Friday, May 31, 2013

The Yellow Wall Paper

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Cover of the 1899 edition of The Yellow
Wall Paper
.The book version of Gilman’s
story was published under her name from
her first marriage.
During the last months of her life, Charlotte Perkins Gilman finished her autobiography and recalled how she came to write “The Yellow Wall Paper”:
It is a description of a case of nervous breakdown beginning something as mine did, and treated as Dr. S. Weir Mitchell treated me with what I consider the inevitable result, progressive insanity.
Mitchell, immortalized by name in Gilman’s story, was the physician who first developed the famous “rest cure” for women suffering from depression. The regimen included isolation, bed rest, and heavy foods and prohibited work of any kind, physical or intellectual. His male patients who suffered from nervous disorders, however, were treated with the “West cure,” which incorporated outdoor living, physical activity, and male companionship; they were also encouraged to write about their experiences. The authors Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Jane Addams all underwent the “rest cure,” while Walt Whitman, Owen Wister (The Virginian), and Theodore Roosevelt were among the writers who benefited from Mitchell’s “West cure.”

Gilman sent her manuscript to William Dean Howells in 1890, who tried to place it in The Atlantic Monthly, but the magazine’s current editor declined, saying the story made him feel “miserable.” It was published instead by The New England Monthly in 1892—although she never received payment, having apparently been robbed by an unscrupulous agent.

The story caused a sensation. Gilman quotes one letter-writer who protested to the editors: “[To those] whose lives have become a struggle against an heredity of mental derangement, such literature contains deadly peril.” A Missouri doctor, however, wrote that he was “overwhelmed with the delicacy of your touch and the correctness of portrayal. . . . So far as I know, and I am fairly well up in literature, there has been no detailed account of incipient insanity.” The doctor wondered hesitantly (and as tactfully as possible, considering the nature of the question) if Gilman herself had suffered from such an illness, and she responded, “I had been as far as one could go and get back.”

In 1920, the year he died, Howells included “The Yellow Wall Paper” in The Great Modern American Stories. But for the next fifty years, the story was largely confined to Gothic horror anthologies—until Elaine Hedges published an edition for The Feminist Press in 1973, calling it a “small literary masterpiece.” In recent decades, the story has been ubiquitous in literary anthologies and textbooks and is now widely taught to high school and college students.

Note: Wall Paper or Wall-Paper or Wallpaper? Readers will note that the spelling of the title of Gilman’s most famous work varies from source to source. The story was reprinted several times during Gilman’s life, and the title was printed in any number of ways. The LOA uses the text of the story’s first appearance as a small book, published in 1899 and titled The Yellow Wall Paper.

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It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity,—but that would be asking too much of fate! . . . 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, May 24, 2013

War Stories

Harvey Shapiro (1924–2013)
From Poets of World War II

Harvey Shapiro standing next to his plane in April 1945. Courtesy of the author.

Earlier this year, on January 7, poet and newspaperman Harvey Shapiro died at the age of 88. For forty years, until he retired in 1995, he worked for The New York Times, and he was editor of the Book Review section from 1975 to 1983.

During World War II, Shapiro flew thirty-five missions over central Europe as a B-17 radio gunner based in Italy, and he edited Poets of World War II for the American Poets Project series (published by The Library of America). The anthology was both a critical and commercial success, and there are nearly 18,000 copies in print. In the introduction, he explained the collection’s underlying purpose:
. . . to demonstrate that the American poets of this war produced a body of work that has not yet been recognized for its clean and powerful eloquence. Comparisons can be odious, but common wisdom has it that the poets of World War I—Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg—left us a monument and the poets of World War II did not. My hope is that readers of this book will come away convinced that is not the case.
In an interview with Maggie Paley for BOMB Magazine, he elucidated his selection criteria for the anthology: “What I really wanted were poems from soldiers who had actually seen combat, men and women who had served in one way or another, and from civilians who had actually experienced something.”

The anthology includes Shapiro’s own poem “War Stories.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of World War II, literary scholar Margot Norris discusses the poem at length, noting that the opening scene portrays how a “loss of innocence precedes war experience.” The reader follows the narrator to Italy and then on bombing runs in the skies of Germany. The poem’s closing lines, “with its evocation of modern media, returns to the beginning with its newspapers, comics, and radio programs. A double reversal has occurred.” After the war, the experiences of combat will be “seemingly restored to the innocence of media representations, the movies and television of civilian life, and the grandiose rhetoric of postwar history books.” Yet the reality is the “antithesis” of these “war stories.”

Note: Westbrook Pegler was a popular American columnist in the 1930s and 1940s, famous for his criticisms of the Roosevelt administration.

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Audio: Click here to listen to an audio recording of Harvey Shapiro reading “War Stories” in 2005.
The MP3 file will begin playing in a new browser window.

© 2008 Norman Finkelstein and Harvey Shapiro; courtesy of PennSound

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My father read the World Telegram & Sun.
Sometimes he agreed with Westbrook Pegler. . . .
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Friday, May 17, 2013


Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings

Willa Cather in costume as Peter Paragon
in 1892 for a Union Girls’ Dramatic Club
production of The Fatal Pin. From the
Nebraska State Historical Society blog.
Willa Cather has been much in the news recently, with the publication of a collection of over 500 of her letters, selected from the 3,000 known to exist in various archives around the country. It’s a major literary event for Cather scholars and fans, but in an interview with The New York Times the editors of the new book admit that the anthology “flagrantly” violates Cather’s will, the enforcement of which expired in 2011 with the death of her nephew Charles Cather. Nevertheless, “there’s really no evidence for the idea that she wanted all her letters destroyed,” said Andrew Jewell, who edited the volume with Janis Stout. In a front-page appraisal in The New York Times Book Review, Tom Perrotta does not even try to reconcile the private demand of someone who is long dead with the public appetite for the personal details of one of America’s greatest authors:
Willa Cather really didn’t want me to read her letters. And she was hoping you would mind your own business as well. I know this because I just committed a serious violation of her privacy, reading the more than 500 letters [reprinted in the volume] despite the author’s repeated, explicit wishes to the contrary. . . . What these letters illustrate so beautifully is the literary journey of Willa Cather. . . . These letters bring her fuzzy image into much sharper focus, and for that we owe Jewell and Stout a debt of gratitude, and Willa Cather a sincere apology.
Cather published her first story in a professional magazine when she was just a freshman at the University of Nebraska. An assignment she had written greatly impressed her English professor, Herbert Bates, and he forwarded the story to the Boston-based literary magazine The Mahogany Tree. The editors immediately accepted it and published “Peter” in the May 1892 issue. Its lead character was based on the father of a Bohemian immigrant servant in Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, and the story would end up having a long shelf life, undergoing repeated revisions during her career. She first reprinted it with minor changes later that year in the Hesperian, the oldest of the several literary magazines published at the university. When she lived in Pittsburgh, she published a third version of the story while employed for a six-month stint in 1900 at a weekly paper called Library (which folded when its capital ran dry). And, finally, she incorporated the episode on which the story is based into her masterpiece My Ántonia (1918).

Although Cather was elated by the publication of her first story, she never reprinted the early versions in her books—and she later expressed regrets that her professor had convinced her to publish her stories before her prose style had matured. Biographer Phyllis C. Robinson remarks that, when older, Cather “warned aspiring young writers against too early publication.” Yet, like her long-suppressed letters, her first published story (which we present here in its very first version) strikingly illustrates the beginning of “the literary journey of Willa Cather.”

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“No, Antone, I have told thee many times, no, thou shalt not sell it until I am gone.”
“But I need money; what good is that old fiddle to thee? . . .” 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, May 10, 2013

Eyewitness: The Police Terror at Birmingham

Len Holt (b. 1928)
From Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1963

A half century ago, in January 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began planning a series of demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham. The first of many sit-ins occurred on April 3, and Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and other leaders were arrested on April 12. During his incarceration, King wrote his now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” justifying non-violent civil disobedience. (He was released on April 20.)

Working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), local students began to organize and participate in mass marches on May 2, an action dubbed the “Children’s Crusade.” In response, the city’s public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, ordered dogs and fire hoses to be used on the demonstrators. Over a six-day period, there were 2,400 arrests, filling the jails. Connor and the police then used the stockades at the fairgrounds as holding facilities.

Into the midst of this melee arrived African American attorney Len Holt, a National Lawyers Guild member who represented thousands of civil rights protesters during the 1960s. A week after his arrival he wrote and published "Eyewitness," a report of the police action against the students.

The television coverage and newspaper photographs of attack dogs and high-pressure hoses used against hundreds of unarmed children dominated the news and appalled many Americans. There was also, predictably, skepticism and denial. Historian Diane McWhorter recounts one pervasive rumor, that protesters “had put T-bone steaks up their sleeves to get the dogs to bite.” The editor of the
Birmingham News refused to publish photographs taken by his own staff: “Thousands and thousands of photographsthe negatives were put into a file cabinet [and recently] uncovered by an intern,” reports one of the surviving journalists. Instead, local media coverage downplayed the atrocities, noting (for example) that a dog had been injured when a car door had been slammed on its tail.

But the tide had turned. On May 10 the protest leaders announced an agreement with local authorities to desegregate public facilities within ninety days and to release the arrested protesters on bond or their own recognizance. Prompted by phone calls from Attorney General Robert Kennedy, several unions raised a quarter of a million dollars for bail money. And the next day the Alabama Supreme Court ruled against Bull Connor, who had lost the election a month earlier but had refused to step down, and ordered him out of office. (“We ended up transforming Bull into a steer,” King quipped in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech five years later.)

The peace was short-lived. During the late-night hours of Saturday, May 11, members of the Klan set off two bombs, one at the Gaston Motel—which King had left only hours before—and the second at the home of King's brother. The turmoil that occurred in the hours following the bombings became known as “The Mother’s Day Riot.” King returned to the city immediately to help restore the peace and, over the objections of Governor George Wallace, three thousand federal troops were deployed to maintain order.

Note: Towards the end of his article, Holt makes a passing reference to a gruesome attack “a few years previously.” On September 2, 1957, six Klansmen abducted and castrated a black man, chosen at random, as a warning against attempts to integrate the schools.

Coming from the airport May 6, we drove past the post office and onto Ruth Ave. toward the A. G. Gaston Motel, integration headquarters. Then we saw why the downtown area was “cop-less.”. . . 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, May 3, 2013

Bernice Bobs Her Hair

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
From F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922

Cover illustration for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flappers and Philosophers (1920), depicting a scene from “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.”
In 1915 nineteen-year-old Scott Fitzgerald sent a ten-page letter to his fourteen-year-old sister Annabel, offering advice on how to become popular in society. Its opening lines are mercilessly blunt: “You are as you know, not a good conversationalist and you might very naturally ask, ‘What do boys like to talk about?’ Boys like to talk about themselves—much more than girls. . . .” He then goes on to suggest possible opening lines (“How about giving me that sporty necktie when you’re through with it”) as well as topics to avoid (“Don’t talk about your school”). Other sections of the letters discuss poise and dress: “A good smile and one that could be assumed at will, is an absolute necesity [sic]. You smile on one side which is absolutely wrong.” He counsels, “Learn to be worldly. Remember in all society nine girls out of ten marry for money and nine men out of ten are fools.” Finally, as if ten pages of unsolicited recommendations weren’t enough, he threatens to send more: “I’ll discuss dancing in a latter [sic] letter.”

A few years later, Fitzgerald scribbled on the top corner of the letter’s first page, “Basis of Bernice.” The reference is to “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a 10,000-word story he drafted in 1919 that contains, in altered form, some of the very material he included in his letter to his sister. Fitzgerald sent the story to various magazines, including Women’s Home Companion, and it was met with rejection notes. In response, he cut nearly a third of the manuscript and completely rewrote the ending, making it “snappier”; it was accepted the following year by The Saturday Evening Post—the fourth of his stories to appear in the magazine and the first to earn him a mention on the cover. He included it in his first story collection, Flappers and Philosophers (published that same year, 1920), and the book’s dustjacket illustration is of a pivotal scene from the story.

When Fitzgerald sent a copy of the book to editor and critic H. L. Mencken (one of his literary idols), he added an inscription that divided the contents into “Worth Reading,” “Amusing,” and “Trash,” and he included “Bernice” in the last category. One suspects, however, that he might have been anticipating Mencken’s supercilious reaction to each of the selections. In any case, it is almost certain Fitzgerald later thought highly of the story. In 1935 he wrote to the British publisher Chatto & Windus and proposed a collection of his twenty-one best stories, including “Bernice” as one of only four selections from Flappers and Philosophers. The preeminent Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli offered this assessment: “It occupies an important position in the Fitzgerald canon as a witty early treatment of a characteristic subject that he would later examine more seriously: the competition for social success and the determination with which his characters—especially the young women—engage in it.”

Notes: On page 361 is a reference to the works of Annie Fellows Johnston, a widely read author of children’s fiction during the early decades of the 1900s. The quote by Oscar Wilde paraphrased on page 370 is from A Woman of No Importance.

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After dark on Saturday night one could stand on the first tee of the golf-course and see the country-club windows as a yellow expanse over a very black and wavy ocean. . . . 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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