Friday, May 25, 2012

“Damn the Torpedoes!”

Helen Lawrenson (1907–1982)
From Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944

Courtesy Camden, NJ, World War II
Merchant Marine Memorial.
During the first year of World War II, American citizens working the largely unarmed commercial ships carrying cargo and passengers across the Atlantic experienced many casualties, especially from attacks by German submarines. Sailors in the Merchant Marine were employees of private companies and they were largely free to quit their jobs after a voyage, but the work was just as dangerous as military combat (and often more so). Upwards of 250,000 civilians worked on these ships during the war, and various counts place the number of those killed between 6,000 and 9,000—at least twice the fatality rate among military personnel. Torpedoes, bombs, kamikazes, and other attacks sunk over 700 ocean-faring ships, and hundreds of smaller vessels were lost near the shore. Prior to the Normandy invasion, General Dwight Eisenhower acknowledged, “When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.”

Yet, after the war, the service of these veterans was largely forgotten and none of them qualified for benefits. It wasn’t until a federal ruling in 1988, following a decade-long court battle, when some finally qualified for limited services from Department of Veterans Affairs. Still, nearly seven decades later, a good number of the estimated 10,000 remaining survivors have never possessed the onerous documentation required to receive these belated benefits.

The New York journalist Helen Brown was well placed to record the heroism of these seafarers; her second husband, Jack Lawrenson, whom she married in 1939, had shipped from Ireland as a merchant seaman and upon his arrival in New York in 1937 he became a cofounder and leader of the National Maritime Union. When the couple met, Helen had already established her credentials as a writer, serving as an editor of Vanity Fair before becoming Esquire’s first woman contributor. The year of her and Jack’s marriage she collected some of her journalism in the provocatively titled The Hussy’s Handbook. Almost exactly seventy years ago, during the first year of American participation in the war, she wrote her account of the Merchant Marine based on information and anecdotes gleaned from her husband’s associates.

Jack Lawrenson was eventually forced out of the NMU in 1949, during a period of violent political upheavals and intense red-baiting within the union, and he died in 1957. His wife lived for another quarter century and enjoyed a brief period of notoriety in the mid-1970s (as noted by a profile in People) when she published Stranger at the Party, a memoir of her bohemian life in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village during the 1930s, and revealed details of her four-year affair with Condé Montrose Nast, her former boss and the founder and publisher of Vanity Fair.

*   *   *
A group of sailors are drinking beer at a bar called George’s in Greenwich Village. The juke box is playing “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” and every time it stops someone puts another nickel in and it starts up again. . . . 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, May 18, 2012

The Swimmer

John Cheever (1912–1982)
From John Cheever: Collected Stories & Other Writings

The one-hundredth anniversary of John Cheever’s birthday occurs later this month, on May 27. (He died thirty years ago next month, at the age of seventy.) To commemorate the remarkable career of one of the twentieth-century’s most famous writers, we are pleased to present one of his most famous stories. This week’s selection was suggested to us by Lloyd Fassett of Bend, Oregon, who thinks that the story resonates especially now “because of America’s current economic downturn. . . . Though it was written in the 1960s, I think it reflects our time.”

When John Cheever first began writing “The Swimmer,” he conceived of it as a novel—and he actually wrote a good chunk of it before reconsidering. As Blake Bailey relates in his biography, “Soon Cheever suspected he had ‘a perfectly good’ novel on his hands,” but his self-assurance gradually turned to dissatisfaction:
As he began to find the core of the story, he threw away pages and took yet a different approach. The main technical challenge, he realized, could not be sustained over the course of the novel: that is, Neddy could not possibly repress the truth for some two hundred pages. . . .
From the approximately 150 pages of material he had assembled, Cheever carved out his finely honed story. Michael Chabon, who first read it as a teenager, called it “a masterpiece of mystery, language and sorrow. It starts out, on a perfect summer morning, as the record of a splendid exploit . . . and ends up as a kind of ghost story.”

In one way, “The Swimmer” was restored to its original novelistic length, when a 95-minute feature film adaptation starring Burt Lancaster was released in 1968. Although many critics were not enamored by the highly stylized film, Roger Ebert gave it a four-star review: “What we really have here, then, is a sophisticated retelling of the oldest literary form of all: the epic.” Ebert also singled out Burt Lancaster as “superb in his finest performance.” The movie, which was finished by Sydney Pollack when its original director Frank Perry quit the project, has enjoyed an unusually long shelf-life, benefiting from years of late-night television viewings and acquiring of a small yet dedicated following.

*   *   *
It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.” You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. . . . 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, May 11, 2012

“There is no end to the amusements of Paris”

George Catlin (1796–1872)
From Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology

Two years ago Story of the Week featured a report written by showman P. T. Barnum, describing how in 1845 he and Tom Thumb took Paris by storm, finagled an audience with the royal family, and jumped through the bureaucratic hoops required for public exhibitions. Almost immediately following Barnum and Thumb’s premiere came George Catlin, who brought five hundred paintings of American Indians, along with a regiment of real-life “Ioways” dressed in full regalia. The back-to-back visits were just two of a first wave of nineteenth-century American “curiosities or exotics—les sensations américaines” that David McCullough describes in his book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.

Six year earlier, unable to sell his paintings in the United States, George Catlin left for Europe and first tried his luck in London, giving lectures and pitching his artwork to potential patrons. It was there he ran into delegations of Ojibwas and Iowas who were already in England on their own dime, putting on shows dressed in feathers and paint. “Catlin invited them to join him,” writes McCullough, “and strongly resented—then and later—those who denounced him for exploiting the Indians.” Eventually, the Ojibwas returned to America, and off to Paris went Catlin and the Iowas, including their translator Jeffrey Doraway (an African American who had been raised among the Indians), the medicine man known as the Doctor, the warrior Jim, and their promoter George H. C. Melody. Like Barnum and Thumb, Catlin arranged an audience with the royal family and experienced his own problems with French bureaucracy—and ended up creating a sensation unlike any other impression by an American painter in Paris, before or since

On the morning of the day for their reception the long stem of a beautiful pipe had been painted a bright blue and ornamented with blue ribbons, emblematical of peace, to be presented by the chief to the King. . . . 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, May 4, 2012

Audience Tomorrow: Preview in New Guinea

Elia Kazan (1909–2003)
From The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner

In the spring of 1945, weeks after thirty-five-year-old Elia Kazan wrapped up the filming of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (his first major motion picture), he traveled to the Pacific as an adviser to the military, looking for ways to improve entertainment for soldiers on the front. Lewis Gillenson reported on part of Kazan’s trip for a 1951 Harper’s Bazaar article:
He gave command cars and brass hats a wide berth, hitched a ride to the bloody Ville Verdi trail in the Philippines and there spent twenty-four hours without a hitch in a battalion aid station as a GI orderly, assisting the surgeons, serving the wounded and preparing dressings. None of the GIs of the 32nd Division knew who he was, nor did they know that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the picture shown that night down the hill, was directed by the little man carrying bedpans in the surgical tent.
The screening of the movie “down the hill” was outdoors, in the rain, surrounded by palm trees scarred by bombing. Although Kazan was at first tickled to discover that his movie was being shown, and happy that many of the soldiers seemed to enjoy it, he was somewhat flustered by out of place it seemed. “I was impatient with the film,” he wrote years later, in his autobiography. “All I could think of was the contrast between the terrible intensity and cost of what was happening around me and the sentimental fairy tale I’d made.”

Kazan described why he was hired
. “Our mission was to set up self-entertainment units for the soldiers, to keep the men from going nuts before they were shipped to other theatres of action or home. The soldiers didn’t think much of the USO shows.” The big-name stars were usually a hit, but most of the USO acts were “third-rate cabaret entertainers.” One of the highlights of Kazan’s Pacific tour seems to have been a stage show put on by the soldiers themselves, which he described in an article published a few months later in Theatre Arts. While other war journalists might have simply depicted the rowdy atmosphere of amateur theatricals, Kazan looked around him and saw a future audience—soldiers who would one day return home and expect new and better stage productions.

Note: Wacs were members of the Women’s Army Corps. Leyte and Luzon, both mentioned on page 476, refer to the Battle of Leyte (December 1944) and the Battle of Luzon (March 1945), both in the Philippines.

Eddie Moran wasn’t going with us. He had a bad headache, and his bones ached. Some one suggested Eddie might have a touch of dengue fever, a fantastic disease that gives you the sensation that all your bones are breaking. . . . 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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