Friday, July 27, 2012

The Art of Seeing Things

John Burroughs (1837–1921)
From American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

John Burroughs with photojournalist Jessie Tarbox Beals, who took this photograph on the porch of Slabsides, Burroughs’ summer cabin in West Park, New York, around 1908. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A Day with John Burroughs, a mesmerizing nine-minute film shot in 1919 using a new motion-picture technique called Prizma Color, contains footage of the great naturalist at Woodchuck Lodge, the farm Henry Ford bought for him in 1913. Eighty-two years old—he would die two years later—Burroughs was at “the summit of my years,” to quote one of the film’s title cards. He leads three children through the area surrounding his cabin and shows them how to uncover the joys of nature: living creatures under a rock, the camouflage of a frog, the evidence of glacial striation, and the habits of nature’s “clown” (a grasshopper).

Burroughs’s day with the children is a fitting summation of the fifty years he had spent convincing the reading public to become close observers of nature. “The place to observe nature is where you are; the walk to take today is the walk you took yesterday,” he wrote in 1886. “You will not find just the same things: both the observed and the observer have changed.”

But he inveighed against those amateur naturalists who took things too far by adding anthropomorphic elements to their nature writing. In a 1903 Atlantic Monthly essay, Burroughs denounced a number of writers who infused their supposed observations of animal life with all-too-human intelligence, emotion, and sentimentality, and he singled out for scorn the popular author and minister William J. Long, who published a number of books specifically for schoolchildren. In Long’s texts, adult animals conduct classes for their broods and birds convert twigs into splints for their own injured legs. “What the ‘life secrets’ are that he claims to have discovered, any competent reader can see,” Burroughs exclaimed. “They are all the inventions of Mr. Long. Of the real secrets of wild life, I do not find a trace in his volume.” Burroughs’s attack launched a veritable war in print between scientists and sentimentalists.

Eventually, Burroughs’s good friend Theodore Roosevelt would chime in, coming to the defense of the older naturalist against the “nature fakers.” Roosevelt had minor differences with Burroughs’s arguments; he found it likely “that the higher mammals and birds have reasoning powers, which differ in degree rather than kind.” But, in various dispatches and publications issued while he was President, he too lambasted the work of the “fakers” as filled with “preposterous exaggeration” and affirmed in a letter to a journalist that “my points of agreement with John Burroughs [are] my admiration for his accuracy of observation, and the way he can report his observations, and for his abhorrence of untruth.” Just as this debate was finally beginning to subside, Burroughs wrote “The Art of Seeing Things,” which explained to readers how a naturalist should “see finely and discriminatingly, taking in the minute and the specific.”

Notes: John Tyndall (p. 147) was a nineteenth-century British physicist known especially for his popular science writings. The lines of poetry on page 150 are from Wordsworth’s “A Poet’s Epitaph.” Catharine Aiken (p. 152) was a noted educator who published Methods of Mind Training (1895) and Exercises in Mind Training (1899). Alpheus Spring Packard (p. 154) published the reference work Guide to the Study of Insects in 1869.

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I do not purpose to attempt to tell my reader how to see things, but only to talk about the art of seeing things, as one might talk of any other art. One might discourse about the art of poetry, or of painting, or of oratory, without any hope of making one’s readers or hearers poets or painters or orators. . . . 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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The selection by Burroughs begins on the second page, after a short biographical essay.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Try and Change the Past

Fritz Leiber (1910–1992)

In 1982 Fritz Leiber explained the unique idea that drives his Hugo Award–winning 1958 novel The Big Time:
To dramatize the effects of time travel, science fiction usually assumes that if you could go back and change one crucial event, the entire future would be drastically altered. . . . But that wouldn’t have suited my purposes, so I assumed a Law of the Conservation of Reality, meaning that the past would resist change (temporal reluctance) and tend to work back quickly into its old course, and you’d have to go back and make many little changes, sometimes over and over again, before you could get a really big change going—perhaps the equivalent of an atomic chain reaction.
In the novel, the would-be masters of the future universe abduct the soldiers for their wars from various armies in the past. As Neil Gaiman summarizes the novel’s plot in a new appreciation, “There are two sides in the Change War, Spiders and Snakes: they both enlist the recently dead in their armies, pluck them from time moments before they die and have them battle to ensure that something, somehow, somewhen, comes out the way it should to (we assume) guarantee one side or the other ultimate victory.”

Leiber recalled, “The energy I generated writing this novel of the Change War of the Spiders and Snakes (as I called the two sides, to keep them mysterious and unpleasant, as major powers always are, inscrutable and nasty) overflowed at once.” He incorporated his surplus ideas into a number of stories set in the same universe—including this week’s
Story of the Week selection, “Try and Change the Past.”

Readers should be sure to check out The Library of America’s new American Science Fiction online companion. The Fritz Leiber section features (in addition to Gaiman’s essay): a slideshow, a biography of Leiber, other Change War stories, audio for three 1950s adaptations of Leiber's stories from the NBC radio program
X Minus One, and the foreword to a collection of Change War stories that concludes, “I sometimes think the powers that created the universe were chiefly interested in maximizing its mystery. That’s why I write science fiction.”

No, I wouldn’t advise anyone to try to change the past, at least not his personal past, although changing the general past is my business, my fighting business. You see, I’m a Snake in the Change War. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

You can also read this week’s story at the LOA online companion.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

The Question of a Feather

Robert Frost (1874–1963)
From Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays

Back side of the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire. 2012 photograph from Wikimedia Commons.
In 1899 a doctor concluded that the chronically ill Robert Frost might have tuberculosis, the disease that killed the patient’s father, and advised the twenty-five-year-old to seek work outdoors to improve his health. Frost, a born-and-bred city boy, decided to take up poultry farming, and he and his wife rented part of a country home. Within a year they outgrew this first location, and Frost’s grandfather purchased a twenty-acre farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where Frost raised and bred chickens for the next decade. Still hoping to pursue a literary career someday, he spent late night hours writing poems, which were routinely rejected when he submitted them for publication, and he eventually lit upon the idea of writing pieces for the regional poultry-farming papers.

Frost first published three sketches in Eastern Poultryman during the first half of 1903. The editor at the rival paper Farm-Poultry, after getting permission to reprint one of these early pieces, lured the fledgling author away and Frost published nine additional stories in its pages during the next two years. These little-known pieces were never reprinted during Frost’s lifetime, but in 1963, the year he died, Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrence Thompson collected them in Robert Frost: Farm Poultryman.

In his 1993 dissertation, Frost scholar Mark Richardson drolly remarks, “In regard to Frost’s writings for poultry journals, it must be acknowledged first that they are certainly the best poultry-stories written by a modern American poet. They are in fact quite good.” In these stories Frost gives his rural neighbors “a subtlety of voice and humor not found [for example] in the somewhat class-bound New England stories of Edith Wharton.” This “voice” would carry over to his early poetry, especially in the voices of the “ordinary folks” (to use Frost’s phrase) who populate North of Boston, his second book of poetry.

This week’s selection, “The Question of a Feather,” was the first piece Frost wrote for Farm-Poultry, and it appeared on the front page of the mid-July issue in 1903. In this comic tale, two women ask a reluctant editor for advice on what to do about a wayward feather that tarnishes the Minorca pullet (or young hen) they hope to exhibit at an upcoming poultry show. Fans of Robert Frost will find in the story hints of his 1936 poem, “A Blue Ribbon at Amesbury” (certainly the best poultry-poem written by a modern American poet), which begins: “Such a fine pullet ought to go / All coiffured to a winter show, / And be exhibited, and win.”

Note: Minorcas and Leghorns are two breeds of poultry. Scrubs is a term to describe mongrel chickens.

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The editor sat at his desk. He had been writing about hens all day, and he hadn’t heard a hen since he left home in the suburbs in the morning, and he was tired of 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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Friday, July 6, 2012

The Legend of Monte del Diablo

Bret Harte (1836–1902)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

In 1862 James Mason Hutchings, an Englishman who arrived in California during the Gold Rush, published Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California. In his book you’ll find the following passage:
Almost every Californian has seen Monte Diablo. It is the great central landmark of the state. Whether we are walking in the streets of San Francisco, or sailing on any of our bays and navigable rivers, or riding on any of the roads in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, or standing on the elevated ridges of the mining districts before us—in lonely boldness, and at almost every turn, we see Monte del Diablo. Probably from its apparent omnipresence we are indebted to its singular name, Mount of the Devil.
That same year another local resident, twenty-six years of age, used Monte del Diablo as the setting for one of his earliest stories. Like Hutchings, Bret Harte (a native of Albany, New York) had moved to California during the Gold Rush years and he too had just begun a career as a writer.

The young Harte made the acquaintance of the abolitionist Jessie Benton Frémont, who hosted a highly regarded salon in San Francisco. The wife of 1856 Republican presidential candidate (and future Union Army commander) John Frémont, she became a champion of Harte’s writing and continued to support him after the Frémonts left California for the war. In early 1862 she wrote to
Atlantic Monthly editor James T. Fields to recommend the story “The Legend of Monte del Diablo,” calling Harte “a fresh mind filled with unworn pictures.” Another local abolitionist, the minister Thomas Starr King, also wrote Fields to recommend the selection (which he had not yet even read). As Gary Scharnhorst notes in a recent biography of Harte, Fields accepted the story but was not all that impressed, writing to Mrs. Frémont, “Your young friend fails to interest. He is not piquant enough for the readers of the Atlantic.” 

The story appeared in the September 1863 issue of the magazine, alongside Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle.”  Five years later, Harte would write “The Luck of the Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” the two stories which made him internationally famous—and they would both appear in Overland Monthly, the California-based magazine he himself edited.

Over the course of the next century, “The Legend of Monte del Diablo” became an enduring favorite among the residents of Contra Costa County in California, and eventually the legend itself became part of regional lore. In 1959 the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus voted to change its name to the Father Jose A. Haro Council in honor of the “Jesuit Priest from the early San Pablo Mission who administered to the Bal Bognes Indians, about 1770, in our immediate vicinity of San Pablo.” As the recently renamed council’s own website now sheepishly admits, both Father Haro and the mission he founded were Bret Harte’s wholly fictitious inventions.


Notes: Ayuntamientos are municipal councils. Junipero Serro (properly, Serra; 1713–1784) was the Franciscan friar who founded the chain of California missions. Calaveras, now a state park, is a grove of giant sequoias in California. Bartolomé de las Casas (d. 1566) was a Dominican friar known for fighting slavery and the mistreatment of the natives of south Mexico; he was appointed the first Protector of the Indians by Spanish administrators. Ophir was the biblical region where King Solomon’s mines were said to have been located. Alonso de Ojeda (d. 1515) was a Spanish explorer of the northern coast of South America.

The cautious reader will detect a lack of authenticity in the following pages. I am not a cautious reader myself, yet I confess with some concern to the absence of much documentary evidence in support of the singular incident I am about to relate. . . . 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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