Friday, December 21, 2012

The Lily-White Boys

William Maxwell (1908–2000)
From William Maxwell: Later Novels & Stories

The author of dozens of short stories and six novels (including the National Book Award–winning So Long, See You Tomorrow), William Maxwell worked at The New Yorker for four decades, beginning in 1936. By the 1950s, comments Christopher Carduff, “he was coming into his own” as a fiction editor at the magazine, which “under its second editor-in chief, William Shawn, was transformed into something more daring and inclusive and, for Maxwell, congenial than it had been under Harold Ross.” Among the many writers Maxwell shepherded during his career were Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov, Mavis Gallant, Harold Brodkey, John Cheever, and John Updike, who described Maxwell’s editorship as “one of the wisest and kindest in American fiction.”

“Although he wrote several superb short stories,” Carduff notes, “the story was never Maxwell’s favorite form.” But his duties as a magazine editor and as father of two daughters made it difficult for him to write novels, and Shawn encouraged him instead to write prose pieces for the magazine. He continued writing and publishing stories and sketches, and re-reading his favorite books, right up until his death in 2000, at the age of 91. In his essay, “Nearing Ninety,” he wrote that he was “not concerned about” the prospect of dying, comparing it “to an afternoon nap that goes on and on through eternity. . . . What spoils this pleasant fancy is the recollection that when people are dead, they don’t read books. This I find unbearable.”

Often included on annual lists of classic Christmas stories, “The Lily-White Boys” was written when Maxwell was in his late seventies and originally appeared in a special 100th issue of The Paris Review. In a review of holiday tales for the online magazine Untitled Books, Viola Fort hails Maxwell’s story as “brief and perfect” and describes its effect on the reader:
Like picking up a book and turning to a page at random, these lives, one feels, will continue whether we’re witness to them or not. The story itself is a flash of lightning illuminating a particular episode. Maxwell’s skill is in hinting at whole lifetimes in the space of five pages. . . . Maxwell cuts through the tinsel and the pitch-perfect carolling to a moment of quiet reflection on the years that have passed and the years to come, and there lies Christmas.
Maxwell biographer Barbara Burkhardt agrees, writing that the “tension between the piercing beauty and haunting sadness of human existence provides drama that courses beneath Maxwell’s spare, restrained, yet graceful prose.”

Note: The lyrics on the first page of the story are from the traditional English carol, “Green Grows the Rushes, O.”

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The Follansbees’ Christmas party was at teatime on Christmas Day, and it was for all ages. Ignoring the fire laws, the big Christmas tree standing between the two front windows in the living room of the Park Avenue apartment had candles on 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, December 14, 2012

The Country Doctor

Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945)
From Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men

Winter in the Ravine, c. 1912, by Indiana painter Theodore Clement Steele (1847-1926).
The indispensable Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia tells us that in 1902 Dreiser began work on a story with the preliminary title of “A Samaritan of the Backwoods.” A friend of his wife had asked him to publish a profile of her father, who was a doctor, and Dreiser agreed. But, unable or unwilling to write about a man he didn’t know, he eventually shifted gears and wrote instead about Amos Wooley, the country doctor from his own teenage years in the mid-1880s, when Dreiser’s family lived in Warsaw, Indiana. The resulting profile of “Dr. Gridley,” then, is really a work of fiction: a composite panegyric that blends anecdotes from the lives of two rural doctors, both beloved for making home visits, practicing folk medicine, and dispensing soothing advice.

He fussed with the story for the over fifteen years, and it was finally published as "The Country Doctor" in Harper’s Magazine in 1918—but only after Dreiser turned down the magazine’s first two offers ($275 and $300, according to his diaries, which don’t reveal the final sum paid to the author). The following year he included the story in his collection Twelve Men, which gathered two decades’ worth of sketches of people he had admired.

Note: The last page of the selection includes four lines from “The Beacon”, a poem written by English banker Paul Moon James (1780–1854), often misattributed to the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779–1852). Dreiser has changed the phrase “seraph of mercy” to read “angel of mercy.”

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How well I remember him—the tall, grave, slightly bent figure, the head like Plato's or that of Diogenes, the mild, kindly, brown-gray eyes peering, all too kindly, into the faces of dishonest men. . . . 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, December 8, 2012

The Colored Cooper

Clifton Johnson (1865–1940)
From The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It

A century ago, for the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War, Massachusetts travel writer Clifton Johnson interviewed fifty-four civilians about their wartime experiences and published their narratives as Battleground Adventures: The Stories of Dwellers on the Scenes of Conflict in Some of the Most Notable Battles of the Civil War.

One of his subjects was Joseph Lawson, identified by Johnson only as “The Colored Cooper,” who was present for the Battle of Fredericksburg, which occurred 150 years ago this week (December 11–15, 1862). At the battle the Union forces, led by Ambrose Burnside, suffered a devastating defeat to the Confederate army commanded by Robert E. Lee. With a humor and dismay hardly diminished by his eighty-two years, Lawson’s recollections convey the terror and confusion of the conflict from the point of view of a free black man living in the town.

Johnson’s book also includes an interview with Fannie Dawson, a slave who lived through the same battle. Before the war, her brother and three sisters had been sold “down in Alabama”; the brother had been whipped to death by his new master for preaching: “the gen'leman that owned him did n’t want him to preach and would n’t have no meetin’s or preachin’ on the place at all.” Dawson recalled that when the North lost the battle she “couldn’t believe it” and yet confidently told her mistress, “I tell yo’ we’re goin’ to be a free people. You-all will be gittin’ yo’ pay sho’ for the way you've done treated us pore black folks.” In response, “the white people stood there and laughed” at her.

Two weeks later, on January 1, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Note: Colonel [David] Lang (p. 665) was acting commander of the 8th Florida (Confederate) infantry.

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Me and my wife was both free born. We could have gone away befo’ the battle, but we had a house hyar in Fredericksburg and four small chil’en, and I had work in town makin’ barrels. . . . 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, December 1, 2012

Knight to Move

Fritz Leiber (1910–1992)

In an appreciation published two years ago on the centennial of Fritz Leiber’s birth, jazz critic and music historian Ted Gioia listed just a few of the popular writer’s many jobs and avocations: movie actor (appearing in the 1936 film Camille, with Greta Garbo and Lionel Barrymore), writer for the Buck Rogers comic strip series, minister, student of psychology and philosophy, Shakespearean stage actor, inspector for the aerospace industry, expert fencer, and Occidental College speech instructor.

Leiber was also a chess enthusiast, winning the Santa Monica Open in 1958; over the course of the following decade he served as president of the Santa Monica Chess Club and his name appeared frequently among the top-ranked competitors at tournaments throughout southern California. And in the late 1930s he and a friend designed a three-dimensional board game called “Lahkmar” (the setting for seven of Leiber’s future fantasy books); in 1976, a simplified version of the game was released commercially as Lankhmar by TSR, the legendary publishers of Dungeons and Dragons.

It’s little wonder, then, that chess and other board games play pivotal roles in much of his fiction, such as “Knight to Move,” one of the so-called Change War stories Leiber wrote after publishing the Hugo Award–winning novel, The Big Time. Set in the middle of an interplanetary chess tournament, the agents of two armies, the Spiders and the Snakes, engage in an intricate match of double-crossing and intrigue that mirrors the “slow game” taking place on the competition floor.

(Another Change War story, the comic time-travel tale “Try and Change the Past,” was offered as a Story of the Week selection earlier this year.)

Bonus material: Story of the Week readers should visit The Library of America’s American Science Fiction online companion, featuring new essays by such acclaimed writers as Michael Dirda, William Gibson, Nicola Griffith, James Morrow, Tim Powers, Kit Reed, Peter Straub, and Connie Willis. The Fritz Leiber section features (in addition to an essay by best-selling novelist Neil Gaiman): 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 more.

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The tall, long-haired girl in the trim olive uniform with the black spiral insignia was tapping very lightly in a dash-dot-dot rhythm on the gallery’s golden rail where her elbows rested. . . . 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 American Science Fiction online companion.
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