Saturday, September 29, 2012

An Hour

Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888)
From American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation

Detail of “One hand stirred gruel for sick America, and the other hugged baby Africa,” a drawing of Civil War nurse Tribulation Periwinkle, the alter ego of Louisa May Alcott in Hospital Sketches. Reprinted from an 1880 edition of Hospital Sketches and Camp and Fireside Stories, which included “An Hour.”
In 1853 William G. Allen, a professor at New York Central College who was one-quarter black, became engaged to Mary King, a white student. While visiting friends in a nearby town, he was attacked by a mob armed “with tar, feathers, poles and an empty barrel spiked with shingle nails.” He escaped, injured but alive, and the couple hastily married and then fled to England. Professor Allen was a friend of Louisa May Alcott’s uncle, and he would send him inscribed copies of two booklets he published that described the ordeal: The American Prejudice Against Color: An Authentic Narrative, Showing How Easily the Nation Got into An Uproar (1853) and A Personal Narrative (1860). In late 1859 or early 1860 the twenty-seven-year-old Alcott submitted to The Atlantic Monthly “M. L.,” a tale that was almost surely inspired by Allen’s life and the first of three “abolitionist stories” she would publish during the early 1860s.

The magazine rejected the story. She wrote in her journal, “Mr. —— won’t have ‘M. L.’ as it is antislavery, and the dear South must not be offended.” (The unidentified staff member was probably the editor of The Atlantic himself, James Russell Lowell.) Three years later Alcott submitted her second antislavery story, called “My Contraband,” and the new editor, James F. Fields, accepted it (“with much approbation,” Alcott noted in her journal); the magazine published it as “The Brothers.” But when she sent in a third (and final) antislavery story to Fields’s business partner, William Davis Ticknor, for his new magazine Our Young Folks, she again met resistance. “Ticknor accepted a fairy tale I sent him but refused ‘An Hour,’ because it was about slavery I suppose.”

Both of the rejected stories—“M. L.” and “An Hour”—would ultimately find a home at The Commonwealth, a local abolitionist magazine edited by a friend. (The magazine would also publish Alcott’s first “hospital sketches,” based on her arduous duties as a Civil War nurse in Georgetown, where she contracted typhoid fever after only a month.) Yet Alcott’s supposition—that two of the three stories were rejected because of their antislavery views—was probably correct only in a general sense, especially since, during the height of the Civil War in 1863, Northern editors were hardly concerned about the attitudes of “the dear South.” Instead, what all three stories have in common is their sympathetic portrait of interracial couples. While “My Contraband” hints at a white nurse’s attraction to a former slave who works alongside her, the other two stories are not as subtle: “M. L.” describes an interracial romance in straightforward terms and “An Hour” hardly disguises the shared electric passions between the young “master” Gabriel and the defiant slave Milly. Certain elements of “An Hour”—the Gothic melodrama, the stereotypical portrayals, the sentimental homilies—might seem dated and overdone to modern readers, but the story’s themes and characters would have scandalized many nineteenth-century readers while it simultaneously solicited their sympathies.

*   *   *
The clock struck eleven.
“Look again, Gabriel; is there no light coming?”
“Not a ray, mother, and the night seems to darken every instant.”
“Surely, half an hour is time enough to reach the main land and find Dr. Firth.” . . . 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, September 21, 2012

The Shell of Sense

Olivia Howard Dunbar (1873–1953)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

In the June 1, 1905, issue of The Dial, the lead essay pondered “The Decay of the Ghost in Fiction.” Its author, Olivia Howard Dunbar, argued that “ever since literature began . . . what we call ‘the supernatural’ has been the staple material of the tellers of tales.” She discussed how ghosts were ubiquitous in English folklore and ballads and how, during the mid-1800s, ghost stories were commonplace in American magazines and especially in Christmas annuals. “But suddenly, and it must surely have seemed mysteriously, the magazine ghost vanished; nor were its eerie footprints traced.” She did note as an exception to this decline the stories of Henry James, particularly “The Turn of the Screw,” but “his work is probably too esoteric to stand as typical.” In sum, she hoped for “the renaissance of the literary ghost.”

Three years earlier, in 1902, Dunbar had quit her job as editor at The New York World; she would spend the rest of her life as a professional writer of stories and articles for leading American magazines. When she wasn’t writing fiction and essays, she was active in the woman suffrage movement, and in 1914 she married Ridgely Torrence, the future poetry editor of The New Republic. He would also become, in 1917, the first American playwright to feature an all-black cast in a non-minstrel production on Broadway: the seminal Three Plays for a Negro Theater. An ebullient James Weldon Johnson hailed Torrence’s staging of these plays at the Garden Theater at Madison Square Garden as “the beginning of a new era.” (Unfortunately, the production ended after only ten performances when America declared war on Germany.)

Olivia Dunbar’s hope for a revitalization of supernatural fiction was realized during the decades after her article appeared, as a number of writers—many of them women—published stories featuring phantoms of various kinds. She herself contributed to that renaissance, writing several psychological ghost stories that also display her interest in marriage roles and women’s lives. Appearing three years after her essay, “The Shell of Sense” is unique in that the narrative is from the point of view of the ghost, a dead woman who observes her surviving husband with both jealousy and concern. Jeffrey Weinstock, an expert on gothic fiction, notes in his study of supernatural tales that Dunbar’s story resembles “A Dead Vashti,” an 1877 tale by Louise Stockton; in both stories, the dead woman initially “feels stunned and betrayed by the course of events she observes.” But in Dunbar’s story the ghost’s realization that her marriage was not what it seemed results in greater acceptance and understanding of both her own life and her husband’s.

*   *   *
It was intolerably unchanged, the dim, dark-toned room. In an agony of recognition my glance ran from one to another of the comfortable, familiar things that my earthly life had been passed among. . . . 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, September 15, 2012

A Woman’s Recollections of Antietam

Mary Bedinger Mitchell (1850–1896)
From The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It

September 17 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the first major conflict of the Civil War on Union soil and the bloodiest single day in American history, with more than 3,600 dead and 17,000 wounded. Days before the conflict, the residents of Shepherdstown, Virginia, waited nervously as starving, straggling soldiers began showing up, looking for food and a moment’s rest. A mere ten miles away, Confederate forces under Stonewall Jackson had just captured Harpers Ferry on Monday, September 15, 1862. Closer to home, across the Potomac, General Robert E. Lee was reassembling his army outside Sharpsburg, Maryland, alongside Antietam Creek, while General George B. McClellan prepared Union forces to drive the Confederates back to Virginia.

But to Mary Bedinger, who had just turned twelve the previous month, the precise maneuvers of the armies amassing across the river were barely more than hearsay. Throughout the week, the area was overwhelmed with thousands of Confederate casualties. The dead and the wounded continued to pour into the town until Saturday, September 20, when Confederate forces repulsed an incursion by Union soldiers at the Battle of Shepherdstown.

Twenty-five years later, Mary was married to a former Union officer, John Mitchell, and living in Flushing, New York. She learned that General McClellan was preparing an account of the Battle of Antietam for
Century magazine. Historian Sarah E. Gardner recounts in Blood and Irony (a book on Civil War narratives by women) that Mrs. Mitchell wrote to the editors and offered her “personal experiences” of the battle, which “may not be without interest to your readers.” The magazine accepted her submission, paying her a respectable sixty dollars, and it appeared under the pseudonym Maria Blunt—the name she also used to publish works of short fiction in various magazines.

One of the tensest moments of Mitchell’s harrowing narrative (on pages 520–21) describes a nurse “who had no thought of leaving her post” but wanted to get her sister “out of harm’s way.” That “nurse” was, in fact, twelve-year-old Mary herself and it was her own eight-year-old sister, Caroline, that she tried to trick into going home and staying there. Readers will be interested to know that the brave Caroline not only survived the war but eventually became a prominent author herself, publishing under the name Danske Dandridge several volumes of poetry and history and more than two hundred magazine articles on gardening.

Notes: “Sheridan’s ride” (page 512) refers to a later event in the war. On October 19, 1864, Confederate troops surrounded Union forces and drove them from their positions. Major General Philip Sheridan, returning from Washington, heard of the attack and rode to the front in time to rally his troops and direct a counterattack—a feat immortalized in a poem by Thomas Buchanan Read.

September, 1862, was in the skies of the almanac, but August still reigned in ours; it was hot and dusty. The railroads in the Shenandoah Valley had been torn up, the bridges had been destroyed, communication had been made difficult, and Shepherdstown, cornered by the bend of the Potomac, lay as if forgotten in the bottom of somebody’s pocket. . . . 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, September 7, 2012

The Fiddler

Herman Melville (1819–1891)
From Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, & Uncollected Prose

The Franconi Hippodrome in New York, 1853. Tinted lithograph with additional hand-coloring, created for cover of sheet music: Franconi Schottisch, composed by Frank Harris for the pianoforte. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collection/
In 1851–52 Herman Melville published Moby-Dick and Pierre, two novels which proved to be commercial and critical disappointments. While Moby-Dick never sold out its initial printing and would remain largely unheralded for seventy years, it was Pierre that brought out the knives; one advance notice wrote that the novel “appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman.”

It’s not too difficult, then, to imagine Helmstone, the narrator of “The Fiddler,” as Melville’s alter ego. Written the year after the publication of Pierre and published anonymously in Harper’s in 1854, the story is a comic tale, one of several magazine pieces Melville wrote to help pay the bills. It opens with a poet mourning that his career has been doomed by a hostile notice from a critic. He encounters a friend who, oblivious to the author’s personal embarrassment, takes him to a circus to see a widely acclaimed clown. The contrast between scorned high-brow art and crowd-pleasing popular entertainment couldn’t be more dramatic, but what catches the poet’s eye is the reaction to the performance of Hautboy, a new acquaintance who resembles “an overgrown boy.”

Virtually all scholars and critics now agree that the story was written by Melville, but for many years it was considered apocryphal. Although the story was published anonymously, four consecutive editions of the index to Harper’s magazine listed the author as Fitz-James O’Brien. But there are two contemporary pieces that support Melville’s authorship: one is a scrapbook gathering his magazine pieces and the other is a handwritten list of his stories—both items were assembled by his wife. William B. Dillingham, in his study of Melville’s short fiction, adds a third element that supports Melville’s authorship. Thematically and structurally, “The Fiddler” resembles “The Happy Failure,” a Melville story published the same year; “critics have with good reason frequently linked them as companion pieces. . . . In ‘The Happy Failure’ Melville depicts an ass trying to be a lion; in ‘The Fiddler’ he shows a lion trying to be an ass.”

Notes: The Latin phrase magnum bonum (page 1197) means “a great good,” but it also refers to a type of succulent plum. William Henry West Betty (“Master Betty”), mentioned on page 1199, was one of the most famous child actors of the early nineteenth century. Born in 1791, he performed through the British Isles from 1803 to 1808; he would have still been alive when “The Fiddler” was published and died in 1874.

There are several literary and classical allusions scattered in the story. “The saying of the Athenian” (page 1196) can be found in Plutarch’s Life of Phocion. “Genius, like Cassius, is lank” (p. 1199) is a reference to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: “Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look, He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.” Orpheus (p. 1201) is the mythical Greek poet whose music can charm the beasts. It was not Cicero (p. 1202) who was “traveling in the East” but rather a friend who wrote to Cicero to console him when his daughter died.

*   *   *
So my poem is damned, and immortal fame is not for me! I am nobody forever and ever. Intolerable fate! . . . 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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