Friday, April 29, 2016

The Fight

Stephen Crane (1871–1900)
From Stephen Crane: Prose & Poetry

The Gang, circa 1894, oil on canvas by British-American painter John George Brown (1831–1913). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
Stephen Crane’s final book, Whilomville Stories, appeared in August 1900, two months after the 28-year-old died from tuberculosis in Germany. Hastened to completion by the twin urgencies of Crane's declining finances and deteriorating health, the book underwent a somewhat convoluted path to publication. The fictional town of Whilomville had been the setting for two earlier works: “The Monster” (a novella considered by many to be Crane’s last masterpiece) and “His New Mittens” (a previous Story of the Week selection). Crane first proposed the idea for a volume of Whilomville tales in the spring of 1899, when his previous collection, The Monster and Other Stories, was already being prepared for press. At the eleventh hour he hesitantly suggested that the volume be reconfigured to collect only stories set in Whilomville, including “The Monster,” “His New Mittens,” four new stories he had just finished, and “other stories of Whilomville which have not yet been named.”

Crane was notorious for changing his mind about his books and their contents, and so his agent and his publisher ignored his latest brainstorm and proceeded with the original volume. They did, however, draw up a contract for a book of new Whilomville tales: including the four new stories he had completed, “at least twelve stories should be supplied, so as to bring the matter up to about 40,000 words.” The finished book was due in November. Then, in October, when Crane was nearly done with the required dozen, his common-law wife Cora wrote to his agent and proposed extending the series to a total of eighteen tales. It’s not clear who backtracked from this last-minute pitch, but in the end Crane submitted thirteen stories before the deadline the following month.

Literary scholar James Nagel has suggested that, given Crane’s desire to see them published together, all fifteen selections of the Whilomville series should be considered an early example of an American short-story cycle. Nagel points out that Jimmy Trescott, a character in many of the stories, functions “much in the manner of George Willard in Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Nick Adams in Hemingway’s In Our Time.” He furthermore argues that these stories should not be categorized as children’s literature:
Part of Crane’s inventiveness in what became principally a series of tales about children is that he invested virtually all of them with mature ideas, essentially the same themes he employed in his adult fiction, issues of pride and humiliation, the illusion of stature and deflation, the desire for bravery and glory, the reality of cowardice and defeat.
For each of the tales, Crane almost certainly drew on places, people, and events from his own childhood. Yet it would be a mistake to see Whilomville as a fictionalized, nostalgic version of Port Jervis, New York. While they were being serialized in Harper’s Magazine, Crane’s brother informed him that the stories were generating a certain amount of local gossip. “I suppose that Port Jervis entered my head while I was writing it,” Crane responded, “but I particularly don’t wish them to think so because people get very sensitive and I would not scold away freely if I thought the eye of your glorious public was upon me.” Crane scholar J. C. Levenson agrees that the stories are “not sufficiently accounted for in that way. . . . Crane had an interest in [Port Jervis’s] earlier history, but he did not feel called upon to record a real or fictitious past or any special flavor of local custom or dialect. Indeed, Whilomville is indefinite with respect to time as well as place.”

There is, perhaps, one notable exception. Two decades after Crane’s death, the reporter and occasional magician John Northern Hilliard wrote to biographer Thomas Beer and recollected his friendship with Crane: “He was exactly as he delineated Jimmy Trescott in the Whilomville Stories. He was Jimmy Trescott.”

Notes: The English system of fagging, mentioned midway through the story, refers to the tradition in British boarding schools in which younger students were personal servants to senior boys. Later in the story, Jimmy argues with a friend over the merits of two Uncle Tom’s Cabin companies. In the 1880s and ’90s, acting troupes crisscrossed the country, staging competing versions of the wildly popular stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Advertisements boasted how each show offered the most extravagant spectacle, including the use of numerous live animals—particularly bloodhounds.

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The child life of the neighborhood was sometimes moved in its deeps at the sight of wagon-loads of furniture arriving in front of some house which with closed blinds and barred doors had been for a time a mystery or even a fear. . . . 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, April 22, 2016

Trees in Streets and in Parks

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903)
From Frederick Law Olmsted: Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society

A rendering of the area surrounding the lake in New York’s proposed Central Park, 1858. Frederick Law Olmsted & Calvert Vaux, Greensward Study No. 5: View Southwest from Vista Rock on Reverse Line of Sight from Study No. 4. Courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives and digitally enhanced by Library of America.
One of Frederick Law Olmsted’s earliest and most enduring mentors was the landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing. The two men met in 1846, shortly after Downing had published his latest book, Fruits and Fruit Trees of America. At the time, Olmsted was a 24-year-old apprentice at Fairmount, a famous upstate New York farm owned by agronomist and politician George Geddes. Ten years Olmsted’s senior, Downing had just been hired as editor of a new magazine, The Horticulturist, and the two men soon initiated a correspondence about the care of trees—fruit trees in particular. Downing’s advice and support proved invaluable. After purchasing a farm on Staten Island in 1848, Olmsted planted more than a thousand pear trees, won “First Prize for Pears” at a local fair, and, in 1852, published an article on pear culture in The Horticulturist. It was the beginning of Olmsted’s lifelong obsession with trees.

Downing was an early proponent of open spaces in urban settings and an insistent advocate for the creation of a large park in the middle of Manhattan. Unfortunately, in 1852, soon after publishing Olmsted’s article on pears in his magazine, Downing was killed, along with eighty others, when the steamboat Henry Clay, carrying five hundred excursionists, burst into flames and crashed onto the bank of the Hudson River. The year after Downing’s death, the New York legislature finally agreed to develop a 67-block stretch in central Manhattan for the city’s Central Park, and in 1857 Olmsted teamed up with Downing’s surviving business partner, Calvert Vaux, and submitted the winning design.

Central Park was just the beginning; it is impossible to imagine the American landscape without Frederick Law Olmsted. (The National Association for Olmsted Parks has created a map showing the thousands of projects designed by the Olmsted family over a century-long span.) By the early 1880s he had already designed, among countless ventures, Manhattan’s Riverside Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Niagara Falls State Park, Chicago’s South Park system, and Detroit’s Belle Isle. Other commissions included numerous college campuses (such as Cornell University, University of California–Berkeley’s Piedmont Avenue, and the University of Maine), the management of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove, and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Throughout his career he published voluminously, often outlining—and defending—his aesthetic views. And his writings often explained how the inclusion of trees played a pivotal role in his projects; as Witold Rybczynski, the author of the recent best seller A Clearing in the Distance, succinctly put it, “Olmsted loved trees.”

Like several of his contemporaries, Olmsted made much of the “sanitary” aspects of landscape design—the term is scattered throughout his 1882 essay “Trees in Streets and in Parks”—but he resisted those well-meaning proponents who saw “nothing in a park but an airing apparatus, to be made attractive by decorations.” He instead used the term in far more holistic sense; as Charles E. Beveridge writes, “Olmsted’s emphasis on the ‘sanitary’ influence of his style of landscape design reflected his desire to have his designs produce an effect on the whole human organism. He believed that such service to human needs, and not simply the creation of decoration, should underlie all art.” Similarly, Melvin Kalfus, in his book Frederick Law Olmsted: The Passion of a Public Artist, affirms that Olmsted argued “that both the ‘air purifying value’ and the ‘decorative motive’ of planting trees were subordinate to its paramount object: to offer a restorative, often unconscious, ‘solace and comfort’ to town-strained minds.”

Note: The “pamphlet prepared by an eminent physician” mentioned on page 590 is Public Parks: Their Effects upon the Moral, Physical and Sanitary Condition of the Inhabitants of Large Cities; with Special Reference to the City of Chicago (1869), by John Henry Rauch.

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I am looking upon a crooked, hill-side village street, lined with trees. . . . 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, April 15, 2016

The Hiartville Shakespeare Club

Belle Marshall Locke (1867–1933)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

Abilene Shakespeare Club, 1910. Image courtesy of the Grace Museum of Abilene, TX.
The July 23, 1898, issue of The New York Times, published a reply to a previous query about “how to conduct a Shakespeare Club.” The author of the response, Henry Perkins Goddard, was a Civil War veteran, former journalist, and insurance executive, and—as the president of the Shakespeare Club of Baltimore for twelve years—he offered these words of advice:
We took care that at least half the members were unmarried and that the men were bright and brainy and the women pretty and intelligent. We met fortnightly at each other’s houses and made it an invariable rule to read at least one act of a Shakespeare play and then a paper upon a play or upon some other Shakespeare subject. . . . The secret of our success, to my thinking, lay in the insistence upon the reading of the play, for altogether too many people talk about Shakespeare without reading him, and upon our having refreshments after the literary exercises, no matter of how simple a nature. Here in Baltimore, as one of our lady members said, “It would be impossible to run a flirtation club of two, much less a Shakespeare club of forty without something to eat.”
There were hundreds of Shakespeare clubs formed in the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. Unlike the group in Baltimore, however, most were established by and for women. Although contemporary academics often scorned women’s reading groups and similar organizations, literary scholar Katherine West Scheil avers in a recent book that “such tensions seem relatively nonexistent for Shakespeare clubs”; she notes that Harvard professor Francis James Child and Shakespeare editor William J. Rolfe, among others, “actually encouraged women’s study of Shakespeare through editions, works of criticism, and even sometimes club lectures.”

Amateur theater groups of all stripes, however well intended, have long been a target of parodists—and the Shakespeare clubs proved to be no exception. In 1896, shortly after completing a stint as the instructor of the Dartmouth Dramatic Club, acting coach Belle Marshall Locke wrote The Hiartville Shakespeare Club: A Farce in One Act for Girls. It proved to be a small-scale hit; Locke’s skit was a staple of community theater and school thespian groups for more than four decades, and the script went through several editions and printings. Additional information about Locke and about the rise of Shakespeare clubs can be found in James Shapiro’s headnote on the first page of this week’s selection.

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Friday, April 8, 2016

A Curtain of Green

Eudora Welty (1909–2001)
From Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays, & Memoir

Detail from Work out in Mississippi Grove, c. 1900, oil on linen, by American artist Kate Freeman Clark (1875–1957). See the full image at The Athenaeum.
After completing a one-year advertising course at Columbia University Graduate School in New York, Eudora Welty found her new career stymied by the lack of job openings, and so she returned to Mississippi in 1931. Soon after she arrived home, her father became critically ill with leukemia and, with Eudora at his bedside, died while receiving a blood transfusion from her mother. While working at a series of jobs, Eudora consoled her mother who, as biographer Suzanne Marrs notes, “discovered solace in gardening.” With her daughter as helpmate, Chestina Welty spent hours in her garden, nearly every day; she wrote in an unpublished essay (quoted by Marrs) that “its peace and fragrance are soothing to frayed nerves when we are weary from contact or perhaps conflict with the everyday world.”

Seven years after her father’s death, Eudora transformed her mother’s grief into a story. Rather than a source of therapeutic comfort, yardwork in “A Curtain of Green” becomes an unhealthy, almost destructive obsession. (One can only wonder what Chestina thought of the autobiographical elements of her daughter’s story.) Mrs. Larkin’s isolation is not only social but also physical—the “hedge, high as a wall” forming a curtain of green between her and her neighbors. In a recently published appraisal of Welty’s fiction, literary scholar Sally Wolff examines the themes of this story and writes, “In the painful balance between loving and losing, Welty asks the most probing questions about life without love.”

Years later Welty admitted that she wrote her earliest stories, including this one, “with a great deal of ease” and didn’t subject them to a vigorous process of revision. When she finished “A Curtain of Green,” she rushed it off to Southern Review editors Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, who accepted and published it immediately in the Autumn 1938 issue. (Compare this experience with Warren and Brook’s initial rejection of “The Petrified Man,” described in a previous Story of the Week introduction.) The following year it was selected for the annual Best Short Stories collection.

When Welty’s first book appeared in 1941, “A Curtain of Green” was the title story. Four decades later Welty was asked how it became the lead selection of the seventeen stories in an extraordinary collection. She explained that it was the only story whose title none of her publisher’s employees objected to and recalled her editor joking that her subsequent books could be called “A Curtain of Red” and “A Curtain of Blue.” The book was greeted with glowing reviews and has since become a favorite among readers, yet (surprisingly) the initial release sold only 3,000 copies—and it sold fewer than 7,000 copies in its first thirty years. Nevertheless, in spite of a decade filled with odd jobs and Depression-era scarcities, Welty often recounted the relatively good fortune of her early successes, telling Martha van Noppen in an interview, “I had good luck getting things published from the start, not in selling things which took quite a while, but in getting accepted by small magazines which did not pay, but which published.”

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Every day one summer in Larkin's Hill, it rained a little. The rain was a regular thing, and would come about two o’clock in the afternoon. . . . This story is no longer available. Read other recent selections from Story of the Week.

Friday, April 1, 2016

“Remember the Ladies”

Abigail Adams (1744–1818) & John Adams (1735–1826)
From Abigail Adams: Letters and John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1775–1783

Portraits of John and Abigail Adams, circa 1766, pastel on paper by American artist Benjamin Blyth (1746–1811).
On February 8, 1776, John Adams traveled to Philadelphia for the new session of the Continental Congress. His wife Abigail remained at their home in Braintree, south of Boston. The British garrison evacuated Boston on March 17, sailing to Nova Scotia and leaving the town in control of the colonists. During the spring months John wrote his influential essay Thoughts on Government, which he circulated first in letters and then published as a pamphlet. And, as they always did when apart, John and Abigail continued their remarkable correspondence, including Abigail’s now-famous letter urging John and his fellow representatives to “Remember the Ladies” in “the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make.”

Beginning her letter at the end of March, Abigail broached two sensitive subjects: slavery and the role of women in society. On slavery, she wrote, “the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs.” And on women: “Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex.” Abigail’s petition was not for political equality but rather for legal protections: “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.”

Biographer Edith Gelles contends that the fact Abigail sent this letter at all—after holding on to it for nearly a week and adding a second part—hints that she thought John might be receptive to its message. “Slavery was the live specter that the delegates avoided,” writes Gelles, “but the idea of rights of women ran so contrary to anyone’s imagination, much less expression in the halls of Congress, that the issue would be considered amusing rather than alarming.” And John was indeed amused. “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh,” he responded before teasingly dismissing women as yet “another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest.” His concession, if it can be considered such, is the assertion that although the “Masculine systems . . . are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude.”

For our Story of the Week selection, then, we present Abigail’s original letter (in both its parts), followed by John’s response of April 14 and Abigail’s subsequent letter to her friend, the political writer and playwright Mercy Otis Warren, in which she complains about John’s dismissiveness (“He is very sausy to me in return for a List of Female Grievances which I transmitted to him”).

Abigail did not let the matter drop, however, and a later letter (May 7) included a final retort:
I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken—and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without voilence [sic] throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet. . . .

Notes: The two letters between Abigail and John mention John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, governor of the colony of Virginia, who issued a proclamation in November 1775 offering freedom to slaves who joined the British side. Both letters also discuss Samuel Quincy, the Solicitor General for the Massachusetts Colony, who became a Loyalist and returned to England in 1776, leaving behind his wife, who fervently supported the colonists. He died in exile in 1789. Abigail’s reference to “your President” is to John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress, and gaieti de Coar is her spelling of the French expression gaité de coeur (lightheartedness). John’s reference to Common Sense is to the famous pamphlet by Thomas Paine. Abigail’s letter to Mercy Otis Warren closes with a line from Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to a Lady,” followed by a stanza from “An Epistle to Lord Bathurst,” by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Abigail often signed her letters as Portia, the wife of the Roman politician Brutus.

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