Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Moonstone Mass

Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835–1921)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Although her career spanned sixty years and she published dozens of stories in America’s leading national magazines, Harriet Prescott Spofford is hardly known to readers today—except, perhaps, as a footnote in Emily Dickinson’s biography. Both authors shared a literary mentor, Thomas Higginson, who recommended Spofford’s fiction to the reclusive Amherst poet. After Dickinson read her debut story, which appeared in the February 1860 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, she became a fan and asked her friends to send along other works by this new author. In fact, when Spofford had originally submitted that first story, Atlantic editor James Russell Lowell didn’t believe an unknown young woman could have written it, and Higginson stepped forward to confirm the provenance. Upon reading a second story by Spofford, Dickinson wrote to Higginson, “I read ‘Circumstance,’ but it followed me in the Dark – so I avoid her.” Still another story moved her to write, “It is the only thing I ever read in my life that I didn’t think I could have imagined myself.”

“The Moonstone Mass” is one of many Gothic-tinged tales Spofford published during the first decade of her career. The nameless narrator is challenged by his wealthy uncle (who is, notably, a “misogynist”) to seek the elusive Northwest Passage and thereby earn his inheritance; by agreeing to this journey the young man puts off the possibility of marriage to his would-be fiancée, Eleanor. The meat of the story shows the influence of such eerie adventure tales as Edgar Allan Poe’s
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and “MS. Found in a Bottle,” both of which based their plots around contemporary theories of hidden wonderlands to be found at either pole of the earth. Yet, contends literary scholar Alfred Bendixen, in spite of Spofford’s apparent debt to these and similar tales, her story repudiates their underlying themes, proposing instead “a rejection of the male quest for power (as expressed in the treasure hunt and other references to senseless greed) in favor of the world of feminine love and contentment (as represented by Eleanor).”

Note: At the end of the story, the phrase per si muove (Italian, eppur si muove) refers to Galileo’s alleged utterance after the Inquisition forced him to disavow his belief that the earth moves around the sun.

There was a certain weakness possessed by my ancestors, though in nowise peculiar to them, and of which, in common with other more or less undesirable traits, I have come into the inheritance.

It was the fear of dying in poverty. . . .If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Three Poems

Signs of the Times, Compensation, & When Malindy Sings
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906)

From American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century

Born in Dayton, Ohio, seven years after the end of the Civil War to two former Kentucky slaves, Paul Laurence Dunbar was initially educated by his mother, who encouraged his early interest in literature. (His father, who escaped to Canada before the war and served with the Massachusetts 55th Regiment, divorced his mother soon after his birth and died when Paul was only twelve.) Dunbar was the only black student in his class at Dayton’s Central High, where he was editor of the school paper and the class poet. While he was still in school, he founded a paper, the short-lived Dayton Tattler that supported the Republican Party and covered the concerns of African Americans. The friend and classmate who operated the printing press was none other than future aviator Orville Wright.

Over the next few years, Dunbar worked as an elevator operator and, briefly, as a clerk to Frederick Douglass in Chicago. In 1893 Dunbar self-published his first collection of poems; he hand-sold every copy, and earned back his investment. Two years later, this time sponsored by white patrons, his second book,
Majors and Minors, was published by a regional printer and eventually fell into the hands of William Dean Howells, the influential editor, novelist, and critic. Howells wrote an appreciation in Harper’s Magazine, praising Dunbar as “the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically.” (Many commentators made much of the fact that Dunbar’s ancestry was wholly African rather than multiracial.)

The review made Dunbar suddenly—and unexpectedly—famous. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the young poet wrote Howells:

Now from the depths of my heart I want to thank you. You yourself do not know what you have done for me. I feel much as a poor, insignificant, helpless boy would feel to suddenly find himself knighted. . . .
In the collection that Howells reviewed, the “majors” were the poems written in standard English; the “minors” were dialect pieces, many of them humorous. When Howells revised his essay for the introduction of Dunbar’s third book, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), he made clear which he preferred:
In nothing is his essentially refined and delicate art so well shown as in these [dialect] pieces. . . . Some of [the poems in literary English] I thought very good, and even more than very good, but not distinctively his contribution to the body of American poetry. What I mean is that several people might have written them; but I do not know any one else who could quite have written the dialect pieces.
The result of Howell’s recommendation was popular demand for Dunbar’s trademark dialect poems; he soon found it difficult to publish anything else. Nevertheless, before his life was cut short by tuberculosis at the age of thirty-three, he managed to publish a dozen volumes of poetry, four collections of short stories, and four novels, and he wrote the lyrics for In Dahomey, a minstrel- and vaudeville-influenced comedy that was the first full-length Broadway musical composed and performed by African Americans.

Below we present three of Dunbar’s poems: the Thanksgiving poem “Signs of the Times,” which a contemporary reviewer described as “an excellent example of Mr. Dunbar’s roguish humor”; “Compensation,” a superlative example, in two short stanzas, of his verse in standard English; and one of his most famous poems, “When Malindy Sings,” a tribute to his mother, Matilda.


Audio version: In October 1993 the novelist Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All) delivered a pitch-perfect reading of “When Malindy Sings” to a live audience at an event cosponsored by The Library of America at New York’s 92nd Street Y. Click here to listen to the recording of his performance.

If you don't see the full selection 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, November 10, 2012

An Autumn Holiday

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
From Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels & Stories

Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields in their drawing room at 148 Charles Street, Boston. Courtesy of The Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project.
When Jewett first submitted “An Autumn Holiday” to Harper’s Magazine, the story was called “Miss Daniel Gunn.” The editors nixed the original title, which hints (not very subtly) that the story is not what readers might think after skimming its opening pages. The story, as Marjorie Pryse summarizes in a recent essay, “appears, like much of Jewett’s work, to lack form . . . a roundabout effect of the narrator’s ‘tour of exploration and discovery’ and her unexpected visit with Polly Marsh.” The transition from one part of the story to the next is bewildering enough that readers might miss the parallels and themes common to both halves.

In the first section, the narrator ambles through the fields and woods on a gorgeous autumn day, employing pastoral descriptions that will remind readers of the nature writing of Henry David Thoreau or John Muir. Along the way, she describes how she likes to leave the main roads and explore “new fields.” Then the story veers into its second part, a comic tale that (like Jewett’s “Tom’s Husband” a previous Story of the Week selection), contemplates gender roles in society. We visit the home of Miss Polly Marsh, an older and somewhat eccentric neighbor, who (like the narrator) is unmarried. Inside, Miss Marsh and her sister Mrs. Snow, both in the “autumn” of their lives, are working at their spinning wheels. The two women break from spinning yarn to spin a yarn, so to speak—sharing the local gossip and then relating the odd tale of “Cap’n Dan’el Gunn” and how his neighbors came to accept and accommodate his unconventional behavior. At the very end, Mrs. Snow whispers a secret to the young visitor: revealing the decision Miss Marsh made earlier in life that kept her peripheral to society—just as Cap’n Gunn might have been treated had he been “some poor flighty old woman.”

Significantly, this story was written the year Jewett met Annie Fields, with whom Jewett would live in a “Boston marriage” for the rest of her life. Rather than a simple pastoral tale, then, “An Autumn Holiday,” writes Josephine Donovan in A Companion to the American Short Story, is a “powerful rejection of normalization.”

Note: On page 581, there is a mention of “Canterbury New,” a hymn composed by Henry John Gauntlett in the middle of the nineteenth century. (The “old” Canterbury hymn was composed by Orlando Gibbons during the 1600s.)

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I had started early in the afternoon for a long walk; it was just the weather for walking, and I went across the fields with a delighted heart. . . . . 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, November 2, 2012

Running for Governor

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
Reprinted in Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890

“Who Stole the People’s Money?”—Do Tell. N. Y. Times. / ’Twas Him. Boss Tweed and the Tammany Ring, caricatured by Thomas Nast. Harper’s Weekly, August 18, 1871.
The 1870 New York gubernatorial election pitted the Democratic incumbent, John T. Hoffman, against the Republican, Stewart Lyndon Woodford, a decorated Civil War veteran and former lieutenant governor. Previously the mayor of New York City (the last to become governor of the state), Hoffman was closely connected with Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall political machine and won the election with over 52% of the vote. Two years later, however, Hoffman would be drummed out of office after The New York Times ran a series of exposés on Tweed’s corrupting influence over regional politics and the embezzlement of tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds.

What’s not as well known about the 1870 election is Mark Twain’s brief entry into the race for governor—at least in an imaginative piece published shortly after the election. “Running for Governor” appeared as his monthly column for Galaxy magazine and in the local Buffalo Express newspaper, and it was thereafter widely reprinted. (In some versions, the names of the major party candidates were changed to “John T. Smith” and “Blank J. Blank.”) It would not be the only time Twain mocked Governor Hoffman in his writing. The following year he published Mark Twain's (Burlesque) Autobiography and First Romance, which included illustrations that had nothing to do with the text: caricatures of various robber barons and politicians (including Hoffman) captioned with lines from the nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built.” Two years later Twain had second thoughts about the book as a whole, considering it one of his lesser efforts, and had the plates destroyed.

A surprising consequence of Mark Twain’s column about his fictional candidacy for state governor is how, in recent decades, it perpetuated his fame in mainland China. Literary scholar Guiyou Huang writes: “ ‘Running for Governor’ was translated and filtered down into the high school textbooks throughout the country as a model piece of critical realism that exposes the so-called false democracy in a capitalist country. In other words, all high school graduates [in China] know who Mark Twain is.”

Notes: Page 491 contains several New York City historical references. The Five Points, a Tammany stronghold, was the slum district in the center of the most densely populated part of Manhattan. Kit Burns was the owner of a saloon and boxing ring on Water Street, which occasionally hosted sham “evangelical Christian” meetings run by John Allen, a notorious underworld criminal known as “The Wickedest Man in New York.”

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A few months ago I was nominated for Governor of the great State of New York, to run against Stewart L. Woodford and John T. Hoffman, on an independent ticket. I somehow felt that I had one prominent advantage over these gentlemen, and that was, good character. . . . 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.