Friday, March 29, 2013

Slippery Fingers

Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961)
From Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings

Last year Story of the Week presented “Arson Plus,” Dashiell Hammett’s first story featuring the Continental Op, “the private detective who oftenest is successful: neither the derby-hatted and broad-toed blockhead of one school of fiction, nor the all-knowing, infallible genius of another.” After the story’s initial publication in April 1923, the very next issue of Black Mask magazine presented two additional tales featuring Hammett’s anonymous, tough-talking detective: “Slippery Fingers,” published under his pseudonym Peter Collinson, and “Crooked Souls,” the first story to appear under Hammett’s own name.*

“Slippery Fingers” is the more traditional and formulaic of the two selections: a light, relatively straightforward murder mystery with stock secondary characters and a “trick” revelation, ending with a garrulous confession by the just-nabbed perpetrator. But it nonetheless shows Hammett expanding the genre’s boundaries with his use of language: “What makes the Op stories stand out,” writes LeRoy Panek in his study of the early fiction, “is Hammett’s introduction of slang into the Op’s dialogue and narration. Thus, . . . from the very beginning, Hammett sprinkled nonstandard diction into Op’s grammatically correct sentences.” The patois of Hammett’s rogues is even more notably mangled, serving “as a distinguishing feature of characters at the bottom of the criminal food chain.” Reading through the stories Hammett published during the 1920s, readers can see “the dean
of hard-boiled detective fiction developing his technique into the prose style that would culminate in such classics as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.

The gritty realism of these early stories must have resonated with the editors of
Black Mask, who had written to Hammett a few months previously, asking him if his characters were based on people he had known during his seven-year tenure at the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. His response was published in the July 15 issue: “None of the characters is real in a literal sense, though I doubt it would be possible to build a character without putting into it at least something of someone the writer has known.”

* Story of the Week will present “Crooked Souls” later this year.

“You are already familiar, of course, with the particulars of my father’s—ah—death?”

“The papers are full of it, and have been for three days,” I said, “and I’ve read them; but I’ll have to have the whole story first-hand.”. . . . 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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Friday, March 22, 2013

“Old Ironsides” Captures HMS Guerrière

Moses Smith (1783–1870)
From The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence

Events honoring the bicentennial of the War of 1812 began in June of last year and will continue through February 16, 2015—the anniversary of the Senate ratification of the Treaty of Ghent. To coincide with the 32-month series of commemorations, The Library of America has just issued The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence, a collection of eyewitness accounts and historical documents about our nation’s first declared war.

Many of the war’s famous battles occurred at sea—even though the still-young United States didn’t have much of a navy. David Hanna, author of
Knights of the Sea: The True Story of the Boxer and the Enterprise and the War of 1812, summarizes the situation at the outset of the war:
One of the remarkable things about the War of 1812 at sea (and on the Great Lakes) was how well the youthful U.S. Navy performed against the reputedly omnipotent Royal Navy. No one expected much from a navy that was outnumbered by a ratio of fifty to one. President James Madison claimed the war was about freedom of the seas, but in reality he was more concerned with expanding America’s frontiers and winning the 1812 election, then only months away.
Hanna offers two of several reasons American ships prevailed so frequently:
The wars against the Barbary pirates during the administration of Thomas Jefferson had served as an incomparable school for young American officers. . . . At that time, American crews were composed entirely of volunteers—their counterparts in the Royal Navy were, by contrast, virtually maritime slaves.
Moses Smith was one such volunteer. By the time of the famed battle between the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) and the British frigate Guerrière, the 29-year-old sailor had been on the American ship for a year; his responsibility during the 35-minute battle was to sponge out cannons between firings.

Early in Smith’s gripping narrative describing the encounter, he refers to a sea battle known as the
Little Belt Affair—one of many events that led to the war. Two months earlier Guerrière had stopped a U.S. ship and detained a member of its crew. Incensed, the commander of another American ship, President, decided to track down the offending ship and encountered instead the much smaller sloop-of-war Little Belt. Accounts differ as to who fired the first shot, but, no match for the frigate President, the British ship sustained heavy damage, with nine dead and twenty-three wounded. The unequal contest became a rallying cry for the British navy during the war.

Note: Switchel is a beverage made from vinegar and molasses

Having learned which way the Guerriere was steering when last seen, we crowded all sail in that direction. We steered a north-east course for several hours, until the morning of the 19th of August, 1812. This was the day of the battle. . . . 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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Friday, March 15, 2013

Certain Things Last

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

Detail from Chicago Street Scene, undated oil on canvas by American artist William Clusmann (1859–1927). Image courtesy of M. Christine Schwartz Collection.
Although “Certain Things Last” was probably written by Sherwood Anderson in the 1920s, it remained unpublished until it was rescued from his papers and included as the title story in a collection of his stories in 1992—five decades after his death. The late Charles E. Modlin, the editor of that collection (and, at the time, one of the trustees of the Sherwood Anderson Literary Estate Trust), singled out the story in an introduction:
Anderson criticized the writers of popular fiction that pandered to the public’s desire for adventure, romance, or moral uplift. . . . He maintained instead that fiction should take on a natural form that, instead of distorting life, captures it honestly. While art is distinct from real life, “the imagination must constantly feed upon reality or starve.” This is the essential point in “Certain Things Last” . . .
The novelist Ben Marcus recently elaborated on the uniqueness of Anderson’s fiction and, in particular, this story:
What makes Sherwood Anderson’s stories so special (when you read the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, for instance) is the way he extracts from the ordinary something so uncanny, so sublime, so extraordinary . . . and that defines him as a writer. It’s his ability to work with the plain encounter and to record the way it feels simply to be a person in the world. In “Certain Things Last,” he’s giving, in a sense, the most candid, honest, and searching interview a writer could give. . . . It’s an amazing example of metafiction—in other words, “fiction about fiction,” that reveals the process of the writer: a writer talking about craft.
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Free audio: This selection is accompanied by a streaming audio version, read by the acclaimed author Ben Marcus.


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For a year now I have been thinking of writing a certain book. “Well, tomorrow I’ll get at it,” I’ve been saying to myself. Every night when I get into bed I think about the book. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission.
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Friday, March 8, 2013

The Ballad of the Brown Girl

Countee Cullen (1903–1946)
From Countee Cullen: Collected Poems

In “Criteria of Negro Art,” a speech delivered at the 1926 NAACP conference, W.E.B. Du Bois extolled the “the growing recognition of Negro artists” and shared the following anecdote: “A professor in the University of Chicago read to a class that had studied literature a passage of poetry and asked them to guess the author. They guessed a goodly company from Shelley and Robert Browning to Tennyson and Masefield. The author was Countée Cullen.”*

Du Bois, like other (mostly older) black writers of the era, was thrilled by the prospect that a new generation of writers would help overcome the stereotypes and conventions of minstrel shows, black plantation dialect, and Uncles Remus and Tom. But many younger writers, such as Cullen’s friend Langston Hughes, worried that the pendulum was swinging too far in the other direction, decrying “the urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization.” As Major Jackson writes in the introduction to the just-published and (surprisingly) first-ever edition of Cullen’s collected poems, his reputation as “the Black Keats” was a mixed blessing in a decade that had “begun to favor . . . the raw potential of black vernacular forms over seemingly exhausted Anglo-American gentilities.”

The Ballad of the Brown Girl is a good example of Cullen’s debt to time-honored forms. It was published in 1927 as a small booklet, a format that emphasized “the book’s traditional structure as a medieval ballad,” notes Charles Molesworth in a recently published biography. The original legend on which the poem is based actually features two women with hair of different color, but Cullen altered the descriptions to suggest they are of different races. Molesworth also quotes a letter from Cullen that provides more detail about the origin of the poem: “My latest endeavor is a ballad, quite a gruesome affair with no less than three murders in it. It is founded on an old song which every colored Kentuckian knows.”

This quote inadvertently reveals a biographical detail about Cullen himself. Throughout his life, Cullen often maintained that he was born and raised in New York City, but he was probably born Countee Lucas in Louisville, Kentucky. When he was nine, his mother sent him to live with a family friend (possibly his grandmother) in the Bronx. His new caretaker died when Countee was fourteen and he was adopted by Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, pastor of the vast and influential Salem Methodist Church in Harlem. Excelling in high school and later at NYU and Harvard, the young writer would go on to publish all his books as Countee Cullen (although he signed all his correspondence as Countée and pronounced his name “Coun-tay”).

* Two years later, in 1928, Cullen married Du Bois’s daughter in an extravagant Harlem ceremony attended by thousands of well-wishers and officiated by Cullen’s adopted father. The marriage was a catastrophe; Cullen was beginning to acknowledge he was attracted to men and, after living together for only a few months, the couple divorced in 1930.

About the illustrator: The 1927 edition of The Ballad of the Brown Girl features a centerfold illustration by Charles Cullen, who illustrated several of Countee Cullen’s books. The illustration is included in the PDF for with this week’s selection. Not related to Countee, Charles was a familiar presence in Harlem during the 1920s and was later described (with typical snideness) by the artist Richard Bruce Nugent as “White, blonde, and insipid.”

Oh, this is the tale the grandams tell
In the land where the grass is blue,
And some there are who say ’tis false,
And some that hold it true. . . . This story is no longer available. Read other recent selections from Story of the Week.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Hunting Human Game

Frank Norris (1870–1902)
From True Crime: An American Anthology

In 1894, at the age of twenty-four, Benjamin Franklin (“Frank”) Norris finished his fourth year at Berkeley but didn’t receive his degree, having repeatedly flunked the mathematics portion of his examinations. His failure to graduate did not slow him down. During the following eight years he took writing courses at Harvard; reported for the San Francisco Chronicle on the Boer War in South Africa, where he fell ill before being expelled from the territory; wrote at least 160 short stories, sketches, and essays for various newspapers and magazines; covered the Spanish-American War in Cuba, where he again became sick (and where he befriended Stephen Crane); became an editor for Doubleday in New York (where he “discovered” and championed the novel Sister Carrie by up-and-coming writer Theodore Dreiser); and managed to finish writing seven novels, including the national bestseller The Octopus. In 1902, he was back in the San Francisco area and planning a trip around the world on a tramp steamer when he suffered an attack of appendicitis. Initially ignoring the pain, he finally went to a doctor—but it was far too late. Suffering from gangrene, he died of peritonitis at the age of thirty-two.

Like fellow San Francisco writer Jack London, Norris was heavily influenced by the theories of Charles Darwin and the literary naturalism of French writer Émile Zola. (In spite of overlapping careers and friendships, Norris and London appeared to have never met.) Jeanne Campbell Reesman, in her essay for A Companion to the American Short Story, tallies up some of the many similarities in Norris’s and London’s works: “such key naturalistic concerns as the nature of the self; heredity and environment in shaping lives versus free will; Darwinistic ideas concerning an individual’s ability to adapt to environment; awareness of the human capacity for animalistic and brutal behavior; patterns of dominance and submission; survival of the individual versus survival of the community of species.” All of which explains Norris’s fascination with crime and criminals in such pieces as “Hunting Human Game.”

This week’s story was recommended by longtime Story of the Week fan Ben Ostrander of Austin, Texas, who found this “grisly little report on an Australian serial killer” to be a fine early sample of true crime writing. (Squeamish readers need not worry: the grisliness is left entirely off the page and to the reader’s imagination.)

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On the 21st of November in the year 1896 there appeared in one of the newspapers of Sydney, Australia, an advertisement to the effect that one Frank Butler—mining prospector, was in search of a partner with whom to engage in a certain mining venture. . . . If you don't see this week's 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.