Friday, October 31, 2014

The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
From Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales

“Mentally ill patients in the garden of an asylum” (c. 1829–34). Engraving by K. H. Merz, based on the painting Irrenhaus [Madhouse] by German artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
This past week Stonehearst Asylum, a feature film directed by Brad Anderson and starring Kate Beckinsale, Michael Caine, and Ben Kingsley, premiered in theaters and on premium cable services. The movie is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” which had already been adapted for the screen several times, most notably as the 1973 Mexican film The Mansion of Madness and the 2005 Czech film Lunacy, and had even been the inspiration, in 1976, for the debut single—and first Top 40 hit—by the recording act The Alan Parson Project. The latest adaptation is tame compared to other recent American thrillers; in the words of one reviewer, “Kingsley and Caine compete to give the hammiest performance.” Moviegoers unfamiliar with the original, however, wouldn’t know that Poe’s story is not one of his Gothic tales of horror but is instead a rather offbeat, if dark, comedy describing one of the wackiest dinner parties in all of American literature.

Like the latest movie adaptation, Poe’s story is set in a mental hospital turned upside down. A number of Poe experts have argued that the asylum imagined by Poe is American democracy gone mad (several of the inhabitants seem to share characteristics of certain nineteenth-century politicians), or that the story is—in the words Italian writer Alessandro Portelli—“a satire of the revolutionary utopia of popular self-government.” Other scholars have contended that the story, with its references to the South and its tuneless orchestra playing “Yankee Doodle,” satirically depicts a slave rebellion and reflects Poe’s hostility to Northern abolitionist rhetoric.

Still other critics have asserted that Poe might have been inspired by Charles Dickens. The two writers met in Philadelphia in 1842 and shared correspondence about literary concerns. That same year Dickens visited the newly opened Boston Lunatic Asylum, where the resident physician announced the facility’s guiding principle: “Evince a desire to show some confidence, and repose some trust, even in mad people.” Soon thereafter, Dickens published the travelogue American Notes for General Circulation and included comments about the “conciliation and kindness” he witnessed during his visit to the hospital: “Every patient in this asylum sits down to dinner every day with a knife and fork. . . . Once a week, they have a ball, in which the Doctor and his family, with all the nurses and attendants, take an active part.” Yet still another commentator insists that the inspiration for the story came not from Dickens, but from Nathaniel Parker Willis’s story “The Madhouse of Palermo,” which is based on a visit to an asylum in Sicily.

Modern readers can easily enjoy “Tarr and Fether” for its own unique merits, regardless of whether Poe meant it as a satire on democracy, an invective against abolitionism, or a parody of writing by Dickens and Willis—or, as seems quite possible, all of these. As the esteemed Poe scholar Thomas Ollive Mabbott wrote over half a century ago, “This story seems to me one of Poe’s best humorous pieces. . . . There is obviously (as in most of Poe’s stories) an undercurrent of serious thought, but it is not clinical.”

Notes: On page 703, Poe uses the phrase vielle cour (correctly, vieille cour) to mean “the old court.” Most of the other French phrases concern types of food and wine, or they should be clear from context. Nil admirari (p. 705) is a Latin expression referring to the state of being unsurprised, or equanimity. “Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum” (p. 706) is Virgil’s description in The Aeneid of the blinded Cyclops: “a monster horrendous, misshapen, and vast, whose eye is removed.”

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“During the autumn of 18—, while on a tour through the extreme Southern provinces of France, my route led me within a few miles of a certain Maison de SantĂ©, or private Mad House, about which I had heard much, in Paris, from my medical friends. . . .  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, October 24, 2014

The Curse of Everard Maundy

Seabury Quinn (1889–1969)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Portraits of Jules de Grandin and
Dr. Trowbridge, by illustrator
Virgil Finlay, from the October 1937
issue of Weird Tales.
When pulp fiction aficionados reminisce about the “golden years” of Weird Tales and similar fantasy and horror magazines, they usually highlight the works of Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith from the 1920s and ’30s and Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, and other celebrated names from the 1940s and early ’50s. But—far and away—the most popular and prolific author during the magazine’s original three-decade run was the now-forgotten Seabury Grandin Quinn.

After serving in the army during World War I, Quinn moved to New York, where he specialized in mortuary law (he published a Syllabus of Mortuary Jurisprudence in 1933) and edited Casket and Sunnyside and other periodicals for funeral directors. Quinn’s experiences from his day job pervade all his fictional writings and, under the pen name Jerome Burke, he wrote nearly 150 biographical stories for Dodge, a still-thriving magazine for embalmers. He had already published several pieces in various pulp magazines when “The Horror on the Links” appeared in the October 1925 issue of Weird Tales and introduced French detective Jules de Grandin and his sidekick Dr. Trowbridge. Readers couldn’t get enough; between 1925 and 1951, more than half of the magazine’s issues carried Quinn’s stories, including ninety-three episodes featuring his pair of paranormal investigators. An entry in the Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers summarizes the series:
Readers loved Quinn’s fast, colorful, easily digested fiction, and the magazine was always eager to promote the newest case from the “hellfire files” of Jules de Grandin, occult detective, a Frenchman with grammatical peccadillos in English, his adopted language, needlelike mustaches, and a rational and fearless approach to the worst that “supernature” could fling against him, from ghosts and zombies to mummies and werewolves. . . . The erudite, fearless Frenchman remains in America and moves in as permanent guest of the admiring Dr. Trowbridge, beginning the series’ long-running relationship which echoes Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and his aide-de-camp Hastings (itself derivative of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes–Watson relationship).
Nearly all the Jules de Grandin adventures take place in Harrisonville, New Jersey, which in reality boasted, at the time, a population of about 250—considerably fewer than the total number of residents who appear and often horrifically die in Quinn’s collected stories. In a review of the complete Jules de Grandin tales (1,400 pages in all!), Georges T. Dodds notes, “The vast majority of the supernatural and occult elements in Quinn’s stories are ultimately resolved to be the work of people, sick and twisted people perhaps, but not trans-dimensional beings or spell-casting wizards.” But not always. Occasionally de Grandin and Trowbridge would confront the unfathomable forces of otherworldly demons and ritualistic voodoo, as in “The Curse of Everard Maundy,” one of the earliest Weird Tales entries, which was selected by Peter Straub for inclusion in The Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales.

Notes: Detective de Grandin scatters exclamations in French throughout his dialogue; a number of these take the form mort d’un ——! (death of a cat, pig, toad, etc.) or nom d’un ——! (name of a duck, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.), meant comically to evoke the untranslatable nom d’un chien (name of a dog). Similar English expressions would include son of a gun or for goodness’ sake. On page 538, Trowbridge is reading The Wanderer’s Necklace (1914), a short adventure novel by Sir Henry Rider Haggard. “But that is another story” (p. 552) became a catchphrase in the 1890s due to Rudyard Kipling’s frequent use of it in his early fiction. The lines of poetry reprinted on page 563 are from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Eden’s Bower” (1868)—not Eden Bowers.

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Mort d’un chat! I do not like this!” Jules de Grandin slammed the evening paper down upon the table and glared ferociously at me through the library lamplight. . . . 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, October 17, 2014

Playing Courier

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels

Detail from “The Author’s Memories,” drawing by American illustrator True Williams (1839–1897) for the first edition of Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad (1880). Click on image to see the full drawing.
By the early 1890s the publisher Charles L. Webster and Company, founded in 1884 by Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), was deeply in debt. The outfit had not been able to repeat the extraordinary success of its first two bestsellers, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. The firm’s bookkeeper embezzled tens of thousands of dollars. Charles Webster, the director of the press, died in April 1891. In addition, Clemens’s numerous investments in patents and machines worsened his financial situation. He sunk approximately $300,000 in a failed invention called the Paige Compositor, a typesetting machine its inventor hoped would help automate the publishing industry. He also lost $50,000 on the Kaolatype, a new (and equally unsuccessful) method for printing illustrations.

At the time of Webster’s death, Clemens was suffering from rheumatism in his right arm (which made it difficult to write), his wife Livy was ailing from chronic heart-related illnesses, and they could no longer afford the maintenance of their Hartford home. In May William Dean Howells wrote to Clemens after seeing a newspaper report that his longtime friend was “going to Europe for [his] few remaining years.” He wished he “was sick or sorry enough to go” with them, and Clemens responded:
For her health’s sake, Mrs. Clemens must try some baths somewhere, & this it is that has determined us to go to Europe. The water required seems to be provided at a little obscure & little-visited nook up in the hills back of the Rhine somewhere & you get to it by Rhine traffic-boat & country stage-coach. Come, get “sick or sorry enough” & join us.
The Clemens family shuttered the house and found new positions for all the servants. In a letter to another correspondent, Clemens indicated that he had originally “voted” to travel in Europe for only thirty days, while his wife thought six months would be ideal—but the family remained for four years, staying at the spa resorts in Aix-les-Bains and Marienbad along the way.

The European trip seemed to provide Clemens with the motivation and material he needed, and he was able to finish five books: a collection, The £1,000,000 Bank Note and Other New Stories, followed by the novels Pudd’nhead Wilson, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, and Tom Sawyer, Detective. He was also commissioned by the New York Sun to write a series of articles for $1,000 each. All but one of the pieces are (mostly) factual travel accounts. The exception, the short story “Playing Courier,” shows Twain at his zaniest.

Webster & Co. shut down in 1894, and Clemens was forced to declare bankruptcy. (A far more devastating event befell the family in August 1896, when the eldest daughter, Susy, died of spinal meningitis at the age of twenty-four.) Even though he was not legally required to do so, by 1898 Clemens paid off all the debts incurred by his insolvency, using the proceeds from a worldwide speaking tour and from the success of his final travel book, Following the Equator.

Notes: On page 950, Mark Twain uses the expression “glass going down,” which indicates a drop in atmospheric pressure as measured by a barometer (or weather-glass) and suggests stormy weather ahead. The Compact (p. 956) refers to the formation of the Everlasting League in 1291, which became the basis of the Swiss Confederation. On page 960, Twain leaves farewell cards with the initials p.p.c. (pour prendre congĂ©, or “for taking leave”). Twain also throws in a couple of German expressions for comic effect: dass heiss (for das heisst, or “that is”) and Du lieber Gott! (“Good heavens!” or “Oh my God!”)

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A time would come when we must go from Aix-les-Bains to Geneva, and from thence, by a series of day-long and tangled journeys, to Bayreuth in Bavaria. I should have to have a courier, of course, to take care of so considerable a party as mine. . . . 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, October 10, 2014


Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941)
From Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories

Panoramic Landscape with a View of a Small Town, c. 1850. Artist unknown. Image courtesy of the online collection of the Brooklyn Museum.
In 1916 the new monthly magazine Seven Arts accepted for publication a brief story, “Queer,” by advertising copywriter and household goods salesman Sherwood Anderson. It was slotted for the magazine’s second issue, but before it had even gone to press, Anderson sent in another tale and informed the editor, Waldo Frank, that both selections were part of “a series of intensive studies of people of my home town, Clyde, Ohio.” He continued:
In the book I called the town Winesburg, Ohio. Some of the studies you may think pretty raw, and there is a sad note running through them. One or two of them get pretty closely down to ugly things of life.
The second submission, “The Untold Lie” (a previous Story of the Week selection), was promptly accepted for the third issue of Seven Arts and, intrigued, Frank encouraged Anderson to send in other selections from the series. Yet another story, “Mother,” soon appeared in the magazine, with a note identifying Anderson as “one of the significant new men out of the West.”

“Mother” introduced readers to Elizabeth Willard, whose son who would appear in many of the Winesburg tales. She is disappointed with her life and her marriage and hopes that her son will be able to escape the isolation and misery she has endured in the town of Clyde. Anderson based the character on his own mother, who died in 1895 when he was eighteen, and he dedicated Winesburg, Ohio to his mother’s memory, “whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives.”

Today’s readers might find it hard to imagine the intensity of the reactions, both positive and negative, when the Winesburg stories first began appearing and especially after they were collected as a book in May 1919. Although the stories found favor with most critics, an early reviewer accused the author of reducing his characters “from human clay to plain dirt”; another called the book “the picture of a maggoty mind.” (The latter critic, William Allen White, would rescind his opinion when, two decades later, he recommended Anderson’s latest work to Book-of-the-Month Club members.) A somewhat ambivalent notice in the Chicago Tribune asserted, with considerable overstatement, that the tales are “practically all concerned chiefly with the sex life of the inhabitants of the Ohio village.” One of the newspaper’s readers responded with a letter:
[The book] seems to me a distillation of the sort of leering gossip one would expect to find bandied about by male scandalmongers chewing tobacco on cracker barrels in a dirty cross-roads grocery store. . . . I suppose this book will be “hailed” by a few Dreiser devotees and some impressionable reviewers will admire it as “strong.” It is so strong it ought to be buried without delay in the nearest public sanitation.*
Fortunately for the history of American literature, Anderson’s masterpiece remained well above ground. Years later William Faulkner (who dedicated Sartoris, his third novel, to Anderson) wrote, “Sherwood Anderson was the father of all my works—and those of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. We were influenced by him. He showed us the way.”

* As reprinted in Walter B. Rideout’s Sherwood Anderson: A Writer in America (volume 1, 2006), p. 316.

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Free audio: This selection is accompanied by a streaming audio version, read by the award-winning memoirist Patricia Hampl.

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Elizabeth Willard, the mother of George Willard, was tall and gaunt and her face was marked with smallpox scars. Although she was but forty-five, some obscure disease had taken the fire out of her figure. . . . 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, October 3, 2014

Anna’s Whim

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

Detail from Drifting (1886), oil on canvas by Alfred Thompson Bricher (American painter, 1837–1908). Image courtesy of Barbara Wells Sarudy’s 19c American Women website.
During the early months of 1873 Louisa May Alcott, still overwhelmed by the extraordinary success from the publication five years earlier of Little Women, finally completed Work: A Story of Experience, a novel she had begun in 1861. The book’s publication was greeted by mostly positive reviews, with some reservations. The opinions of many readers were determined by their reactions to the book’s subject matter: “Miss Alcott has dared to touch that troublesome theme—What shall women do?—and has illumined it with the brightness of her own strong sense.” A surprising number of reviewers described the book as earnest—“It is a terribly earnest book,” wrote the columnist in The Evening Post of New York; another writer noted its “earnest tone.” A decidedly hostile critic complained about the book’s emphasis on job and career (“work is the real religion, the idea, the action of the piece, from end to end”) and protested that Work is “the story of a female who was not a woman, married to her choice who was not a man.”

Although the novel sold well at the time (the first printing alone was 20,000 copies), it went out of print early in the twentieth century and was largely forgotten until the late 1970s. In recent decades, note the authors of The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia, the book has “received positive critical attention for some of the very traits contemporary critics bemoaned,” such as its exploration of the occupational options then available to women and, perhaps above all, “a strong, independent female character who never settles into a purely domestic sphere and whose marriage is only another ‘experience,’ not the telos of her life story.”

While she was writing Work, Alcott was inundated with requests for short stories and essays. The editor of Youth’s Companion offered to purchase, sight unseen, half a dozen stories she had yet not even written, and similar offers poured from other magazines. Almost immediately upon finishing the novel, she wrote “Anna’s Whim” and sold it for the then-considerable sum of $100 to a prominent weekly New York newspaper called The Independent. Combining a love story with a battle-of-the-sexes plot, the tale revisits several of the ideas Alcott tackled in Work, and the central focus is the title character’s “whim”—Anna’s wish that men treat women the same way they treat each other.

Notes: The passing reference to a Mrs. Grundy (page 827) is to a narrowly conventional or priggish person, after a character in Thomas Morton’s 1798 play Speed the Plough. The mad gentleman and Mrs. Nickleby (p. 839) are allusions to Dickens’s Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, specifically when Nicholas’s mother rejects the advances of their neighbor and becomes convinced that he went mad because of her rejection. “Put my fortune to the touch and win or lose it all” (p. 844) is a paraphrase of two lines from the poem “My dear and only love” (1643) by James Graham, Marquess of Montrose.

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“Now just look at that!” cried a young lady, pausing suddenly in her restless march. . . . 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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