Friday, January 31, 2014

The Story of an Hour

Kate Chopin (1850–1904)
From Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories

“The Railroad Disaster to the West India Mail near Blackshear, Georgia.” Engraving (from photograph) in Harper’s Weekly, March 1888. For more about this accident, see the Ray City History Blog.
In 1855, during the ceremonial opening of a bridge connecting St. Louis and Jefferson City, the structure collapsed and all but one car of a Pacific Railroad train plunged into the Gasconade River, killing more than thirty passengers and injuring scores of others. Among the dead was the father of five-year-old Katherine O’Flaherty, who would later become famous as the writer Kate Chopin. Her mother, Eliza O’Flaherty, suddenly found herself a widow, in mourning but also in sole possession of a large estate that (according to Chopin’s biographer Emily Toth) was worth $25,000, a considerable amount at the time. Four decades later, Chopin would use the incident as the basis for “The Story of an Hour”—but the outcome of her fictional retelling departs from the real-life calamity in a significant, startling way.

In recent decades this story (along with “Désirée’s Baby”) has become Chopin’s most famous work of short fiction—but its publication was initially resisted by magazine editors. Toth argues that a tale any more faithful to O’Flaherty’s real-life widowhood “would have been much too radical, far too threatening, in the 1890s,” while the literary critic Sandra M. Gilbert points out that, even in its published form, Chopin’s story “questions the very institution of marriage.” According to the author’s account book, “The Story of an Hour” was rejected by Vogue in April 1894, and during the following months it was similarly declined by Century Magazine, Short Stories, and Chap-Book.

But, that same year, Kate Chopin had published her story collection, Bayou Folk, to universally favorable notices—over one hundred reviews in the national press, followed by a glowing profile that appeared in The Writer. Her growing fame allowed her to become even more adventurous with her fiction. And so in October she resubmitted the story to Vogue, and the editors reversed their decision—either because she had revised it or because of the extraordinary success of her book. It appeared in December under the title “The Dream of an Hour”—which, readers will agree, lends the story’s theme a different connotation—and it was reprinted a month later in St. Louis Life. (Chopin used both titles in her private papers, and recent editors have generally reprinted it as “The Story of an Hour.”)

This week’s selection was recommended by Jyothi Natarajan, a loyal Story of the Week reader hailing all the way from Bangalore, India.

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Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death. . . . 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, January 24, 2014

The First Seven Years

Bernard Malamud (1914–1986)
From Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s

Detail from The Shoemaker, oil on canvas by American artist Jefferson David Chalfant (1856–1931). Courtesy of The Athenaeum.
In 1949, prompted by the expansion of educational institutions under the G.I. Bill and assisted by his wife, Bernard Malamud submitted applications to over two hundred schools to become a teacher of literature. One of the few replies came from Oregon State College in Corvallis, a state-endowed institution specializing in agricultural topics, with liberal arts constituting “the Lower Division.” Appointed in July, he was hired to teach freshman composition—but not literature, because he didn’t have a Ph.D. He moved his family from New York City to Corvallis, where he conducted class three days a week and spent the other four days writing.

In a recent biography, Philip Davis describes that living in Oregon did “something rather extraordinary” to Malamud’s writing. “There he found himself going back to Brooklyn, for all that he was learning much about a different America.” Malamud would describe, on two separate occasions, the benefits of his dislocation:
I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Oregon . . . and the new life it offered, which I lived as best I could as I reflected on the old . . . [Almost] without understanding why, I was thinking about my father’s immigrant life (how he earned his meager living and what he paid for it). . . .

I tried all sorts of things but at last resolved to do simple stories about simple people. I did about ten of these, concerned mostly with Jewish and Italian storekeepers and their three-walled, plate-glass-windowed world.
Within a year, he had published three stories; the third, “The First Seven Years,” was accepted (“to my surprise,” Malamud admitted) by the prestigious Partisan Review, and the trio of stories brought him to the attention of Robert Giroux at Harcourt, Brace and Company, who asked Malamud if he happened to be writing a novel. The author responded that he was working on a “baseball novel,” and this debut book, The Natural, was published in 1952.

In the Companion to the American Short Story, Sanford E. Marovitz describes one reason why “The First Seven Years” is so effective:
Known chiefly for his imaginative portraits of Jewish characters, communities, and themes, Malamud takes advantage of the Yiddish he learned from his parents as a child and adapts it to suit his aim of being an American and indeed a universal author as well as a Jewish one. Consequently, he often blends Yiddish and English into Yinglish, a style that includes Yiddish syntax and phrasing without necessarily incorporating actual Yiddish words, which he uses but sparingly in his fiction.
The critic Robert Alter once identified this story as one that “will be read as long as anyone continues to care about American fiction written in the 20th century.” And, indeed, it is often included in anthologies and taught in schools, and it can of course be found in the newly published Library of America edition collecting Malamud’s fiction.

Note: As the end of the story indicates, Sobel will have served as Feld’s apprentice for a total of seven years, a reference to the biblical story of Jacob and Rachel (see Genesis 29:20–30).

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Feld, the shoemaker, was annoyed that his helper, Sobel, was so insensitive to his reverie that he wouldn’t for a minute cease his fanatic pounding at the other bench. . . . 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, January 17, 2014

Last Summer in Mississippi

Alice Lake (1916–1990)
From Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973

Susan Patterson, a Mississippi Summer Project volunteer, with students at a Freedom School, 1964. In August 1964 Patterson was arrested for “vagrancy” while teaching black students in a library in Hattiesburg. The charges were overturned by a U.S. Court of Appeals in 1968. Photo from the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, Tougaloo College.
Fifty years ago this month, in January 1964, the leadership of the Council of Federated Organizations approved a plan to bring hundreds of volunteers, mostly white Northerners and mostly college students, to Mississippi during the summer. The COFO had been established two years earlier to coordinate the efforts in the state by the four major civil rights groups: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

The Mississippi Summer Project, which came to be known as Freedom Summer, was the brainchild of the SNCC and was spearheaded by twenty-nine-year-old Robert Moses. In early June the first of approximately 550 volunteers began arriving in Mississippi to register voters, work in community centers, and teach in “Freedom Schools.” On June 21 three of the civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were murdered by Klansmen, aided and abetted by local law enforcement authorities. Undaunted by this tragedy, the total number of Freedom Summer volunteers swelled to nearly one thousand by the end of August.

Alice Lake, a freelance journalist on assignment for Redbook, visited Madison County in Mississippi that summer and wrote about the efforts of three Freedom Summer volunteers: Ruth Kay Prickett, Karol Nelson, and Natalie Tompkins. Lake also had a personal interest in the summer’s events; her nineteen-year-old daughter, Ellen, attended the Oxford, Ohio, orientation session described in the article and then went to Gulfport to work as a volunteer at a voter registration project. Lake’s bracing story describing the experiences of the three Madison County volunteers was published in the November issue of Redbook. It had never been reprinted until it was included in The Library of America collection Reporting Civil Rights.

In 2005 Karol Nelson McMahan, one of the three students portrayed in this selection, recorded her own memories of that summer in a brief article for Newsweek (PDF), published shortly after the belated conviction of Edgar Ray Killen, the KKK recruiter who coordinated the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.

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The dialogue occurred in July behind a small white country church with a single spire and a green roof. . . . 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, January 10, 2014

A Winter Courtship

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
From Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels & Stories

Sarah Orne Jewett “is at her best when she stays among her old women,” writes Paula Blanchard in a still-definitive biography. Indeed, the characters of many of Jewett’s most successful stories are middle-aged or elderly widows living alone on their farms after the children have grown up and moved away. Some of these characters eventually thrive from their new independence (see, for example, “Aunt Cynthy Dallett,” a previous Story of the Week selection); others find their condition lonely or precarious (as in “Going to Shrewsbury”). Still others enjoy second lives in courtship and remarriages.

During the cold winter journey described in the playful tale “A Winter Courtship,” passenger Fanny Tobin and wagon driver Jefferson Briley provide their own heat underneath the protection of a pair of buffalo robes. Blanchard writes, “Their courtship is conducted on two levels, one a coy exchange of compliments and the other a sober consideration of the practical advantages of joining forces.” In light of the story’s final punch line, Richard Cary, another Jewett scholar, sees the pairing as ultimately lopsided: “Briley likes to imagine himself a pony express driver dashing over dangerous Rocky Mountain trails, and Mrs. Tobin cannily exploits this Walter Mitty weakness to her advantage.”

Another element found in many of Jewett’s most popular stories is the use of rural Maine dialect. Readers should be able to tease out the import of most of the dialogue between her two protagonists, but there are a few expressions that probably need explaining. The term meechin’ has several meanings, but here describes a servile or humble person (often falsely so); pudjicky refers to someone who is overly sensitive; and bangein’ was a colloquialism for idling, loafing, or taking advantage of someone’s hospitality.

Note: A cloud (page 696) is a large, loosely-knitted head scarf.
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The passenger and mail transportation between the towns of North Kilby and Sanscrit Pond was carried on by Mr. Jefferson Briley, whose two-seated covered wagon was usually much too large for the demands of business. . . . 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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