae of science. His various awards reflect this balance: “The Fog” itself would end up being one of two pieces that together earned the 1950 Albert Lasker Medical Journalism Award, and his 1953 collection Eleven Blue Men, and Other Narratives of Medical Detection (which included “The Fog”) would garner a Raven Award, given for “outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing” by the Mystery Writers of America.

Even today, Roueché’s books continue to inspire and thrill readers and authors. In a 2006 interview, the novelist Kaye Gibbons listed Eleven Blue Men as one of her ten favorite books, which “I reread every time I need to be reminded of the sheer joy possible in language and character. I like to think of him as the progenitor of CSI and give his books to friends whenever I find them in print.” And the television series House was in part inspired by Roueché’s works, according to the show’s producer David Shore.

As for Donora: there is a sequel to Roueché’s account. The American Steel and Wire Company paid $235,000 as an out-of-court settlement for 130 lawsuits that had originally requested a total of $4,643,000 in damages. According to a recent article in The New York Times, the company continued to insist that the catastrophe “was ‘an act of God,’ and never admitted any responsibility. . . . By the time legal fees were taken out and the money was spread among the hundreds of victims,” the  compensation was meager. As the relative of one survivor recalled, “My aunt said she had enough left to buy a TV.”

*   *   *
The Monongahela River rises in the middle Alleghenies and seeps for a hundred and twenty-eight miles through the iron and bituminous-coal fields of northeastern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh. . . . 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, April 13, 2012

The Doll

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932)
From Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays

In 1904 Charles W. Chesnutt submitted three stories to The Atlantic Monthly; one, “Baxter's Procrustes,” (a light, humorous satire about book collectors’ societies that we previously featured on Story of the Week) was accepted and immediately published; the other two, including “The Doll,” were turned down. During the previous two decades, Chesnutt’s fiction had appeared widely in national magazines (in 1887 he became the first African American fiction writer to appear in The Atlantic), he published three books of fiction and a biography between 1899 and 1904, his work had been critically acclaimed—but his writing didn’t sell well enough to support his family. The three stories sent to The Atlantic were among Chesnutt’s last writings before he called it quits as a full-time author and turned his attention to political activism and his far more lucrative stenography business.

One hundred years ago this month, “The Doll” was dusted off and finally published—in the April 1912 issue of the NAACP magazine The Crisis. (Chesnutt does not appear to have accepted compensation for it.) The story had been advertised by the magazine’s editors in the previous issue as “one of the literary events of the year . . . Mr. Chesnutt’s only published work since [his 1905 novel] ‘The Colonel’s Dream.’” It would be one of just four stories Chesnutt would publish during the last twenty years of his life—all in The Crisis.

A few recent scholars have suggested that the editors of The Atlantic may have found “The Doll” too provocative for its readership. The year he wrote it, a race riot in Springfield, Ohio, had culminated with a lynching. Similar incidents had occurred in Illinois and Delaware. In a speech he gave before an unidentified organization in Ohio, Chesnutt touched on these events and implored his white (and probably female) audience:
This is an incident, as indeed as are all others like it, which might well be considered with no reference to the question of race, were it not for the fact of the many similar things with which it is correlated, and the further fact that they are directed almost entirely against colored men. White criminals are not burned or otherwise lynched. But your duty here is concerned with something more important than the issue of race. Our laws are defied, our state disgraced, our civilization besmirched.
Yet Chesnutt remained optimistic that respect for the law could, at least in the North, help heal the racial divide: “the hope of humanity still lies in the doctrine of equality of all men before the law.”

In “The Doll,” as in his speech, Chesnutt examines further this distress over racial conflict and the lack of equitable justice for black citizens. The lead character is a successful black barber in Ohio; years earlier, his father was murdered—not by a lynch mob but by a lone, white, self-appointed executioner. One of the barber’s customers, a southern Democratic politician aiming to prove a point to another white friend, goads the barber with a diatribe vile in content and in language (including the calculated, aggressive repetition of what today’s readers refer to as the “n-word”). Through the surprising twists and improbable turns of his melodrama, Chesnutt forces his barber into making a stark choice: “society against self, civilization against the primitive instinct.”

*   *   *
When Tom Taylor, proprietor of the Wyandot Hotel barber shop, was leaving home, after his noonday luncheon, to return to his work, his daughter, a sprightly, diminutive brown maid, with very bright black eyes and very curly, black hair, thrust into his coat pocket a little jointed doll somewhat the worse for wear. . . . 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, April 6, 2012

After the Winter

Kate Chopin (1850–1904)
From Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories

During a few weeks at the end of 1891, still early in her brief career as a published author, Kate Chopin wrote nine stories in quick succession and sold every one of them. The last of the bunch, “After the Winter,” a tale written expressly for Easter, was bought by Youth’s Companion—but it never appeared there.

Chopin’s story includes a mention on the very first page to the calamity that had turned the main character into a misanthrope; while he was away fighting in the Civil War, his wife had grown “wanton with roaming” and had left him. It was Chopin’s first reference in her fiction to an unfaithful spouse, and it’s possible, one biographer* suggests, that youth in the 1890s needed to be protected from even a passing reference to adultery—especially one that describes “women whose pulses are stirred by strange voices and eyes that woo.”

According to her accounts book, the magazine paid her $50 in January 1892—the second highest sum she would receive for a piece of writing during the early 1890s. But the editors never printed it, so Chopin turned around and sold it four years later for another $5 to the New Orleans Times-Democrat, one of the local newspapers, which published it as a story for Easter.

* The publication history of “After the Winter,” is described in Emily Toth’s Unveiling Kate Chopin (1999).

Notes: The reference on the first page to the Louisiana Tigers is to a brigade in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The brigade distinguished itself during the 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign and fought until end of the war. The French phrase en bon ami (p. 893) means “as a good friend.”

Trézinie, the blacksmith’s daughter, stepped out upon the gallery just as M’sieur Michel passed by. He did not notice the girl but walked straight on down the village street. . . . 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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