Friday, June 28, 2013

Battle of Gettysburg

Arthur James Lyon Fremantle (1835–1901)
From The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It

Sharp Shooters on Round Top, 1869, oil on canvas by American artist Peter Frederick Rothermel (1817–1895). Image courtesy of the State Museum of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Visit the Explore PA History site to see more of Rothermel’s Gettysburg paintings.
In 1877 former Confederate Army general John Hood wrote to James Longstreet, the second-in-command under General Robert E. Lee at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863). Hood’s letter recalls his role in the battle, up to the point where he was injured and carried off the field. Published in a special section of Southern History Society Papers on the “causes of the Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg,” the letter includes a curious aside. On the second day of the battle, when he accompanied Lee along the “heights of Gettysburg,” he noticed that a certain “Colonel Fremantle, of England, was ensconced in the forks of a tree not far off with glass in constant use examining the lofty position of the Federal army.”

Readers of Colonel Arthur Fremantle’s diary will discover that this British visitor to the South spent a lot of time in the trees around Gettysburg—and this gave him a superior view of both the Confederate leaders and the battlefield. On the first day, he “climbed up a tree in the most commanding place I could find, and could form a pretty good general idea of the enemy’s position.” On the morning of July 2 he was looking down on “Generals Lee, Hill, Longstreet, and Hood, in consultation—the two latter assisting their deliberations by the truly American custom of whittling sticks.” Later the same day, “General Longstreet advised me, if I wished to have a good view of the battle, to return to my tree of yesterday.”

During the days leading up to the battle, Fremantle, who was on a three-month leave in America, managed to ingratiate himself with virtually all the principal figures of the Confederacy. He caught up with Lee’s army only three days before the Battle of Gettysburg and was accompanied by Francis Lawley, a London Times reporter who fell ill from dysentery as soon as they arrived at the front. While Lawley was sick in bed, Fremantle encountered another Englishman on leave, Fitzgerald Ross, who had been a captain in the Austrian cavalry for thirteen years. Mockingly referred to by Fremantle as the “stout Austrian,” Ross dressed himself to the hilt each day as a Hungarian hussar—a costume ludicrously out of place among the Confederates.

From June 28 until the end of the battle, the more appropriately outfitted Fremantle mingled with the leaders of the Confederate Army. Not only did he record in his diary their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies—he also earned their trust; his account is filled with their confidences, hopes, plans, and disappointments. And, as Hood’s letter indicates, Fremantle made his own presence so noticeable and vital that they remembered him years later.

Dramatis personæ: Aside from Lee, Hood, and Longstreet, the principal Confederate leaders mentioned in Fremantle’s account are Richard S. Ewell and A.P. Hill, who each assumed half of the corps that had been led by the recently deceased Stonewall Jackson. In addition, Lee’s original battle plan called for Lafayette McLaws’s division to join Hood’s division in launching the attacks on the morning of July 2.

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1st July (Wednesday).—We did not leave our camp till noon, as nearly all General Hill’s corps had to pass our quarters on its march towards Gettysburg. . . . 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, June 21, 2013

My Favorite Murder

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)
From Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs

At the age of forty-five, Ambrose Bierce began a four-year cascade of storywriting that, according to biographer Roy Morris Jr., “has seldom been surpassed in American literature.” From March 1988 to December 1891, “Bierce switched back and forth between rigidly controlled war stories and macabre, otherworldly ghost stories,” as well as autobiographical pieces and wickedly gruesome satires (such as “My Favorite Murder”). All of these stories and sketches were published in William Randolph Hearst’s flagship newspaper, The San Francisco Examiner, and many were later collected in Bierce’s groundbreaking collections Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) and Can Such Things Be? (1893). Story of the Week fan Ben Ostrander of Austin, Texas, recommends “My Favorite Murder,” contending that “Ambrose Bierce has few rivals for range of styles and subject matter. Only Edgar Allan Poe exceeds him in my admiration.”

For the last century, literary histories and biographies that mention “My Favorite Murder” seldom fail to comment upon its sensational opening sentence: “Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years.” But, as you’ll see, the story isn’t really about matricide—neither literally nor thematically. In fact, after the opening passage, the death of the narrator’s mother isn’t mentioned again. Instead, the author known to San Francisco readers as “Bitter Bierce” aims his brutal satire at frontier-style courtroom justice and the American penchant for tall tales.

When the movie star Boris Karloff edited a 1946 collection of stories, he included “My Favorite Murder” and observed: “This [story] offers a striking example of the very fine line which exists between horror and laughter! You may judge from this what an unhappy life the professional bogeyman leads, both in the films and on the stage.” Bill Marx, writing last year in the Columbia Journalism Review, acknowledges that the story might be “a bit much” and includes the story “among [Bierce’s] most outrageous, but it is typical of the grotesque ways he battles against American expectations of good taste, ethical rectitude, prosaic reality, and the ethos of success.”

Notes: The story’s location, Nigger Head, is Bierce’s fictitious version of “Nigger Tent,” which in the late nineteenth century was a gold-rush way station on the Sierra Turnpike in Sierra County in central California. A road agency is a group of highway robbers (“road agents”). The Knights of Murder is a parody of the Knights of Labor, a union initially organized by garment workers in Philadelphia. On the final page is a mention of Professor [George] Davidson, a well-known geologist at the University of California.

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Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years. In charging the jury, the judge of the Court of Acquittal remarked that it was one of the most ghastly crimes that he had ever been called upon to explain away. . . . 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, June 14, 2013

Crooked Souls

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

Earlier this year, Story of the Week presented “Slippery Fingers,” one of Dashiell Hammett’s first tales to feature his anonymous detective, the Continental Op. The story appeared in the October 15, 1923, issue of Black Mask under the pseudonym Peter Collinson. The very same issue of the magazine, however, contained a second story by Hammett, “Crooked Souls”—the first work of fiction to be published under his real name. (The story was reprinted as “The Gatewood Caper” in The Big Knockover, a 1966 collection of Hammett’s stories.)

Although appearing side by side in the same magazine and featuring the same anonymous protagonist, the two stories are quite different in tone and style. Curtis Evans of
The Passing Tramp blog describes “Crooked Souls” as “a crime story about people with problems” and contends that it is “Hammett's first great Op classic of the crime genre. As the evocative title indicates, here Hammett already evinces more interest in character.” While “Slippery Fingers” is a relatively straightforward murder mystery that adheres to the conventions of the genre, “Crooked Souls” details the “dogged, routine detective work” that biographer Richard Layman cites as the distinguishing characteristic of Hammett’s later stories. Some of that investigative work could be tedious: “Shadowing is the easiest of detective work,” Hammett wrote to the editors of Black Mask in 1924. “Back—and it’s only a couple of years back—in the days before I decided that there was more fun in writing about manhunting than in that hunting, I wasn’t especially fond of shadowing, though I had plenty of it to do.”

In addition, this story introduces three police detectives—Thode, Lusk, and O’Gar—who would reappear in later works. (O’Gar in particular would be a regularly recurring character—becoming almost a sidekick to the Op in future stories.) The detectives of Hammett’s early fiction reflected his firsthand experience at the Pinkerton Agency—and Pinkerton detectives worked closely with the police. It would be several more years before Hammett developed his famous, self-employed private eyes whose relationships with corrupt or incompetent governmental authorities were often uneasy and contentious.

Harvey Gatewood had issued orders that I was to be admitted as soon as I arrived, so it only took me a little less than fifteen minutes to thread my way past the doorkeepers, office boys, and secretaries who filled up most of the space between the Gatewood Lumber Corporation’s front door and the president’s private office. . . . 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, June 7, 2013

Flying—A Dream Come True!

Ida M. Tarbell (1867–1944)
From Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight

Curtiss Model F “water boat,” circa 1912. Courtesy of Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.
The lead story in the June 1897 issue of McClure’s Magazine was “The Flying Machine,” written by Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Pierpont Langley. The previous year Langley had successfully launched two record-shattering unmanned flights. The first flight was a steam-powered craft that, launched from a boat in the Potomac River, traveled nearly three-quarters of a mile—the longest distance, by a factor of ten, flown by any heavier-than-air craft. A few months later, a second aircraft remained aloft for almost a full mile. In his article, Langley described his “experiments” and concluded:
I have brought to a close the portion of the work which seemed to be specially mine—the demonstration of the practicability of mechanical flight—and for the next stage, which is the commercial and practical development of the idea, it is probable that the world may look to others. The world, indeed, will be supine if it do not realize that a new possibility has come to it, and that the great universal highway overhead is now soon to be opened.
The publisher of the magazine, S. S. McClure, had been hoping to get this article from Langley for several months, and to do so he enlisted the aid of a new staff editor, Ida Tarbell, who had met the professor while living in Washington. Tarbell later recalled, “I think perhaps it was a little strain on Dr. Langley's good will to have a young woman come to him and say ‘Now we want the whole story of how you have done this thing, what it means—no scientific jargon, please. We want it told in language so simple that I can understand it, for if I can understand it all the world can.’ Which, knowing me, he probably knew was true.”

Langley ultimately failed in his attempts to launch a manned flight in one of his vehicles. He died in February 1906, only a little more than two years after the Wright Brothers flew their plane near Kitty Hawk. But Langley’s early enthusiasm was contagious; Tarbell herself became a believer in the imminent inevitability of air travel and, one hundred years ago, in 1913, she finally got the chance to fly in a plane herself. (According to a recent biographical essay by Robert C. Kochersberger, Tarbell may have been “the first woman to fly in an airplane and write about it” for publication.) She described the thrilling experience in a letter to a friend, and The American Magazine, which she co-owned and co-edited from 1906 to 1915, published excerpts from her letter as “Flying—A Dream Come True!”

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I think you know that I have always believed that some day we should fly. I cannot remember the time when I did not believe this. I think it dates back to the success of my first kite. . . . 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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