Friday, October 25, 2013

Unseen—Unfeared

Francis Stevens (1883–1948)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

From 1917 to 1923 Francis Stevens published five short stories and seven longer works of fiction (including the novel The Citadel of Fear, widely considered an early “lost-world fantasy” classic), all of which appeared in pulp magazines such as Argosy, All-Story Weekly, and Weird Tales. Two other novels were accepted for publication by a magazine that then folded; the manuscripts were subsequently lost. At the end of this seven-year sprint, Stevens turned forty and lived another quarter of a century—yet never again wrote anything for publication. Stevens influenced many contemporary and subsequent horror and fantasy writers and experienced a brief renaissance during the 1940s, when pulp magazines reprinted many of the stories and novellas for a new generation of readers, but this body of work was largely forgotten.

In recent years, however, Francis Stevens, who was born Gertrude Mabel Barrows, in Minneapolis, has been praised as “the woman who invented dark fantasy” (by literary scholar Gary Hoppenstand) and “the most gifted women writer of science-fiction and science-fantasy between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C. L. Moore” (by the late science-fiction expert Sam Moskowitz). Most of her tales and novels are once again back in print. Yet very little is known about her life.

After the death of her husband in 1910, Gertrude Bennett became a stenographer to support her daughter and invalid mother. Pulp-fiction historians are unsure sure what then led her to write suspense and fantasy fiction, pulp genres that were almost exclusively male at the time. She had previously published only one story, in 1904, and the magazine editor who accepted her first new submission thirteen years later insisted that she use a male pseudonym, which he chose for her. “Francis Stevens” then opted to keep her new name after favorable response from readers and further encouragement from publishers. Why she stopped writing remains a mystery.

“Unseen—Unfeared” blends two motifs well known to readers of horror and fantasy. The first is the character of the demented scientist, an archetype brought to its most familiar form by Mary Shelley a century earlier in Victor Frankenstein and later re-imagined by writers as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne (see “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”), Robert Louis Stevenson, and H. G. Wells. The second motif is the existence of another dimension, a world beyond the perception of humans. Although the idea of an unseen realm can be found in stories as early as Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Diamond Lens” (1858), Hoppenstand argues that “Stevens’s subsequent reworking of this motif, making this world extremely hostile to human existence, fundamentally defines dark fantasy.”


I had been dining with my ever-interesting friend, Mark Jenkins, at a little Italian restaurant near South Street. It was a chance meeting. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Wild Frank’s Return

Walt Whitman (1819–1892)
From Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose

Old Mill, Miller and Horse, 1843, oil on canvas by English-American artist Joshua Shaw. Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
While a young man in his twenties, Walt Whitman worked for various newspapers in New York City and Brooklyn. During this decade, from about 1841 to 1848, he wrote two dozen short stories and sketches. (Since many were published anonymously or pseudonymously, there might be others that have not yet been identified.) He collected nine of the stories under the heading “Pieces in Early Youth” in his anthologies Specimen Days and Collect (1882) and Complete Prose Works (1892); his preface struck a somewhat apologetic note:
On jaunts over Long Island, as boy and young fellow, nearly half a century ago, I heard of, or came across in my own experience, characters, true occurrences, incidents, which I tried my ’prentice hand at recording—(I was then quite an “abolitionist” and advocate of the “temperance” and “anti-capital-punishment” causes)—and publish’d during occasional visits to New York city. . . . My serious wish were to have all those crude and boyish pieces quietly dropp’d in oblivion—but to avoid the annoyance of their surreptitious issue, (as lately announced, from outsiders,) I have, with some qualms, tack’d them on here.
Readers who know of Whitman only through his poetry are in for a surprise; the stories are all sensationalistic pieces for a mass audience, written during a time when one of Whitman’s primary goals was merely to be published.

In his recent cultural biography Walt Whitman’s America, David S. Reynolds catalogs the themes, often involving “some kind of bloody, violent confrontation, usually between an adult authority figure and a male child or youth.” Throughout the tales, there are autobiographical hints, such as Whitman’s distaste for his previous job as a schoolteacher and his fraught relationships with his father and older brother. Many of the stories moralize against excessive drinking, also the subject of his only novel, Franklin Evans—which sold over 20,000 copies and which he later disowned as “damned rot” that he wrote in a matter of days “with the help of a bottle of port.” Reynolds regards the stories as a means of “purging inner demons. . . . Never again would violence or blood so dominate his writings.” A few years after his Whitman’s death, one scholar wrote that the short fiction was “chiefly interesting as proving how very neatly the young journalist could play, if need be, upon the flute of Edgar Allan Poe.”

“Wild Frank’s Return,” a macabre twist on the Prodigal Son story, combines several of these themes. When it appeared in November 1841, Whitman appended the following note:
The main incidents of this and another story, “Death in the School-Room,” contributed by the same writer to a preceding number of the Democratic Review, were of actual occurrence; and in the native town of the author, the relation of them often beguiles the farmer's winter-fireside.

*   *   *
As the sun, one August day some fifty years ago, had just pass’d the meridian of a country town in the eastern section of Long Island, a single traveler came up to the quaint low-roof’d village tavern, open’d its half-door, and enter’d the common room. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Long Voyage Home

Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953)
From Eugene O’Neill: Complete Plays 1913–1920

After struggling for nearly four years to be a writer, Eugene O’Neill’s fledgling career, as well as his financial situation, took a notable turn for the better in 1917. His short story, “Tomorrow,” appeared in the June issue of a new magazine called The Seven Arts, and O’Neill received fifty dollars—the first substantial sum ever paid for his writing. (Although the year marked a turning point for O’Neill, the magazine didn’t fare as well; it folded after the October issue.)

Around the same time that the story was accepted, the poet Louis Untermeyer stopped by the offices of
The Smart Set, dropped off some of O’Neill’s writing, and “suggested trying to recruit him,” recalled the magazine’s coeditor H. L. Mencken, who sent off a friendly letter to the playwright. O’Neill responded,
I am taking advantage of your kind letter asking to see more of my stuff to enclose two one-act plays. They are units in a series the first of which was Bound East For Cardiff, produced in New York last season by the Provincetown Players. They deal with merchant-sailor life on a tramp steamer as it really is—its sordidness inexplicably touched with romance by the glamor of far horizons. . . .

I have never seen anything of this kind in The Smart Set and I have small hope of it being the type of material you desire. But I do hope, and hope it strongly, that you will read them. I want these plays, which to me are real, to pass through your acid test because I know your acid is “good medicine.” *
The “series” mentioned by O’Neill in his letter includes, in addition to Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone and the two plays he sent to Mencken, The Long Voyage Home and The Moon of the Caribbees. Contrary to O’Neill’s expectations, Mencken was impressed by both plays and handed them to his coeditor George Jean Nathan, who accepted them along with Ile, a third play O’Neill had sent separately. The first to appear in print was The Long Voyage Home in the October 1917 issue of The Smart Set; it’s the only one of the four plays in the series to take place on land, in “the bar of a low dive on the London water front.” It premiered on November 2 at The Playwrights’ Theatre in New York.

For the publication rights, the magazine paid O’Neill the then-unimaginable sum of $75—for
each of the three plays. He later acknowledged to an interviewer that the publication of his plays in The Smart Set represented his “first ray of recognition.”

*Reprinted in The Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill, edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer (Yale University Press, 1988), page 79.

* * *
SCENE—The bar of a low dive on the London water front—a squalid, dingy room dimly lighted by kerosene lamps placed in brackets on the walls. On the left, the bar. In front of it, a door leading to a side room. On the right, tables with chairs around them. In the rear, a door leading to the street. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Slavery’s Pleasant Homes

Lydia Maria Francis Child (1802–1880)
From American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation

Frontispiece from Lydia Child’s 1833 political tract, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans.
Every year schoolchildren learn “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day,” with its well-known first line, “Over the river, and through the wood / To grandfather’s house we go.” Yet most Americans probably don’t realize that the poem’s author, Lydia Maria Francis Child, was famous during her lifetime as a novelist, historian, children’s literature editor, journalist, and (above all) author of antislavery fiction and essays. In 1826, after publishing two moderately successful historical novels, she founded and edited the popular bimonthly Juvenile Miscellany, one of the first American periodicals aimed at children. Seven years later, she issued An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, a tract that motivated many of its readers (including Boston lawyer Wendell Phillips and future Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner) to join the abolitionist cause. But the booklet’s unstinting arguments in favor of full citizenship for African Americans—and particularly the author’s support of interracial marriage—caused many of the readers of her children’s magazine to cancel their subscriptions, resulting in its bankruptcy.

This setback did not discourage her in the least, however, and she continued to write antislavery fiction and essays alongside her other work for the next forty years. (Story of the Week readers may recall that Child edited Harriet Ann Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1860–61, and for more than a century most people, including scholars, assumed that she had written it.) In 1840 she and her husband became the founding co-editors of The National Anti-Slavery Standard, the official weekly newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1843, just before she ended her tenure at the Standard, she wrote the ironically titled “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes” for The Liberty Bell, an annual gift book published by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

“An intricate work of fiction, it is at once a love story and a murder mystery,” writes James G. Basker in his introductory note for “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes,” included in last year’s Library of America anthology of antislavery writings. The story’s emotional impact is intensified by the complex relationships of the slaves Rosa and George to their owners. Rosa’s mother is the “foster-mother” of Rosa’s future mistress, Marion, and the two girls had been raised almost as if they were sisters, while George is actually the half-brother of his master, Frederic.

In addition, Lydia Child’s biographer Carolyn L. Karcher explains how the story incorporates real-life elements to give it “a ring of authenticity.” For example, the two “fictionalized” newspaper articles quoted at the end are paraphrases of items that appeared during the 1830s, one in a Georgia newspaper and the other in Garrison’s anti-slavery weekly, The Liberator. Similarly, some of the story’s particulars were adapted from a tragedy that occurred on a plantation owned by a Bostonian on the island of Santa Cruz (now Saint Croix of the U.S. Virgin Islands). Child had previously questioned the official account of the incident in her antislavery essays, and her short story imagines a plausible truth behind what was reported by the papers. “Whenever she read of the barbarities committed by either blacks or Indians,” writes Karcher, “she always asked herself: ‘What was their side of the story?’ ”

Note: The epigraph is an excerpt from “The Yankee Girl” (1835), by John Greenleaf Whittier.

*   *   *
When Frederic Dalcho brought his young bride from New-Orleans to her Georgian home, there were great demonstra¬tions of joy among the slaves of the establishment. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.