Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

James Thurber (1894–1961)
From James Thurber: Writings & Drawings

An article that appeared recently in The Columbus Dispatch (James Thurber’s hometown newspaper) considers the enduring popularity of characters like Walter Mitty, who made his creator famous after the publication of “The Secret Life” in 1939. Beaten-down underachievers had long been—and would continue to be—central to many of Thurber’s stories and drawings, but what set Walter Mitty apart from his counterparts was a series of flights into heroic fantasies—daydreams that increasingly seem to intrude on Mitty’s grasp of reality. In an interview for the Dispatch article, Jared Gardner, a professor at Ohio State University, acknowledges, “Thurber was drawing on a classic device found in some of the great comedies in American culture—in which the timid or oppressed man finds release or redemption in fantasies drawn from popular culture.”

“Though the theme was far from new,” summarizes biographer Harrison Kinney, “Thurber handles it with a greater universal application than anybody before or since.” Soon after the story’s initial appearance in The New Yorker, it was reprinted in Reader’s Digest (twice), Life, Scholastic, and This Week Magazine. The selection was also included in Thurber’s best-selling collection, My World—and Welcome to It (1942). Throughout the war, anthologies of Thurber’s writings were issued as Armed Services editions, and the story became a favorite among American soldiers. Kinney explains, “World War II flyers used ‘pocketa-pocketa’ in radio code; planes and vehicles were named ‘Walter Mitty’; airmen formed Walter Mitty clubs; troops used ‘Walter Mitty’ as passwords.” During the 1940s Charles Laughton recorded an audio version, and Robert Benchley created a radio production. And, of course, the story was adapted for the big screen, first in the 1947 film featuring Danny Kaye and, now, in an updated major motion picture released this week with Ben Stiller as director and star.

Although the 1947 film was a commercial success and has acquired the patina of a classic in its own right, Thurber was upset with the studio, which had not used any of the material he had written or approved. The movie bears little resemblance to the original story, and at one stage of production, Goldwyn Productions even considered changing the title. When the author’s dissatisfaction became public, Samuel Goldwyn released excerpts from letters Thurber had written praising various scenes from drafts of the script yet disingenuously neglected to note that none of this material had actually made it into the final film. According to Random House publisher Bennett Cerf (who thought the movie was “hilarious”), at the end of the movie’s premiere Thurber asked, “Anybody catch the name of this picture?”
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“We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. . . . 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, December 20, 2013

A Christmas Story

Katherine Anne Porter (1890–1980)
From Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories & Other Writings

Front cover of A Christmas Story
by Katherine Anne Porter, hard-
cover “Christmas card” designed
by Tammis Keefe and sent to staff
and associates of Mademoiselle
magazine in 1958. Copy in The
Library of America’s collection.
During her long career Katherine Anne Porter wrote one holiday story. A beloved favorite among her fans, “A Christmas Story” first appeared in Mademoiselle in December 1946, and a decade later the magazine’s editors reinvented it as a limited-edition hardcover “Christmas card” to send to staff and associates. In 1967 Seymour Lawrence/Delacorte Press reprinted the tale, with drawings by Ben Shahn, as a small book for holiday gift-giving. The piece was collected in The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (1970), but today it is available only in The Library of America edition of Porter’s writings—and now you can read it here, as a Story of the Week selection.

The story recalls a day before Christmas 1918—the last time Porter spent with her young niece Mary Alice Halloway. Before embarking on a shopping trip, the aunt and her niece discussed (and dissected) various traditional Christmas legends: the fifteenth-century French song “The Miracle of St. Bertha, the Armless Servant, or The Three Days of the Virgin Mary,” popularized by Belle Époque cabaret singer Yvette Guilbert; a version of The Adoration of the Three Magi, illustrated by French painter Jean Fouquet, who used a likeness of Charles VII as one of the Magi; “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” based on a story about the infant Jesus from the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew; and “The Withy Tree” (better known as “The Bitter Withy”), a medieval English carol likewise based on stories found in the infancy gospels.

In the afterword written for the 1967 book version, Porter wrote:
This is not a fiction, but the true story of an episode in the short life of my niece, Mary Alice, a little girl who died nearly a half century ago, at the age of five and one-half years. The stories are those I told her, and those we sang together. The shopping for a present for her mother, my sister, in the last Christmas of this child’s life is set down here as clearly as I am able to tell it, with no premonitions of disaster, because we hadn’t any: life was daily and forever, for us both. I was young, too. This is, of course, a lament in the form of a joyous remembrance of that last day I spent with this most lovely, much loved being. . . .
Porter sent a copy of the story to a friend in 1974 and inscribed it: “I learned long ago from the life and death of this child how deathless love, and faithful memory, can be. She has lived in my life for more than half a century, a perpetual spring of joy that has helped me to live—  But why was she taken away?”

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When she was five years old, my niece asked me again why we celebrated Christmas. . . . 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, December 13, 2013

The Dead Valley

Ralph Adams Cram (1863–1942)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Ralph Adams Cram on the cover
of the December 13, 1926, issue of
Time magazine.
There are a handful of authors with writings published in Library of America volumes who have been honored with feast days in the liturgical calendar of the U.S. Episcopal Church—including such eminent figures as William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and John Muir. Another such writer is Ralph Adams Cram. This year’s feast day, on December 16, also marks the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Although he had anonymously and privately published a short novel (The Decadent) in 1893, Cram’s literary fame is based entirely on six tales that appeared two years later in Black Spirits and White: A Book of Ghost Stories. The collection includes his most famous (and most often reprinted) story, “The Dead Valley,” which H. P. Lovecraft later singled out for achieving “a memorably potent degree of vague regional horror through subtleties of atmosphere and description.” The other stories, too, have appeared frequently in anthologies compiled throughout the last century. Although Cram lived for another five decades, he never again published works of fiction.

You might be thinking that a mere half dozen ghost stories, no matter how well known or well written, seem too slight to justify honoring an author with his own feast day—and you would be right. Because Cram, who converted to Anglo-Catholicism in 1887 during a stay in Rome, became one of the leading architects of his day, known especially for his Gothic Revival buildings that dot city centers and college campuses throughout the United States. Among the five hundred projects in his portfolio are the Cadet Chapel at the United States Military Academy (West Point), the Church of the Covenant (Cleveland, Ohio), Fourth Presbyterian Church (Chicago), the notoriously unfinished St. John the Divine (New York City), Doheny Library at the University of Southern California, and more than two dozen buildings on the Princeton University campus. Cram’s “skyward” wonders had become so ubiquitous that Time magazine featured him on the cover of its December 13, 1926, issue. The architectural firm founded in 1889 by Cram and Charles Francis Wentworth still exists (known as Cram and Ferguson since 1913).

Daniel McCarthy, in a review of Douglass Shand-Tucci’s recent two-volume biography, lists other accomplishments:
Cram’s achievements extended far beyond architecture, however: He was a fine, and controversial, essayist; a novelist (Gothic, of course); a co-founder of Commonweal magazine, though Cram, a High Church Anglican, never became a Roman Catholic; also a co-founder in 1925 of the Medieval Academy of America and its journal, Speculum; and he was responsible for the first wide publication of Henry Adams’s Mont St. Michel and Chartres, which Adams had been reluctant to put into print. “If the world owes me anything for what I have done,” Cram wrote in his 1936 autobiography, “. . . it certainly does so for my having been able to act as agent in making available to the public this great and singularly distinguished work.”
Shand-Tucci’s biography explains how the links between Cram’s fiction and architecture extend well beyond the basic “Gothic” connection: “[His] literary Gothic, for all its foreign settings, seems equally very American in feeling, just as, for all his admiration of the late nineteenth-century British Gothicists, his architectural Gothic shares the same ‘regional’ feeling.” In “The Dead Valley” we see these transatlantic influences meld: although the tale recounts an experience from an immigrant’s boyhood in Sweden, “there is something profoundly New England about Cram’s stories, something of Hawthorne and Poe.”

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I have a friend, Olof Ehrensvärd, a Swede by birth, who yet, by reason of a strange and melancholy mischance of his early boyhood, has thrown his lot with that of the New World. . . . 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, December 6, 2013

A Gold Slipper

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

Undated photograph of the opera singer
 Mary Garden in the role of Marguerite
(Faust). Garden is considered one of the
likely models for Kitty Ayrshire in
“A Gold Slipper.” Courtesy of  
Andrea’s cantabile-subito.
Previous Story of the Week selections (“The Garden Lodge,” “A Wagner Matinée”) introduced readers to Willa Cather’s fascination with—and adoration of—artists, particularly singers. Her novel The Song of the Lark (1915) presents a famous opera diva as its protagonist, and four of the seven short stories Cather published between 1916 and 1920 feature (as Hermione Lee summarizes their heroines in a recent study) “American opera singers struggling against their ‘natural enemies’ in a philistine, envious, interfering world.”

But there is another type of character that recurs in Cather’s fiction: the staid American businessman. Lee describes these entrepreneurs and administrators as “hardheaded but capable of passion and weakness” and as representing half of the divide between “the native and the European, the commercial and the artistic, romance and realism.” In the story “A Gold Slipper” these two worlds, of art and of business, clash when Cather sets an audacious opera star against a conservative business executive.

After Cather submitted “A Gold Slipper” for publication, she apparently had second thoughts; in November 1916 she wrote to her agent and asked him to get the manuscript back from the editors at Harper’s so she could make a number of revisions. As it happened, she was too late; the magazine had already set the story for the January issue. Disappointed, she minimizes “A Gold Slipper” in a letter to her sister but is grateful for the considerable sum the magazine paid for it:
I have a trifling little story in Harper’s Monthly this month. It might amuse you if you happen on it. It is so bad that I got $450 for it. I quite needed the money. The ‘high cost of living’ makes our expenses here about a third more than they were last year. It takes 25¢ worth of apples to make one pie, and chickens are 42¢ a pound.
Cather did revise the story for her 1920 collection, Youth and the Medusa—and that is the version presented here. In his biography of Cather, James Woodress writes that far from being “a trifling little story,” it is “actually a very good tale. . . . [It] scores some neat points for open-mindedness, risk-taking, and willingness to try things new.”

Notes: The story’s male protagonist hails from Sewickley, a borough outside of Pittsburgh. Established in 1715, the Opéra-Comique was (and still is) a Parisian opera company.

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Marshall McKann followed his wife and her friend Mrs. Post down the aisle and up the steps to the stage of the Carnegie Music Hall with an ill-concealed feeling of grievance. . . . 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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