Friday, May 30, 2014


Gilbert Seldes (1893–1970)
From Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight

Nearly a thousand people assembled at Roosevelt Field (Long Island, NY) to see Charles Lindbergh off on his historic flight to Paris. Underwood and Underwood. National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, image #SI-77-2701, via Wikimedia Commons.
In 1919 American businessman Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 prize, available for five years, to “the first aviator of any Allied Country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris.” Few took up the challenge—and no one came close to achieving the goal—but in 1925 Orteig renewed his commitment for another five years. The various attempts made during the next two years resulted in planes that never even got off the ground, several crash landings, and six fatalities. On May 8, 1927, in perhaps the most famous failed expedition, French war heroes Charles Nungesser and Fran├žois Coli departed from Paris and were last sighted off the coast of Ireland—and were never seen again.

By this time two American aviation teams, each with a corporate sponsor, were widely regarded as the most likely candidates for success. The Columbia Aircraft Corporation selected a crew to pilot Miss Columbia, a plane designed by Giuseppe Mario Bellanca. The Bellanca craft would in fact make the second successful trip from New York to Europe, landing at Eisleben, Germany, on June 4–6, 1927; it was also the first transatlantic flight to carry a passenger. The other team, sponsored by the American Trans-Oceanic Company, was led by Arctic explorer Commander Richard Byrd, who piloted a Fokker Trimotor christened America. The crew made it all the way to Paris on July 1—but, unable to land because of the weather, ended up ditching the plane in the surf off the Normandy coast. (No one was hurt.)

The competitor considered by most observers to be a long shot—or to be no shot at all—was Charles A. Lindbergh. Even after Lindbergh’s flight was airborne, Lloyd’s of London refused to give odds on his success because they believed “the risk was too great.” Coincidentally, his path to fame had intersected with each of the other crews. The Bellanca plane—the only one of its kind—was actually his first choice of aircraft for making the transatlantic flight, but Lindbergh would not agree to the stipulation that Columbia Aircraft must be allowed to select his crew. And earlier, in late 1925, Lindbergh had applied to be a copilot for the mission led by Commander Byrd that became the first flight over the North Pole—but the crew had already been selected by the time his application was received.

When columnist Gilbert Sildes reported on the competition just days before Lindbergh’s triumphant flight (May 20–21), he understood that the young, lone aviator appealed to the American fondness for romantic adventurism yet acknowledged that the future of aviation (that is, of its commercial applications) relied far more on the success of the elaborately conceived corporate teams. Still, it was Lindbergh who won the prize—and nobody expected it.

See the previous Story of the Week selection, “The Flying Fool,” Waverly Root’s dispatch from France immediately after Lindbergh’s landing, portraying how “the diplomats, the airport authorities, the police, the journalists”—and, indeed, the public at large—were unprepared for his achievement.

Note: Harry Hawker, mentioned in passing, was an Australian aviator and stunt pilot who aborted an attempt at a transatlantic flight in 1919 and was rescued by a passing freighter. He died two years later while practicing during the London Aerial Derby.

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Nerves and a little nastiness have crept into the arrangements for the transatlantic flight; there have been quarrels between pilots and backers, an ignoble sharing of prize money before it has been won, disagreements about the route to be taken. . . . 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, May 23, 2014

The Price of the Harness

Stephen Crane (1871–1900)
From Stephen Crane: Prose & Poetry

The Scream of Shrapnel at San Juan Hill, 1898, oil on canvas by American painter Frederic Remington (1861–1909). Image courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.
In April 1898, after failing the physical exam for the U.S. Navy, Stephen Crane signed on as a correspondent for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, to cover the Cuban campaign of the Spanish-American War. He observed the landing of more than six hundred marines at Guantanamo Bay in early June; a month later he was under fire atop San Juan Hill. Richard Harding Davis witnessed Crane’s comportment during battle, as he reported the following year for Harper’s:
Crane was the coolest man, whether army officer or civilian, that I saw under fire at any time during the war. He was most annoyingly cool, with the assurance of a fatalist. . . . The fire from the enemy was so heavy that only one troop along the entire line of the hills was returning it, and all the rest of our men were lying down. General [Leonard] Wood, who was then colonel of the Rough Riders, and I were lying on our elbows at Crane’s feet, and Wood ordered him also to lie down. Crane pretended not to hear, and moved farther away, still peering over the hill with the same interested expression. Wood told him for the second time that if he did not lie down he would be killed, but Crane paid no attention. So, in order to make him take shelter, I told him he was trying to impress us with his courage and that if he thought he was making me feel badly by walking about, he might as well sit down. As soon as I told him he was trying to impress us with his courage, he dropped on his knees, as I had hoped he would, and we breathed again.
The following week Crane’s friends found him suffering from fever (probably due to malaria exacerbated by tuberculosis) and on July 9 put him aboard a ship heading back to Virginia. That same day, he somehow fired off his last war dispatch, in which he chides readers who are “dying to hear the names of the men who are conspicuous for bravery”:
The main fact that has developed in this Santiago campaign is that the soldier of the regular army is the best man standing on two feet on God’s green earth . . . . The public doesn’t seem to care very much for the regular soldier. The public wants to learn of the gallantry of Reginald Marmaduke Maurice Montmorenci Sturtevant, and for goodness sake how the poor old chappy endures that dreadful hard-tack and bacon. Whereas, the name of the regular soldier is probably Michael Nolan and his life-sized portrait was not in the papers in celebration of his enlistment. Just plain Private Nolan, blast him—he is of no consequence. He will get his name in the paper—oh, yes, when he is “killed.” Or when he is “wounded.” Or when he is “missing.”
Crane expanded his brief, contentious piece about “Private Nolan” into one of his best short stories, “The Price of the Harness,” published in England in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. After the story appeared, Joseph Conrad immediately wrote to Crane that the story “was the best bit of work you’ve done (for its size) since the Red Badge. There is a mellowness in the vigour of that story that simply delighted me.”

When the story was reprinted in the United States in Cosmopolitan, the magazine’s owner and editor, John Brisben Walker, decided to change the title to “The Woof of Thin Red Threads,” a phrase taken from the fifth section of the story. “Damn Walker,” Crane wrote angrily to his agent. “The name of the story is ‘The Price of the Harness’ because it is the price of the harness, the price men paid for wearing the military harness, Uncle Sam’s military harness; and they paid blood, hunger and fever. Let him if he likes conjure some inflammatory secondary title. He is a fool.”

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Twenty-five men were making a road out of a path up the hillside. The light batteries in the rear were impatient to advance, but first must be done all that digging and smoothing which gains no incrusted medals from war. . . . 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, May 16, 2014

One Wicked Impulse!

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

Rue de New York [Broadway at Spring Street], c. 1850–55, oil on canvas by French artist Hippolyte Sebron (1801–1879). An entry in Whitman’s journal records, “Fall and winter of 1842 boarded at Mrs. R. in Spring st.”—not far from the scene of Sebron’s painting. Four years later Whitman wrote, “What a fascinating chaos is Broadway, of a pleasant sunny time. We know it is all, (or most of it,) ‘fol-de-rol,’ but still there is a pleasure in walking up and down there awhile.” Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A previous Story of the Week selection, “Wild Frank’s Return,” introduced readers to Walt Whitman's relatively unknown fiction, all written during the 1840s when he was in his twenties. Among the numerous pieces of fiction he published during this period, “One Wicked Impulse!” particularly stands out, if only because he reprinted—and revised—this story more than any of the others.

“One Wicked Impulse!” first appeared in 1845 as “Revenge and Requital: A Tale of a Murderer Escaped” in the Democratic Review; the story then reappeared later that year in the New York Weekly News and several other papers. The following year, it was published with minor changes and a new title in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. When Whitman included it in Specimen Days & Collect four decades later, he not only used the later title but also replaced the overlong final section with a more ambiguous and appropriate two-sentence paragraph. The following summary of the original ending contains “spoilers”; readers may wish to read the rest of this introduction after finishing the story, which is presented here in its revised version.

As Thomas Brasher writes in the 1963 edition of Whitman’s collected writings, the denouement of the earlier versions is “overly sentimental and melodramatic [and] turns the story into propaganda for the anti-hanging cause.” In the original story, young Philip Marsh, having escaped punishment for murdering the lawyer who had swindled him and insulted his sister, redeems himself by caring for victims of a cholera epidemic raging through New York City. He encounters two orphan brothers living in deplorable conditions in a basement and discovers that they are the sons of the man he had killed. The older boy is suffering from cholera and Marsh, as his “crowning act of recompense,” nurses the lad back to health before falling victim to cholera himself. On his deathbed, he bequeaths all his property to the two orphans. Whitman concludes, “Some of my readers may, perhaps, think that he ought to have been hung at the time of his crime. I must be pardoned if I think differently.”

“One Wicked Impulse!” enjoyed an odd and brief renaissance when it was reprinted in the January 1954 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and was the source later that year for the second episode of the third and final season of the series Your Favorite Story, with a teleplay by Arthur Fitz-Richard—which may have been the first-ever television adaptation of a work by Walt Whitman. The film for the episode has since been lost.

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That section of Nassau street which runs into the great mart of New York brokers and stock-jobbers, has for a long time been much occupied by practitioners of the law. . . . 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, May 9, 2014

The Armies of the Wilderness

Herman Melville (1819–1891)
From The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It

Skull and bones of unburied soldiers along Orange Plank Road in the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, photographed by G. O. Brown, 1864. Image courtesy of Civil War Saga.
Herman Melville and his brother Allan arrived in Virginia on April 16, 1864, to visit their cousin Lieutenant Colonel Henry Gansevoort— but the soldier was away from base when they arrived. By the time Gansevoort returned to camp, the Melville brothers had departed on a scouting mission in search of the Confederate rangers led by John S. Mosby, whose guerilla tactics plagued Union troops in a region around Middleburg known widely as “Mosby’s Confederacy.” A full five days after their arrival, then, the brothers finally met up with Gansevoort, and they were able to spend less than two days together.

During this period General Ulysses S. Grant was amassing his forces for a push against the Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee. In early May Grant moved his army across the Rapidan River and the two sides clashed in the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, where the ground was already littered with the unburied skulls and bones from the previous year’s Battle of Chancellorsville. By mid-May the action moved from the Wilderness to the crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House.

For the forty-four year old novelist, the journey in April was something of a lark; “I enjoyed my visit very much, & would not have missed it on any count,” he wrote to his cousin on May 10, when Gansevoort would have been in the midst of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Melville closed this same letter with effusive well-wishes: “Farewell. May two small but choice constellations alight on your shoulders. May your sword be a terror to the despicable foe, & your name in after ages be used by Southern matrons to frighten their children by. . . . Farewell, my hero & God bless you.”

Yet, in spite of the holiday-like spirit of Melville’s jaunt (and the patriotic bravado of his letter), the horrors of the war were very much in evidence and presented him with the raw material for his first book of poetry, Battle-Pieces and Other Aspects of the War, published in 1866. The experiences of his visit to the front in April 1864 are immediately obvious in two of the book’s poems, “The Scout Toward Aldie,” about Mosby and the fear he instilled among Union forces, and “The Armies of the Wilderness.” A century later Robert Penn Warren would write:
It is, in many ways, a very remarkable document in the history of American poetry, and a remarkable commentary on the moment in American history. . . . In a very profound way it can be said that the Civil War made Melville a poet. . . . [It gave him] the kind of big, athletic, overmastering subject which he always needed for his best work, and it was bloodily certified by actuality.
Melville’s book, Warren notes, “reads like a log of the conflict, running in chronological order from the execution of John Brown to the Reconstruction.” In a more recent study, Cynthia Wachtell examines how these poems defied the conventions of the day by scorning comfortably bloodless images of the battlefield: “Melville boldly ventures to address topics that other Civil War writers of his day studiously avoided. . . . He refuses to disguise war’s horror.”

Notes: In Genesis 21, Paran (page 104) is the wilderness dwelling place of the outcast Ishmael. In 1719 Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax of Cameron, inherited title to more than five million acres of land in Virginia—i.e., Lord Fairfax’s parchment deeds (p. 105). A stanza on page 107 refers to Confederate Lieutenant General Stonewall Jackson’s successful attack against Union forces during the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 3, 1863)—and his death when his own men accidentally opened fire on a returning scouting party.

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Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Drunken Sisters

Thornton Wilder (1897–1975)
From Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays & Writings on Theater

Detail from The Fates Gathering in the Stars, 1887, oil on canvas by American painter Elihu Vedder (1836–1923). (Click on image to see the full painting.) Wikimedia Commons.
In an introduction to the 1977 edition of Thornton Wilder’s The Alcestiad and The Drunken Sisters, Isabel Wilder recalled what first attracted her brother to Greek mythology in general and the myth of Alcestis in particular:
Thornton’s tapestry was minute when at the age of seven or eight in Madison, Wisconsin, he first heard the name Alcestis while reading or being read to from Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable. The story of the daughter of King Pelias, princess of princesses in the myth and the song of pre-Christian Greece, captured his imagination—and his heart.
Alcestis, whose story is most famously depicted in a tragedy by Euripides, offers her own life so that her husband, King Admetus, might be spared. Wilder first began working on a modern adaptation as early as 1938, but events intervened. (“The Alcestiad was not a play for a war-torn world,” noted his sister, who was Wilder’s agent for most of his career.) He took the manuscript with him when he was commissioned as an Air Force captain, but his papers were lost when he returned to the States towards the end of the war. He made an attempt to reconstruct the work, but eventually put it aside for nearly a decade.

At long last the play premiered at the 1955 Edinburgh Festival as A Life in the Sun, but generally unfavorable reviews led Wilder to withdraw the rights for the production. (The director admitted to the playwright, “I did not serve your play well.”) Wilder revised the play and decided to make a significant addition. A journal entry from December 1956 reveals, “How long I have aspired to write one of the lost plays of antiquity or to furnish . . . a satyr-play to a real or assumed trilogy.” Satyr plays are brief one-acts designed to lighten the mood after a three-part tragedy; Wilder emulated the Greek dramatic tradition by adding his own satyr play, The Drunken Sisters,  to the end of The Alcestiad. The irony, as Wilder noted in his journal, is that Euripides’s Alcestis was itself originally a satyr play.

The Alcestiad, with The Drunken Sisters, was translated into German and successfully produced in Zurich in 1957—nearly twenty years after Wilder began writing it and half a century after his boyhood encounter with the myth. An operatic version of The Alcestiad, with music by Louise Talma, had its world premiere in Frankfurt in 1962 and ended with a twenty-minute standing ovation and several dozen curtain calls, although a number of German opera critics dismissed the performance, in no small part out of antagonism towards the very idea of a female American composer born in France. The first professional American production of the two plays was not staged until 1977—two years after Wilder’s death.

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The three FATES are seated on a bench largely hidden by their voluminous draperies. They wear the masks of old women, touched by the grotesque but with vestiges of nobility. . . . 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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