Saturday, October 24, 2015

Genius Loci

Clark Ashton Smith (1893–1961)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Detail from “Dreamland,” undated pen and ink drawing by Clark Ashton Smith inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Dream-Land.” Photographed by Henry J. Vester, image courtesy of the Eldritch Dark website.
Prevented from going to high school by various psychological ailments, young Clark Ashton Smith pursued his studies on his own while living with his parents in their remote cabin in Auburn, California. In 1912, when he was nineteen, his writings attracted the attention of San Francisco poet George Sterling, who helped him publish a debut poetry collection, The Star-Treader. Smith’s third volume of verse, Ebony and Crystal, appeared in 1922 and elicited a fan letter from H. P. Lovecraft, beginning a life-long correspondence and long-distance friendship between the two authors. Although Smith enjoyed a brief moment in the limelight as the latest boy wonder of the Bay Area, he abandoned his career as a poet and published little for the remainder of the decade.

During a six-year period at the outset of the Depression, however, Smith wrote more than one hundred short stories, and they appeared in such similarly named magazines as Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories, Strange Tales, and (above all) Weird Tales. Nearly all his stories were horror or science fiction, and many of them were set in the fantasy realms Zothique, Hyperborea, and Averoigne. Following the death of his mother in 1935, he again virtually stopped writing and, living alone in his cabin, devoted himself instead to sculpture.

In the midst of his prolific period as a storywriter, during the fall of 1932, Smith wrote to August Derleth, the founder of Arkham House (a leading independent book publisher of phantasmagoric fiction):
I have done another tale since writing you, to round out my third year of professional fictioneering. The story, “Genius Loci,” is rather an experiment for me—and I hardly know what to do with it. . . . It was all damnably hard to do, and I am not certain of my success. I am even less certain of being able to sell it to any editor—it will be too subtle for the pulps, and the highbrows won’t like the supernatural element. Oh, hell.
Despite the author’s anxieties, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright took the story immediately and added it to the ever-increasing backlog of Clark Ashton Smith stories he had accepted for eventual publication.

After “Genius Loci” appeared in the June 1933 issue of the magazine, H. P. Lovecraft sent along praise in a letter that opened with a characteristically Lovecraftian dateline: “June 14, 1933: Hour when low tide bares that daemon-carven reef wherefrom men avert their glance.” He extolled Smith for having “succeeded in capturing that vague, geographical horror after which I have so often striven.” And, ever solicitous of helping out his friends and acolytes, Lovecraft added a postscript on the outside of the envelope: “I've just lent young Bloch my collection of your sketches. It ought to prove quite a revelation to the kid!” Robert Bloch, only sixteen years old at the time Lovecraft mailed him Smith’s writings, would become internationally famous a quarter century later as the author of the novel Psycho.

Note: On page 684 is a reference to JoaquĆ­n Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), a Spanish Luminist painter of portraits and landscapes, renowned for their bright scenery and “blinding shafts of sunlight.”

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“It is a very strange place,” said Amberville, “but I scarcely know how to convey the impression it made upon me. It will all sound so simple and ordinary. . . .” 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, October 17, 2015

The Greatest Man in the World

James Thurber (1894–1961)
From James Thurber: Writings & Drawings

One of James Thurber’s illustrations for “The Greatest Man in the World” when the story was reprinted in his collection The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935).     
© 1935 James Thurber. Image reproduced by arrangement with Rosemary A. Thurber c/o The Barbara Hogenson Agency.
Shortly after selling his first piece to The New Yorker in 1927 (after a slew of rejections the previous year), James Thurber met and befriended E. B. White, who introduced him to the magazine’s founding editor, Harold W. Ross. Impressed, Ross immediately hired Thurber, who had been working as a reporter for the New York Evening Post, and made him an administrator. It didn’t take long for Ross and his colleagues to realize that Thurber had absolutely no talent for management. So Thurber took on copyediting chores, White became his new office mate, and the two men created or edited virtually all of the “Talk of the Town” pieces for the next eight years. “White taught me about writing, how to clear up sloppy journalese,” Thurber said in an interview a quarter century later. “He got me away from a rather curious style I was starting to perfect—tight journalese laced with heavy doses of Henry James.”

By 1931, when Thurber wrote “The Greatest Man in the World,” the magazine was regularly publishing his stories and drawings (including the first of 307 captioned cartoons that would appear in its pages). Thurber’s success happened despite—or perhaps because—his marriage and personal life was in shambles. “The only good that came out of that marriage,” White wrote to Thurber’s second wife many years later, “was that it made Jim so miserable that he doodled to take his mind off his troubles. And from the doodles came the drawings that enchanted the world.” William Shawn, who was hired in 1933, told Thurber biographer Harrison Kenney, “When I joined the staff, he was an established part of the New Yorker generation ahead of me, one of the founding fathers, already much more than a ‘Talk’ rewrite man; he was known internationally, and an important writer.”

“The Greatest Man in the World” is characteristic of Thurber’s satires and parodies: “genteelly vitriolic,” as The New York Times put it. At the time he wrote the story, Scribner’s magazine had been running a series of short “alternative history” pieces imagining what might have happened if events had turned out differently (e.g., “If Napoleon Had Escaped to America”). “To Thurber,” write Kenney, “the series begged to be parodied,” and his first New Yorker piece in this vein was “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.” Then, inspired by the public adoration for aviator Charles A. Lindbergh after making the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1927, Thurber wondered what if, instead of a man as modest and gracious as Lindbergh, America’s next hero turned out to be an illiterate, ill-mannered, drunken boor.

Thus was born Jack “Pal” Smurch. Of course, Thurber wasn’t ridiculing Lindbergh himself; he was instead mocking the American susceptibility to hero worship—and the part played by the media in fostering such narratives. Perhaps not surprisingly, the figure of Smurch has often been invoked over the last eight decades—up through the present election cycle—when referring to certain politicians and celebrities. If anything has changed since Thurber’s day, it’s the more prominent role of the media in tearing down such figures after building them up.

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Looking back on it now, from the vantage point of 1940, one can only marvel that it hadn’t happened long before it did. The United States of America had been, ever since Kitty Hawk, blindly constructing the elaborate petard by which, sooner or later, it must be hoist. . . . 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, October 9, 2015

Curfew Must Not Ring To-Night

Rose Hartwick Thorpe (1850–1939)
From American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume two: Melville to Stickney

“At his feet she tells her story.” Detail from illustration by Frank Thayer Merrill (1848–1923) for the 1882 edition of Curfew Must Not Ring To-Night.
In the fall of 1870 the editors of the weekly Detroit Commercial Advertiser received a poem from a recent high school graduate and published it in the newspaper. Not a single copy of the issue has been unearthed, but no matter: by the time an illustrated book edition appeared in 1882, Rose Hartwick Thorpe’s “Curfew Must Not Ring To-Night” had been reprinted in newspapers across the country, in Canadian and British magazines, and even in the Australian Journal; in anthologies of poetry and handbooks for orators; and in collections of pieces suitable for school programs. It is impossible to overstate the popularity and ubiquity of Thorpe’s ballad at the turn of the century. In 1916 the popular journalist George Wharton James opened his sixty-page study of the sixty-line poem by asking his readers, “Who is there that has not read ‘Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight’?” and presented a lengthy biographical sketch of the poet, an analysis of the work, the sources of the “legend,” and a few samples from the dozens of parodies (“Rooster must not crow tonight!”) and vaudeville skits created since the poem’s publication.

In the late 1880s Thorpe recalled for a Chicago magazine how the poem came to be. While reading the September 1865 issue of Peterson’s, a popular women’s journal that published verse and fiction among articles on fashion and homemaking, she stumbled upon “Love and Loyalty,” an anonymously written short story by “a new contributor.”* The tale features a young woman, Bessie, whose lover, Basil, has been condemned to die at curfew by a council of Cromwell’s Puritan associates during the English Civil War. Rose, who was supposed to be working on her math homework, couldn’t get the story out of her head:
The figures became a confused unintelligible jumble of meaningless characters; but clearly and distinctly before my mental vision arose these words: “Curfew must not ring tonight.” Again and again I resolutely banished them, but they returned persistently, until in sheer desperation I swept the exasperating figures from my slate and wrote “England’s sun was slowly setting.”
The notebook containing this first draft, with the title “Bessie and the Curfew,” is dated April 5, 1867—when Rose was only sixteen years old. Three years later the finished poem with its familiar title was accepted for publication, and she received as payment a one-year subscription to the newspaper (value: $1.50). She agreed to delete the last stanza, both for reasons of space and because she wasn’t quite happy with it; as a result, it is omitted from many versions of the poem. She subsequently revised the final stanza and included it in her 1887 collection Ringing Ballads, the source of the text used here.

Before the end of the century, Thorpe published three collections of her poetry and a number of children’s books, but none of her efforts ever received a modicum of the attention paid to her debut. Financial considerations at the dawn of the twentieth century compelled her and her husband to move to the San Diego area and they eventually settled in La Jolla, where she continued to write and publish occasional essays and poems while working for temperance and women’s suffrage causes.

* In recent years “Love and Loyalty” has been mistakenly attributed, without substantiation, to poet Lydia Huntley Sigourney, who died in 1865 two months before the story appeared in Peterson’s. It seems implausible that the editors would have disguised as a “new contributor” one of their most popular (and recently deceased) writers; as late as 1901 an inquiry published in The New York Times indicated that the author’s identity remained a mystery. In addition, in the 150 years since the story appeared, commentators have often asserted that it is based on an actual historical event, but it was likely inspired instead by Albert Smith’s play Blanche Heriot, or The Chertsey Curfew and story “Blanche Heriot: A Legend of Old Chertsey Church,” both published in 1842. Smith’s works feature a strikingly similar heroine and plot but take place during the fifteenth-century War of the Roses rather than the seventeenth-century English Civil War.

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England’s sun was slowly setting o’er the hilltops far away,
Filling all the land with beauty at the close of one sad day; . . .
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Friday, October 2, 2015

The Best Years of His Life

John Ed Bradley (b. 1958)
From Football: Great Writing about the National Sport

When former Louisiana State University offensive center John Ed Bradley published “The Best Years of His Life,” a “little nothing story” looking back on the years since his college football career, he was completely unprepared for the response. Letters—the most the editors had received for any article that year—poured into the Sports Illustrated offices, publishers contacted him about expanding the piece into a book, and filmmakers expressed interest into turning it into a movie. A bit overwhelmed and even “shocked” (as he later told the magazine), he refused offers for several years, when he finally decided he was ready to develop his article into the book-length memoir It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium.

He subsequently told an interviewer for The New York Times:
At the time I wrote [the article], I thought it might have been a little confessional and I would get spanked for exposing myself the way I did and the response was something else. I heard from a lot of players from around the country that said, Hey, that’s my story. . . . When I do book signings, a lot of people will come and they’ll buy the book or they’ll buy 10 copies but they have that old magazine article. You’ll see an old farmer, with a tobacco hat on his head and an old blue jean shirt and he’ll have a Xerox copy of the article and I’ll wonder why does that matter to him. And I’ll ask him and he’ll say, I was second-team all district in football and I had to give it up and I’ve never gotten over it.
Yet even today, although he has since reconnected with several of his former teammates, Bradley admits that he still has a difficult time going back to his alma mater.

In his story Bradley mentions that, among the memorabilia he took with him when the season ended was his helmet, which was photographed for the original article in the magazine. He recently came clean about that souvenir:
Actually, I stole that helmet. That’s property of the university. We weren’t supposed to take them but I took it anyway. I had cracked it against Florida State. I hit a guy and I think I laid some dude out and cracked that helmet. I took the interior padding and put it into the shell of another helmet and played the rest of that season in that new helmet. The other one had been my good luck helmet and all of a sudden it was cracked.
Bradley’s seventh novel, Call Me by My Name, appeared earlier this year; it is his first book for a young adult audience. Additional information about Bradley’s path from football player to sportswriter to novelist can be found in the brief headnote by John Schulian that precedes this week’s selection.

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It ends for everybody. It ends for the pro who makes $5 million a year and has his face on magazine covers and his name in the record books. It ends for the kid on the high school team who never comes off the bench except to congratulate his teammates as they file past him on their way to the Gatorade bucket. . . . 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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