Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Middle Years

Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1892–1898

The Writer's Table: A Precarious Moment (1892), oil on canvas by John Frederick Peto (American painter, 1854–1907). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
In 1893 Henry James turned fifty. He was in the middle of a disastrous half-decade attempt to triumph as a playwright, and during the course of the year he published only one new piece of fiction, “The Middle Years.” Although he had already written eleven novels, including Washington Square and Portrait of a Lady, he often doubted his abilities and future chances of success. (His great masterpieces “The Turn of the Screw,” The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl were still in his future.) Early in the year he confided to his friend Robert Louis Stevenson, who was living in Samoa:
. . . I think I envy you too much—your climate, your thrill of life, your magnificent facility. You judge well that I have far too little of this last—though you can’t judge how much more and more difficult I find it every day to write.
In “The Middle Years” the protagonist Dencombe reflects these frustrations about James’s chosen career when he proclaims the most oft-quoted lines from the story, “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

In a 1996 article published in New Literary History, the novelist Joyce Carol Oates comments on “this strange, parable-like tale . . . that suggests dream or myth; fiction on the brink of dissolving into abstraction.” Dencombe, a novelist recovering at a health-resort after a debilitating illness, “yearns for a second chance at his art; yet more passionately for an audience.” He finds the ideal audience in Doctor Hugh, a young, zealous admirer who happens to be staying at the same resort and who has managed to get his hands on an advance copy of the author’s new novel. (Gore Vidal, with a touch of admiration, calls this plot device “perfect James wish-fulfillment.”) Oates concludes:
How significant that even the great artist’s redemption can only be by way of his communion with a real, palpable, emotionally engaged audience; a reaching-out to, a touching of this “new generation”—the mysterious “Doctor Hugh”—you.
When James included “The Middle Years” in the 1909 New York Edition of his writings, he admitted in a preface that, at first blush, the idea for the story—about the agonies and disappointments in the life of a writer—might seem better suited for long-form fiction: “the subject treated would perhaps seem one comparatively demanding ‘developments.’” But, he insisted, the story is “an anecdote, an anecdote only,” and he was intent on keeping it short yet dense:
. . . after boilings and reboilings of the contents of my small cauldron, after added pounds of salutary sugar, as numerous as those prescribed in the choicest recipe for the thickest jam, I well remember finding the whole process and act (which, to the exclusion of everything else, dragged itself out for a month) one of the most expensive of its sort in which I had ever engaged.
Notes: The text presented here is the version included in James’s 1895 collection, Terminations. The following are translations of the Latin and French expressions used in the story: vincit omnia, conquers all; Qui dort dine!, he who sleeps forgets his hunger; bergère, shepherdess; intrigante, a scheming woman.

*   *   *
The April day was soft and bright, and poor Dencombe, happy in the conceit of reasserted strength, stood in the garden of the hotel, comparing, with a deliberation in which however there was still something of languor, the attractions of easy strolls. . . . 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, July 18, 2014

Our Visit to Richmond

James R. Gilmore [Edmund Kirke] (1822–1903)
From The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It

For nearly two years New-York Daily Tribune editor Horace Greeley had been intermittently seeking ways to bring about a peaceful settlement of the Civil War when Colorado mining promoter William Cornell Jewett wrote to him on July 5, 1864, that “two Ambassaders—of Davis & Co. are now in Canada—with full & complete powers for a peace” and that the Confederate envoys wished to meet with Greeley and President Lincoln. Greeley forwarded Jewett’s correspondence to Lincoln, who replied: “If you can find, any person anywhere professing to have any proposition of Jefferson Davis in writing, for peace, embracing the restoration of the Union and abandonment of slavery, what ever else it embraces, say to him he may come to me with you.”

On July 20 Lincoln’s assistant secretary John Hay crossed into Canada with Greeley and offered safe conduct to Washington for James P. Holcombe and Clement C. Clay. Instead of responding to Hay, the two Confederates addressed a letter to Greeley, in which they accused Lincoln of refusing to negotiate in good faith, and released it, along with earlier correspondence, to the Associated Press. The agents had, in fact, never been authorized by the government at Richmond to negotiate a peace settlement; as historian Reinhard H. Luthin writes, they were actually “intent, not on peace, but determined to cause confusion in Federal councils and doubts in mass Northern minds.”

Greeley returned to New York, where James Gordon Bennett, editor of the rival
New York Herald, attacked “poor Greeley that nincompoop without genius” for “cuddling with traitors.” Clay, Holcombe, and their fellow Confederates continued to meet with Democrats and pursue what had all along been their primary aim: to influence the upcoming presidential nomination and the 1864 election.

Meanwhile, in early July President Lincoln gave Colonel James F. Jaquess, a Methodist minister on leave from the 73rd Illinois Infantry, and James R. Gilmore, an author of books and sketches under the pen name Edmund Kirke, permission to travel to Richmond and hold unofficial talks on peace terms with Confederate leaders. The two emissaries crossed into Confederate-held territory on July 16 and met with Davis and his secretary of state Judah P. Benjamin the next day. They returned, as Lincoln hoped and expected, with an unyielding statement from Davis regarding the Confederacy’s war aims. Gilmore published a letter about his trip in the
Boston Evening Transcript on July 22:
I have not, however, exchanged a word with Mr. Greeley, or even seen him, for fully three months, and I have no connection with, in fact I know nothing of, his “negotiations.” This much, however, in reference to that much-talked-of matter, being a Yankee, I can guess. It will result in nothing.
Gilmore concluded that, while the Confederate agents in Canada may have “‘pulled the wool’ over the eyes of Mr. Greeley, they have not pulled it over the eyes of Mr. Lincoln.” His wryly humorous yet pointed account of this mission appeared in the next issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Notes: On page 341, the glorious Massachusetts General refers to Union Army major general Benjamin F. Butler, who commanded the Army of the James along the James River in Virginia. Brigadier General Robert S. Foster (p. 342) led the Third Brigade of the First Division, Tenth Corps, Army of the James. On page 348, Gilmore mistakenly refers to Jefferson Davis as “President” under Franklin Pierce; he was actually secretary of war in the Pierce administration. Mr. Ashley’s Reconstruction Bill (p. 352) refers to legislation introduced in December 1863 by Ohio Republican James M. Ashley, authorizing the president to appoint provisional military governors in the rebelling states. The governors would organize elections for state constitutional conventions in which suffrage would be extended to black men but denied to those who had fought against the Union or held office in a secessionist government. The bill was tabled in February 1864. Castle Thunder (p. 356) was the Confederate prison in Richmond used to house political prisoners and suspected spies.
*   *   *
Why my companion, the Rev. Dr. Jaquess, Colonel of the Seventy-Third Regiment of Illinois Volunteers, recently went to Richmond, and the circumstances attending his previous visit within the Rebel lines,—when he wore his uniform, and mixed openly with scores of leading Confederates,—I shall shortly make known to the public. . . . 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, July 11, 2014

How I Went Out to Service

Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888)
From Louisa May Alcott: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings

The Little Servant, c. 1886, oil on canvas by
John George Brown (British-American painter,
1831–1913). Image courtesy of the The Athenaeum.
In 1851 James Richardson, a lawyer in Dedham, Massachusetts, hired eighteen-year-old Louisa May Alcott as a servant and companion for his invalid sister and elderly father. A short entry in Louisa’s journal sums up the experience: “I go to Dedham as a servant & try it for a month, but get starved & frozen & give it up.” (She actually stayed on for seven weeks.) One doesn’t have to read deeply between the lines of her later retellings, both autobiographical and fictional, to understand that the atmosphere was not only uncomfortable and grueling but also sexually charged.

Soon after this brief employment, Alcott’s first published work appeared: a poem in Peterson’s, a popular women’s magazine. It was quickly followed by a story, “The Rival Painters,” in the Saturday Evening Gazette. During the next decade she published some twenty pieces of short fiction, as well as her first book, Flower Fables (1855), a collection of fairy tales originally written for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter. Yet she was earning barely enough money to make ends meet. Still trying to break through as a writer, in 1861 Alcott began working on a novel called “Success,” but put it away after less than a month. She intended it to be autobiographical, with episodes based on her stints as a domestic servant, governess, and seamstress and on her various attempts at an acting career.

By the beginning of 1862 Alcott was staying at the home of a second cousin, Annie Adams, whose husband was the prestigious Boston publisher James T. Fields. At the urging of a friend, she opened a kindergarten, even though she loathed teaching; Fields loaned her forty dollars for materials. He had just assumed the duties of editor at the Atlantic Monthly, a magazine that he and his business partner, William Ticknor, had purchased almost three years earlier. Hoping Fields would help further her career, Alcott at some point showed him her writing, including the manuscript for “How I Went Out to Service,” a fictionalized account of her seven weeks as a house servant. He rejected the piece, telling her, “Stick to your teaching; you can’t write.” In spite of this advice, Alcott abandoned the kindergarten in May. Distraught that she still owed Fields forty dollars and stinging from his rejection of her story, she wrote in her journal, “I won’t teach; and I can write, and I’ll prove it.” Fields must have had some regard for Alcott’s writing, since he published two of her stories and a poem within the next year.

Alcott sporadically returned to the manuscript for “Service” before again abandoning it in 1865. Then, in 1868, the first part of Little Women appeared—and everything changed. Suddenly in demand, she received a request in late 1872 from the owners of The Christian Union, offering her $3,000 for a serial work of fiction. Alcott dusted off the manuscript for “Success” and quickly finished it, reworking some of the stories she had written previously (including “How I Went Out to Service”), incorporating them into the novel, and changing the title to Work. It appeared in the magazine from December 1872 through June 1873. The story Fields had rejected, “How I Went Out to Service,” was published in 1874 by The Independent, a New York–based magazine with a national circulation of 70,000. [Work is included alongside Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and several short pieces in a new Library of America collection.]

In 1871, flush with her new wealth and fame, Alcott repaid the forty dollars she had borrowed from Fields a decade earlier. “I found writing paid so much better than teaching that I thought I’d stick to my pen,” she later claimed to have said to him. In response, Fields “laughed & owned that he made a mistake.”

Notes: On page 808, Alcott describes the trajectory of her heroine’s aspirations as plunging from the triumph of Sarah Siddons, one of the most famous English actresses of the previous century, to the misery of Betcinder, or Cinderella. A delaine is a garment made from fine combing wool, especially the wool of Merino sheep. On page 811, the comparison of the old woman to a Borgia is a reference to the notoriously power-hungry family of Renaissance Italy, particularly Lucrezia Borgia, who is remembered for alleged political and domestic intrigues.

*   *   *
When I was eighteen I wanted something to do. I had tried teaching for two years, and hated it; I had tried sewing, and could not earn my bread in that way, at the cost of health; I tried story-writing and got five dollars for stories which now bring a hundred; I had thought seriously of going upon the stage, but certain highly respectable relatives were so shocked at the mere idea that I relinquished my dramatic aspirations. . . . 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, July 5, 2014

Tyrants of the Shop

Fanny Fern (1811–1872)
From Writing New York: A Literary Anthology

The Woman in Business, 1897, oil on canvas by American artist Alice Barber Stephens (1858–1932), used for the cover illustration for the September 1897 issue of The Ladies Home Journal, for the magazine’s “The American Woman” series. Image courtesy of The Athenaeum website.
When Fanny Fern’s first novel, the autobiographical Ruth Hall, was published in 1854, The New York Times critic (in an otherwise favorable review) huffed, “But we confess that we cannot understand how a delicate, suffering woman can hunt down even her persecutors so remorselessly.” Literary scholar Joyce W. Warren affirms that Fern, a journalist, must have seemed starkly unconventional to her contemporaries: “At a time when the ‘cult of the lady’ urged women to be gentle, ‘feminine,’ and submissive, Fern’s writing was satirical, outspoken, polemical—and even outrageous.” Yet Fern was not only America’s first woman newspaper columnist but also, by the 1850s, the highest paid of any columnist.

Born Sara Payson Willis, she earned a reputation as a nonconformist by the time she was an adolescent. Hoping to subdue her free spirit with a strong dose of religious instruction, her father sent sixteen-year-old Sara to the Hartford Female Seminary—her third boarding school in half a decade. Years later, according to Warren’s biography of Fern, the headstrong former student reintroduced herself to the school’s headmistress, Catherine Beecher, saying, “I suppose you don’t know me.” Beecher replied, “Not remember you, Sara Willis? You were the worst behaved student in my school!” Then she added, “And I loved you the best.” While she attended the school, the precocious Willis, who had been editing and writing for her father’s periodicals since she was twelve, began to write occasional pieces for a local Hartford newspaper, whose editor would come to the school to pick them up. (Alas, not a single one of these early columns survives.)

Decades later, Willis’s days at the Hartford Seminary were recalled by a far more straight-laced alumna, who had lived with her at a nearby boardinghouse run by Mrs. Strong. In the late 1860s, about the time Fanny Fern was publishing weekly columns such as “Tyrants of the Shop” in the New York Ledger, Harriet Beecher Stowe had occasion to write to Fern’s husband:
I believe you have claim on a certain naughty girl once called Sara Willis [who] one night stole a pie . . . and did feloniously excite unto sedition and rebellion some five or six other girls,—eating said pie between eleven & twelve o’clock in defiance of the laws of the school & in breach of the peace—ask her if it isn’t so. . . . Perhaps she has long been penitent—perhaps—but ah me—when I read Fanny Fern’s articles I detect sparks of the old witchcraft—& say as poor Mrs. Strong used to when any new mischief turned up—That’s Sarah Willis, I know!
*   *   *
There are persons who can regard oppression and injustice without any acceleration of the pulse. . . . 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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