Friday, June 26, 2015

Letter from the Dust Bowl

Caroline Henderson (1877–1966)
From American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Dust storm in Hooker, Oklahoma, June 4, 1937. Image from the Oklahoma Historical Society, via PBS.
Beginning in the spring of 1934, vast dust storms buried the high plains of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas under millions of tons of wind-blown soil and darkened skies as far away as Chicago and New York City. While visiting Boise City, Oklahoma, an Associated Press reporter Robert E. Geiger witnessed one of the worst storms on April 14, 1935—often remembered as “Black Sunday”—and his dispatch included the first use of the term “Dust Bowl,” the name by which both the area and the era came to be known.

Soon after Black Sunday, Congress established the Soil Conservation Service, and by December more than 30,000 workers had been assigned to erosion control projects. They were working against insurmountable odds; severe winds carried off much of the topsoil during a record-breaking drought, and the problem was exacerbated by years of over-farming. The destruction of livelihoods and the deterioration in living conditions caused an estimated two-and-a-half million people to migrate from the affected areas to other regions of the country.

Caroline Henderson was one of the farmers who chose to stay. From 1931 to 1937 The Atlantic published a series of letters she exchanged with Evelyn Harris, a widow who managed a farm in Maryland. Initially the correspondence appeared under the heading “Letters of Two Women Farmers,” but the title changed to “Letters from the Dust Bowl” as Henderson’s contributions riveted the attention of American readers and even prompted praise from Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. Her eyewitness accounts were featured in Ken Burns’s 2012 documentary, The Dust Bowl.

One of the more remarkable installments in the series was a letter that Henderson sent eighty years ago, on June 30, 1935, only ten weeks after Black Sunday. This week’s selection is preceded by a headnote, written by Bill McKibben, that includes additional information on Henderson’s hardscrabble career as a farmer.

Note: Henderson’s daughter Eleanor, mentioned in the letter, was a medical student at the University of Kansas. She went on to graduate in 1937 and became an anesthesiologist.

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Your continued interest in our effort to ‘tie a knot in the end of the rope and hang on’ is most stimulating. . . . 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 19, 2015

I Go Adventuring

Helen Keller (1880–1968)
From Writing New York: A Literary Anthology

Born in Alabama, Helen Keller attended a college preparatory school for the deaf in New York City for two years in the mid-1890s (she was the only blind student); it was during this period she met and befriended Mark Twain and many other celebrities. Two decades later, her love for the city convinced her and her guide, Anne Sullivan, to move to Forest Hills (a suburb in Queens) at the age of thirty-seven. They lived there for nearly twenty years.

Her impressions of New York can be found throughout her writings. In “I Go Adventuring,” from her 1929 memoir Midstream, she described her occasional jaunts to Manhattan and what she “saw” through her own senses of smell and touch and the descriptions given to her by friends. Elsewhere in the book, she wrote, “Fifth Avenue, for example, has a different odor from any other part of New York or elsewhere. Indeed, it is very odorous street. It may sound like a joke to say that it has an aristocratic smell, but it has, nevertheless.” When asked three years later what she could possibly have “seen” from the top of the Empire State Building, Keller responded in a breathtakingly beautiful letter:
I will concede that my guides saw a thousand things that escaped me from the top of the Empire Building, but I am not envious. For imagination creates distances that reach to the end of the world. . . . There was the Hudson—more like the flash of a sword-blade than a noble river. The little island of Manhattan, set like a jewel in its nest of rainbow waters, stared up into my face, and the solar system circled about my head! . . . Well, I see in the Empire Building something else—passionate skill, arduous and fearless idealism. The tallest building is a victory of imagination.
Throughout her adulthood, but particularly earlier in her career, she faced skepticism over her abilities and criticism for her choice of language. In an essay on Keller for The New Yorker, the novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick reports how Thomas Cutsworth, a blind psychologist who was Keller’s contemporary, assailed her use of color and pictorial words, arguing that the prevalence of visual imagery showed the influence of her teachers rather than originality of her own thought. But Keller wrote in response to such criticism that the deaf-blind person “seizes every word of sight and hearing, because his sensations compel it. Light and color, of which he has no tactual evidence, he studies fearlessly, believing that all humanly knowable truth is open to him.” Or, as Ozick concludes in agreement, “She was an artist. She imagined.”

Note: Among the four friends who accompany Helen Keller to Manhattan is Edward L. Holmes, an architect she knew from her school days in Cambridge, when he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A native of California who had hosted her on visit to San Francisco, he had moved to New York in the 1920s.
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Cut off as I am, it is inevitable that I should sometimes feel like a shadow walking in a shadowy world. When this happens I ask to be taken to New York City. . . . 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 12, 2015

A Psychological Shipwreck

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

Detail from Woman on Ship Deck, Looking out to Sea, circa 1895, monotype on cream Japanese paper by American artist Maurice Prendergast (1858–1924). Click on image to see the full painting. Courtesy of WikiArt.
In early 1877 Ambrose Bierce was hired as associate editor of the Argonaut, a new San Francisco magazine. Although the publisher hoped to make it a political journal, Bierce had plans to rival such literary reviews as the Overland Monthly (edited by Bret Harte), which had published his first story six years earlier. In the debut issue of the Argonaut, Bierce announced, “It is my intention to purify journalism in this town by instructing such writers as it is worthwhile to instruct, and assassinating those it is not.” Wielding his pen as a weapon, he particularly savaged local scribblers who fancied themselves poets.

During his two-year stint on the Argonaut staff, Bierce “returned to his lifelong obsession with the macabre,” according to biographer Roy Morris Jr. Mixed in with rants against bad poetry, political misconduct, and sloppy journalism were numerous accounts on the region’s more grisly murders and suicides. Bierce also collaborated with two friends on a literary hoax called The Dance of Death, by “William Herman,” which condemned—using unabashedly lewd language—the “shameless gratification of sexual desire” caused by the latest fad to hit the San Francisco culture scene: ballroom dancing. Bierce then wrote a scathing review of the book (“an indecent exposure of the author’s mind!”), which he published in his own magazine. Endorsed by gullible religious authorities who believed the work to be a sincere effort, the book sold eighteen thousand copies.

Although his writing appeared in every issue, Bierce wrote only two new short stories for the pages of the Argonaut—his first pieces of fiction in several years. The second, “My Shipwreck,” appeared in the spring of 1879, near the end of his tenure. He later changed the title to “A Psychological Shipwreck” and included the story in his collection Can Such Things Be?

For over a century, “A Psychological Shipwreck” has been a favorite for inclusion in anthologies, particularly of weird tales or science fiction classics. Readers have puzzled and argued over how the clues scattered by Bierce throughout the compact, four-page story fit together. What is the relationship between Janette Harford and William Jarrett? Might they be distantly related? Is the other William Jarrett her biological father? And as for “Denneker’s Meditations,” the book that plays such a pivotal role in the story: don’t waste time looking for a copy in the library. It’s entirely the creation of Bierce’s storytelling imagination, although the fictitious author’s name seems to be a nod to Jost de Negker (often spelled Denekker in nineteenth-century sources), an engraver who published several editions of Hans Holbein’s infamous sixteenth-century series of woodcuts, The Dance of Death.

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In the summer of 1874 I was in Liverpool, whither I had gone on business for the mercantile house of Bronson & Jarrett, New York. . . . 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 5, 2015

Letter to His Old Master

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)
From Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass in 1848, the
year he wrote his open letter to his former master.
Albert Cook Myers Collection, Chester County
Historical Society. Image courtesy of
In September 1848, ten years after he had escaped from slavery and two years after he had purchased his freedom for roughly $1,250, Frederick Douglass printed in North Star, the abolitionist newspaper he had founded the previous year, an open letter to his former master Thomas Auld. The document “is one of the strangest pieces in the literature of American slavery,” acknowledges biographer William S. McFeely, who points out that some of the actions attributed to Auld personally were actually committed by relatives, overseers, or nearby plantation owners. In Douglass’s letter, “Auld is made to stand in for all slaveholders.”

The Aulds appear to have closely followed the career of the most famous person ever to have lived in their household. “One of the most interesting items in the Maryland State Archive,” McFeely adds, “is a copy of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with marginal comments—more perplexed than angry—written by a member of the Auld family who went through that book noting where it errs as to fact.” Thus, it is nearly certain that Douglass’s open letter, later reprinted in 1855 as an appendix to his best-selling My Bondage and My Freedom, made its way to the target.

In October 1859, after giving a lecture in National Hall (Philadelphia), Douglass received a message revealing that Amanda Sears, the daughter of Thomas Auld, had been in the audience. Included was the address of her husband’s business in West Philadelphia. As Douglass later recounted in his Life and Times, the two men soon met, but John Sears was reluctant to allow a reunion with his wife because the former slave “had done his father-in-law injustice, for he was really a kind-hearted man, and a good master.” Douglass responded “that there must be two sides to the relation of master and slave, and what was deemed kind and just to the one was the opposite to the other.” After a lengthy conversation, Sears agreed to host him at home the next day. Although Douglass had not seen Amanda Auld Sears since she was a child of six or seven, he recognized her immediately in the crowd gathered in the family parlor, whereupon “Amanda made haste to tell me that she agreed with me about slavery, and that she had freed all her slaves as they had become of age.” They both reminisced about her mother, who had died while she was a child and whom Douglass always recalled fondly in his writings. Douglass and Amanda Sears kept in touch, seeing each other on at least two more occasions before her death in 1878.

Soon after that first meeting, Thomas Auld visited Philadelphia, learned of the reunion, and told John Sears “he had done right” in welcoming Douglass to his house. And finally, in June 1877, after his appointment to the position of U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia, Douglass traveled to Baltimore and his old home of St. Michaels. Once there he received an invitation from his “old master,” now infirm and eighty-two years old. Composing himself after both men had become “excited by deep emotion,” Auld said, "Frederick, I always knew you were too smart to be a slave, and had I been in your place I should have done as you did." For his part, Douglass apologized for his error (included in the open letter and elsewhere) in blaming Auld for the treatment of his grandmother. Auld responded, “I never owned your grandmother; she in the division of the slaves was awarded to my brother-in-law, Andrew Anthony; but [after he learned about her condition from Douglass’s writings] I brought her down here and took care of her as long as she lived.” The entire meeting between former slave and former master lasted only twenty minutes.

Thomas Auld lived another three years, and his death was noted in the Baltimore Sun. As Leigh Fought, author of a forthcoming volume on Douglass, has written, “Thomas Auld may be one of the few former slaveholders whose obituary named one of his former slaves and indicates that he, the owner, was renowned for owning that particular slave.”

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SIR—The long and intimate, though by no means friendly, relation which unhappily subsisted between you and myself, leads me to hope that you will easily account for the great liberty which I now take in addressing you in this open and public manner. . . . 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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