Friday, January 25, 2013

The Original and Only

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

Hen and Chicks [date unknown], oil on panel by American painter William Baptiste Baird (1846–1899?). Courtesy of the The Athenaeum.
Last summer Story of the Week presented “A Question of a Feather,” a little-known comic tale written by Robert Frost when he was a poultry farmer—more than a decade before he published his first book of poetry. We were pleasantly surprised when the story became one of our most widely read and distributed selections of the year. The appeal of its accessible, folksy humor confirms the remark by literary scholar Mark Richardson that Frost’s stories “are certainly the best poultry-stories written by a modern American poet. They are in fact quite good.”

The four-time Pulitzer Prize–winning poet (who died in Boston fifty years ago this week, on January 29) published a total of ten short stories in poultry newspapers between 1903 and 1905. One of them, “The Original and Only,” describes the owner of a hen that lays many more eggs than does your average bird. (“I paid twelve good dollars for that hen. It was a genuine plunge for a conservative farmer.”) Writing about the story, Richardson observes: “Frost works in the monologue form that he would realize fully in North of Boston (1914), his second book of poetry.” The following excerpt, for example, is from “The Housekeeper,” based on the life of John Hall, Frost’s neighbor who raised hens for the pleasure rather than as a living. When the poet visits his friend’s home, the mother of the “housekeeper” (actually, Hall’s common-law wife) describes the farmer in a manner that strongly echoes his poultry-stories:
“He manages to keep the upper hand
On his own farm. He’s boss. But as to hens:
We fence our flowers in and the hens range.
Nothing's too good for them. We say it pays.
John likes to tell the offers he has had,
Twenty for this cock, twenty-five for that.
He never takes the money. If they’re worth
That much to sell, they’re worth as much to keep.”
Hall passed away in 1906, less than a decade before his domestic arrangements entered the all-too-public domain of Frost’s poetry; he was locally famous for his collection of prize-winning fancy breeds and for his assortment of fowl (geese and ducks as well as hens). According to biographer Jay Parini, Hall’s “speech cadences and casual, country wit fascinated Frost,” who portrayed his neighbor, either by name or thinly disguised, in several of the poultry-stories and in a number of his poems. Hall’s conversational “style became a bedrock of [Frost’s] own original poetics.”

Update: Earlier this month Story of the Week presented “The Egg,” Sherwood Anderson’s famous tale about a man defeated first by the failure of the family’s chicken farm and then by the challenge posed by a single egg. You can now listen to best-selling novelist Rick Moody reading “The Egg” in streaming audio. And it’s free! Visit to enjoy this audio selection, along with nine other Sherwood Anderson stories read by some of today’s leading story writers.

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“You want to hear about our hen,” said the practical poultryman, “the original and only—the hen that diverted us from the fancy, and laid the foundation for our present profitable egg business.” . . . 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.

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Dream

Anonymous [published in 1831]
From American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation

In an essay on the antislavery movement of the early nineteenth century, historian James Brewer Stewart describes rising racial tensions and violence in the North:
Race riots struck New Haven, Boston, and Pittsburgh in the mid-1820s. Throughout the decade groups of harassing lower-class whites in New York City periodically disrupted African-American theater performances. In 1829, white mobs in Cincinnati used unprecedented terror and destruction to force perhaps several hundred African Americans to seek refuge in Canada, and in November of that year, Philadelphia underwent its first major race riot. And finally . . . contention spread southward in 1831 to Virginia in the wake of Nat Turner’s rebellion.
In 1831 two short stories appeared anonymously; concerned by the increase in racial animosities, their author conveyed “the abolitionists’ apocalyptic premonition that stark alternatives awaited the nation as the 1830s opened—race war or interracial ‘amalgamation.’” * Both stories appeared with the byline “T. T.” in two issues of The Liberator, the weekly newspaper founded at the beginning of the year by the Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Although these stories are often discussed in historical accounts of the antislavery movement, they have never been reprinted—until now. Literary historian James G. Basker recently included them in the new anthology American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation, published two months ago by The Library of America. In an interview published by Barnard College, Basker describes their contrasting visions of an America future:
In one, the narrator wakes up in a world following a race war, where black forces have won and Congress is meeting to decide what to do with the remaining whites—enslave them, send them back to Europe, or kill them all. The other story is at the opposite end of the spectrum: Slavery has ended, equality has been achieved, and into the room walks the first black president.
In celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th anniversary, Martin Luther King Day, and this week’s inaugural ceremonies, Story of the Week presents the latter of these two selections: T. T.’s utopian vision from nearly two centuries ago of a society in which “blacks and whites were mingling with perfect ease in social intercourse.”

Notes: The epigraph opening the story loosely translates a line from Cicero’s The Nature of the Gods and was used by Samuel Johnson in his serial publication The Rambler (1751). On page 295, the “new” place names—Lundy Place, Benezet Street, Granville Street—are meant to serve as fictional tributes to antislavery advocates Benjamin Lundy, Anthony Benezet, and Granville Sharp. Subsequent references to monuments and localities honor British abolitionists James Stephen, William Wilberforce, and Thomas Clarkson.

* James Brewer Stewart, ”The Emergence of Racial Modernity and the Rise of the White North, 1790–1840,” Journal of the Early Republic (Summer 1998), pp. 181–217.

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I was reading, the other day, some very curious reasonings upon time, which, as well as space, the author annihilates without any ceremony. ‘I have proved elsewhere,’ says he, ‘that the idea of duration offers nothing absolute. . . . 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, January 12, 2013

The Egg

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

Farm by the Shore, c. 1881, oil on canvas, by Ohio native Thomas Worthington Whittredge (1820–1910). Courtesy of The Athenaeum.
“It is the particular virtue of ‘The Egg,’” wrote Irving Howe in 1951, “that while each paragraph seems comic its total effect is one of great pathos.” Fifteen years later, Howe would affirm, “‘The Egg’ seems to me one of the greatest stories ever written, a masterpiece of grotesque pathos that will live as long as the English language survives.” Howe also emphasized Anderson’s (and the story’s) notable debt to Mark Twain. Similarly, although William Faulkner would later satirize Anderson, he called him “the father of all of my works” and acknowledged in the same breath that Twain was the writer who influenced them both.

In 1918 Anderson began an extraordinary correspondence with literary critic Van Wyck Brooks, who was considering the possibility of writing a book on Twain. Dead for nearly a decade, Twain was as widely read, perhaps more so, than he had been during his lifetime. Yet the critical and scholarly assessment could be said to have been mixed. His most popular works were often dismissed as boy’s tales; Arnold Bennett famously wrote, “Episodically, both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are magnificent, but as complete works of art they are of quite inferior quality,” and Henry James dismissed Twain’s popularity as proof of its appeal to “rudimentary minds.”

Anderson was excited by the prospect that a New York critic like Brooks would publish a book on Twain, and his letters, “showed his desire to ‘sell’ Twain to the easterner,” according to biographer Walter Bates Rideout. “A good part of what Sherwood wished to sell had been, as it were, bought by Van Wyck already.” In his letters Anderson sketched a portrait of Twain as a “river man” who went East and was tamed by “that New England crowd,” which then tempered his creative genius. Yet one thing Anderson failed to sell to Brooks—and he tried—was the raw aesthetic power (the “proud, conscious innocence,” as he put it) of one particular novel by Mark Twain. Brooks “did not change his decision, one he later publicly regretted, to minimize the importance of Huckleberry Finn.”

Brooks’s groundbreaking study, The Ordeal of Mark Twain, appeared in 1920 and set the tone for Twain studies for several decades. It argues that after a promising start Twain fell victim to the moneymaking enticements of the Gilded Age and, as a result, never realized his full potential as an artist—a thesis that echoed Anderson’s letters to Brooks. That same year “The Triumph of the Egg” (later retitled simply “The Egg”) was published, and even the first-time reader of Sherwood Anderson will discern Twain’s influence. In his memoirs Anderson wrote that, like his beloved literary predecessor, his stories frequently returned to “the first twenty years of his life, impressions of people, and events experienced during these formative years when the imagination is most alive.”

Note: On page 237, there is a reference to a legend about Christopher Columbus that dates at least to the sixteenth century. Columbus is said to have challenged fellow diners to stand an egg on its end, a feat he then accomplished by cracking the shell at the tip.

Free audio: This selection is accompanied by a streaming audio version, read by the best-selling novelist Rick Moody.

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My father was, I am sure, intended by nature to be a cheerful, kindly man. Until he was thirty-four years old he worked as a farm-hand for a man named Thomas Butterworth whose place lay near the town of Bidwell, Ohio. . . . 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.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Jelly-Fish

David H. Keller (1880–1966)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Illustrations of Periphylla (crown or helmet jellyfish) from Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel. (The image has been rotated 90 degrees.)
Following World War I, America’s pulp magazines increasingly published science fiction alongside their usual fare of Westerns, fantasy, and horror. Editors were on the lookout for new writers in this burgeoning market, and by the end of the 1920s “there were a few writers capable of producing quality science fiction,” writes British literary historian Mike Ashley. “The best in those early years were Miles J. Breuer and David H. Keller, both, intriguingly, physicians.” Both authors also spent World War I in the Army Medical Corps; during his service, David H. Keller (a neuropsychiatrist) helped pioneer the treatment of shellshock victims.

Keller wrote fiction for six decades while working at his various medical jobs: as a physician or superintendent at mental institutions in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Louisiana, and Tennessee; during military service in both world wars; and while in private practice. His career as a writer began early. At the age of fifteen, in 1895, he published a story in a local magazine; during college he submitted a dozen stories and poems to a small literary magazine. Yet for the following three decades, while he continued writing voluminously, he wrote almost entirely for himself. Prompted by his wife, he began sending out his stories in the late 1920s and found that the market had caught up to his own personal tastes; his first submission to a national magazine was accepted immediately and appeared as “The Revolt of the Pedestrian” in the February 1928 issue of the recently founded Amazing Stories. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to date Keller’s work with accuracy; many of his pieces had been written years or even decades earlier. In addition, a lot of his writing has vanished because he was famous for sending pieces (free of charge) to fanzines, amateur magazines, and obscure periodicals. In any event, his new career allowed him to set up a small private practice as a psychiatrist, which left him enough hours in the day to be a “full-time” writer.

In spite of the ubiquity of his byline in the pulps (not to mention his numerous book-length publications), the bulk of Keller’s fiction is now forgotten and out of print. Nevertheless, a small handful of stories still appear frequently in anthologies. Among his best-known works are psychological thrillers (including “The Thing in the Cellar,” perhaps his most famous tale) and fantasias that offer a cynical look at the hubris of scientists (such as “The Jelly-Fish”). An appraisal of Keller’s career by science-fiction editor Everett F. Bleiler summarizes, “Keller had considerable reservations about technological and scientific ‘progress,’ and his work was unusual, almost unique, in considering the impact of such ‘progress’ on individuals and society, usually negatively.”

Note: Although there is a common sea snail known as the Papal Mitre (or Bishop’s Mitre) in the seas of the South Pacific, the microscopic jellyfish of that name seems to be purely Keller’s invention.

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“All space is relative. There is no such thing as size. The telescope and the microscope have produced a deadly leveling of great and small, far and near. The only little thing is sin, the only great thing is fear!” . . . 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.