Friday, May 20, 2016

Spring Day

Amy Lowell (1874–1925)
From Amy Lowell: Selected Poems

Girl in Bathtub [cropped], 1903, pastel on paper by American artist Everett Shinn (1876–1953). The full image is posted at Wikimedia Commons.
In March 1912, six months before her first book of poems was published, Amy Lowell met Ada Dwyer Russell, a formerly prominent stage actress who was separated from her husband. During the next two years, the pair became intimate companions, and they lived together at Sevenels, the Lowell family mansion in Brookline, Massachusetts, for the rest of Lowell’s life. “Ada took on the household of Sevenels,” summarizes Honor Moore, “releasing Amy further to her poetry. . . . To Amy’s friends and correspondents, Ada was affectionately ‘Mrs. Russell’—to Amy, she was ‘Peter,’ becoming so integral to the life of her writing that Amy imagined for the Sevenels driveway a sign saying ‘Lowell and Russell, Makers of Fine Poems.’”

Russell also coached and managed Lowell’s public readings. “The term readings, however, does not adequately describe the way she presented her poems: these were theatrical events,” explains literary scholar Melissa Bradshaw. In one of his own poems John Brooks Wheelwright called Lowell “the Biggest Traveling One-Man Show since Buffalo Bill caught the Midnight Flyer to Contact Mark Twain.” When she finished a poem, the audience often didn’t know what to do, and she would just as often demand, “Well?—Clap or hiss, I don't care which; but for Christ’s sake do something.”

And some audiences did come to hiss—or worse. Bradshaw opens the first chapter of her book Amy Lowell, Diva Poet with a description of Lowell’s first public event outside of Boston: the March 1915 meeting of the Poetry Society of America. Lowell read the polyphonic prose of “Spring Day,” the first section of which describes a narrator beginning a beautiful day with a bath. A member in the audience recalled that “as the vivid picture continued there was a suppressed snicker which rose to a roomful of undisguised laughter.” For years the incident spawned comments in the press about “Amy’s bathtub.” And much of the reaction was due to her physical appearance: Lowell was tremendously overweight. “Perhaps because of her very bulk,” biographer Jean Gould wrote, “the effect of it was almost as shocking as if she had actually appeared in her bathtub in public.” The poet Alice Corbin Henderson later told Ezra Pound, “300 pounds and a charmer,” and he responded, “Poor Amy, poor Amy," before writing in tasteless exaggeration how his favorite armchair still suffered from her recent visit.

As Bradshaw admits in her study, “These observations should seem out of place in a serious book about a literary figure. After all, what Lowell looked like should be less important than what she wrote, where it was published, its influence, and the place it occupies in modernist poetry. And yet her body and her personality find their way into much of what has been written about Lowell. . . .” Bradshaw supports her justification with numerous cringe-worthy quotes both from Lowell’s contemporaries and from subsequent critics. Yet she argues that it would be a “misreading” to assume that Lowell wanted her own personality and physicality to be ignored when one reads her poems. Instead, she contends, “Lowell willfully draws attention to her corporeality [and] implicitly demands that her personality, or rather, her body, not be forgotten.” For the last decade of her life, Lowell tirelessly crisscrossed the country, giving lectures and readings at which (in the words of Van Wyck Brooks) “she whizzed and she whirred, and she rustled and rumbled, and she glistened and sparkled and blazed and blared”—and by the time of her death at the age of fifty-one she was one of the most famous and popular writers in America.

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The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air. . . . 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, May 13, 2016

Somnambulism: A Fragment

Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Deep Woods in Fall, undated oil on canvas by American artist John Joseph Enneking (1841 - 1916). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
If you were to extract a hoary and forgotten literary encyclopedia from the dusty shelves of your local research library, chances are you’d find the claim that Charles Brockden Brown was “the first American novelist,” or perhaps “the first American novelist of any note.” Either description is stretching things a bit: there were certainly a number of novels written by Americans and published on either side of the Atlantic before 1798, when Brown finished Wieland: or, The Transformation: An American Tale, and a couple of them were better received and more widely read at the time (such as Susanna Rowson’s long-forgotten Charlotte Temple, far and away the best-selling American novel before Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But, over two hundred years later, Brown remains the only American novelist before Washington Irving whose works are still read and studied and in print, and so we can perhaps safely agree with Joyce Carol Oates’s recent claim that he is “the first American novelist of substance.”

The son of a Philadelphia merchant, Brown was by all accounts a precocious student, writing poetry and essays for newspapers and magazines, becoming an apprentice for a lawyer, and cofounding first a literary organization called the Belles Lettres Club and then the intriguingly named Society for the Attainment of Useful Knowledge—all before he reached the age of twenty. He eventually abandoned his legal studies to embark on a literary career, and between 1798 and 1801 he published six novels—or seven, if one includes Memoirs of Stephen Calvert, serialized over a one-year period and abruptly abandoned.

Now thirty years old, Brown fell in love, married in 1804, ended his short-lived tenure as a novelist, and spent the last decade of his life as founding editor (and, sometimes, sole contributor) of three consecutive literary journals. He also wrote numerous anti-Jeffersonian political tracts, as well as several essays on women’s rights. He died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine in 1810.

During his first year of marriage Brown published the story “Somnambulism: A Fragment” in one of the journals for which he served as editor. Many scholars believe that the tale had actually been written earlier, when Brown was drafting his 1799 novel Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, which develops more thoroughly several of the same themes and other elements. The plot, a whodunit concerning a baffling murder, is foretold by the fictitious newspaper article that serves as the story’s epigraph. Brown moves the locale to the American frontier and reimagines the crime from the point of view of the alleged suspect. Although the twist ending seems to be given away by the opening extract, Brown adds layers of complexity to the tale itself: the “incontroulable” passions and “vivid” imagination of the narrator, a sudden shift in perspective from Althorpe’s feverishly erratic behavior to an account of the experiences of the nighttime travelers, the appearance of a local “mischief-loving idiot” who loves “to plague and frighten people” in the forest, and the conspicuous ambiguity of the ending. The summary of Brown’s fiction in one modern reference work holds true for this story: “His work is psychologically probing and gives loose rein to a deep curiosity about the forces that prompt human action, especially those pathologies that tend to provoke evil or destroy human happiness.”

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[The following fragment will require no other preface or commentary than an extract from the Vienna Gazette of June 14, 1784. “At Great Glogau, in Silesia, the attention of physicians, and of the people, has been excited by the case of a young man, whose behaviour indicates perfect health in all respects but one. . . .” 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, May 6, 2016


Ellen N. La Motte (1873–1961)
From War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing

Mary Borden-Turner, who recruited Ellen La Motte as an army hospital nurse on the front, receives wounded soldiers from an ambulance. Photo from Jane Conway /
A century ago, in 1916, Ellen Newbold La Motte published The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse, which became an immediate success, selling well and going through several printings. Because of its unflinchingly gruesome depictions of wartime horror, however, the book was prohibited in England and France and two years later it was withdrawn from publication in the U.S. When the book was finally reissued in 1934, she wrote in a preface that “the pictures presented—back of the scenes, so to speak—were considered damaging to the morale. In the flood of war propaganda pouring over the country, these dozen short sketches were considered undesirable.”

An expression that became current during the early months of World War I defined war as (to use La Motte’s phrasing) “months of boredom, punctuated by moments of intense fright.” From the ennui—and from the terror—arose the grisly scenes La Motte experienced as a nurse in a French Army field hospital in Belgium:
During this time at the Front, the lines moved little, either forward or backward, but were deadlocked in one position. . . . [Where] there is little or no action there is a stagnant place, and in that stagnant place is much ugliness. Much ugliness is churned up in the wake of mighty, moving forces, and this is the backwash of war.
After her stint at the hospital, La Motte contributed to The Atlantic Monthly a series of articles, including “Heroes,” that became the backbone of her book. Additional information about her will be found in the headnote preceding the selection, presented by Lawrence Rosenwald in the just-published LOA collection War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar and Peace Writing.

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When he could stand it no longer, he fired a revolver up through the roof of his mouth, but he made a mess of it. . . . 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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