Friday, March 27, 2015

The Fall of Richmond

Sallie Brock (1831–1911)
From The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It

By the spring of 1865 Robert E. Lee’s army of about 60,000 men held a line in Virginia that extended from outside the Confederate capital, Richmond, forty miles south to Petersburg. In an attempt to open an escape route to the west for his army, Lee attacked Fort Stedman, a Union strongpoint east of Petersburg, on March 25. The attack failed, and about 3,000 Confederates were killed, wounded, or captured.

The defeat marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War. After heavy fighting on March 31, Union forces advanced on Five Forks, a crossroads about twelve miles southwest of Petersburg defended by a force of 10,000 under Major General George E. Pickett, who had been ordered by Lee to hold the position “at all hazards.” On the afternoon of April 1 the Union Army broke the Confederate lines at Five Forks. General Ulysses S. Grant then ordered an assault on the Petersburg defenses at dawn on Sunday, April 2. Within hours Lee telegraphed the Confederate War Department that both Petersburg and Richmond would have to be abandoned that night.

It is with Jefferson Davis’s receipt of that message that Sallie Brock begins the following account, which describes the fall of Richmond—and the devastation caused entirely by the actions of the fleeing Confederate military. After a triumphant entry, Union soldiers struggled to put out the fires, but it is clear from accounts that the conflagration was far too widespread—and the damage was already far too extensive—for any effort to save much of the city. On Tuesday, April 4, President Lincoln ignored the concerns for his safety and entered Richmond with his son Tad to meet with Union leaders, speak with the residents, and survey the damage.

In a later chapter of her account Brock describes the effects of the city’s destruction on the population:

The miseries of our situation which would have been incalculable at best were inconceivably enhanced by the disastrous burning of the business portion of the city. Nearly all the supplies of food were kept in the stores which were consumed by the fire and our poor people were almost totally dependent upon the mercy of the captors. For several months no remunerative employment could be obtained by the masses and they were compelled to live by charity.
Born in Madison County, Virginia, Brock had moved with her family to Richmond in 1858. In early 1861 she was working as a tutor about fifty miles away, in King and Queen County, but returned to Richmond when the war began and remained there for its duration. After the fall of Richmond she moved to New York City and two years later anonymously published her account of the war, which has remained in print for most of the past century and a half. In 1873 she published a poorly received (and soon forgotten) novel, Kenneth, My King, described by one recent scholar as “four hundred pages of courtship.” In 1882 Brock briefly returned to Virginia to marry Richard Putnam, an Episcopal minister from Boston. The couple lived in Brooklyn for the rest of their lives, but both were buried in Richmond.

Notes: The footnote on page 643 refers to the marriage of Lieutenant Colonel Walter H. Taylor, an assistant adjutant general on General Lee’s staff, to Ellen Selden Saunders. A receiving ship (p. 644) is a vessel where new recruits were sent to await service assignments. The “long lines of negro cavalry” (p. 646) were members of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Charles Francis Adams Jr. The “morbidly sensitive clause” mocked on the last page was included in General George Shepley’s order of April 3: “No treasonable or offensive expressions insulting the flag, the cause or the armies of the Union will hereafter be allowed.”
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The morning of the 2d of April, 1865, dawned brightly over the capital of the Southern Confederacy. A soft haze rested over the city, but above that, the sun shone with the warm pleasant radiance of early spring. . . . 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, March 20, 2015

His New Mittens

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

Winter Sports in the Gutter, 1875, oil on canvas by British-American painter John George Brown (1831–1913). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
In early 1897 Stephen Crane began work on what became a series of stories and sketches set in the fictional town of Whilomville, modeled on Port Jervis, New York, where he lived for five years while a young boy. (The word whilom is an archaic word meaning in the past.) Most of the fifteen stories are about childhood, but the first and longest, his novella “The Monster,” is a disturbing tale about disfigurement and prejudice. It was published in the August 1898 issue of Harper’s magazine and, although greeted with mixed reviews (a couple of them quite hostile), it is now widely regarded as Crane’s final masterpiece.

A few months before “The Monster” appeared, Crane went to Cuba to cover the Spanish American War and while on board the ship he wrote the second Whilomville tale, “His New Mittens.” At the end of May, in need (as always) of money, he sent the story to his agent and requested payment both for its magazine publication and for his next book. When his publisher hesitated paying for the book proposed by Crane, he wrote again, this time with despair tinged with anger:
I am all fuzzy with money troubles and last night a writ was served on me by a leading creditor. . . . I must have every pennie that you can wrest from the enemy. . . . Ask them why they don’t print “The Blue Hotel” and “His New Mittens” in one volume with the “Monster” and then pay up like little men. . . . I fail to see where they get such a hell of a right to decide as to what stories shall be published in a book that bears my name in a damn sight bigger type than it bears their imprint.
The three stories finally appeared in December as The Monster and Other Stories. It was the last of Crane’s books published during his lifetime.

At first glance “His New Mittens” seems to be a somewhat sentimental tale about a young boy prohibited by his mother from participating in a snowball fight and taunted by the neighborhood gang: “A-fray-ed of his mittens!” An anonymous reviewer in the April 1900 issue of Book Buyer singled out this aspect of the story for praise: “Mr. Crane has made for himself a distinctive place among the interpreters of child life and the workings of the child mind.” But the poet John Berryman, who interviewed a number of Crane’s contemporaries, believed the impetus for the story occurred when Crane’s ship to Cuba stalked a Spanish destroyer and the captain loudly mocked his affectations of bravery, calling him a “damned frayed tholepin.” His fellow correspondents on the boat mercilessly mocked the “pajama-clad and sardonic” author, addressing him as “Lord Tholepin” until they were distracted by other events. In a recent biography, Paul Sorrentino likewise argues that readers can see “Crane’s thinly veiled disguise of himself”:
A waif like Horace? Crane had considered himself a loner since childhood. Exiled? He was persona non grata in New York City. Friendless? He had a few close friends, but believed he was destined to drift through life by himself. Poor? He had joined the Cuban campaign to defray his mounting debts in England.
The year after leaving Cuba, Crane finished thirteen additional Whilomville pieces, which were published as a series in Harper’s, and he expressed the hope that all the stories set in his fictional town would eventually be gathered in a single volume. The new tales—without “The Monster” and “His New Mittens,” however—were published as Whilomville Stories two months after he died from tuberculosis in the spa town of Badenweiler, Germany, in June 1900. He was twenty-eight years old.

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Little Horace was walking home from school, brilliantly decorated by a pair of new red mittens. A number of boys were snow-balling gleefully in a field. They hailed him. “Come on, Horace. We’re having a battle.” . . . 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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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Franklin D. Roosevelt Inaugurated Tomorrow

A sketch from As Thousands Cheer

Moss Hart (1904–1961)
From American Musicals: The Complete Books and Lyrics of 16 Broadway Classics 1927–1969

After the success of their musical comedy Face the Music in 1932, Irving Berlin and Moss Hart agreed to collaborate on a follow-up Broadway production. Hart told The New York Times:
The idea for As Thousands Cheer was broached to me by Mr. Berlin more than a year ago, before I had journeyed westward to the city of dreadful night known as Hollywood. We both agreed that we had no desire to do a conventional sort of revue with the usual blackout sketches, songs and dances. So we hit upon the idea of writing a topical revue right off the front pages of the newspapers.
Each song or sketch was introduced by a projected newspaper headline, one that either contextualized the material to follow or provided an ironic contrast. “Whatever satire there may be in the piece,” Berlin told an interviewer, was “really implicit in the news items.”

Alternating sketches, songs, and dance numbers, annual revues had been the most elaborate and popular offerings of any given theatrical season since before the First World War. According to Laurence Maslon,
As Thousands Cheer represents “the best, and one of the last, examples of the revue form—a potent genre that dominated Broadway for two decades.” The show opened at the Music Box on September 30, 1933, and ran for four hundred performances—the second biggest hit of Berlin’s pre-WWII career, behind The Music Box Revue of 1921. (It was never filmed; the 1943 MGM film Thousands Cheer bears no relation to the Berlin-Hart collaboration.)

As Thousands Cheer opens with an extended triple-scene prologue before launching into its first sketch, “Franklin D. Roosevelt Inaugurated Tomorrow.” In November 1932—less than a year before the show’s opening night—Roosevelt, in a landslide, defeated the incumbent Herbert Hoover by 57.4 to 39.6 percent of the popular vote. The curtains open with the outgoing president (played by Leslie Adams) and Mrs. Hoover (Helen Broderick) packing up their belongings in the Oval Office on the eve of the inauguration—the last, as it happens, to occur on March 4. It was unheard of for a Broadway musical to portray still-living, real-life subjects, and (as Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon point out in Make ‘Em Laugh) this scene was also “the first time an actual president was parodied in front of a live audience.” In fact, Berlin had originally composed a musical number for Helen Broderick with a chorus ending, “In a humbler place we'll have to dwell, / But a silk hat or a derby, / You will always be my Herbie, / And those twenty million people can go to hell.” It was dropped during rehearsals.

Notes: On page 100 the Hoovers discuss Ogden Mills, Hoover’s secretary of the Treasury during the last year of his administration; he succeeded Andrew Mellon, who resigned after impeachment proceedings were begun against him in Congress. A few lines later, Mrs. Hoover mentions a medicine ball, used when Hoover played an arduous version of volleyball with his staff on the South Lawn of the White House; they became known as the Medicine Ball Cabinet. In the final section of the sketch, several members of the Hoover administration are lampooned. Charles Curtis was Hoover’s vice president and former Senate majority leader. Born and raised on a Kaw reservation in Kansas Territory, he was the first man with significant American Indian ancestry elected to national office. Dolly Gann was Curtis’s half-sister; when his wife died, she assumed the role of his social ambassador and created a scandal when she “pulled rank” over other congressional wives at state dinners and functions. Henry Stimson was secretary of state. As the sketch closes, the Hoovers sing lines from “Tony’s Wife” and “Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love),” two songs popular during Hoover’s last year in office.
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Scene: The curtains part to disclose the famous “Oval Room” of the White House, which Mr. and Mrs. Hoover use as a sitting room to their bedroom. . . . 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, March 6, 2015

The Lightning-Rod Man

Herman Melville (1819–1891)
From Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, & Uncollected Prose

The Storm, oil on canvas, 1885, by American painter George Inness (1825–1894). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
For more than a century and a half, readers have puzzled over the inspiration for and meaning of Herman Melville’s comic tale “The Lightning-Rod Man,” which one contemporary compared to “Poe in his strangest mood.” In the 1940s John Leyda, who performed the scholarly groundwork for much of the information that has come down to us about Melville’s life, heard from Helen Gansevoort Morewood (the granddaughter of Melville’s brother) that the story was known in the family “as an encounter that Melville had had with a real lightning-rod salesman, who chose times of storm to pursue his trade.” This interesting biographical tidbit might be apocryphal, but Leyda adds that in 1853 “the Berkshires were enduring an intense lightning-rod sales campaign, with advertisements and warnings and editorials on the subject in all the Berkshire papers.” Other chroniclers have confirmed the ubiquitous presence of peddlers selling such products across the American countryside during this decade; you can see an 1859 advertisement for a copper lightning rod (like the one in Melville’s story) here.

Leyda also notes that, about the time Melville wrote this story, the Pittsfield Library Association acquired a copy of Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, “a troubling and frightening record of religion in its most fiercely bullying and bigoted aspect.” Numerous scholars agree that Melville must have been familiar with Mather’s work, which contains a chapter titled "Ceraunius. Relating remarkables done by thunder" and includes the warning “make your peace with God immediately, lest by the stroke of his thunder he take you away in his wrath.” Thus, Melville could be portraying “a fear-instilling religionist playing the role of the peddler” (to quote the masterful biography by Hershel Parker) or, more generally, “sneering at proponents of the stern religious notion that God can strike sinners out of stormy clouds” (A Herman Melville Encyclopedia).

The literary critic William B. Dillingham argues persuasively, however, for a more complex reading of Melville’s “peculiar and elusive” tale. “The source of its strangeness is not so much the storm that rages in it or even the characterization of the salesman (though admittedly he is not your everyday Fuller Brush Man), but the narrator, who from the first paragraph is a highly unusual person.” The story’s peddler, far from being the voice of religious fear and dogma, “is the voice of science” and everything he says about “lightning rods and lightning is examined closely and measured against scientific fact” (at least as it was understood at the time). Dillingham cautions against equating the salesman merely with “Christian dogma, Satan, or Fear” and he concludes that Melville’s purpose “is not to present one character as good and the other as evil but to show through the ironic use of a Christian frame of reference how each views the other.” In other words, “Each of the two characters sees himself as righteous and the other as Satanic.”*

Although “The Lightning-Rod Man” is one of Melville’s lesser-known works, it was perhaps the most widely read of his stories during his lifetime and the only one that remained in print from its publication until his death. In 1858 it was included in William E. Burton’s Cyclopaedia of Wit and Humor, which was reprinted frequently until the end of the century. (Four years after Melville’s death the tale was also included alongside selections by Hawthorne, Irving, and Twain in Capital Stories by American Authors, published by The Christian Herald.) In the Burton anthology Melville’s story was accompanied by a drawing, making it—according to the Critical Companion to Herman Melville—“the only one of his signed works to appear with an original illustration during his lifetime.”

* Dillingham’s essay on “The Lightning-Rod Man” was published in Melville’s Short Fiction, 1853–1856 (1977), pages 168–82.

Notes: The Acroceraunian hills, more commonly known as the Ceraunian Mountains, are in southwestern Albania; as the Greek name (“thunder-split peaks”) implies, the region is famous for its lightning storms. Johann Tetzel (mentioned on page 762) became the Grand Commissioner for indulgences in Germany in 1517 and was accused for granting full forgiveness of sins in exchange for money, a practice assailed by Martin Luther.

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What grand irregular thunder, thought I, standing on my hearthstone among the Acroceraunian hills, as the scattered bolts boomed overhead and crashed down among the valleys, every bolt followed by zigzag irradiations, and swift slants of sharp rain, which audibly rang, like a charge of spear-points, on my low shingled roof. . . . 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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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Selma, Alabama: The Charms of Goodness

Elizabeth Hardwick (1916–2007)
From Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973

SNCC leader John Lewis cringes as a state trooper swings a billy club at Lewis’s head during the first attempted march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Lewis escaped and was later admitted to a local hospital with a skull fracture. UPI telephoto, photographer unknown. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
This month (March 2015) marks the fiftieth anniversary of the three historic civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama. At the beginning of 1965 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference threw its support behind a voter registration campaign in Dallas County, where Selma is the county seat. Although the county was 57% black in 1961, only 130 of the 15,000 eligible African American voters were registered. As the campaign ramped up, county sheriff Jim Clark coordinated mass arrests of would-be voters and supporters at the Selma courthouse on January 19, and another 700 people were arrested during a protest march on February 1.

During a subsequent demonstration on February 18 in nearby Marion, church deacon and local activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was fatally wounded by a state trooper. In response, SCLC leaders scheduled a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital. On March 7, as marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were blocked by state police and sheriff’s deputies and several hundred were clubbed and tear-gassed. One of the march’s organizers, John Lewis (today a member of Congress from Georgia), suffered a skull fracture when a state trooper struck him on the head with a billy club. Photographs and news footage of the travesty, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” circulated across the nation and fueled calls for the federal government to step in.

On March 9 Martin Luther King Jr. led two thousand people across the bridge for a second attempt at a march to Montgomery but turned back to Selma after a federal district judge issued a temporary restraining order. That night James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, was attacked by a group of white men and died of his injuries two days later. Later that year three suspects were indicted and acquitted; the case is still considered “open.”

A few days after the second attempted march, the federal judge lifted his restraining order and enjoined state and local authorities from interfering. Led by King, the marchers left Selma on March 21 under federal military protection and arrived four days later outside of the state capitol in Montgomery, where a rally attended by 25,000 people was held. That same night Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights volunteer from Detroit, was shot and killed by Klansmen in nearby Lowndes County. Four men were arrested the next day; one of the men turned out to be an FBI informant and became a witness for the prosecution. The other three were convicted of civil rights violations in a federal trial and sentenced to ten years in prison, but, after one of the suspects died during the state trial, the surviving two were acquitted of the more serious murder charges.

In the midst of this chaotic month, Kentucky native and New York Review of Books cofounder Elizabeth Hardwick traveled to Selma and participated in the third march. On the second night of the trek to Montgomery, she wrote the following reflective essay, describing the countryside and its people and admitting that the “intellectual life in New York and the radical life of the Thirties are the worst possible preparation for Alabama at this stage of the Civil Rights movement.” Her essay appeared in the New York Review the following month.

Notes: In the opening sentences, Hardwick refers to several characters from William Faulkner’s fiction: the Snopes family, members of which appear in several works; National Guard captain Percy Grimm (incorrectly identified as Peter Grimm), who kills Joe Christmas in Light in August; and Quentin Compton and Miss Rosa Coldfield, from Absalom, Absalom!, the source for the quote “empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names.” The Hollywood Ten (p. 357) were screenwriters who refused on First Amendment grounds to answer questions about their membership in the Communist party when they were subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947. They were subsequently convicted of contempt of Congress. On page 358 are references to Herzog, a 1964 novel by Saul Bellow and Les Mots, a 1964 autobiography by Jean-Paul Sartre. Billy Eckstine (p. 359) was an African American jazz singer.

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What a sad countryside it is, the home of the pain of the Confederacy, the birthplace of the White Citizens Council. . . . 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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