Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Wife of His Youth

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932)
From Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays

“This is the woman, and I am the man,”
frontispiece by Clyde O. De Land (1872–1947),
for The Wife of the Youth & Other Stories
of the Color Line
In June 1898, after publishing “The Wife of His Youth” in the latest issue, the editors of The Atlantic Monthly received a letter from the novelist and short story writer James Lane Allen:
Who—in the name of the Lord!—is Charles W. Chesnutt? . . . I went through [the story] without drawing breath—except to laugh out two or three times. It is the freshest, finest, most admirably held in and wrought out little story that has gladdened—and moistened—my eyes in many months.
A cascade of similar letters and notices were to follow in the months ahead. (It should also be noted that, at first, many—perhaps most—readers assumed that Chesnutt was white.) Two years later, the accolades culminated in a review essay, also published in The Atlantic, by the influential William Dean Howells, who called the story “a remarkable piece of work.” Noting the “novelty of its material,” he concluded: “Any one accustomed to study methods in fiction, to distinguish between good and bad art, to feel the joy which the delicate skill possible only from a love of truth can give, must have known a high pleasure in the quiet self-restraint of the performance. . . .”

Charles Chesnutt had been writing and publishing stories for over a decade—including two previous stories in The Atlantic, one of which was the first published in the magazine’s pages by an African American. His earlier stories were quite different in tone and theme and many of them featured the character Uncle Julius, a former slave spinning folk tales in dialect. These pieces were often compared to Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories. But “The Wife of His Youth,” writes scholar Charles Duncan, presented something new to the American reader. “Focusing not on slaves’ lives . . . or African Americans in menial jobs, Chesnutt instead explores the complex social and cultural lives of middle-class black Northerners.” Chesnutt also moved the location of his stories, from the plantations of the South to the city of Groveland [Cleveland] in his home state of Ohio.

Prompted by the author’s sudden celebrity, Houghton Mifflin rushed out two consecutive story collections: the second, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, gathered selections that showcased Chesnutt’s change in style and subject. Not everyone was happy with this new type of story, however. Biographer William Andrews quotes newspaper reviewers who were discomfited by the “slightly unpleasant suggestion of relations between black and white.” To one critic, the depiction of sympathetic mixed-race characters made Chesnutt an “advocate of miscegenation.” Still others greeted the stories’ treatment of segregation and interracial relationships with stronger terms: “morbid,” “vulgar,” “repulsive.” Chesnutt’s more literary efforts, writes Andrews, were not always well received by audiences nurtured “at the hands of overstuffed mammies, superannuated retainers, exotic quadroons, and other assorted dark-skinned eccentrics of the dialect writers.”

Readers today may well wonder what all the fuss was about. On the surface, “The Wife of His Youth” appears to be a straightforward, heartwarming story. Yet the lead character in Chesnutt’s “sentimental love story,” notes Duncan, proves to be “an inviting target of his satirical impulse.” As Chesnutt himself recalled the story more than thirty years later, “I am somewhat ironical about the racial distinctions among colored people and the ‘Blue Vein Society,’ but it is a very kindly irony, for I belonged to the ‘Blue Vein Society,’ and the characters . . . were my personal friends. I shared their sentiments to a degree, though I could see the comic side of them.”

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Mr. Ryder was going to give a ball. There were several reasons why this was an opportune time for such an event. . . . If you don't see this week's selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Washington Resigns His Commission

George Washington (1732–1799)
& Thomas Mifflin (1744–1800)

From The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence

John Trumbull (1756–1843). “George Washington resigning his commission as Commander-in-Chief,” before the Continental Congress at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, December 23, 1783. (Commissioned in 1817, placed in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in 1824). Oil on canvas. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
In his recent, masterful biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow summarizes a well-known anecdote that the British court painter, Benjamin West, related to American artist Charles Willson Peale at the end of the Revolutionary War:
One day the king [George III] asked West whether Washington would be head of the army or head of state when the war ended. When West replied that Washington’s sole ambition was to return to his estate, the thunderstruck king declared, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Indeed, Washington was distressed by the thought that people believed he wanted to be king or dictator. In 1782, a year before the end of the war, an army colonel wrote to Washington in the belief that “strong arguments might be produced for admitting the title of king.” The commander replied angrily, “I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country.” (The colonel, Chernow notes, wrote three subsequent letters begging forgiveness.) At the end of 1783, Washington submitted his resignation to the President of the Continental Congress, Thomas Mifflin, and returned to Mount Vernon. Europeans were shocked; when the news reached London, the American painter John Trumbull exclaimed, “Tis a conduct so novel, so unconceivable to people, who, far from giving up powers they possess are willing to convulse the empire to acquire more.”

As early as 1779—well before the end of the war—Maryland poet Charles Henry Wharton published an epistle, in verse, addressed to Washington. He evoked Cincinnatus, the Roman emperor who in the fifth century B.C. twice resigned the dictatorship and returned to his farm. It was an analogy encouraged by Washington and reinforced by his own twin retirements: first as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and later after his eight years as President. The Cincinnatus legend persisted throughout the nineteenth century in poems, paintings, statues, and biographies. At the end of his “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte” (1814), Byron looked favorably to Washington’s example:
Where may the wearied eye repose
     When gazing on the Great;
Where neither guilty glory glows,
     Nor despicable state?
Yes—One—the first—the last—the best—
The Cincinnatus of the West,
     Whom Envy dared not hate,
Bequeathed the name of Washington,
To make man blush there was but one!
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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)
From The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now

Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes (1943), mural at the Recorder of Deeds Building, Washington, D.C., by American artist William Edouard Scott. Image courtesy of The George F. Landegger Collection of District of Columbia Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
In 1860, following the election, Frederick Douglass wrote favorably of the President-elect:
For fifty years the country has taken the law from the lips of an exacting, haughty and imperious slave oligarchy. The masters of slaves have been masters of the Republic. Their authority was almost undisputed, and their power irresistible. They were the President makers of the Republic, and no aspirant dared to hope for success against their frown. Lincoln's election has vitiated their authority, and broken their power. It has taught the North its strength, and shown the South its weakness. More important still, it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States.
Yet, because Abraham Lincoln was “not an Abolitionist,” Douglass was frequently one of the administration’s harshest critics, frustrated with the lack of movement toward the goal of emancipation. He criticized Lincoln’s first inaugural address (“the Republican President bends the knee to slavery as readily as any of his famous predecessors”); he was shocked by Lincoln’s order countermanding General John C. Frémont in Missouri that freed the slaves of anyone fighting against the Union (“this policy is plainly one which can only dishearten the friends of the government and strengthen its enemies”); he despaired when he learned that Lincoln had been entertaining proposals to colonize “the colored race” in Central America (“the nation was never more completely in the hands of the slave power”); and as late as 1864 he was disappointed in the President’s inability to fill his promise to compensate black soldiers equally (“The treatment of our poor black solders [has] worn my patience threadbare”).

Nevertheless, by the time the two men met, in 1863, “Lincoln had already embraced most of the program the Negro leader had called for from the beginning of the war,” contends the late historian Philip S. Foner. Earlier that year, on January 1, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and when Douglass first learned of it, he wrote in his journal: “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.” In various recollections written later in life, Douglass was often effusive in his praise of Lincoln, remembering the strength of his character and the end-results of his governance rather than the frustrations and disappointments experienced along the way. “Where the still-tentative relationship between Lincoln and Douglass might have taken the nation after the war cannot be known,” reflects biographer William S. McFeely. “It is one of the might-have-beens that lie in the shadow of Lincoln’s assassination.”

Historical background and dramatis personae: When Douglass was first introduced to Lincoln, he was accompanied by Kansas Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy, a Republican who had been active in the antislavery movement during the previous decade. Secretary of State William Seward had briefed Lincoln before the meeting. Within a week Douglass received the following commission from the War Department: “Sir, I am instructed by the Secretary of War [Edwin Stanton] to direct you to proceed to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and on your arrival there to report in person to Brigr General L Thomas, Adjutant General, U. S. Army, to assist in recruiting colored troops.”

Newspaper editor Horace Greeley had a testy relationship with Lincoln, most famously during a public exchange after Greeley criticized the progress of the war and the lack of progress on emancipation—a mere month before Lincoln first made public his intention to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. William Buckingham was governor of Connecticut. Orpheus C. Kerr (a name chosen to sound like “Office Seeker”) was the pseudonym of humorist Robert Henry Newell, whose series of satires during the Civil War were widely read.

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I do not know more about Mr. Lincoln than is known by countless thousands of Americans who have met the man. . . . 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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Sunday, February 3, 2013


Kate Chopin (1850–1904)
From Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories

French Market scene, New Orleans, 1891. From a gouache and watercolor painting by American artist William Woodward (1859–1939). Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.
Three years ago, Story of the Week presented the Kate Chopin story, “A Respectable Woman,” whose heroine is unsettled by her attraction to Gouvernail, her husband’s friend. Gouvernail appears again in the much longer, more complex story “Athénaïse,” and he fills a very similar role: the “sensitive bachelor” (to borrow author Joyce Dyer’s characterization) whose attentions to a married woman straddle the line between flirtatiousness and thoughtfulness.

Athénaïse, the married woman of the story, is trapped—limited by the opportunities afforded to her by society. It’s no coincidence that the character shares the name of Chopin’s grandmother, Marie Anne Athénaïs Charleville, whose husband, a failed Virginia businessman, deserted her and their seven children, leaving them virtually penniless. Given this real-life background, the story takes on a “what if” aspect. The fictional Athénaïse, having escaped an unhappy residence in a convent, is equally “wretched” in marriage—and so she flees again. She is unable to articulate any legitimate complaint against her husband; her main objection to the marriage is the loss of independence: “things seemed all wrongly arranged in this world, and no one was permitted to be happy in his own way.” Her parents, however, hope that “marriage would bring the poise, the desirable pose, so glaringly lacking in Athénaïse’s character.” The editors of The Atlantic seemed to side with this latter view when they added the subtitle “A Story of Temperament,” thereby suggesting that Athénaïse’s rebellion is little more than a matter of individual willfulness and immaturity.

Although the themes in “Athénaïse” are similar to those explored in Chopin’s famous masterpiece The Awakening, the trajectory of each work could hardly be more different. Had Chopin given “Athénaïse” a more cynical ending, or had she pursued her character any further into the bohemian liberties offered by New Orleans, or had she taken to the next level the friendship between Athénaïse and Gouvernail, she would not have been able to publish the story—certainly not in The Atlantic and probably not in any national publication. As it was, she pocketed $155—by far the largest amount paid for any of her stories—while three years later The Awakening caused such a scandal that it virtually ended her career and disappeared from the literary canon for seventy years. Nevertheless, “Athénaïse” is remarkably transgressive in its perspective on social attitudes toward women. As Chopin scholar Per Seyersted writes, “in spite of the happy end, the story contains a deep protest against woman’s condition.”

Notes: The paths of the Cane and Red rivers have changed dramatically over the past two hundred years. Now part of the modern Red River, Rigolet de Bon Dieu was one of the meandering waterways in Louisiana’s Natchitoches Parish. (“Rigolet” means literally “little rapids.”) On page 354, the song Juanita refers to a love song subtitled “A Spanish Ballad” and published in 1855. The Duchess (p. 375) was Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, an Irish writer of romantic fiction, whose novel Molly Bawn (1878) contains the first known appearance in its present form of the English expression “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Frederic Remington (1861–1909) was a famous painter of cowboys and Western scenes.

Chambres garnies – Furnished rooms
Comment ça va? – How are you?
Des esprits forts – Freethinkers
La fille de son père – Her father’s daughter
Pauvre ti chou – Poor little dear
Sacré cochon – Dirty swine
Tiens! tu vas les garder comme tu as jadis fait. Je ne veux plus de ce train là, moi! – There! You’ll keep them the way you used to. I don’t want to do this anymore!
Other expressions and sentences will be clear from context.

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Athénaïse went away in the morning to make a visit to her parents, ten miles back on rigolet de Bon Dieu. She did not return in the evening, and Cazeau, her husband, fretted not a little. . . . 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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