Friday, August 28, 2015

A White Heron

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
From Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels & Stories

Great Egret, 1821. Watercolor, graphite, pastel,
gouache, white lead pigment, black ink, and
blackchalk on paper by John James Audubon .
This painting was not included by Audubon in
Birds of America. Image courtesy of New-York
Historical Society website.
In the mid-1880s, after the Atlantic Monthly turned down Sarah Orne Jewett’s newest story, her longtime champion William Dean Howells (who had resigned from the magazine’s editorship a few years earlier) explained that it might have been rejected because tastes had changed in favor of realism. “Mr. Howells thinks that this age frowns upon the romantic, that it is no use to write romance any more,” Jewett wrote to her friend and companion Annie Fields, “but dear me, how much of it there is left in every-day life after all. It must be the fault of the writers that such writing is dull, but what shall I do with my ‘White Heron’ now she is written? She isn’t a very good magazine story, but I love her, and I mean to keep her for the beginning of my next book.”

As one scholar speculates, “The Atlantic editors probably did not know what to make of this work of fantasy from a normally down-to-earth local color realist. But the story is much more than a simple fantasy.” Confident of the story’s worth, Jewett kept her word and used it as the opening selection—and title story—of her next book. Her instincts proved correct; readers were universally delighted, and nearly every contemporary reviewer of the book singled out “A White Heron” for praise. The popular writer Mary Wilkins Freeman was moved to send a fan letter, admitting “I never wrote any story equal” to it. The critic for the Overland Monthly exclaimed that the story “is perfect in its way—a tiny classic. One little episode of child-life, among birds and woods makes it up; and the secret soul of a child, the appeal of the bird to its instinctive honor and tenderness, never were interpreted with more beauty and insight.” And perhaps most ironically, the reviewer for The Nation praised the collection yet pointedly found in this so-called romance “no breath of romanticism or taint of literary sentimentality.”

In recent decades “A White Heron” has found new life as feminist scholars have “rediscovered” Jewett’s writing and reconsidered the story’s themes. Numerous theorists point out that it mimics and then subverts the old-fashioned fairy tale, in which the arrival of a princely figure—a “friendly lad, who proved to be most kind and sympathetic”—challenges a young, sheltered girl to reassess her place in the world.

All of which explains why this rejected magazine submission remains Jewett’s most celebrated story, ubiquitous to this day in literature anthologies and on classroom reading lists.

Note: The term bangeing was New England dialect for idling, loafing, or taking advantage of another’s hospitality.

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The woods were already filled with shadows one June evening, just before eight o’clock, though a bright sunset still glimmered faintly among the trunks of the trees. A little girl was driving home her cow, a plodding, dilatory, provoking creature in her behavior, but a valued companion for all that. . . . 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, August 23, 2015

A True Patriarch

Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945)
From Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men

“Mother . . . I’ve found such a poor family,” one of several illustrations by American artist William James Glackens (1870–1938) that accompanied “A True Patriarch” when it appeared in the December 1901 issue of McClure’s.
Theodore Dreiser’s memoir Newspaper Days relates his experiences as a journalist in four Midwestern cities during the 1890s and describes at length one particular assignment he initially dreaded. The St. Louis Republic, which hired him as a reporter in 1893, asked him to accompany to the Chicago World’s Fair twenty schoolteachers who had won a statewide popularity contest sponsored by the newspaper. His dread turned into delight when he met the group of women at the outset of their journey: “I was bewildered by the bouquet of faces around. Already the idea of the dreary school teacher had been dissipated. These were prizewinners.” He openly flirted with several of his fellow travelers, but much of his attention was reserved for Sara Osborne White, known as “Jug” to her friends.

The following July a smitten Dreiser visited Montgomery City, Missouri, to see Sara and meet her parents, and the couple maintained a tentative long-distance relationship for the next four years. Her father, Archibald White, whose family had lived in the area for seven decades, was a prominent local figure recognized for his support of Democratic causes and elected sheriff for a spell in the mid-1880s. Dreiser, perpetually ashamed by his own impoverished background and his family’s low social status, was awed by the Whites and was slow to commit to marriage until he felt more financially secure. Yet, in late 1898, while living in New York, he arranged to meet Sara in Washington, DC, for an elopement; they were married at the end of December.

Well into the early years of the twentieth century Dreiser was still struggling to make ends meet. His first novel, Sister Carrie, published in 1900, sold poorly and the response from reviewers was tepid at best. To support himself and his wife, Dreiser wrote stories and articles for magazines, and some of his work (in the words of literary critic Richard Lingeman), “fell between the editorial stools of fiction and article.” In one such piece, “A True Patriarch,” he created a semi-fictional account of his father-in-law, fleshing out anecdotes he had heard over the preceding decade. The editor of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly rejected it because readers “would wonder in reading it where the ‘story’ was going to begin” and, besides, no one was interested in stories about Missourians.

“A True Patriarch” found a home in the December 1901 issue of McClure’s magazine—seven months before the subject of the profile died. Dreiser visited his in-laws for the Christmas holidays soon after it appeared, so it seems almost certain that Archibald White read it in the final months of his life, although we don’t know what the old patriarch himself may have thought of the account. In 1919 Dreiser updated and revised the story for inclusion in Twelve Men, adding elements that underscored White’s benevolent nature.

Note: The scriptural quote on page 987 is from the Epistle of James (1:27).

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In the streets of a certain moderate-sized county seat in Missouri not many years ago might have been seen a true patriarch. Tall, white-haired, stout in body and mind, he roamed among his neighbors, dispensing sympathy and a curiously genial human interest through the leisure of his day. . . . 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, August 14, 2015

Thurgood Marshall and the 14th Amendment

James Poling (1907–1976)
From Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973

Thurgood Marshall (in profile, facing picketers) with
NAACP protesters outside the prestigious Stork Club
in New York City, on October 26, 1951, days
after the entertainer Josephine Baker and her party
were seated at a table and then refused service.
Photograph by James C. Campbell. Image courtesy of
The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Fifty years ago this summer, Thurgood Marshall became the first African American to serve as U.S. Solicitor General, the lawyer responsible for arguing cases on behalf of the executive branch before the Supreme Court. On July 7, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson called Marshall, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge at the time, and offered him the position. According to since-released phone recordings, Johnson indicated that he wanted “to do this job that Lincoln started and I want to do it the right way,” that “I want to be the first president that really goes all the way,” and that he was grooming Marshall for “something better.” Marshall accepted before hanging up the phone.

Six days later Johnson announced the appointment, on August 11 Marshall’s confirmation sailed through the Senate on a voice vote , and on August 24 the new Solicitor General was sworn in. Unbeknownst to Marshall, in conversations held with other officials in the months preceding and following their phone call, Johnson was making known his future intentions: “I want to build him up where he’s impenetrable when he becomes a Supreme Court justice.” And indeed, two years later, the president nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court; on August 30, 1967; the Senate confirmed the nomination by a vote of 69 to 11.

Marshall’s path to becoming the first African American on the Supreme Court is the stuff of legend. In 1952 James Poling wrote for Collier’s magazine the following invaluable and amiable profile of the man who had been the NAACP’s chief legal counsel since 1936. At the time Poling wrote the article, Marshall had already argued twelve of the thirty-two cases he would eventually take to the Supreme Court on behalf of the NAACP. (He won twenty-nine of them, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. As Solicitor General, Marshall would argue another nineteen cases, winning fourteen.) Early in the article, Poling touts the legal victories that theoretically extended the vote to blacks across the South in the early 1950s, but, as subsequent years would prove, victory in court did not often translate easily into results in the field. On August 6, 1965, while Marshall was going through the confirmation process for his appointment as Solicitor General, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, empowering the federal government to intervene in states that continued to create obstacles to voting based on race.

A native of Ohio, James Poling worked as an editor at the publisher Doubleday, Doran during the 1930s and served as air combat intelligence officer in the Pacific during World War II. After the war he wrote frequently for Collier’s and later published numerous books, ranging from The Man Who Saved Robinson Crusoe, a study of the characters that inspired Defoe’s novel, to All Battle Stations Manned: The U.S. Navy in World War II, an account of the Navy’s reorganization in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor.

Note: On the last page of Poling’s profile is a reference to Barkis, the coachman in David Copperfield who persistently indicates his eagerness to marry the maid Peggoty by asking David to convey the message, “Barkis is willin’.”

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Thurgood Marshall, as special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, spends much of his time expertly pleading civil rights cases before the judges of our higher courts. . . . 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, August 8, 2015


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

Alone (1911), oil on cardboard by American artist Frank Coburn (1862–1938). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
In many of the interrelated stories collected in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the word “adventure” is used to indicate (in the words of literary scholar Ray Lewis White) “the one brief moment, the one epiphany, the one telling instant, that captures and communicates the essence of that character’s personality, leaving nothing more to be said or learned about him or her.” Among the stories featuring such epiphanies, Anderson placed the story titled “Adventure” in the middle. In his study of famous story cycles, Forrest L. Ingram points out that there are five tales before and five after in which Anderson makes explicit this motif, often caused by an “attempt to establish contact with another Winesburger, to transcend one’s self-containment and isolation.” Or as the best-selling novelist Tom Perrotta adds, “Winesburg, Ohio feels like a village full of eccentric strangers desperate for a moment of connection,” and reading the book reminds him of “wandering the quiet night-time streets of my hometown, slowly coming to realize that the people I knew were more complicated and interesting than they appeared.”

Biographers have often pointed out that Winesburg resembles in essential ways the town of Clyde, where Anderson spent most of his childhood in the late 1800s; critical editions of the stories often identity various landmarks and events with their fictional counterparts. Because some residents felt they or their neighbors were depicted in unflattering or indelicate ways, the inhabitants of Clyde ignored the book for many years and disdained any comparison to Anderson’s fictional town. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the area now proudly hypes its connection to their native son and has even set aside his birthday, September 13, as Sherwood Anderson Day.

Soon after the book was published in 1919, Anderson discovered—to his dismay—that there was a real town in Ohio with the name of Winesburg. “It was no doubt stupid of me,” he later admitted to the local Methodist minister, Arthur H. Smith, who privately printed a thin book called An Authentic History of Winesburg, Holmes County, Ohio in 1930 and sent a copy to Anderson. Smith understood that the stories were not in any way about his own municipality—and said as much in his study. Anderson appreciated receiving the book and appears to have read it in its entirety, but he took exception to Smith’s use of the word “burlesque” to describe his story collection:
The book is, of course, in no sense a burlesque, but it is an effort to treat the lives of simple ordinary people in an American middle western town with sympathy and understanding. . . . Certainly, I did not write to make fun of these people or to make them ridiculous or ugly, but instead to show by their example what happens to simple, ordinary people—particularly the unsuccessful ones—what life does to us here in America in our times—and on the whole how decent and real we nevertheless are.
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Note: The Epworth League (mentioned on page 78) was organized in 1889 by the Methodist Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Ohio, to encourage and train young people in churchmanship and religious life.

Free audio: This selection is accompanied by a streaming audio version, read by the award-winning short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg.

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Alice Hindman, a woman of twenty-seven when George Willard was a mere boy, had lived in Winesburg all her life. She clerked in Winney’s Dry Goods Store and lived with her mother who had married a second husband. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.