Friday, January 29, 2016

Nature Near Home

John Burroughs (1837–1921)
From American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Brown Creeper, Certhia familiaris [male, lower left; female, top], and California Nuthatch, Sitta pygmea [properly, pygmaea; center two]. Plate 415 from The Birds of America. Watercolor by John James Audubon. Engraved, printed, and colored by Rob Havell, 1838. Image courtesy of the National Audubon Society website.
John and Ursula Burroughs married in 1857 and, although they remained together for sixty years, the relationship was, at best, strained. Early in their marriage, John’s close friend and mentor Walt Whitman wrote angrily to him, “Your casual, selfish wantonness hurts Sulie more than she deserves to be hurt. The urges of your biology spark the one great and only flaw in your otherwise generous and noble character.” For two decades Whitman often comforted Ursula Burroughs and provided companionship when her husband was away from home. By the time Whitman died in 1892, John and Ursula’s marriage had more or less reached a state of detente.

Although Whitman had clearly taken sides in the relationship, Burroughs remained a devoted disciple. “I am convinced Walt is as great as Emerson,” he wrote, “though after a different type. Walt has all types of men in him, there is not one left out.” In fact, the first of Burroughs’s thirty-plus books was also the first-ever study of Whitman’s poetry. Published in 1867, Notes on Walt Whitman was, in the words of one source, “so extensively revised and rewritten by Whitman himself that it should properly be considered a collaborative effort.” During the four years following Whitman’s death, Burroughs wrote at least eighteen appreciative essays for various periodicals, culminating in a second book-length treatise on the great poet.

In 1901 Clara Barrus, a physician at a psychiatric hospital, sent a fan letter to Burroughs, who invited her to visit him at his home. She became his closest friend and secretary for sixteen years; during this period Burroughs became one of America’s most famous essayists. When Ursula died in March 1917, Dr. Barrus moved in with him at Riverby, his estate near New York’s Hudson River. A month later, just after Burroughs’s eightieth birthday, she wrote to friends with upsetting news: there had been a car accident and they had both “got hurt.” The incident occurred when she was learning how to drive:
After coming down a gentle grade, at a turn, for some unaccountable reason, I must have steered to the left. In a twinkling the car ran into a bank, tried to climb it, and overturned upon us. J. B. was completely hidden beneath the car. The upper part of my body was out, but one leg was pinned fast. A workman passing came to the rescue. When I told him to run for help—that Mr. Burroughs was under the car,—he cried, ‘Oh, my God!’ ran, and was soon back with others who lifted the car.
Fortunately, the car overturned in soft mud and Burroughs was not seriously injured, although he had a fractured arm and a cracked rib. Barrus also had minor injuries, including two broken ribs, but she suffered far more from “waves of contrition.”

She also reported that, while Burroughs was recuperating, he came up with the “title for his new book—Field and Study—“and occupies himself watching the birds and reading and writing.” And one of the most well-known pieces in the book, “Nature Near Home,” describes the joy of staying at home and watching birds during winter. Forty years earlier he had written, “Little dramas and tragedies and comedies, little characteristic scenes, are always being enacted in the lives of the birds, if our eyes are sharp enough to see them.” One imagines Burroughs, with eighty years of drama and tragedy and comedy behind him, recuperating from the most recent excitement and taking pleasure instead from the stage Nature had set before him.

Note: On page 169 is a slightly altered couplet from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “The Titmouse”; the original reads “Here was this atom in full breath, / Hurling defiance at vast death.”

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After long experience I am convinced that the best place to study nature is at one’s own home,—on the farm, in the mountains, on the plains, by the sea,—no matter where that may be. . . . 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, January 22, 2016

Writing a War Story

Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937

“A French Palisade” [Edith Wharton at the front]. Frontispiece from Wharton’s collection of journalism, Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort (1915).
During the outbreak of war in 1914, while many of her friends were fleeing France, Edith Wharton remained in Paris and immediately threw her energy behind various war relief efforts. In August, she established a workroom for nearly one hundred seamstresses and other women thrown out of work by the economic disruption of general mobilization. She personally handled the fundraising, selected the supervisory staff, provided free lunches, and solicited orders through her associates in England and America. Then, in November, she established and directed American Hostels for Refugees and raised $100,000 in the first twelve months, during which the organization provided free or low-cost food, clothing, coal, housing, medical and child care, and employment counseling to more than 9,000 refugees. In April she organized the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which created six homes between Paris and the Normandy coast and organized classes (including lessons in French for the Flemish speakers) for nearly 750 refugee children, many of them tubercular. “I can’t tell thee how many committees she is chairman of,” one fellow volunteer wrote, “and where she is chairman she does all.”

In the midst of this activity, Wharton found the time to make five visits to the front in the Argonne and at Verdun, travel through the frontline trenches in the Vosges, and tour hospitals to investigate the need for blankets and clothing. She was so busy during the first two years of World War I that she composed virtually nothing in the way of fiction. In June 1915 she wrote to her publisher, Charles Scribner, in near despair about her publication schedule. She had “thought the war would be over by August,” but as things stood she would be unable to deliver her long-promised next novel. (Tentatively called “Literature,” it was never finished.) She instead proposed a different book: “I have been given such unexpected opportunities for seeing things at the front that you might perhaps care to collect the articles (I suppose there will be five) in a small volume to be published in the autumn.” Her journalistic essays were thus published later that year, both in Scribner’s Magazine and as a book, Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort.

She also edited The Book of the Homeless, an anthology to benefit relief efforts that was published in January 1916. The volume featured introductions by French Marshal Joseph Joffre and Theodore Roosevelt and included poetry, essays, art, fiction, and musical scores by an incredible list of cultural celebrities, including Jean Cocteau, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, William Dean Howells, George Santayana, W. B. Yeats, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry James, Max Beerbohm, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Igor Stravinsky. (Wharton translated the non-English works herself.) The proceeds from the volume and related materials, while less than she had hoped, totaled well over $10,000. In the spring, in appreciation of her activities for the war effort, the French government made her Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. She was made Chevalier of the Order of Leopold by King Albert of Belgium in 1919.

In the letter to her publisher mentioned above, Wharton also proposed writing “four or five short stories, not precisely war stories, but on subjects suggested by the war.” Yet it wasn’t until the end of the war when she found the time to write such stories—and she published only three: her novella The Marne and two shorter stories. (A fourth war story was recently discovered among Wharton’s papers.) When she suggested writing a novel, her editors cabled a short message of discouragement: “War Books Dead in America.”

The selection presented here, “Writing a War Story,” is—surprisingly enough—a comedy. Wharton lightheartedly makes fun of the very type of wartime relief efforts she spearheaded and depicts a woman writer trying to think of a story appropriate for a magazine for soldiers. Wharton’s satire even jokes about soliciting artwork from the painter John Singer Sargent—who actually was a contributor to her Book of the Homeless. Her recent biographer Hermione Lee finds the story particularly self-critical, “harsh about the emotive language which she herself sometimes used in wartime.” R.W.B. Lewis views it from a different angle: throughout the war, Wharton nearly always made light of her own volunteerism when friends praised her tireless energy; she felt that nothing she did could compare with the agonies suffered by the soldiers and their families. “My heart is heavy with sorrow of all my friends who are in mourning,” she protested. Whatever she may have thought of her own war writing, Wharton still finished A Son at the Front, the novel her editors discouraged her from publishing. After it appeared in 1923, she wrote that the book was “a sort of ‘lest we forget,’ and I’m glad I’ve done it.”

Notes: On page 248, Wharton refers to a wounded V. C., a combatant who has received the Victoria Cross, the highest British military decoration for valor. Mélisande lowering her braid over the balcony (p. 253) is a reference to a scene from Claude Debussy’s 1902 opera, Pelléas et Mélisande.

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Miss Ivy Spang of Cornwall-on-Hudson had published a little volume of verse before the war. . . . 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, January 15, 2016

Ordeal in Levittown

David B. Bittan (1921-2001)
From Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973

Sales flyer for new homes in Levittown, PA. The captions read “One of four different styles of the Jubilee . . . the Colonial . . . the Pennsylvanian . . . of the Country Clubber.” Image courtesy of the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s online exhibit on Levittown.
In August 1957 a federal district court ordered nine African American students admitted to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, but Governor Orval Faubus used the National Guard to prevent them from entering the school. Reporters from across the country descended upon the city, and the tense atmosphere of those first days of school dominated the nation’s headlines. After the district court ordered Faubus to end his interference, the governor withdrew the Guard, but on September 23 the students were attacked by a large mob. In a telegram to President Eisenhower, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I urgently request you to take a strong forthright stand in the Little Rock situation. If the federal government fails to take a strong positive stand at this time it will set the process of integration back fifty years.” Eisenhower sent more than 1,000 paratroopers and placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal control. “The Little Rock Nine,” as they are known, were escorted to class by armed soldiers on September 25.

Meanwhile, 1,200 miles to the northeast in the quiet suburb of Levittown, Pennsylvania, William and Daisy Myers spent the month of August moving into the four-year-old home they had just purchased at the recommendation of their new next-door neighbor. They little imagined what would greet them.

David B. Bittan, another neighbor and a Philadelphia Daily News journalist, wrote about the Myers’s experiences for Look magazine, and “Ordeal in Levittown” was published the following summer. The Pennsylvania community was the second of four Levittowns built by brothers William and Arthur Levitt. (The other three are in New Jersey, New York, and Puerto Rico.) When initially constructed, the developments had stringent rules, including prohibitions against fencing off the yards, which the Levitts felt would ruin the sense of community among neighbors, and hanging laundry out to dry on Sunday. And the Levitts pointedly refused to sell the homes they built to African Americans.

In spite of the couple’s month-long nightmare in Levittown, Daisy Myers (who went on to become an elementary school principal and, for two decades, assistant to U.S. Representative William F. Goodling) always accentuated the positive side. "I look back on it as not a bad time in my life,” she told The Baltimore Sun in 1997. “With all of my schooling [two Master's degrees], I would never have learned as much about human nature as I did then, and I wouldn't have met such fine people like Martin Luther King, Pearl Buck, and Jackie Robinson.” Similarly, after her retirement and her husband’s death in 1999, she told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “I remember well all the bad days and nights, but I also remember the good days, the good people and their good deeds. In fact, for every evil event, there were two, three, or more good events.” She went on to say that if her husband had not changed jobs in 1961, “I probably would have been there today.” Daisy Myers died in 2011.

Note: On the last page Bittan mentions J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who directed the design of the first atomic bombs at Los Alamos and who had his security clearance revoked by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954 after being accused of disloyalty.

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Dogwood Hollow was like any other mass-produced suburb on August 11 of last summer—hot, humid and saturated with boredom. . . . 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, January 8, 2016

Never Bet the Devil Your Head

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
From Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales

Detail from “A Bargain with the Devil,” 1907, watercolor, pen, and ink on paper by British book illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867–1939), in the holdings of the Royal Watercolour Society, London.
In a curious review published by the New York weekly The Independent in October 1898, the now-forgotten writer Maurice Thompson presents a reconsideration of Major Jones’s Courtship, a now-forgotten epistolary novel published fifty years earlier by William Tappan Thompson. Both Thompsons (they were not related) spent their adult lives in Georgia; any claim to enduring renown by the latter is for his design of the second flag of the Confederacy. In any case, the younger Thompson offers up Major Jones as an example of a lost strain of Southern humor: although the novel “reads like a practical joke upon even the crudest literary art,” he still finds it to be “the coarse concrete foundation upon which a very beautiful angle of American literary art securely rests.” He points out that Major Jones appeared only shortly after the “best work” of Edgar Allan Poe. After all, taste in comedy changes rapidly; Thompson reminds his readers that “some people thought such stories as ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’ and ‘The Spectacles’ humorous.” Thompson doesn’t care for the “graveyard atmosphere” of Poe’s wit, but he grudgingly admits that “his stories are literature, and so they will live.”

“‘Fun’ is apparently not a word most people associate with Poe,” admits the critic Stephen Peithman. “But the truth is that there is a great deal of humor in Poe, for here is a man who sees both the tragedy and the absurdity of life and who can write of either—or both at the same time.” His story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” is a good example: its grisly (if predictable) ending is offset by the farcical portrait of the unrelentingly vulgar Toby Dammit. Poe also pokes fun at the writers published in the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, although in a letter sent shortly after the story appeared Poe denied any personal animosity. “I have no quarrel in the world with that illustrious journal, nor it with me. I am not aware that it ever mentioned my name, or alluded to me either directly or indirectly. My slaps at it were only in ‘a general way.’ The tale in question is a mere Extravaganza levelled at no one in particular, hitting right & left at things in general.”

As is the case with any of Poe’s stories, there are literary allusions hidden throughout, but most are not essential to one’s enjoyment of the tale. The opening paragraph might require some explanation, however. After quoting the contemporary Spanish author Tomás Hermenegildo de las Torres (and mercilessly mocking his poetry), Poe points out—as a complaint—that literary critics can and will find a “moral” in just about anything. His example is what writers have done with the Batrachomyomachia (The Battle of Frogs and Mice), a parody of the Iliad that was probably written in the fourth century B.C. Poe cites wildly divergent and outrageous interpretations of the epic poem, and points out that he continues to come across equally ludicrous analyses of works ranging from James McHenry’s ten-book narrative poem The Antediluvians to the nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?”

And so Poe claims to be perplexed that certain readers accuse him of writing tales without morals. Just give it time, he says; the critics will find plenty of morals for his stories, without any guidance from him. “In the meantime,” he presents us with a tale whose moral can be found right in the title.

Notes: On page 459, Poe quotes as Roman law Defuncti injuriâ ne afficiantur (“Let the dead suffer no injury”), although the saying seems to have originated with Poe. De mortuis nil nisi bonum is Latin for the more familiar expression, “Speak only good of the dead.” On page 461, Poe mentions Coleridge, Kant, Carlyle, and Emerson; Poe scholar Thomas Mabbott points out that Poe often pokes fun at these four writers for “vagueness, obscurity, or confusion of style.” Musselmen (p. 462) is Poe’s misspelling of Mussulmen, an archaic word for Muslims. Merry-Andrew (p. 463) was once a common term for a buffoon. A Paixhan bomb is an explosive shell from a field artillery piece invented by French general Henri-Joseph Paixhans. Mr. Lord (p. 466) is William W. Lord, whose book of poems, one of which parodied Poe, was harshly reviewed by him: “We are . . . thoroughly disgusted with the impudence of the parties who have been aiding and abetting in thrusting it before the public. To the poet himself we have only to say—from any farther specimens of your stupidity, good Lord deliver us!” The bar sinister mentioned in the last paragraph refers to a heraldic sign of illegitimacy; it is also meant as a pun on the sinister bar that proves to cause Toby’s downfall.

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“Con tal que las costumbres de un autor,” says Don Thomas De Las Torres, in the preface to his “Amatory Poems” “sean puras y castas, importó muy poco que no sean igualmente severas sus obras”—meaning, in plain English, that, provided the morals of an author are pure, personally, it signifies nothing what are the morals of his books. . . . 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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