Friday, January 30, 2015

In Dark New England Days

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

“You stole it, you thief!” Line drawing by American illustrator Edward Windsor Kemble (1861–1933)
for “In Dark New England Days,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (1890). Image courtesy of
The Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project.
In August 1885 Sarah Orne Jewett complained in a letter to a friend about the relative scarcity of good reading to counteract the effects of “trashy newspapers and sensational novels” on her neighbors:
How seldom a book comes that stirs the minds and hearts of the good men and women of such a village as this, for instance. One might say that they are not readers by nature or that they do not get their learning in this way, but the truth must be recognized that few books are written for and from their standpoint. That they have read certain books proves that they would read others if they had them. And whoever adds to this department of literature will do an inestimable good, will see that a simple, helpful way of looking at life and speaking the truth about it—“To see life steadily, and see it whole,” as Matthew Arnold says—in what we are pleased to call its everyday aspects must bring out the best sort of writing. My dear father used to say to me very often, “Tell things just as they are!”
In her own novels and stories Jewett focused on the “everyday aspects” of villages like the one in which she lived. Her fiction, writes scholar Josephine Donovan, marked the culmination of “a new movement in American literature,” one that “expressed a conscious rejection of the earlier tradition of women’s literature with its romantic ‘heroines’ and ‘sentimental histories.’” Jewett instead portrayed the people she knew. “A dull little country village is just the place to find the real drama of life,” she told an interviewer.

She could still write the occasional Gothic tale to compete with the best of her peers, however, and her stories often caused her contemporaries to point out the parallels between her fiction and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s—much to her exasperation. “It seems very foolish to say my stories are like Hawthorne’s and I wonder why people do!” she wrote to a friend in 1877. “They don’t seem a bit alike to me.” Nevertheless, later critics continued to confirm the influence. Most prominent among them, perhaps, was the literary historian F. O. Matthiessen, who called Jewett “the daughter of Hawthorne’s style” in a 1929 treatise.

More recently Marilee Lindemann, in a chapter on Jewett in Modern American Women Writers, specifically points to “In Dark New England Days” as “a Hawthornesque parable of the repressiveness of New England’s past that shows two sisters, Betsey and Hannah Knowles, deprived first by a stern, tyrannical father and then by a thief.” Yet even in her gloomier tales, Jewett presents characters similar to those that populate all her fiction: women living alone or in pairs, often precariously, sometimes successfully, but always struggling toward independence.

Note: On page 125, Mrs. Downs recommends hoarhound [horehound], elecampane, and “warm roots” to make a medicinal concoction to address Hannah’s illness. The 1897 edition of The Cottage Physician contains folk remedies using these ingredients for both cough syrup and “Female Restorative Strengthening Syrup.”

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The last of the neighbors was going home; officious Mrs. Peter Downs had lingered late and sought for additional housework with which to prolong her stay. . . . 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, January 23, 2015

The Ghost of the Gridiron

W. C. Heinz (1915–2008)
From The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz

Advertisement for the Shotwell Candy Company’s Red Grange Milk Chocolate Nut Bar, circa 1926. Image courtesy of the Wheaton College Archives.
W. C. Heinz, born 100 years ago this month, got his start in journalism covering World War II alongside the likes of Ernest Hemingway, who at one point had to borrow Heinz’s Remington portable when his own typewriter broke. (“It writes very well,” commented Hemingway. “Sure, but it writes a hell of a lot better for you than it does for me,” was Heinz’s riposte.) When Heinz returned from the war, the editors of The New York Sun planned to post him to the Washington bureau, but he preferred covering sports. “He wanted to write about more than wins and losses,” remarks John Schulian. “He wanted to dig deep into the games that transfixed the nation, and the men who played and coached them, and the forces that drove those men, sometimes to the limits of courage and nobility. In doing so he refined a style that employed the techniques of fiction—scenes, dialogue, character—and would two decades later be hailed as the New Journalism.”

When the Sun closed its doors in 1950, Bill continued writing for magazines. In his introduction to the newly published collection The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz, Bill Littlefield notes a progression in Heinz’s career: “The columns had been brilliant gems. The magazine stories had given Heinz a greater opportunity to talk with the family, teammates, and acquaintances of the subjects, and with people who’d been at the few great events Bill had missed. Then, in the chapters of Once They Heard the Cheers, Heinz found the space to say what wouldn’t fit in the magazine stories.”

In a career of noteworthy achievements, two other successes stand out. Heinz’s novel The Professional, still beloved by readers, received a mere two responses from fans in the weeks after it was published. The first was from Hemingway himself, who cabled the publisher a few days after the book appeared, calling it “the only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter and an excellent first novel in its own right.” The second was a letter by a fledgling novelist named Elmore Leonard, who would later recall “the first and only time in my life I wrote to the author to tell him how much I like his book.” Another notable achievement was his collaboration with H. Richard Hornberger on MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors, which they published under the pseudonym Richard Hooker and which inspired, of course, the movie and the television series.

Among Heinz’s most enduring sports profiles is “The Ghost of the Gridiron,” a retrospective look, more than two decades later, at Harold “Red” Grange’s career and its extraordinary impact on the popularity of football. Despite the nostalgic tone that pervades the piece, both writer and subject were still relatively young men when it was published in 1958. Grange lived another thirty-three years, until the day after Super Bowl XXV in 1991, while Heinz had a full half-century ahead of him, dying in 2008 at the age of 93.

Note: Amelita Galli-Curci (1882–1963), mentioned on page 231, was an Italian opera singer who immigrated in 1916 to the United States and became a member of the Chicago Opera Company and, later, the Metropolitan Opera. She was one of the earliest singers to gain fame through the popularity of gramophone recordings.

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When I was ten years old I paid ten cents to see Red Grange run with a football. That was the year when, one afternoon a week, after school was out for the day, they used to show us movies in the auditorium, and we would all troop up there clutching our dimes, nickels, or pennies in our fists. . . . 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, January 16, 2015

The Evicted

Fred Travis (1917–1998)
From Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973

Family living in “Tent City” following their eviction from their land when adults tried to register to vote in Fayette County, TN. Photographer unknown, c. 1960. Image in the University of Memphis Special Collections, courtesy of the Tent City website.
In 1960 John Doar, a newly appointed assistant attorney general for the U.S. Civil Rights Division in the Eisenhower administration, struggled to convince the FBI to investigate reports that white landowners and business proprietors had been evicting and otherwise punishing black sharecroppers who registered to vote in two western Tennessee counties of Fayette and Haywood. Although the populations for both counties were heavily African American, virtually all registered voters were white. In Fayette County alone, only fifty-eight of the approximately 9,000 eligible black voters had been allowed to register to vote by 1959, and a registration campaign refereed by the federal government in the summer of 1960 met with stiff opposition by white officials. Yet J. Edgar Hoover initially rebuffed the request to investigate the matter. As Taylor Branch recounts in Parting the Waters, when the Civil Rights Division attorneys insisted, the bureau relented, but Doar quickly understood “that Hoover’s attitude could fine-tune the hypersensitive FBI bureaucracy. . . . The Haywood County case was getting the tarpaper.”

Fed up with the FBI’s recalcitrance, Doar went to Tennessee himself, collecting fifty affidavits from black sharecroppers who had kept their eviction notices and tracking down white residents who were disturbed by what was happening and were willing to testify. According to Branch, the conspirators had “gone so far as to obtain legal opinions for how best to prevent Negro registration without getting caught in federal violations.” As a result of his fieldwork, Doar was able to add several dozen defendants to the federal lawsuit against those who participated in the campaign to prohibit black citizens from voting. In the end, more than seventy landowners were named in each of the two suits filed in Haywood and Fayette counties.

Fred Travis, a reporter for the Chattanooga Times, had been following the story and he visited the area to learn what was happening to the families who had been evicted. Shepard Towles, a black landowner, had permitted them to live in tents on his property, but the strain on his water supply caused the well to run dry. Gertrude Beasley, another nearby black landowner, took in some of the families to relieve the burden on Towles’s resources. At one point, more than a dozen extended families, including one hundred children, lived in what became known as “Tent City”—some staying for nearly two years. Travis’s report, “The Evicted,” appeared in the February 1961 issue of The Progressive.

The case brought by the Civil Rights Division worked its way through the courts, and the outcome was bittersweet. The Haywood County lawsuit was settled out of court in May 1962, and the Fayette County suit was resolved two months later when the Federal District Court issued a consent decree. In both cases, the white defendants agreed to cease their attempts to engage “in any acts . . . for the purpose of interfering with the right of any person to register to vote and to vote for candidates for public office.” Yet none of the evicted tenants regained their leases. Similarly, none of the defendants paid court costs or fines for their transgressions, and the decision in Fayette County was handed down “without constituting evidence of admission with respect to the issues of fact.” All other pending lawsuits against the officials and landowners were dismissed.
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Mrs. Georgia Mae Turner grubbed at a shallow trench with a cotton hoe, trying to drain a puddle of water in front of her tent in a camp called “Freedom Village” three miles south of Somerville, Tennessee. . . . 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, January 10, 2015

The White Silence

Jack London (1876–1916)
From Jack London: Novels & Stories

“Yukon Dog Team Freighting Through Alaskan Canyon," photographic postcard, tinted, c. 1910–15. Printed by the Edward H. Mitchell Company (series #1990). The original photograph was taken circa 1897 and distributed in several forms by the Juneau-based studio of Lloyd Winter and E. Percy Pond.
At the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, twenty-one-year-old Jack London headed to the Yukon with his brother-in-law and spent the winter of 1898 in a cabin south of Dawson City. By the spring he was suffering from advanced scurvy. When the river ice began to melt, his friends made a raft from the timbers of their cabin and, accompanied by a medical doctor from the camp, London headed to Dawson, where his recovery was aided by a diet of potatoes. He would lose four front teeth from the disease, adding to the several he had lost as a teenager “cheerfully somewhere in a fight” (as one of his teachers later recalled). With two new companions, he then traveled 1,500 miles down the Yukon River in a small boat and, helped along by the kindness of strangers, headed on a steamer to Port Townsend, Washington. From there, he took a ship back to San Francisco, arriving in July.

Returning home to Oakland with gold dust in his pockets worth less than five dollars, London resolved to become a writer. His early stories were based on his experiences in the Klondike, but his very first inquiry was met with the response, “Interest in Alaska has subsided in an amazing degree.” He would eventually collect over 650 rejection slips, most of which are housed today in the archives of the Huntington Library.

Barely making ends meet, London finally found a magazine interested in his stories. The editors of the low-paying—and notoriously slow-paying—Overland Monthly agreed to publish eight of them during the course of 1899. One of the selections, bearing the title “Northland Episode” when it had been previously refused by other magazines, was “The White Silence.” Soon after reading it, the San Francisco Chronicle’s weekly book columnist wrote, “I would rather have written ‘The White Silence’ than any thing that has seen the light in fiction in ten years.”

Five of the Overland stories, including “The White Silence,” portray Malemute Kid, a Yukon native living among white settlements. The Malemute Kid stories made London famous, particularly when the sixth in the series, “An Odyssey of the North,” was published in January 1900 by the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, which paid him $120—three times as much as he had received for the first five tales combined. All six, along with the other three selections that had appeared in Overland, were collected in London’s first book, The Son of the Wolf.

London scholar James I. McClintock has argued, “Jack London identified himself strongly with Malemute Kid and saw him, probably, as an idealized extension of himself.” The author himself confirmed his empathy for the Kid in letters to Cloudesley Johns, a postmaster in a remote California desert town who became London’s first true fan. After Johns apparently cautioned against the risk of romanticizing the Kid, London admitted, “In the June tale he will not appear at all, or even be mentioned. You surprise me with the aptness of your warning, telling me I may learn to love him too well myself. I am afraid I am rather stuck on him—not on the one in print, but the one in my brain. I doubt if I ever shall get him in print.”

Notes: The first page of the story, Mason mentions an Epworth to refer to a chapter of a Methodist religious organization for young adults. The distance between Arctic City and Fort Yukon (p. 299), which Mason uses as a hypothetical example of a telephone line, was 200 miles. (This was not farfetched in the late 1890s: The February 1900 issue of Popular Science Monthly reports that telephone service had been established within Dawson City, and two lines allowed communication “with the nearer mining region.”) A gee-pole (p. 300) is the steering shaft lashed to the front of a dog sled. The ice-run (p. 304) is the spring break-up of ice rushing down the river.

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“Carmen won’t last more than a couple of days.” Mason spat out a chunk of ice and surveyed the poor animal ruefully, then put her foot in his mouth and proceeded to bite out the ice which clustered cruelly between the toes. . . . 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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