Friday, August 31, 2012

Views of Washington

John Dos Passos (1896–1970)
From John Dos Passos: Travel Books & Other Writings 1916–1941

Shacks put up by the Bonus Army on the Anacostia flats burning after the battle with the military, with the Capitol in the background. Taken by a Signal Corps photographer, July 28, 1932. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
As banks failed, unemployment worsened, and desperation deepened during the early years of the Great Depression, marches and protests became commonplace. John Dos Passos covered several of them for The New Republic, and his 1934 collection In All Countries gathers some of the accounts as “Views of Washington.” In these impressionistic sketches, he describes the Hunger March outside the Capitol in December 1931, political machinations in the halls of power during the winter and spring, and the “Bonus Army” phenomenon the following summer.

Officially calling itself the Bonus Expeditionary Force, the Bonus Army was composed primarily of World War I veterans and their families. In 1924 Congress had passed a bill to compensate combat veterans, most of whom received certificates redeemable upon their deaths or in 1945, whichever came first. By 1932, unemployed veterans could no longer wait for their “Tombstone Bonus,” and Walter W. Waters, a former Army sergeant in Portland, Oregon, led a group of men who hopped freight trains to the nation’s capital. By the time they reached Washington in May, word of the protest had spread and tens of thousands of supporters camped in Anacostia Flats and other areas in the northeast quadrant of the city.

Dos Passos reports on events and the politics leading up to that summer, but he filed his final piece before the shocking finale. After legislation to release the bonuses to veterans failed in the Senate, upwards of twenty thousand marchers stayed in the city—and Hoover first called out the police to have them removed and then, as things started to get violent, he brought in the army, led by General Douglas MacArthur. Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen describe the July 28 confrontation for Smithsonian Magazine:
What happened next is etched in the American memory: for the first time in the nation’s history, tanks rolled through the streets of the capital. MacArthur ordered his men to clear the downtown of veterans, their numbers estimated at around 8,000, and spectators who had been drawn to the scene by radio reports. At 4:30 p.m., nearly 200 mounted cavalry, sabers drawn and pennants flying, wheeled out of the Ellipse. At the head of this contingent rode their executive officer, George S. Patton, followed by five tanks and about 300 helmeted infantrymen, brandishing loaded rifles with fixed bayonets. The cavalry drove most pedestrians—curious onlookers, civil servants and members of the Bonus Army, many with wives and children—off the streets. Infantrymen wearing gas masks hurled hundreds of tear-gas grenades at the dispersing crowd. The detonated grenades set off dozens of fires: the flimsy shelters veterans had erected near the armory went up in flames. Black clouds mingled with tear gas.
As historian David M. Kennedy concludes, the event “marked the lowest ebb of Hoover’s political fortunes. . . . He was already a beaten man.” The episode was the final blow for the incumbent president’s reelection campaign, and it undoubtedly contributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide victory in November, in which Hoover carried only six states.

Notes: Dos Passos’s account contains several references to political events and politicians of the early 1930s. Charles Curtis (p. 396) was the Vice President under Herbert Hoover. The mention of two contested seats on page 397 refers to two contested Senate elections in North Carolina and Alabama. In Alabama, J. Thomas Heflin, first elected as a Democrat in 1918, was defeated in 1930 when he ran as an independent, and the Senate ultimately rejected his election challenge. John Nance Garner was elected Speaker of the House in 1931 and would be Vice President for the first two terms of the Roosevelt administration. The W.C.T.U. (p. 398) is the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. The A. F. of L. is the American Federation of Labor; William Green was its president from 1924 to 1952. Brigadier-General Pelham D. Glassford (p. 399) was the District of Columbia police chief. William Weinstone was a leader of the Communist Party of America. Passages at the top of page 401 mention how in 1931 Hoover arranged a one-year moratorium on the payment of international debts, while Congress established the R.F.C. (Reconstruction Finance Corporation) to make loans to financial institutions and railroads. CC pills (p. 402) are compound cathartic pills, used for digestive ailments.

*   *   *
Washington has a drowsy look in the early December sunlight. The Greco-Roman porticoes loom among the bare trees, as vaguely portentous as phrases about democracy in the mouth of a southern senator. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission.
To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Untold Lie

Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941)
From Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories

Sherwood Anderson became a published author of fiction relatively late in life. As a young man he had written articles and essays for such regional periodicals as Agricultural Advertising, but his short stories were routinely rejected by publishers and his attempts at novel-writing went nowhere. His primary employment was as an advertising copywriter, and he owned a small business selling household products. But in 1912 the Anderson Manufacturing Company began to fail. On Thanksgiving Day, he left his office, walked toward Cleveland for four days (sleeping outdoors), and sent his wife a fairly incoherent seven-page letter describing his experiences. He was admitted to a hospital in Cleveland, and in early December a local newspaper reported the episode, attributing his behavior to “nervous exhaustion.” Eventually he recovered and his first published story, “The Rabbit-pen,” appeared in Harper’s in July 1914; two years later, at the age of forty, he finally published his first book, the novel Windy McPherson’s Son.

Soon after the book’s publication, Anderson began sending stories to the new and ultimately influential (if short-lived) journal The Seven Arts. According to Irving Howe, Anderson’s tales so impressed editor Waldo Frank that he wrote a glowing appreciation, “Emerging Greatness,” for the first issue, and stories by Anderson appeared in the second and third issues. In 1917 Anderson visited the Seven Arts offices; the staff expected an introverted young writer and was thrown by the sight of the actual man. As one editor recalled, “I had built an Anderson out of the stories, a shy sort of fellow, a little mussed, slipping against the wall so as not to occupy too much space. Instead of that I looked straight at an up-and-coming ad man with a stiff collar, and a bit of the super-salesman air.” But Anderson quickly became friends with many of the New York literary set, including the critic Van Wyck Brooks and the young poet Hart Crane. Frank later wrote, “To me, the young New Yorker, Sherwood Anderson was America.”

One of the two first stories that Anderson sent to The Seven Arts was “The Untold Lie.” When he initially wrote this and subsequent stories, each was meant to be read separately, but since they were set in the same locale, he revised and gathered them into Winesburg, Ohio, which contains twenty-five interlocking stories describing moments in the lives of the characters of one town. It was the first of four story collections that, as Joyce Carol Oates has written, “had an incalculable influence upon generations of American writers. The deceptively artless, unadorned, anecdotal Anderson voice has come to characterize for many readers the distinctive American voice.”

Incredibly, no publisher has ever gathered Sherwood Anderson’s four story collections into one book—until now. At the end of this year, The Library of America will publish the most comprehensive volume of Anderson’s stories ever published—containing Winesburg, Ohio; The Triumph of the Egg; Horses and Men; and Death in the Woods, plus fifteen stories that Anderson didn’t include in these four landmark collections.

*   *   *
Ray Pearson and Hal Winters were farm hands employed on a farm three miles north of Winesburg. On Saturday afternoons they came into town and wandered about through the streets with other fellows from the country. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Nowhere to Run

John Schulian (b. 1945)
From At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing

An original, stubless ticket for the November 13, 1953, fight between defending welterweight champion Kid Gavilan and Johnny Bratton at Chicago Stadium in Chicago. Image courtesy of JoSports, Inc.
In 1950 Sugar Ray Robinson, the reigning welterweight champion, decided to move up to middleweight, and early the next year twenty-three-year-old Johnny “Honey Boy” Bratton assumed the vacated welterweight crown. His triumph was short-lived; within two months Bratton lost the belt to Cuban sensation Kid Gavilán.

The loss was the beginning of the end for a young boxer who had become a local hero while still a teenager. “In nine fights in 1946, Johnny earned $31,000,” a profile in Negro Digest reported. “In the first four months of 1947 he made another $21,800.” Early in his career, this Pentecostal deacon’s son was living a lifestyle beyond the dreams of most young men. “He was 17, owner of a big, black Cadillac, a sport in expensive clothes. He hired a liveried chauffeur to drive his car. . . .” He hung out with Miles Davis, who was only a year older and whose lifelong obsession with boxing originated with their friendship. (“I was crazy about Johnny Bratton,” Davis wrote in his autobiography.) Several sources estimate Bratton’s earnings during his decade-long career at $400,000.

In November 1953 Bratton barely lasted all fifteen rounds in his second attempt to regain the welterweight title from Kid Gavilán—one of the most brutal routs in the history of the sport. Many spectators were shocked that the fight hadn’t been stopped by the twelfth round. The defeat seemed to have altered Bratton permanently. He entered the ring only three more times; his last fight, with Del Flanagan in 1955, was brought to a halt because Bratton appeared "dazed and didn't know where he was." Shattered and penniless, he retired from the sport at the age of twenty-seven—and he spent the next six years in a state mental hospital.

In 1979 John Schulian located the former champion in a dilapidated hotel on the South Side of Chicago and filed the following story for Chicago Sun-Times. Bratton died in 1993 at the age of sixty-five.

*   *   *
It was a glorious place, the Del Prado Hotel was. If you listen closely, you can still hear the echoes of the young lovers and swaggering big leaguers who used to make its lobby so fresh, so vibrant. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission.
To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Feathertop: A Moralized Legend

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
From Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales & Sketches

Hawthorne’s home in Concord, The Wayside, which he purchased from the Alcotts in March 1852, soon after “Feathertop” was first published. Color photomechanical print by the Detroit Photographic Company, ca. 1900. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In 1840 Nathaniel Hawthorne sketched out an idea in his notebooks, “To make a story out of a scarecrow, giving it odd attributes. From different points of view it should appear to change—now an old man, now an old woman—a gunner, a farmer, or Old Nick.” It would take more than a decade for Hawthorne to finish the tale, which would be the last piece of short fiction he published—and the scarecrow is the only aspect of this early outline that remains in the final version.

Although “Feathertop” may seem at first blush to be “one of Hawthorne’s more whimsical tales,” writes Massachusetts high school teacher David Donavel, “it is nevertheless larded with wry observations about both the act of artistic creation and the shallow values of those who occupy the top rungs of society.” Hawthorne compares Mother Rigby’s scarecrow to the “somewhat lukewarm and abortive characters [that] have so over-peopled the world of fiction” (including, the author himself confesses, his own tales). As for “shallow” social values, Hawthorne saves his choicest comments until the ending of the story—which we dare not give away to our readers.

None other than the best-selling literary critic Harold Bloom makes the case that Hawthorne’s scarecrow story ranks among his best works:
Hawthorne's highest achievement is not in The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Faun, distinguished as they are, but in the best of his tales and sketches. The last of these, the extraordinary “Feathertop,” sub-titled “A Moralized Legend,” is as uncanny a story as Kafka’s “Country Doctor” or “Hunter Gracchus,” and has about it the dark aura of Hawthorne’s valediction, his farewell to his own art. . . .

Feathertop is closer to most of us than we are to Hester Prynne. [The story’s] final dismissal of heroism is Hawthorne’s ultimate legacy, glowing on still in the romances of Nathanael West and Thomas Pynchon.
This week’s selection was suggested to us (via Twitter!) by writer, actor, and comedian William Yurkas of Stamford, CT, who was one of the contributing bloggers at The Brutal Circle, a site “dedicated to discussing the craft of storytelling, and whatever else we find interesting as writers.”

*   *   *
“Dickon,” cried Mother Rigby, “a coal for my pipe!”

The pipe was in the old dame’s mouth, when she said these words. She had thrust it there after filling it with tobacco, but without stooping to light it at the hearth; where, indeed, there was no appearance of a fire having been kindled, that morning. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Garden Lodge

Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From Willa Cather: Early Novels & Stories

Patrons at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1898 watching a scene from a performance of Die Meistersinger. Courtesy New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
Although Willa Cather is best known for her novels and stories featuring prairie settings and pioneer living, much of her writing explores the relationship between audience and artists. A few of her plots feature architects and painters, but “it is music, finally, that she will make her vehicle, especially in her full-length novels,” contends George N. Kates. “Music had the highest evocative power, especially music combined with drama—that is, opera.”

Opera was Cather’s lifelong passion. She went to see performances at every opportunity—and particularly anything staged by the New York Metropolitan Opera Company. She had first seen them on tour when she visited Chicago in 1895. During her years in Pittsburgh, from 1896 to 1906, she made frequent trips to New York and went to the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway, and when the Met came to Pittsburgh in 1898, she caught two Wagner operas (Lohengrin and Die Walküre).

A Wagner Matinée” (previously presented to Story of the Week readers) combines Cather’s two favorite subjects—music and frontier living—and depicts a Nebraskan settler who returns to the East and attends an opera, reminding her of everything she has given up to live a life on the prairie. Published the following year, in 1905, “The Garden Lodge” is similar in theme but relocates the place of exile from Nebraska to Wall Street; there is neither prairie nor farm in this story. The musically-inclined Caroline Noble, having suffered as a young woman through bohemian poverty and familial tragedies, marries a business tycoon and tosses aside her artistic talents in favor of a “happy, useful, well-ordered life.” Like the Nebraskan pioneer in “A Wagner Matinée,” Caroline begins to question her choices because of the opera—in this case, when a world-famous Wagnerian tenor stays for a month in her home.

With its droll wit and urbane social commentary, this early story showcases a noteworthy literary influence on Cather’s early fiction. At the age of twenty-one, Cather published in her local Nebraska paper a tribute to the “one English speaking author who is really keeping his self-respect and sticking for perfection. Of course I refer to that mighty master of language and keen student of human actions and motives, Henry James.” Sharon O’Brien, the editor of The Library of America’s Willa Cather editions, writes, “Cather would always say that as a beginner she ‘laboriously’ strove to imitate Henry James. The influence had some benign after-effects, but it certainly made for artificiality early on.” Yet, O’Brien adds, “The Garden Lodge” is “less artificial” than Cather’s other Jamesian stories, and the story contains strong hints of the novels she wrote during the next decade, including Alexander’s Bridge and The Song of the Lark.

Notes: There are several references to Wagner’s operas in the story. On the opening page, there is a mention of Freya, the Norse goddess of fertility and a character in Das Rheingold. Klingsor’s garden (p. 53) is an enchanted garden created by the evil magician Klingsor in Parsifal. Die Walküre (p. 58) is the second opera in the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, about the passion of reunited brother and sister Siegmund and Sieglinde.

*   *   *
When Caroline Noble's friends learned that Raymond d'Esquerré was to spend a month at her place on the Sound before he sailed to fill his engagement for the London opera season, they considered it another striking instance of the perversity of things. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.