Friday, September 25, 2015

The Actual Thing

William Maxwell (1908–2000)
From William Maxwell: Early Novels & Stories

Take Your Choice, 1885, oil on canvas by American artist John Frederick Peto (1854–1907). Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art website.
Illinois native William Maxwell first arrived in New York City in 1933, hoping to find employment and having just received a Master’s degree from Harvard. During the next two years he published his first novel, Bright Center of Heaven, and placed stories in various magazines—but the lack of jobs during the Depression forced him to leave the city several times, either to Wisconsin, where he performed odd tasks at an artist’s colony, or back to Illinois, where he graded papers for room, board, and $4 a month.

In February 1936 Maxwell completed his second novel, They Came Like Swallows, told from the point of view of an eight-year-old child living through the devastating 1918 influenza outbreak, and it was acquired by Eugene F. Saxton, the editor-in-chief for Harper & Bros. Through Saxton’s influence, New Yorker fiction editor Katharine S. White purchased two of Maxwell’s short stories.

That summer, while his book was being prepared for press, Maxwell returned to Manhattan, still hoping to find a job. “My publisher gave me three letters,” he recalled, “one to The New Republic, one to Time, and one to The New Yorker. I was unsuited for The New Republic because I was politically uninformed. I don’t know if I was unsuited to Time as well; I got to The New Yorker before I got to Time, and they hired me, and that was that.” During his interview at The New Yorker, White asked what salary he hoped to receive: “Some knowledgeable acquaintance had told me I must ask for $35 a week or I wouldn’t be respected, so I swallowed hard and said, ‘Thirty-five dollars.’ Mrs. White smiled and said, ‘I expect you could live on less.’ I could have lived nicely on fifteen. A few days later I got a telegram from her asking me to report to work . . . at the salary agreed on: $35 a week.”

Maxwell’s early duties included informing cartoonists of acceptances and rejections, but by the end of December (when the two stories purchased earlier appeared in the magazine), White and senior editor Wolcott Gibbs began training Maxwell to edit fiction, memoir, and humor. In March 1937 They Came Like Swallows appeared and was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club for its April dual main selection. When Maxwell received his first check for $8,000 from the book club, he “went into Wolcott Gibbs’s office to tell him and could hardly walk, stunned by the overwhelming sum.” During the following year The New Yorker accepted five more of his stories, including “The Actual Thing,” in which the thirty-year-old Maxwell depicts a fifty-seven-year-old bachelor obsessing over the inevitability of death.

By the mid-1940s Maxwell had increasingly and comfortably grown into the role of shepherding and editing authors for the magazine—often to the neglect of his own writing. One author in particular had been sending stories to Maxwell for nearly five years, hoping New Yorker staff members would overcome their reluctance during wartime to publish fiction featuring disaffected youth. Finally, Maxwell moved ahead and scheduled for the December 1946 issue J. D. Salinger’s story “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” featuring the character Holden Caulfield.

Note: Among the books squirreled away in the attic are a volume of works by Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899), an American lawyer and orator known for forceful speeches supporting agnosticism; The Clansman, a 1905 historical novel by Thomas Dixon Jr. that romanticized the Old South’s resistance to Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and that served as the basis of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation; and Truxton King (1909), the third of six best-selling novels by George Barr McCutcheon about love and intrigue in the royal court of the fictional Central European country of Graustark.

*   *   *
The odor, if it was an odor, came from the other end of the attic, Mr. Tupper decided. He was looking about for a long wooden croquet box which had certain of his possessions in it—his Knights Templar sword, the works of Ingersoll, and an album of pressed flowers from the Holy Land. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission.
To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Head and Shoulders

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
From F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922

Promotional card for the silent film The Chorus Girl’s Romance (1920), starring Viola Dana and based on the 1920 Fitzgerald story “Head and Shoulders.” Image posted on a Turner Classic Movie discussion board.
In June 1920 F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to the editor of Movie Weekly about The Chorus Girl’s Romance, a forthcoming movie based on a story he had published earlier that year. “The original title of ‘Head and Shoulders’ was ‘The Prodigy’ & I just brought in the chorus girl by way of a radical contrast. Before I’d finished she almost stole the story.” (When he had submitted the manuscript to an agent the previous year, the story had an altogether different title: “Nest Feathers.”) He told the movie critic that this light comic tale was inspired in part by his own adolescence. Although Fitzgerald was seventeen—not thirteen—when he went to college, he boasted that he almost became a prodigy himself, having been “one of the ten youngest in my class at Princeton.” About the movie, a vehicle for the silent film star Viola Dana, Fitzgerald added, “I’d rather watch a good shimmee dance than [modern dance artist] Ruth St. Denis and [ballet dancer Anna] Pavlova combined. I see nothing at all disgusting in it.” To his agent, however, Fitzgerald admitted that he wasn’t crazy about the film’s change of title and, presumably, its shift in focus.

“Fitzgerald’s fiction has a curious way of anticipating life,” wrote the late scholar Matthew Bruccoli about the story—Fitzgerald’s first of many to appear in The Saturday Evening Post. “Just as Horace is deflected by marriage from scholarship to entertainment, so would the author of ‘Head and Shoulders’ soon be under pressure to provide literary entertainment after his own marriage to Zelda Sayre.” Throughout their two-year engagement, Fitzgerald was anxious to prove to his betrothed (and her family) that he could make enough as a writer to support her. Harold Ober, the agent who received “Nest Feathers” unsolicited in the mail, sold it to The Saturday Evening Post for $400—three times what the young author had many on any of his previous stories, all of which had been published in the small literary magazine Smart Set. With this sale, Fitzgerald’s readership leaped from twenty thousand to two million. Then, a week after the story was published, on February 24, 1920, Fitzgerald sent a telegram to his fiancée in Montgomery, Alabama: “I HAVE SOLD THE MOVIE RIGHTS OF HEAD AND SHOULDERS TO THE METRO COMPANY FOR TWENTY FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS I LOVE YOU DEAREST GIRL.”

Fitzgerald spent part of the film proceeds on a platinum-and-diamond wristwatch inscribed on the back, “from Scott to Zelda.” The windfall from the movie and the arrival of the gift gave Zelda the courage to inform her mother at last of the couple’s impending marriage. In a letter thanking him for the watch, Zelda wrote to Scott, “Now that she knows, everything seems mighty definite and nice, and I’m not a bit scared or shaky— What I dreaded most was telling her.” She then closes the letter by unwittingly echoing a scene from “Head and Shoulders”: “I love you so terribly that I’m going to read McTeague,” the classic realist novel by Frank Norris and one of Fitzgerald’s favorite books. While surely not as difficult as the “light” reading (Samuel Pepys’s diary) recommended to Marcia by Horace in the story, McTeague (which features a dentist in the title role) was apparently not to Zelda’s liking: “It certainly makes a miserable start—I don’t see how any girl could be pretty with her front teeth lost in action, and besides, it outrages my sense of delicacy to have him proposing when she’s got when of these nasty rubber things on her face. . . . I do hope you’ll never be a realist—one of those kind that thinks being ugly is being forceful.”

Notes: The opening of Fitzgerald’s story mentions the June 1918 battle of Château-Thierry, in which American troops helped stop a major German offensive in heavy fighting east of Paris. Horace names his easy-chairs after eighteenth-century British empiricist-philosophers David Hume and George Berkeley, and Marcia teases Horace with the nickname Omar Khayyam, the Persian mathematician and philosopher. On page 313 are two popular culture references: the Florodora Sextette were six actresses in the Broadway musical comedy Florodora (1900) who had a hit song with “Tell Me Pretty Maiden,” and the wife of Alabama nineteenth-century theater impresario Sol Smith sometimes played Juliet to his Romeo. The Bohemian Girl mentioned on page 316 is a light opera written in 1843 by Michael William Balfe. Herbert Spencer (p. 327), with whom Marcia believes Horace had a “standing date,” was a nineteenth-century English philosopher and leading exponent of evolutionary theory. The Latin expression Mens sana in corpore sano, from Juvenal’s Satires, means “A sound mind in a sound body.”

*   *   *
In 1915 Horace Tarbox was thirteen years old. In that year he took the examinations for entrance to Princeton University and received the Grade A—excellent—in Cæsar, Cicero, Vergil, Xenophon, Homer, Algebra, Plane Geometry, Solid Geometry, and Chemistry. . . . 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.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Pinda:—A True Tale

Maria Weston Chapman (1806–1885)
From American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation

Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Weekly Contribution Box, c. 1840. Boston Public Library Rare Books & Manuscripts Department. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library website.
In 1836 Mary Slater of New Orleans visited her father Thomas Aves in Boston and brought along Med, a six-year-old slave girl. Slater’s stay in Boston was extended when she fell ill, and Med was housed by Aves during her mistress’s lengthy recuperation. Several local abolitionists and lawyers, on behalf of both the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and the young girl, petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus against Aves, arguing that because Med was “free by the law of Massachusetts” the state court must intervene on her behalf to prevent her from being forced to return to New Orleans.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, led by its chief justice Lemuel Shaw (Herman Melville’s future father-in-law) ruled unanimously in Commonwealth v. Aves for the petitioners, in favor of Med’s freedom. In his decision Shaw distinguished the case at hand from situations involving runaway slaves (which were covered by federal law) and determined that “if a slave is brought voluntarily and unnecessarily within the limits of this State, he becomes free, if he chooses to avail himself of the provisions of our laws.” The court placed Med in the care of a guardian, and she was eventually adopted by Isaac Knapp, the famous copublisher of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. The ruling was almost immediately used by activists to free slaves voluntarily brought by their masters into Northern states.

Four years after this landmark court case Maria Weston Chapman of Boston received a message from her sister in New Bedford, about a fugitive slave newly arrived from Georgia. He hoped to be reunited with his wife, who had recently been freed by abolitionists using the precedent set by the Aves decision:
Today at noon Abraham came with your letter. . . . He kept talking about his family, & removing his family. Pinda I suppose he meant. . . . He wants you to tell Pinda that at the place where he is staying are two old acquaintances of his, who came from the very place he did, Savannah I suppose & that he has not the least trouble in getting along. . . . There is great feeling for runaway slaves here [and] I dont doubt he will prosper. I should not think it at all safe though to publish his story, which is a great pity, for there never was a prettier one.*
At the time of her husband’s arrival, Pinda was living in Boston, either with Chapman or with a neighboring family. Ever watchful for Pinda’s welfare, Chapman warned a friend in New Bedford six months later that “the amiable Mr. Hogan,” Pinda’s former “christian slave-holder,” had arrived in town. Chapman received a reply indicating that Abraham, who had a job in New Bedford, had canceled his impending visit to Boston to see his wife and thought “it would be better for Pendas [sic] to remain where she is for the present as Hogan might discover his whereabouts if she should attempt to come to him.”

Chapman chose to disregard her sister’s advice to not publish the couple’s story, and “Pinda:—A True Tale” appeared weeks later. The names Pinda and Abraham are retained in the tale—although, even in the correspondence quoted above, these are almost certainly pseudonyms—and Hogan becomes Logan. Although the real identities of Pinda, her husband, and their former owners have never been determined—and it’s not known what became of them—surviving documentation otherwise confirms the seemingly melodramatic essentials of Chapman’s fictional version. The story was published in late October 1840 in an early issue of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, founded that year by the Lydia Maria Child (best known today as the author of the poem that begins “Over the river and through the woods”), and it was widely distributed as a small book by the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York.

This week’s selection is preceded by a headnote on Maria Chapman written by James G. Basker when “Pinda” was included in the Library of America anthology American Antislavery Writings.

Notes: The opening of the story takes place on the Eli Whitney, an actual ship, named for the inventor of the cotton gin. On page 389 is a reference to Paul’s Epistle to Philemon in the New Testament. Philemon, a wealthy Christian in Colossae, owned a slave named Onesimus. Shortly after Paul had left Colossae, Onesimus ran away to Rome, where he met Paul and converted to Christianity. Eventually, Paul sent him back to his master, urging Philemon to treat him as a brother. Garrison, first mentioned on page 395, refers to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

* The documentation for this case is excerpted more extensively in Kathryn Grover’s Fugitive's Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts (2001).

*   *   *
One dark night in the year 1836, an unusual stir took place on the deck of the good ship Eli Whitney, about to sail from Boston to Savannah. It was occasioned by the appearance of an officer, charged with a writ of habeas corpus, in favor of a supposed slave, who was known to have been carried on board by her master. . . . 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.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Land

Mary Austin (1868–1934)
From Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology

In 1932 sixty-four-year-old Mary Austin published her autobiography Earth Horizon, which uses alternating third-person and first-person narration to describe what she thought of as her various selves, public and private, creative and unexceptional, “assured” and insecure. Her account recalls when she was twenty and her Illinois family settled as homesteaders in Tejon, north of Bakersfield, California, in 1888:
. . . Mary was consumed with interest as with enchantment. Her trouble was that the country failed to explain itself. If it had a history, nobody could recount it. Its creatures had no known life except such as she could discover by unremitting vigilance of observation; its plants no names that her Middlewestern botany could supply.
To help her family make ends meet, she took a job as schoolteacher in Mountain View (on the southern edge of the San Francisco Bay), and it was here that she realized she could become a writer:
. . . Mary found that not only was the ancient art of story-telling going on in the Mountain View district, but she could definitely profit by it. . . . At Tejon she had already picked up a number of animal stories such as men seldom think of telling to women, not because they are untellable, but because they seem perhaps to belong so exclusively to the male life. . . . These she filed for reference.
The landscape, people, and animals of the Southwest would become the subjects of Austin’s nearly two dozen books and hundreds of periodical publications—novels, stories, essays, plays, poetry, travel writing, ethnography, religious works, and even a collaboration with Ansel Adams (a copy of which, in the morocco-bound limited edition signed by Austin, will set you back $60,000).

“The Land” opens her 1909 collection Lost Borders, which evokes Austin’s characteristically tense relationship with the Southwest. The narrator, a writer of stories about the California desert, describes the people she will depict in the book’s subsequent stories: “a motley collection of drifters, prospectors, explorers, entrepreneurs, and sheepherders,” summarizes literary scholar Esther F. Lanigan, “most of whom demonstrate an astonishing insensitivity in their dealings with the women closest to them.” Austin describes the arid landscape as a place where the borders separating fact and fiction often blur. In this introductory sketch she remarks that her readers refused to believe “some elementary matters” in her fiction, yet “you can get anybody to believe any sort of a tale that has gold in it.” She even heard one of her imaginative forays repeated around campfires as if it actually happened, to the point where, she quips, “I had begun to believe the story myself.”

This week’s selection is preceded by a prescient headnote written by David L. Ulin thirteen years ago, when Austin’s sketch was included the Library of America anthology Writing Los Angeles.

*   *   *
When the Paiute nations broke westward through the Sierra wall they cut off a remnant of the Shoshones, and forced them south as far as Death Valley and the borders of the Mojaves, they penned the Washoes in and around Tahoe, and passing between these two, established themselves along the snow-fed Sierra creeks. . . . 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.