Friday, August 30, 2013

South of the Slot

Jack London (1876–1916)
From Jack London: Novels & Stories

1905 photograph looking westward on Market Street
in San Francisco. "South of the Slot" was the
neighborhood to the left of the cable car tracks.
Image from The Cable Car Guy (Joe Thompson).
After the publication of the international bestseller White Fang (1906), Jack London built a schooner, which he christened the Snark, and embarked on a voyage around the world. This ambitious undertaking hardly slowed down his literary output; in one letter to his publisher sent from Guadalcanal on October 25, 1908, he detailed “what I have on hand,” summarizing his progress on seven books: the story anthologies Lost Face (“containing my latest Klondike short-stories”), When God Laughs (recent “miscellaneous stories”), South Sea Tales, and a good chunk of The House of Pride (“Hawaiian short stories”); the collection Revolution and Other Essays; his travel book Cruise of the Snark; and the beginnings of his short novel Adventure. He even calculated how much he had completed for each project—a total of 323,000 words. That remarkable list does not even mention the acclaimed, 120,000-word novel Martin Eden, which he had finished a few months earlier and which had just begun appearing as a serial in Pacific Monthly.

The grueling combination of seafaring and writing took its toll. In early 1909, after traveling to Hawaii, the Marquesas, Tahiti, and the Solomon Islands, London was forced to cut short his trip because of a series of debilitating ailments, including malaria and two fistulas (which necessitated surgery). He spent several months recuperating in Australia before returning to his ranch in Sonoma Valley, California.

One of the works London wrote while recuperating in Australia is “South of the Slot,” a story widely considered to be among his best. Similar in concept to Stephen Crane’s “An Experiment in Misery” (which, in its original version, features a wealthy man pretending to be a tramp), London’s story describes a college professor, sociologist Freddie Drummond, who disguises himself as “Big” Bill Totts in order to work among and study the laborers south of Market Street (“the Slot”) in San Francisco.

Many biographers see London himself reflected in the figure of Drummond/Totts. Like his professor-hero, who “made a practice of living in both worlds,” London traversed the divide between enjoyment of life as a wealthy author and his sympathetic observations of laborers and the unemployed. The difference is that London had grown up among the poorest strata of society, living for several years as a train-hopping hobo, and had worked his way up the social ladder, while his fictional counterpart had been raised comfortably guided by the “tempered seed of his ancestors” and had insinuated himself among the denizens of the “labor-ghetto.” “London struggled to reconcile his radical, working-class identity with that of his middle-class, literary self,” suggests literary scholar Joan D. Hedrick. “His satirical portrait of Freddie Drummond distances him from a self he might have become.

Notes: On the first page of the story, London refers to two famous contemporary works. “A Message to Garcia” (1899) is Elbert Hubbard’s inspirational essay, eventually published as a booklet that sold over forty million copies during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Often distributed by businesses to their employees to promote loyalty and resourcefulness, it coined the catchphrase "take a message to Garcia" as shorthand for take the initiative and just do it yourself. Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1901), by Louisville writer Alice Caldwell Hegan Rice, is a novel about a poor but thrifty widow.

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Old San Francisco, which is the San Francisco of only the other day, the day before the Earthquake, was divided midway by the Slot. . . . 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, August 23, 2013

The Young Immigrunts

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

“The Bride and Glum,” one of a number of illustrations
by Gaar Williams for The Young Immigrunts (1920).
In 1919 Daisy Ashford, a woman living in England, unearthed the manuscript of a novella she had written thirty years earlier, when she was just nine years old. Ashford managed to find a publisher for her precocious Victorian society novel (à la Thackeray) and it appeared, misspellings and malapropisms intact, as The Young Visiters, or Mr. Salteena’s Plan. The book became an instant, phenomenal best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Recently The Paris Review’s Alice Bolin came across the book and discussed how, a century ago, “readers regarded it as a remarkable specimen of children’s grand and unselfconscious ridiculousness.”

Although the novel’s provenance has been fairly well verified, many skeptics initially questioned its authorship, with some critics believing that it had actually been written by Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie (who contributed a preface for the book when it was first published). Ring Lardner was among those who doubted that Ashford had written the novel as a nine-year-old (or at all). In a 1925 letter, when asked to review The Prince of Washington Square (by nineteen-year-old Harry Liscomb), he similarly doubted the claims for its authorship, adding, “I didn’t, and I don’t, believe Daisy Ashford in spite of [English novelist Frank] Swinnerton’s testimony and that of other ‘witnesses.’ ”

In any case, Lardner had thought that Ashford’s book was ripe for parody. And so in 1920 he published The Young Immigrunts, under the name of Lardner’s four-year-old son, “with a preface by the father.” The book chronicles the Lardner family’s move from Goshen, Indiana, to their new home in Greenwich, Connecticut. The spoof first appeared first in The Saturday Evening Post and then as a small book later in the year. “Since The Young Visiters has vanished from whatever niche it once occupied in our literary consciousness,” notes biographer Jonathan Yardley, “it is fortunate that The Young Immigrunts is so successful purely as humor that it can be read with utter ignorance of the original.”

We recently asked Ian Frazier (who edited the just-published Library of America collection of Ring Lardner’s best work) which Lardner work was his favorite:
The Young Immigrunts! This is a magic piece of humor writing. “ ‘Shut up,’ he explained,” is as funny as it is possible to be in only four words. But every line in this story is a magic trick. The only difference between this story and what actual magicians do is that their tricks can be explained. I’ve looked at The Young Immigrunts dozens of times, always with the same mystified delight, and I still couldn’t tell you how it was done.
Below we present Lardner’s novella in its entirety, with the original illustrations by cartoonist Gaar Williams, for Story of the Week readers.
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Notes: A number of sports figures (many of whom called Lardner “Old Owl Eyes” during his career as a sportswriter) are mentioned in passing or subjected to some good-natured ribbing: baseball players Rollie Ziedler, Artie Hofman (who owned a clothing store), and Elmer Flick, as well as umpire Bill Clem, football referee W. S. Langford, and University of Michigan coach Fielding Yost. In Toledo in 1919, boxer Jack Dempsey won the world heavyweight title by defeating the much larger defending champion Jess Willard.

Ossining is the home of Sing Sing Prison. John D. Rockefeller was the founder, president, and major shareholder of Socony (Standard Oil Company of New York), one of the companies established after successive break-ups of the Standard Oil Company monopoly.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

The Music of Erich Zann

H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937)
From H. P. Lovecraft: Tales

“The Music of Erich Zann.” Illustration by Andrew Brosnatch, drawn for the reprint of the story in the May 1925 issue of Weird Tales. Image from Robert Weinberg’s online collection of fantasy and science-fiction art.
On the last day of August 1931, H. P. Lovecraft excitedly mentioned some news in a letter he sent from “The Antient River Bank — Unchang’d since the Golden Nineties” to a longtime friend in Wisconsin:
Did I tell you that Little Belknap and his Grandpa are both to be represented in the coming weird anthology—Creeps by Night—edited by Dashiell Hammett and publishing by the John Day Co.? Sonney’s story will be A Visitor from Egypt, and mine will be The Music of Erich Zann—a favorite of my own, by the way. We got only twenty-five bucks apiece, but the prestige may be helpful in dealings with editors. . . .
“Little Belknap” was the horror fiction writer Frank Belknap Long—one of several men who formed the loose circle of New York writers known as the Kalem Club and one of the first of Lovecraft’s young acolytes. Coincidentally, shortly after writing “Erich Zann” a decade earlier, Lovecraft had written to Long (then only twenty years old) about this very story: “It is not, as a whole, a dream, though I have dreamt of steep streets like the Rue d’Auseil.”

It was one of the most reprinted of Lovecraft’s tales during his lifetime, and the author ranked it second only to “The Colour Out of Space” among his own works. The story appeared first in early 1922 in National Amateur, the house organ of the National Amateur Press Association. (A few months later, Lovecraft became the interim president of the organization after its executive apparently “ran off with a chorus girl.”) The story was later picked up by the editors of Weird Tales and appeared in the May 1925 issue. According to literary scholar S. T. Joshi, the Hammett-edited anthology containing Lovecraft’s and Long’s stories was “notably successful”: it was reprinted several times, paperback editions were issued, and the volume appeared in England—which explains why “The Music of Erich Zann” filled an entire page of the London Evening Standard in 1932, earning Lovecraft another $21.61.

Still, “Erich Zann” might seem an unexpected choice for Hammett’s horror anthology since in many ways it is atypical of Lovecraft’s work. Joshi’s appraisal in his biography of Lovecraft highlights some of the differences: “it reveals a restraint in its supernatural manifestations (bordering, for one of the few times in his entire work, on obscurity), a pathos in its depiction of its protagonist, and a general polish in its language that Lovecraft rarely achieved in later years.” The year before he died, Lovecraft acknowledged the story’s uniqueness in a letter: “I like it for what it hasn’t more than for what it has.”

Note: This week’s selection was recommended for Story of the Week by Rachel Broder, from Philadelphia, who remarks, “the tale is not only harrowing, but also incredibly beautiful.”

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I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care, yet have never again found the Rue d’Auseil. These maps have not been modern maps alone, for I know that names change. . . . 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, August 9, 2013

The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd

John Updike (1932–2009)
From John Updike: Collected Later Stories

Calista Moon and John Updike, 1981. In the background is the helicopter that had crashed while taking them to the top of Auyantepui in Venezuela. Photograph by Bart Moon, courtesy of UNC's American Diplomacy website.
“As helicopter crashes go it was a gentle one,” recalls Bart Moon about one of the most mortifying events he experienced during the years he served as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Venezuela. He had been entrusted with the comfort and security of embassy guests John and Martha Updike on the last day of their week-long stay in early 1981, one in a series of visits by American cultural dignitaries. The group had started the morning by flying a Cessna plane to a small airport, where they transferred to a large helicopter that would take them for a picnic at the top of Auyantepui, a tepui (“table-top mountain”) protruding about 3,000 feet from the surrounding jungle. As they approached the landing spot atop the tepui, the helicopter suddenly plunged, crashed, and toppled onto its side. Fortunately, other than a scraped leg, nobody was hurt, and the party spent the afternoon traipsing around the top of the mountain:
We took dozens of heroic-survivor photos [and] peered nervously over the edges of this new world. . . . Meanwhile, John, the essence of cool, was busy indulging a surprising passion for botany. . . . At the same time Martha and [Bart's wife] Calista had wandered off on an exploratory walk of their own. This was worrisome because the mist that would engulf us from time to time was so dense that one could hardly see one step ahead. Because we were situated close to the rim of our island in the sky, one misstep and our party of eleven would be ten.
A few hours later, two freight helicopters rescued the party and brought them back to the airport. The day’s adventure wasn’t quite over, however. One of the rescue helicopters, upon landing, clipped and damaged the wing of the group’s Cessna. “We would have to go slowly, but the plane was perfectly safe,” Moon was assured. “I didn’t buy it for a minute,” he adds, but they all made it safely back to Caracas. During the final leg of their trip, John wrote a note for the Moons to give to their daughter, a college student back in Massachusetts. It read, “Dear Claudia, Your parents are very brave.” In later years, Updike sent several cards and letters to the Moons, including one that described the afternoon on the top of Auyantepui as “easily my happiest time in Venezuela.”

Living through two crashes in a single day didn’t slow down Updike a bit. In 1981 he saw Rabbit Is Rich through to publication; it spent twenty-three weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list and would become the first (and still the only) novel to win the American literary trifecta: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award (then known as the American Book Award). He also completed the interconnected stories that would be collected as Bech Is Back and finished several new short works (the first of which, “The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd,” was accepted and published by The New Yorker soon after his return to the States; the second, “Venezuela for Visitors,” was inspired by his trip).

Updike included “The Lovely Troubled Daughters” in the 1987 collection Trust Me. Reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review, the novelist Marilynne Robinson singled out the story for praise:
“The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd” describes the grown children who once played together at the peripheries of the buoyant social lives of their young parents. . . . They still haunt their hometown “as if searching for something they missed.” The transgressions the narrator remembers rather nostalgically, seeking to account for the fear he sees in these young women, are not remarkable—suburban cordiality overstepping its limits. He sees their importance for the first time in these inhibited lives. The disproportion between cause and effect, the manners of one generation sealing the fate of the next, set the conventional in a sharp, transforming light.
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Notes: Among the cultural references in Updike’s story: D.R. (page 118) stands for Design Research, a furniture and housewares retailer in Harvard Square that closed in 1978; Stingers (p. 119) are cocktails composed of three parts brandy, one part crème de menthe; Steiff animals (p. 120) are collectible stuffed animals made in Germany; Stop & Shop (p. 121) is a New England supermarket chain.

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Why don’t they get married? You see them around town, getting older, little spinsters already, pedalling bicycles to their local jobs or walking up the hill by the rocks with books in their arms. . . . 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, August 2, 2013

Storm and Shipwreck

James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851)
From The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence

Detail from Ship at Sea (also known as Shipwreck), 1833, by American marine painter Thomas Birch (1779–1851), who is especially well known for his paintings of naval battles from the War of 1812. Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
In July 1843 James Fenimore Cooper was finishing up his latest novel, Wyandotté, when he wrote to his publisher to let him know he had already begun working on a new project:
. . . I have made great progress in a new book, of entirely new character. It will be called ‘Ned Myers; or the life of a tar.’ This is real biography, intended to represent the experience, wrecks, battles, escapes, and career of a seaman who has been in all sorts of vessels, from a man of war to a smuggler of opium in China. The facts are these. Near forty years ago I went to sea before the mast, to fit myself for the navy. Last winter I got a letter [from Ned], who, then a lad, had been my ship mate in a long trading voyage. . . .
Ned Myers (born Edward Robert Meyers) was a thirteen-year-old apprentice aboard the American merchant ship Stirling when the sixteen-year-old Cooper signed up in 1806 for a yearlong voyage to England and Spain. The two became good friends during the voyage but afterward lost touch as each followed his own career—Myers almost entirely at sea and Cooper mostly on land. On January 23, 1843, Myers wrote to the famous writer, asking if Cooper were the sailor he knew from the Stirling. “I am your old shipmate, Ned,” the novelist responded.

Myers subsequently stayed at Cooperstown for five months, and Cooper transcribed the sailor’s stories and transformed these conversations into Ned Myers, which Cooper composed as if it were an autobiography. “By Cooper’s tally, Myers had been a crew member of seventy-two different vessels, some in which he made several voyages,” summarizes historian William S. Dudley. “When adding to that number the ships in which Ned was a prisoner or civilian passenger, the total may have been closer to one hundred.”

When the book was finished, Cooper found his friend a job at the Brooklyn navy yard—the same location where, thirty years earlier, Myers had enlisted in the Navy at the outbreak of the War of 1812. He volunteered to serve under Commodore Isaac Chauncey on the USS Scourge in Lake Ontario, one of fifteen ships forming the Great Lakes Squadron. The Scourge had been built as a merchant schooner, confiscated by the U.S. Navy for the war effort, and hastily converted to a makeshift military vessel. Two hundred years ago, on August 8, the Scourge and another ship, the Hamilton, unexpectedly encountered a summer squall while patrolling the lake, and the following selection describes the sailors’ terrifying and tragic night.

In 1973 Daniel Nelson, a Canadian dentist, used sonar to locate the remains of both ships, resting three hundred feet below the lake’s surface. A decade later, a team of scientists sponsored by the National Geographic Society used underwater equipment to photograph the wreckage of both ships, which were found to be in remarkably well-preserved condition.

There is a postscript to the biographical account in Cooper’s book: After the publication of Ned Myers, Cooper gave his friend part of the proceeds, and the book’s eponymous hero flourished for a few years. He settled down and married a widow with children (one of whom was hired by the Coopers as a domestic servant), and at least one additional child was born to the couple. Unfortunately, Ned’s new life didn’t last; he died in 1849 after a bout of heavy drinking. Cooper continued to look after the Myers family after Ned’s death and added a provision in his own will for their care.

Notes: The above excerpt from the letter and some of the biographical data about Ned Myers are from The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper: Volume IV (1840–1844), edited by James Franklin Beard and published in 1964. On page 290 of the selection, the term Davy is a reference to Davy Jones, the legendary devil-ghost of the sea.

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I was soon asleep, as sound as if lying in the bed of a king. How long my nap lasted, or what took place in the interval, I cannot say. I awoke, however, in consequence of large drops of rain falling on my face. . . . 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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