Friday, June 27, 2014

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)
From Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs

Detail from portrait of Ambrose Bierce by British painter John Herbert Evelyn Partington (1843–1899), whose daughter Blanche received the last known letter sent by Bierce before he disappeared. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A century ago Ambrose Bierce carried out (intentionally or not) one of the most legendary disappearing acts in the history of literature. He was reported to have crossed the border into Mexico in late December 1913—and was neither seen nor heard from again. Since then, a multitude of theories have been advanced, many of them beyond the realm of possibility. A number of scholars believe he may have been killed at the Battle of Ojinaga, won by Pancho Villa on January 11, 1914. A recent biography by Roy Morris Jr. questions the idea that Bierce ever went to Mexico at all and advances another popular theory: that he committed suicide, perhaps by shooting himself while staying in the Grand Canyon. Among the more sensational claims is an old rumor that Bierce had re-emerged a decade later in Mexico City as the mysterious writer B. Traven, author of the 1927 novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Before he began his travels, Bierce certainly seemed to be a man settling affairs for a long journey—or for good. (He was seventy-one years old, after all.) In January 1913 he transferred to his daughter Helen the ownership of a lot in the St. Helena cemetery and closed his letter, “By the way, I do not wish to lie there. The matter is all arranged, and you will not be bothered about the mortal part of Your Daddy.” In September he assigned the copyrights for the Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce to his secretary Carrie Christiansen. Other letters hint at the likelihood of death or “a pretty long absence.”

For most of the last century, the only known clues indicating that Bierce had actually made it to Mexico were his repeated statements that he was heading there, along with a diary kept by Christiansen recording his whereabouts until December 26. He wrote cryptically to the journalist Josephine McCrackin, “Yes, I shall go to Mexico with a pretty definite purpose, which, however, is not at present disclosable.” He conveyed similar plans to other journalists and friends, and a letter to his niece was characteristically macabre: “If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart in this life. . . . To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!”

As for Christiansen’s diary, her summary of a December 26 letter sent by Bierce from Chihuahua begins:
Ridden in four miles to mail a letter. Ride from Juarez to Chihuahua hard—nights cold, days hot. Allusion to Jornada del Muerta (journey of death) of thousands of civilian refugees, men, women and children. Train load of troops leaving Chihuahua every day. Expect (next day) to go to Ojinaga, partly by rail. . . .
Because the original letter was lost, many of Bierce’s friends and biographers doubted the accuracy or authenticity of this transcription. But during the 1990s self-described “amateur historian” Leon Day (who died in 2011) seemed to confirm the diary’s accuracy when he discovered “the only Bierce letter from Mexico,” buried in the archives of the University of California at Berkeley among the papers of Blanche Partington (whose father painted the portrait shown above, of Bierce posing with a skull). Because the letter was sent to Blanche Partington from Chihuahua on December 26, 1913, this document seems likely to be the letter summarized in Christiansen’s diary. In the letter, Bierce discusses his original plan, which was to travel to South America:
I must also have told you that I intended to go by the way of Mexico, which I am doing, though it looks now as if “the Andes” would have to wait. . . . I do not know how, nor when, you are to get this letter; there are no mails, and sometimes no trains to take anything to El Paso.
The letter ends, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” [The text of the entire letter, included with Day’s account of his research, can be read here.] What happened to Bierce after December 26 remains unknown, although it is widely agreed that he probably died in 1914.

And so, to commemorate Bierce’s eccentric life and the centennial of his mysterious disappearance, we present his masterpiece, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Kurt Vonnegut called the greatest short story in American literature and which, according to a reviewer in the Columbia Journalism Review, “is considered by critics to be one of the finest ‘experimental’ American stories of the period.”

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A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. . . . 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, June 20, 2014

The Legend of Tchi-Niu

Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904)
From Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings

Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk, original painting by Zhang Xuan (713–755). The only surviving copy was made in ink and color on silk by the Emperor Huizong of Song (1082–1135). Image courtesy of the China Online Museum.
Lafcadio Hearn had, by any measure, an unusual childhood, which was followed by an equally singular career as a writer. He was born Patrick Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn to a Greek mother and an Irish father on the Ionian island of Lefkada, abandoned by his parents to the care of a great-aunt in Dublin, packed off by a guardian to a Catholic boarding school in France at the age of twelve, and then educated at a preparatory school in England, where a playground mishap resulted in the complete loss of vision in his left eye.

In 1869, at the age of nineteen, his guardian sent him penniless to the United States, where he eventually became a journalist in Cincinnati and, later, New Orleans. He remained in the United States, with a two-year stint in the West Indies, until 1890, when he emigrated to Japan. During the last fourteen years of his life, he gained fame both in Japan and the West as an interpreter of Japanese culture, and the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, founded in 1933, remains one of the ChÅ«goku region’s most popular tourist attractions to this day.

Throughout his life Hearn was fascinated by artefacts and legends from all over the world. In 1884, while living in New Orleans, he published Stray Leaves from Strange Literature, a collection of folk tales adapted from Egyptian, Arabic, Polynesian, and other traditions. The following year he wrote “The Legend of Tchi-Niu” for Harper’s Bazaar (or Bazar, as it was then spelled). Over the next two years he completed several other tales and included them in Some Chinese Ghosts. “There are only six little stories,” Hearn wrote to the musicologist Henry Edward Krehbiel, to whom he dedicated the book, “but each of them cost months of hard work and study.” Hearn’s preface to the volume notes, “In preparing the legends I sought especially weird beauty,” and an appendix explains that “The Legend of Tchi-Niu” is his own elaboration of a story culled from a single paragraph in a French translation of the Kan-ing-p’ien (“Book of Reward and Punishments”)—then mistakenly attributed to the Lao-tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching.

In 1898, when he was living in Japan, Hearn sent a copy of Some Chinese Ghosts to a friend and presented the book as the “early work of a man who tried to understand the Far East from books,—and couldn’t; but then, the real purpose of the stories was only artistic. Should I ever reprint the thing, I would change nothing,—but only preface the new edition with a proper apology.” When the collection was included the recent Library of America collection of Hearn’s American writings, Christopher Benfey offered the following assessment:
Here is Hearn living in New Orleans, with not a jot of direct experience of Asia, confidently reworking Chinese legends. . . . These six precocious tales, a foretaste of Hearn’s later life in Japan, are really about the miracle of artistic invention, which was on Hearn’s mind as he struggled to make the transition from life as a hardworking journalist to that of a novelist and writer of exotic tales he has gathered from a multitude of scholarly sources.
Notes: (with quotes from a glossary prepared by Hearn): On page 30, chih refers to a house, “but especially the house of the dead,—a tomb.” On page 33, the official characters called li-shu belong to an archaic style of calligraphy, “the second of six styles of Chinese writing.”

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In the quaint commentary accompanying the text of that holy book of Lao-tseu called Kan-ing-p’ien may be found a little story so old that the name of the one who first told it has been forgotten for a thousand years, yet so beautiful that it lives still in the memory of four hundred millions of people, like a prayer that, once learned, is forever remembered. . . . 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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Saturday, June 14, 2014

General Macbeth

Mary McCarthy (1912–1989)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

Orson Welles starring as Macbeth in the 1948 feature film, which he also directed. Image from the Folger Shakespeare Library website.
Throughout her career Mary McCarthy wrote a series of contrarian and confrontational essays that reinforced her reputation as a feisty curmudgeon. For example, J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, first published in The New Yorker before appearing as a book in 1961, received its share of bad reviews, but virtually none of them was as blistering as McCarthy’s attack in England’s Observer Weekend Review, which included the notorious lines: “In Hemingway’s work there was never anybody but Hemingway in a series of disguises, but at least there was only one Papa per book. To be confronted with the seven faces of Salinger, all wise and lovable and simple, is to gaze into a terrifying narcissus pool.” Soon after the review’s appearance, a friend wrote to her, “Your Observer piece on Salinger must have shaken The New Yorker from the 19th Floor to the basement.” William Maxwell, the magazine’s fiction editor, complained to a colleague, “That piece is totally unjust. . . . I can’t say what prompted it. All I can say is that the water’s full of blood.”

In June 1962, the same month the Salinger critique appeared, McCarthy published another article that was perhaps on safer ground, since the author under review had been dead for nearly 350 years—although the essay to this day riles more than a few Shakespearean aficionados. “With ‘General Macbeth,’” writes her biographer Frances Kiernan, “she was merely providing a totally unexpected reading for a classic so familiar to theatergoers that there seemed to be nothing new to say on the subject—turning the Thane of Cawdor into a second-rate Eisenhower Republican.”

(The first page of this week’s selection features additional introductory remarks about the essay by James Shapiro, editor of Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now.)

Notes: Readers who have forgotten the details of Macbeth’s plot can consult the Folger Shakespeare Library’s one-page summary as a PDF or in Google Docs. In the opening paragraph of her essay McCarthy makes a reference to Babbitt, the eponymous anti-hero of Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 satirical novel whose name became a synonym for a narrow-minded and self-satisfied middle-class businessman.

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He is a general and has just won a battle; he enters the scene making a remark about the weather. “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” On this flat note Macbeth’s character tone is set. . . . 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, June 6, 2014

Who?

Algis Budrys (1931–2008)

Algis Budrys, who died six years ago this week at the age of seventy-seven, arrived in the United States as a temporary resident when he was five years old, the son of the Lithuanian consul-general. Little did he know that his temporary home would become permanent. In 1940 the Soviet Union annexed his family’s home country, an event which was followed a year later by the Nazi occupation and, in 1945, by the Soviet re-annexation. Budrys and his family were thus rendered stateless; his father became consul-general of the Lithuanian government-in-exile while Budrys settled down as well as he could in his new home, attending the University of Miami and Columbia and working as a clerk for American Express before publishing his first story at the age of 21. (He would become an American citizen in 1996—sixty years after his arrival.)

It is unsurprising, then, that much of Budrys’s fiction deals with questions of identity and that one of his most well-known novels adopts the Cold War as its background. In a 1981 interview with the editors of
Amazing Stories, Budrys explained how he was inspired to write the short story, “Who?”, which later became the novel of the same name and the basis for the 1973 cult movie starring Elliott Gould and Trevor Howard:
It started literally with the image. I was doing a lot of work for Fantastic Universe magazine, which bought covers without their being tied to any particular story. I turned a corner in their offices, and there was the Kelly Freas painting. . . . It just immediately captured my imagination entirely, and I had to write a story around it, which was contrary to the magazine's policy. They never had a story that fit the cover, but I wrote one anyway. It was a short story, set on the Moon, and it had a very weak, trick ending, but it had the basic situation in it. And they ran it. About six months later I realized I could build an entire novel around that character and that situation if I pulled it off the Moon and threw away the weak trick ending. I went to a book publisher with the idea and got a contract on it.
In an appreciation, novelist Tim Powers discusses further how the original story relates both to the novel and to Budrys’s life as an exile:
The short story takes place, perfunctorily, on the moon, but the core puzzle of the novel is already the main issue—how to decide whether a man with no identifiable features is a top-clearance western scientist artificially rebuilt beyond recognition after massive injuries, or a Soviet spy pretending to be the scientist. . . . Budrys has said, “A lot of my life when I was a small child was spent in cars, or trains, talking to strangers, speaking a variety of languages, never settling down anywhere . . .” That landless quality, which Budrys never entirely lost, is certainly the core of the complex, contradictory but fully realized character of Martino [in the story: Martini]. The novel is an espionage thriller written by a man with a singularly international perspective, but, more than that, it is a deeply affecting portrait of a man deprived of his identity.
Note: The Komsomol (mentioned near the end of the story) was the shortened name for the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League in the Soviet Union.
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The concrete room was stifling in its smallness. Rogers had turned off the rattling air conditioners in order to keep the discussion below the level of a shout. . . . 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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