Friday, April 26, 2013

Jim Crow’s Playmates

Red Smith (1905–1982)
From American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith

Photo of Jackie Robinson (1954) by Bob Sandberg for LOOK Magazine (February 22, 1955). Image courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division via Wikimedia Commons.
In May 1947 the sportswriter Red Smith caught wind of a quashed conspiracy among certain players on the Saint Louis Cardinals, who planned to boycott the Brooklyn Dodgers because Jackie Robinson had been added to the line-up. Outraged, Smith devoted his next column to the incident:
. . . the disclosure of an abortive attempt to organize National League ballplayers into a bloc to deny Jackie Robinson, the Negro infielder, his chance with the Dodgers is at once shocking and heartening. It is shocking because the national game should have been the last place for the seeds of prejudice to grow. It is heartening because of the forthright and uncompromising action of the men [league president Ford Frick and Cardinals owner Sam Breadon] who put the movement down.
Several years later Smith repeated this sentiment, writing “Whether they like it or not, baseball men now must set an example in interracial relations.” Even so, in 1956 he would reflect on the events of the previous decade, “I think I failed to understand, to appreciate really, the burden Robinson was carrying on his shoulders.”

Branch Rickey was the baseball manager who signed Robinson to a contract with the Montreal Royals, a Brooklyn Dodgers minor-league affiliate, where Robinson led the league with a .349 batting average and won the Most Valuable Player award in 1946. Following Robinson’s impressive debut with the Dodgers (he became major-league baseball's first-ever Rookie of the Year), Rickey would often tell journalists a story that continued to inspire him during those turbulent years. Four decades earlier, while still an undergraduate at Ohio Wesleyan University, Rickey signed a professional baseball contract and thus became ineligible to continue playing for the school’s baseball team. So the college appointed him as athletics director and baseball coach. Charles Thomas, the university’s only black player in 1903, replaced Rickey as catcher. Smith recorded Thomas’s story, as told by Rickey and presented here, in his February 19, 1948, column.

Notes: In his article, Smith mistakenly places Rickey and Thomas at the University of Michigan, where Rickey later coached, rather than at Ohio Wesleyan University. Arthur Mann was Rickey’s assistant, a sportswriter who later wrote the screenplay for The Jackie Robinson Story (1950).

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A curious sort of hullabaloo has been aroused by Branch Rickey’s disclosure that when he went into the ring against Jim Crow, he found fifteen major league club owners working in Jim’s corner. . . . 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, April 19, 2013

Natural History, the Forgotten Science

Aldo Leopold (1887–1948)
From Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation

The Leopold Family Shack & Farm, Baraboo, Wisconsin. Photo by Tom Koerner, USFWS Mountain Prairie, via Flickr.
This year [2013], over the course of the weekend and through Monday, April 22, Americans will be holding Earth Day events—commemorating the anniversary of a national wave of demonstrations and teach-ins in 1970 conceived primarily by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. By coincidence, Sunday, April 21, marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of another Wisconsin resident, the famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir. And Wisconsin was home to yet another respected environmentalist, Aldo Leopold, who died 65 years ago—on John Muir’s birthday.

It is fitting, then, that we offer as a Story of the Week selection a speech delivered by Leopold 75 years ago this week. Leopold spent his spring break in 1938 planting trees around “the Shack,” a rebuilt chicken coop at an abandoned farm where his family spent weekend retreats and vacations. He then traveled to the University of Missouri to deliver this speech the week after the centennial of Muir’s birth.

Leopold remains relatively unknown to many Americans, even though many critics and naturalists consider his best-selling, posthumously published work, A Sand County Almanac, as important as Thoreau’s Walden or Carson’s Silent Spring. In a recent interview, biographer Curt Meine explains why Leopold is so revered by environmentalists yet neglected by many other readers:
Leopold has long been labeled a “nature writer”—a term that can both connect and confine his writing to a particular reading audience. And as we as a society have become increasingly removed from the reality of the land and its history, his voice can seem more remote, even “old-fashioned.” Yet, for those seeking to explore and rethink our relationship to land and the Earth, that voice remains as relevant and fresh and provocative as ever.
In “Natural History, The Forgotten Science,” Leopold discussed this tepid view of “nature writing,” acknowledging that the genre conjured for many readers “tea-time conversation,” “bad verse,” or “ejaculatory vapors.”

At the same time, he worried that the study of the natural world had gone too far to the other extreme, having been relegated almost entirely to the classroom and laboratory. The young zoologists and botanists of his time no longer learned science outdoors; they had lost what the naturalist John Burroughs called “the art of seeing things.” To redress the imbalance, Leopold called for students to pursue the new science of “ecology,” and he offered up as models two “amateurs” (although he did not name them): Arlie William Shorger, “an industrial chemist” who would go on to publish The Passenger Pigeon, Its Natural History, and Margaret Morse Nice, “an Ohio housewife” who was the author of the landmark volume Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow.

“Natural History, the Forgotten Science” is included in the just-published Library of America volume, Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation, which also contains a number of pieces by Leopold that have never before been published.

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One Saturday night a few weeks ago two middle-aged farmers set the alarm clock for a dark hour of what proved to be a snowy, blowy Sunday . . . 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, April 12, 2013

The Tree of Knowledge

Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1898–1910

Love Bound (1884), marble by Richard Saltonstall Greenough (1819–1904). Currently at the Post Road Galley.
Throughout Henry James’s notebooks are a great many ideas he jotted down to use in his writing. While staying at the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice in May 1899, he wrote an entry that began: “Note the ‘Gordon Greenough’ story told to me by Mrs. C—the young modern artist-son opening the eyes of his mother (his sculptor-father’s one believer) to the misery and grotesqueness of his Father’s work . . .”

The young man in question, a painter, was the son of the decidedly mediocre American sculptor Richard Saltonstall Greenough, the younger brother of the far more talented Horatio Greenough. The “Mrs. C” who shared this bit of family gossip was the Ariana Randolph Curtis, an American expatriate living in Venice who was related by marriage to the Greenough family. A few months later, James reminds himself to pursue this anecdote (“Don’t forget the little Gordon-Greenough-and-his-mother-and-and-his-father” idea), with an additional note to “write it up” on the Maupassant “system.”

Because James knew the Greenoughs quite well, he was courting ill will by transforming this piece of gossip into a portrait of a family. Nevertheless, the following year he worked the idea into “The Tree of Knowledge,” a dissection of a delusional sculptor’s household, which he included in his story collection The Soft Side and which indeed contains a twist of the type readers would expect to find at the end of a tale by the French writer Guy de Maupassant. (“Paste,” a previous Story of the Week selection by Henry James written during the same period, also shows Maupassant’s unmistakable influence.)

“The Tree of Knowledge” is largely true to the outline of the story James heard from Ariana Curtis. Morgan Mallow is an American sculptor living abroad. Singularly incapable of selling his art, he is fortunate that his wife “brought him, in marriage, a portion that put them at ease.” He is also fortunate that she regards him as “the Master” and admires his art. The couple’s best friend, the bachelor Peter Brench, has always been in love with Mrs. Mallow and is also quite fond of her husband—but he secretly deplores Mallow’s continuously growing “marble family.” When Lance, the couple’s son (and Peter’s godson), announces he wants to drop out of college and move to Paris to become a painter, Mrs. Mallow’s hope—and Peter’s fear—is that the young man will prove to be just as talented as his father.

Notes: The term Wanderjahre (p. 221) refers to an apprenticeship (literally, "wandering years"). Phidias (p. 222) is regarded as one of the greatest of all sculptors of Classical Greece. The expression là-bas (p. 230) means “over there.”

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It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend Morgan Mallow . . . 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, April 5, 2013

The Lover

Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813–1897)
From American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation

Advertisement offering a reward for
the capture of Harriet Jacobs. American
, Norfolk, Virginia, July 4, 1835.
Jacobs was in fact hiding in an attic,
where she remained for seven years.
She finally escaped to the North in 1842.
Image courtesy of The North
Carolina History Project
This year marks the bicentennial of the birth of Harriet Ann Jacobs. We will probably never know the date she was born; February 11, 1815, is engraved on her tombstone, but contemporary evidence (including a will in 1825 that transferred ownership of a “negro girl Harriet”) places her birth with near-certainty in 1813—probably during the late summer. Her mother died when she was six years old and, as was the case for many orphan-slaves of the era, the circumstances of her birth and childhood are hazy.

She was taught to read and write by her first mistress, who died when she was twelve—an event that changed the rest of her youth into an unending nightmare. The will left her to a three-year-old relative, whose parents became her new masters in a household that introduced her to the true barbarities of slavery. During the course of her subsequent captivity, other members of her family fled to the North. Her uncle Joseph Sawyer (Benjamin, in her account) attempted to escape, only to be captured, severely whipped, chained, and solitarily imprisoned “as an example to the rest of [the] slaves.” His second escape attempt succeeded. Harriet’s brother John (referred to as William in the narrative) also fled.

Jacobs herself eventually escaped to the North in 1842, the year before she turned thirty, and a decade later she began to float the idea of publishing her memoir. She first approached Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wanted to appropriate Jacobs’s story for a soon-to-be published collection of documents called A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Jacobs instead began including passages from her story in correspondence and publishing episodes in various newspapers, including Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune, and she finally completed the manuscript in 1860. She then enlisted the aid of best-selling author Lydia Maria Child (primarily known to us today as the author of “Over the River and Through the Wood”), who copyedited the book, rearranged some of the sections, and deleted a final chapter about John Brown’s rebellion, which Child felt was superfluous to the story. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl appeared in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent and with a foreword by Child, who assured her readers several times that she had added nothing to the story (“Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction”). The book and its author enjoyed a limited celebrity among Northerners immediately after publication, but the memoir soon faded from view, its urgency and shocking content probably overwhelmed by the war and later by emancipation.

For over a century, Incidents was largely forgotten. Most academics concluded that the book had really been written by Child, perhaps based loosely on Jacobs’s life but “too melodramatic” (in the words of John Blassingame, one of the many unconvinced scholars) to be an actual slave narrative. In 1971 the historian Jean Fagan Yellin, having just finished her dissertation, embarked on three decades of extraordinary literary detective work that solved the mystery of authorship once and for all. She first located dozens of letters written by Jacobs, the style and content of which proved that the “novel” was indeed written by the former slave. Then, with the help of several archivists across the country, Yellin uncovered numerous historical documents identifying many of the people in the book and verifying the major events and many minor details. Professor Yellin then published her findings in 1987 in a new edition of Incidents—with the full support of the formerly skeptical Professor Blassingame. In 2004, having subsequently unearthed even more documentation confirming the truthfulness of Jacobs’s memoir, Yellin updated her research in an award-winning biography.

Note: The stanza of poetry on the first page is from Byron’s “The Lament of Tass” (1817).

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Why does the slave ever love? Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine around objects which may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence? When separations come by the hand of death, the pious soul can bow in resignation, and say, “Not my will, but thine be done, O Lord!” . . . 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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