Friday, February 28, 2014


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

“Emilie Ambre in the role of Carmen” (1883), oil on canvas by Édouard Manet. Image from WikiArt.
At the end of 1915 Ring Lardner wrote to a friend that he had seen “a musical comedy named Carmen.” He undoubtedly attended the Chicago Opera Association performance of Georges Bizet’s signature work on December 3 at the Auditorium Theatre. His night at the opera gave him the germ of an idea for one of his earliest short stories, “Carmen,” which he included in his second collection, Gullible’s Travels. All five stories in the collection feature an unnamed narrator and his wife trying to climb the social ladder, “minglin’ amongst the high polloi and pretendin’ we really was somebody.” The couple attempts (futilely) to compete not only with the upper classes but also with another couple—in low-stakes card games, in dress and appearance, and even in the location of their seats in the theater.

In the middle of Lardner’s story is an over-the-top spoof of Carmen, as it might be interpreted by a perplexed working-class man who has never before seen an opera—and is not aware beforehand that it won’t be performed in English. Escamillo and Micaëla become Eskimo Bill and “the little Michaels girl from up in Wisconsin,” the employees of the cigarette factory emerge from “the pill mill smokin’ up the mornin’ receipts,” the fortune-telling scene is represented as a game of “three-handed rummy,” and “The Gypsy Song” is that moment early in the second act when Carmen “forgets the words to her first song and winds up with tra-la-la.” (If you need a refresher, a brief synopsis of Bizet’s opera is available here.) Lardner features actual opera singers in his story, including the tenor Lucien Muratore (“Mooratory”) and the soprano Frances Alda, with the nationally famous Geraldine Farrar (“Genevieve”) in the title role. Carmen was immensely popular in the United States at the time: in 1915 alone, Farrar starred in a Cecil B. DeMille silent movie adaptation, Raoul Walsh directed a second film version (since lost) featuring Theda Bara, and Charlie Chaplin released Burlesque on Carmen.

The impression of seeing the opera seems to have stuck with Lardner for many years. Sometime during the mid-1920s, he wrote a musical called “A Parody of Carmen,” which transports the heroine to Long Island during the Jazz Age, with songs about cigarettes, flappers, and Prohibition. Never staged during Lardner’s lifetime, it was found among his papers and published for the first time in 1976 and, according to biographer Jonathan Yardley, its only performance to date has been a private showing in 1976.

Notes: A Bohunk Sokol Verein picnic (page 143) is a mocking reference to an event sponsored by Sokol Verein, a Czech youth gymnastic and physical culture organization with a strong nationalist emphasis. The final reference in the story, to Armour’s Do Re Me, is a play on the title of Italo Montemezzi’s 1913 opera, L’Amore dei Tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings), which was popular in the United States before World War II.

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We was playin’ rummy over to Hatch’s, and Hatch must of fell in a bed of four-leaf clovers on his way home the night before, because he plays rummy like he does everything else; but this night I refer to you couldn’t beat him, . . . 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, February 21, 2014

Madison Washington

William Wells Brown (1814–1884)
From William Wells Brown: Clotel & Other Writings

Mutiny on the Amistad (1939), mural at Talladega College, Alabama, by American artist Hale Woodruff (1900–1980). Image from African Art World.
Born into slavery in Kentucky two hundred years ago, William Wells Brown fled to Canada when he was only nineteen. Within a decade after his escape, he married, moved to Buffalo, raised three daughters (one of whom died), provided aid to other fugitive slaves, worked as a sailor on Lake Erie, became president of a local temperance society and a lecturer for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, and—perhaps most important—taught himself to read and write. In 1847 he published Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, which sold so many copies that four printings were required in less than two years.

After his initial success as an author, Brown published many other books, including a series of firsts. In 1852 he published Three Years in Europe, the first travelogue by an African American; an expanded edition, The American Fugitive in Europe, appeared three year later. Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter is the first novel written by an African American. Published in 1853, it is an imagined history of Thomas Jefferson’s black daughters and granddaughters. The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, the first play published by an African American, appeared five years later and portrays a slave woman’s escape from the sexual aggression of her white master.

In 1862 he finished The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, which contains fifty-seven biographical profiles, including such prominent figures as Toussaint L’Ouverture, Alexandre Dumas, Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass—and the mutineer Madison Washington. The revolt on the brig Creole, according to the late historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, was “the most successful slave rebellion in American history, achieved with British collaboration”; 135 men and women were freed, and Washington was their ringleader. (By comparison, the far more famous Amistad mutiny two years earlier freed 53 slaves.) Not much is known about Washington’s life before or after the mutiny, and even the presence of his wife on the Creole (described in Brown’s account) is an almost certainly apocryphal addition that first appeared in an article in The Liberator the year after the mutiny. Frederick Douglass’s only work of fiction, the novella The Heroic Slave, is also based on the life of Madison Washington.

Brown’s account omits much of what happened after the Creole arrived in the Bahamas. The nineteen mutineers were imprisoned by local authorities, while the remaining slaves were released and given their freedom. Two months later a British court ruled that the prisoners should also be freed. In the early 1850s the British and American governments agreed to a treaty compensating the slave-owners for their losses.

Note: The quote on page 509 is from Shakespeare’s Richard III.

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Among the great number of fugitive slaves who arrived in Canada towards the close of the year 1840, was one whose tall figure, firm step, and piercing eye attracted at once the attention of all who beheld him. . . . 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, February 14, 2014

Meeting “Father Abraham”

Lois Bryan Adams (1817–1870)
From The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It

From 1863 to 1865 longtime Michigan resident Lois Bryan Adams lived in the District of Columbia and wrote a regular column for her hometown paper. “Her columns reflect contemporary opinions from the point of view of a woman, an ardently pro-Union Republican, and a middle-class northerner,” writes Evelyn Leasher in her introduction to a recent collection of Adams’s writings. “She was an observer or a participant in many of the events she wrote about and she provided firsthand information about a place few of her readers had visited.” Adams had married a newspaper editor in 1841; widowed in 1848, she never remarried, which allowed her the freedom to embark on several careers: schoolteacher, newspaper columnist, publisher and editor, poet (Sybelle and Other Poems appeared in 1862), government clerk (she was one of the first women in the civil service), and assistant to the director of a museum.

Adams’s pieces in the
Detroit Advertiser and Tribune during the Civil War never identified her by name; they were signed simply “L.” Her articles generally avoided news of the war and the nitty-gritty of federal politics. Instead, as is evident in the following columns (both published 150 years ago this month), they described daily life in wartime: a stroll through the dirty, crowded streets of Washington; a visit to the White House on one of the “public reception days” hosted by the President and his wife; and attendance at a public ceremony at which Lincoln was on the stage. Today’s readers will be struck by the extent to which government buildings—including the White House—had been accessible to citizens, who could simply “go up the steps and enter the open doors” in order to meet the President.

The ceremony described in the second column took place in the “partially finished” Patent Office building, which had been under construction since 1836 and was not completed until 1868. (The building now houses the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.) Attending the ceremony were several dignitaries. Lucius E. Chittenden, register of the treasury, had the perhaps unenviable assignment of filling in for an absent Edward Everett, a popular and admired elder statesman who had served as Massachusetts governor, Secretary of State during the Fillmore administration, and U.S. Senator, among other offices. Also in attendance were Byron Sunderland, chaplain of the Senate, and Benjamin B. French, the commissioner of public buildings.

Originally published in the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune, both columns were reprinted in Letter from Washington, 1863–1865 (Wayne State University Press, 1999), a collection of Lois Bryan Adams’s writing edited by Evelyn Leasher, and included in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, published last year by The Library of America.

Note: During her stroll through Washington, Adams passes by Willards, which was a popular hotel.

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Saturdays are public reception days at the White House. From 11 till 3 o’clock all who choose can go and pay their respects to the President and his lady, pass through the room and conservatories and go on their way. . . . 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, February 7, 2014

Making It!

Seymour Krim (1922–1989)
From The Cool School: Writing from America’s Hip Underground

Seymour Krim sitting on a stoop in the
East Village. Photographer unknown,
image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Before Jack Kerouac’s On the Road appeared in 1957, Seymour Krim had been churning out the occasional essay or book review for such literary journals as the Hudson Review; he later complained that these assignments “made a cramped miniature of my spirit, chorus-lined my self-respect, tidied up my originality, emasculated my real iconoclasm.” But reading Kerouac changed him: immediately he began writing more experimental Beat-influenced pieces for The Village Voice, in 1960 he edited the anthology The Beats, and the following year he published Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer, a collection of his “New Journalism” essays.

His new style did manage to catch the attention of several literary heavyweights: an early essay was included in Saul Bellow’s short-lived literary journal, The Noble Savage, and Cannoneer featured a foreword by Norman Mailer and earned strong praise from James Baldwin. But Krim never quite fit in with the Beats—and his work is rarely included in Beat anthologies. In a recent essay for the Jewish Daily Forward, Joshua Cohen offers this summary of Krim’s career: “Seymour Krim was a book reviewer who wanted to be a literary critic, and then he was a critic who wanted to be ‘an essayist,’ but instead of either, he became a beautifully wretched, snappy hack. He was the Kerouac of Jewish New York journalism. . . .” Similarly, Vivian Gornick in Bookforum reflects, “Krim was a hybrid: Neither poet nor novelist, he yearned, at one and the same time, to be both a maker of dissident literature and a recipient of bourgeois success—and on both scores felt he was a failure.”

The bipolar tendencies in Krim’s writing are on stark display in “Making It!” Cultural critic Mark Cohen writes that in this essay Krim “is in top form as his wise-guy alter ego belittles the high-minded artist.” The piece is “not a short story, not traditional reportage. Instead it is a guided tour of Krim’s book-stuffed mind as he debates his contradictory desires for nobility and the big money,” and it captures “the birth of celebrity culture in the art-tinged and money-mad world of post-war New York.” For Cohen, “Making It!” was a revelation—his first exposure to this nearly forgotten, off-Beat writer—and it motivated him a few years ago to try singlehandedly to launch a Krim revival.

“Making It!” first appeared in the September 9, 1959, issue of The Village Voice; the version below, from the recently published anthology The Cool School: Writing from America’s Hip Underground, reprints the text from Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer. It includes a short headnote by the late Glenn O’Brien (1947–2017), who edited The Cool School.

Notes: Krim scatters cultural references, highbrow and low, throughout “Making It!” and part of his narrator’s shtick is a self-mocking, name-dropping banter. Many allusions should still be familiar to readers; among the more obscure or provincial mentions are Hollywood gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky, the liquor company Schenley, the New York City talk radio host Long John Nebel, screenwriter William Rose, and Manhattan real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

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When has an inside phrase like “making it” or so-and-so’s “got it made” shot with such reality through the museum of official English?. . . . 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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