Friday, July 26, 2013

Letters to Estella

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

In 1911 twenty-four-year-old Aldo Leopold met New Mexico native Estella Bergere, seven years his junior. They married the next year. During their courtship they began an exchange of enchanting letters that continued throughout Leopold’s career with the U.S. Forest Service in Arizona, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. As Americans visit national parks and forests this summer, these letters remind us of the pioneering stewardship and wildlife management developed by Leopold and his colleagues a century ago.

Aldo’s letters home would often chronicle various exploits in the wilderness, and this week we present two of his adventures. The first, written in July 1917, details the search for a prospector who had vanished in the Grand Canyon. As a Forest Service employee headquartered in Albuquerque, Leopold was responsible for the oversight of recreation, publicity, and game and fish conservation in Arizona and New Mexico, and he and his associates were visiting the area to draw up plans for recreational development. He was particularly appalled by the haphazard assortment of ragtag entrepreneurs who, in the hope of profits from tourists, were despoiling the rim of the canyon, which “would be a pleasant place to loaf but for the ‘improvements.’” (A few months earlier he had received a letter from Theodore Roosevelt, who as President created the Grand Canyon Game Preserve in 1906: “It seems to me your association in New Mexico is setting an example to the whole country.”) After she received Aldo’s letter, Estella forwarded it to his mother, with the added note: “Aldo wants you to read this. Most interesting, don’t you think?”

The second letter, from June 1926, describes a visit to a logging camp in Washington State’s Kaniksu National Forest. Leopold’s various visits to logging camps across the country led him to sympathize with the hardships and challenges endured by lumberjacks and to advocate for a policy of selective cutting. In the May-June 1942 issue of
Outdoor America, he wrote that selective cutting “differs from slash logging in that the mature trees are cut periodically instead of simultaneously, and the striplings are left to grow instead of to burn in the next fire. How has industry, with its ear ever cocked for new technology, received this innovation? The answer is written on the face of the hills.”

Dearest Estella—
I am making this sendable to Mother and Carl because I want to tell you of a very interesting little “passear” yesterday and haven’t time to write two letters. . . . 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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Friday, July 19, 2013

Petrified Man

Eudora Welty (1909–2001)
From Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays, & Memoir

The Echo of Sweets Tea Room during the 1930s in downtown Jackson (Welty’s hometown for 92 years). Image courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
During a 1978 interview, Eudora Welty mentioned Mark Twain and Henry James as her literary antecedents and then added, “Ring Lardner—he’s a classic to me.” Lardner’s influence is unmistakable in Welty’s story, “Petrified Man,” which is reminiscent of his classic story “Haircut” (last week’s Story of the Week selection). The setting shifts from Lardner’s barber shop to Welty’s beauty salon, and both stories are told almost entirely in gossip-filled vernacular. “Haircut” mocks what Donald Elder called “the witlessness of a whole vein of American comic tradition,” particularly of mean-spirited pranks; similarly, “Petrified Man,” commented Katherine Anne Porter, “offers a fine clinical study of vulgarity.” The parallels between the two stories were not lost on Welty’s contemporaries. One early reviewer wrote, “ ‘Petrified Man’ could have been written by Ring Lardner, if he had been a Mississippian.” It remains one of Welty’s most famous stories.

But it was almost never published. When F. Armstrong Green (Jacksonville, Florida) wrote to us and suggested that we offer “Petrified Man” as a Story of the Week selection, he reminded us of the story’s unusual publication history. In 1937 Welty sent the manuscript to Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, the founding editors of the newly established The Southern Review. They rejected the story with words of encouragement: it “struck us as first rate” and they were “absolutely confident that, if you are good enough to submit other work to us, we can publish your things in The Southern Review.” But Welty was so disappointed in their refusal that she burned the only copy.

Warren then sent a follow-up note, saying they were “beginning to regret rejecting” the story and would like to publish it after all. So Welty rewrote the story entirely from memory and sent in a new manuscript. “Actually,” notes scholar Mark Winchell, “Brooks and Warren had liked the story all along, but had deferred to [editor-in-chief Charles Pipkin], who insisted it be rejected. Uncomfortable with the decision, Warren simply defied Pipkin with his belated note of acceptance.”

Many years later Welty finally admitted to Warren that she had sent in a different version. He replied, “You wrote both of them, didn’t you?”

“Reach in my purse and git me a cigarette without no powder in it if you kin, Mrs Fletcher, honey,” said Leota to her ten o’clock shampoo-and-set customer, “I don’t like no perfumed cigarettes.” . . . 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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Friday, July 12, 2013


Ring Lardner (1885–1933)
From Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings

In the Barber Shop (1934), oil on canvas by Russian-American painter Ilya Bolotowsky, completed under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project. Transferred from the U.S. Department of Labor to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Jonathan Yardley, in his authoritative biography of Ring Lardner, mentions a newspaper column by Lardner that appeared on January 6, 1916. Titled “Fifteen Cents’ Worth,” the item “contained a monologue by a barber who, a captive audience in his chair, delivered himself of his opinions on politics, sports, automobiles, Christmas and liquor.” Nine years later, Lardner would feature the same character, “mindless chatter and all,” in his most well-known and anthologized story, “Haircut.”

It was Lardner’s first short story in nearly three years. What motivated him to resume writing may well have been the offer he received from Ray Long, the editor of Cosmopolitan, who promised him $3,000 for each of his next six stories—or $3,500 for each of his next twelve. He sent “Haircut,” however, to Liberty magazine, where his brother Rex worked as an editor. (Rex would later move to Cosmopolitan.) When Max Perkins, the famed editor, read the story in Liberty, he sent a short note:
I read “Hair Cut” on Friday and I can’t shake it out of my mind;—in fact the impression it made has deepened with time. There’s not a man alive who could have done better, that’s certain.

Everyone will tell you this, or something like it I guess, so there’s little use in my doing it.—But it is a most biting and revealing story and I’d like to say so.
Donald Elder (Lardner’s first biographer) summarizes how the character of Jim Kendall provides the satirical “bite” of the story: “Ring was exposing the witlessness of a whole vein of American comic tradition—the small-town wag who is a degenerate descendent of the frontier hell-raiser, and is generally accepted as a genuine humorist.” Although practical jokes (and jokers) often appear in Lardner’s stories, such “humor is fairly shallow at best, as Ring knew; but in ‘Haircut’ it is not funny anymore. Humor itself has become corrupt.”

Note: On page 560, there are several movie references. Gloria Swanson (1899–1983), who would most famously play Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), was a star of dozens of silent films during the late 1910s and early 1920s. Thomas Meighan (1879–1936) was Swanson’s costar in many films. The film The Wages of Virtue (1924) starred Swanson and Ben Lyon.

*   *   *
I got another barber that comes over from Carterville and helps me out Saturdays, but the rest of the time I can get along all right alone. You can see for yourself that this ain’t no New York City and besides that, the most of the boys works all day and don’t have no leisure to drop in here and get themselves prettied up. . . .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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Friday, July 5, 2013

The Sentiments of a Lady in New-Jersey

Anonymous [published in 1780]
From The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence

Portrait of Esther De Berdt Reed, oil on canvas by American painter Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827). Image courtesy of the blog 18th-Century American Women.
In early June 1780, soon after hearing the demoralizing news that the British had taken Charleston from five thousand American forces, a group of Philadelphia women led by Esther De Berdt Reed organized to provide relief efforts for the Continental army. On June 10 Mrs. Reed published a broadside, “Sentiments of an American Woman,” in which she called for women to donate money to support the patriots. Three dozen women went door to door through the city, canvassing for donations, and within a month the Ladies’ Association had raised $300,000 in depreciated Continental currency, worth about $7,500 in specie. The funds were used to make two thousand much-needed linen shirts for the soldiers, which were delivered by the end of the year. Unfortunately, Mrs. Reed didn’t live to see the completion of her project; she died in September 1780 of dysentery.

When news of the Association’s success spread to Trenton, an anonymous writer wrote “The Sentiments of a Lady in New-Jersey.” Similar in tone to the Philadelphia broadside, the New Jersey “Sentiments” appealed to the patriotism of her neighbors by recounting atrocities that had occurred at the war: “the burning of Charlestown” (during the Battle of Bunker Hill) and “the wanton destruction of Norfolk and Falmouth” (the torching of Norfolk, Virginia, by Lord Dunmore and the raid of Falmouth—now Portland, Maine—by the Royal Navy).

She also reminded readers of the atrocities directed against individual women: the death of Jane McCrea, believed to have been slain by Native Americans fighting with the British army (and whose killing would later serve as inspiration for The Last of the Mohicans), and the death of Hannah Caldwell, shot by a British soldier in her home New Jersey only weeks earlier. Evoking the success of the efforts of her counterparts in Philadelphia, she published the letter in the July 12 issue of the New-Jersey Gazette—and within three days this second association had raised more than $15,000 in Continental currency, which was forwarded to George Washington. Unfortunately, records of subsequent contributions have not survived, but other, similar associations soon appeared in Maryland, Virginia, and elsewhere.

Note: In the closing lines, the letter-writer refers to two women who died after the battle at the Lake of Thrasymene. Described by Livy in The History of Rome, the episode occurred in 217 BCE when Carthaginians led by Hannibal ambushed and destroyed a Roman army in central Italy.

*   *   *
The war carried on by the British nation against my native country cannot fail to excite in the humane and virtuous mind sentiments very unfavourable to the authors and instruments of such a variety of complicated evils and misfortunes as we have suffered in the course of it. . . . 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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