Friday, June 24, 2016

The Soul of the Great Bell

Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904)
From Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings

The Yongle Bell, cast in 1403 at the end of the first year of the reign of the Emperor Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty. Weighing nearly fifty tons, its sound could be heard fifty kilometers away on a clear night. The bell is housed in the Great Bell Temple, located in the Haidian District of Beijing and built in the year 1733. Image courtesy of Cultural China.
One of the journalist Lafcadio Hearn’s earliest books was a collection of adaptations of Chinese legends—which he completed even though he actually knew next to nothing of the Chinese language. While working on the proofs for the book, he corresponded frequently with his friend Elizabeth Bisland, a former colleague at the New Orleans Times Democrat who had moved in 1887 to New York to become an editor at Vogue. (Bisland would became famous two years later, when she raced New York World reporter Nellie Bly around the world, attempting to beat Phileas Fogg's fictitious record in the famous Jules Verne novel. She lost the race, although both women made the trip in less than eighty days.) Hearn’s letters to Bisland included updates about his struggling career as fiction writer and anecdotes about the remarkable characters he continued to meet in New Orleans. In one letter he complained that his latest attempt to learn Chinese had ended in failure. “My last pet was a Chinese doctor, whose name I cannot even pronounce. He tried to teach me Chinese; but I discovered the nasal tones almost impossible to imitate.”

His failure to learn the language didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the “weird beauty” of the six tales included in his book, and he instead relied on the work of various European Sinologists to help him create his own versions and understand the historical and linguistic allusions. “To such great explorers,” he acknowledged in a preface, “the realm of Cathayan story belongs by right of discovery and conquest; yet the humbler traveller who follows wonderingly after them into the vast and mysterious pleasure-grounds of Chinese fancy may surely be permitted to cull a few of the marvellous flowers there growing.”

Illustration of Ko-Ngai’s tale, from P. Dabry
de Thiersant’s La piété filiale en Chine (1877)
“The Soul of the Great Bell, ” the opening story of Hearn’s Some Chinese Ghosts, is perhaps the one best known today. Hearn’s appendix offers the following background:
The story of Ko-Ngai is one of the collection entitled Te-Hiao-Tou-Choué, or “A Hundred Examples of Filial Piety.” It is very simply told by the Chinese narrator. The scholarly French consul, P. Dabry de Thiersant, translated and published in 1877 a portion of the book, including the legend of the Bell. His translation is enriched with a number of Chinese drawings. . . .
The drawing that accompanied Ko-Ngai’s story in Thiersant’s book is reproduced to the left.

Twenty years later, after Hearn had been living in Japan for a decade, he admitted that his versions of the tales were the “early work of a man who tried to understand the Far East from books,—and couldn’t; but then, the real purpose of the stories was only artistic.” Nevertheless, he insisted, “I would change nothing.”

(For additional information on Lafcadio Hearn, see the introduction to the previous Story of the Week, “The Legend of Tchi-Niu,” also from Some Chinese Ghosts.)

Notes: The Son of Heaven is an honorific for the Emperor of China. Hearn’s book also included a glossary of terms that might be unfamiliar to American readers, although most of them should be clear from context. His definitions of the terms used in this story are reprinted below:
  • Fo. Buddha is called Fo, Fuh, Fuh-tu, Hwut, F˘at, in various Chinese dialects. The name is thought to be a corruption of the Hindoo Bodh, or “Truth,” due to the imperfect articulation of the Chinese. . . .
  • Fuh-yin. An official holding in Chinese cities a position corresponding to that of mayor in the Occident
  • Kwang-chau-fu. Literally, “The Broad City,”—the name of Canton. It is also called “The City of Genii.”
  • Lí. A measure of distance. The length of the has varied considerably in ancient and in modern times. The present is given by Williams as ten to a league.
  • Ta-chung sz’. Literally, “Temple of the Bell.” The building at Pekin so named covers probably the largest suspended bell in the world, cast in the reign of Yong-lo, about 1406 AD, and weighing upwards of 120,000 pounds.

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The water-clock marks the hour in the Ta-chung sz’,— in the Tower of the Great Bell: now the mallet is lifted to smite the lips of the metal monster, . . . 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, June 17, 2016

A Young Pacifist

Paul Goodman (1911–1972)
From War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing

Nearly 2,000 people attended a 1965 teach-in sponsored by Cornell University’s Faculty Committee on Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.
Pop culture critic and former Sacramento Bee editor Bruce Dancis opens his recent memoir Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison during the Vietnam War by recalling the following incident:
On December 14, 1966, at the age of eighteen, I stood before a crowd of three hundred people at Cornell University, read a statement denouncing the war in Vietnam and the draft, and tore my draft card into four pieces. I then walked over to a nearby mailbox and sent my statement and the four pieces of my card to my draft board in the Bronx, New York, informing the Selective Service System I would not fight in Vietnam and would no longer cooperate with the draft in any shape or form.
Prior to this event, the core group of antiwar activists on campus comprised no more than twenty students. “We were all committed to refusing to fight in Vietnam, but remained divided and unclear about what to do next,” Dancis writes. “In part, this reflected our political diversity. . . . We had Christian pacifists, anarchists (like Matty Goodman, a non-registrant and the son of the radical social critic Paul Goodman), and some who defied ideological categories.”

Dancis eventually became president and co-chair of the Cornell chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, which by 1969 grew into one of the largest in the nation. The young “anarchist” Matty Goodman, however, did not live to see the antiwar movement at its height; he died while mountain-climbing in August 1967. In the following selection, written a few weeks later, Matty’s father remembers his son’s role in the nascent antiwar movement. Lawrence Rosenwald adds additional comments about Paul Goodman in the headnote that precedes the piece, which is included in the new LOA collection War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar and Peace Writing.

Notes: The speakers mentioned on page 436 are New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and former governor W. Averell Harriman, who in the spring of 1965 became a Johnson administration ambassador-at-large, with responsibility for Southeast Asia. The reference on page 438 to October 16, 1967, is to the coordinated effort of nearly 1,500 men in eighteen cities who participated in draft card returns. The Peace Bridge is the highway span connecting Canada and the United States at the east end of Lake Erie. On page 439, Goodman and his son talk about the parable of the Pearl of Great Price [Matthew 13:45-46]: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls. Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” Ithaca district attorney Richard Thaler, who was confronted by Matty on campus, served an injunction against the distribution of the Cornell literary magazine Trojan Horse and arrested on obscenity charges several students attempting to sell it on campus. A state court later ruled the magazine was not obscene. C.O. (page 440) stands for conscientious objector; the draft classification II-S (2-S) allowed college students to defer military service until graduation or until the age of 24, whichever came first.

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My son, Mathew Ready Goodman, was killed mountain-climbing on August 8, 1967, age 20. Burton Weiss, a close friend of his at Cornell, has sent me an account of Matty’s political activities there. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

Teachers: Please note that this selection contains a single use of an expletive. Used by permission. To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

Friday, June 10, 2016

“I’m the Greatest”

Red Smith (1905–1982)
From American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith

Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) holds court at a diner with fans, friends, and admirers in Miami, March 1, 1964, the week after his defeat of Sonny Liston. (Bob Gomel/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images).
Thirty-five years ago Muhammad Ali and Red Smith both came to the end of their respective careers. Ali, of course, had spent the better part of two decades as a professional boxer and was the only three-time heavyweight champion of the world. His last fight was on December 11, 1981, in the Bahamas, where he lost a ten-round decision to Trevor Berbick. Smith had been a sportswriter for fifty years, most famously at The New York Herald Tribune with a final decade at The New York Times. One month after Ali’s last fight, he announced he was scaling back his column from four times weekly to three. “We shall have to wait and see whether the quality improves.” He died of heart failure four days later, at the age of seventy-six.

During the previous twenty years Smith “had a lot to say about Ali—first crankily negative, later largely positive,” notes Daniel Okrent in the introduction to the LOA’s recent collection of Smith’s columns. What particularly turned Smith (like many of his colleagues) against the young boxer, who had recently changed his name from Cassius Clay, was his statement in early 1966 that he would refuse to serve in the army during the Vietnam War. “Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up,” Smith wrote, “Cassius makes as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.” He then grudgingly if patronizingly predicted, “Cassius, who can be an extremely attractive young man when he chooses, will be winning and contrite. He has already conceded that he did pop-off out of turn.” Two months later, however, Ali was arrested and convicted for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. military.

Smith did eventually change his mind about Ali. On Christmas Day 1981—two weeks before his final column—he named Ali’s retirement the biggest sporting event of the year.
For boxing, it was the end of an era; for the press and public, it was the curtain scene of an act that had played for two decades. . . . He made himself the most widely known individual in the world, an athlete respected universally; a folk hero, especially to the rebellious youth of the 1960s, when he “didn't have nothin’ against them Viet Cong”; a gag man considered gifted by many; even a short-term diplomat in the State Department. In those areas he was, as he would be the first to admit, “the greatest.”
We present here Smith’s effusive column from February 1964, after the twenty-two-year-old Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight boxing crown and (not for the last time) forced sportswriters around the world—including Smith—to “eat their words.”

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Cassius Marcellus Clay fought his way out of the horde that swarmed and leaped and shouted in the ring. . . . 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, June 3, 2016

The Kiss

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932)
From Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays

Still Life with Money, Pipe and Letters, 1914, oil on canvas by Ohio artist Charles Alfred Meurer (1865–1955). Image courtesy of Artnet.
In 1887 Charles W. Chesnutt became the first African American writer whose fiction appeared in the pages of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. “Before Chesnutt’s,” contends the late Dean McWilliams, “no fiction written by a Negro had received serious attention from America’s white literary establishment.” He continued to place stories in The Atlantic and other national magazines and, in the seven years leading up to 1905, Chesnutt published three novels, two story collections, and a biography of Frederick Douglass. “And then silence—or so it seemed,” McWilliams continues. “Chesnutt published a few essays and several more stories, but there were no more book-length publications before his death in 1932.” He was discouraged by the poor critical and commercial reception of his last novel, The Colonel’s Dream, and the editors of the The Atlantic and other magazines increasingly declined to publish his stories.

Concerned with the ongoing struggle to support his family, Chesnutt turned his attention to his business career and social standing in his hometown. He received a law degree from Wilberforce University and became a member of the Cleveland Council of Sociology, a civic improvement group; the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce; and the exclusive Rowfant Club, a local bibliophile society that had initially turned down his application because it did not admit African Americans. A decade later, in 1916, an old acquaintance from his salad days in North Carolina wrote Chesnutt in praise of his books and wondered why he was no longer publishing. “I hope to write more,” he responded, “but a busy life along other lines, in these strenuous times, has given me of later years, little time for literary work. . . . I have enjoyed for many years an ample income, from the standpoint of a moderately successful professional man.”

He continued to deliver speeches on civil rights and woman suffrage—and, in fact, he never entirely gave up writing fiction. During the last two decades of his life he finished at least four books: two novels (Paul Marchand, FMC and The Quarry), a collection of dialect stories (titled “Aunt Hagar’s Children”), and a collection of children’s tales. Yet he was unable to find a publisher for any of them; the two novels remained unavailable until 1999 and the two collections were lost or destroyed.

In addition, sometime after 1914, he wrote “The Kiss”—but it would be sixty years before this story appeared in print.* In many ways, “The Kiss” differs from Chesnutt’s previous stories, which can seem almost Victorian in their fussiness, and shows an author grappling with the modern attitudes of a new century. Set in Cleveland (or, as Chesnutt calls the city in his other works, Groveland), it details the heart-rending consequences of an adulterous affair. The description of the liaison, acknowledges Chesnutt scholar Charles Duncan, “seems positively un-Chesnutt-like. Indeed, even the language of the passage, focusing on ‘primal passions’ and ‘guilty pleasure,’ makes one wonder what had gotten into this usually straitlaced, even prudish writer.”

* When “The Kiss” finally appeared in print, in a 1974 collection of Chesnutt’s complete stories, the editor speculated that it was written shortly after 1901. But the closing reference to a stay in the Swiss Alps (“honeymoon in the Engadine—it was long before the war”) suggests that the story could not have been finished before late 1914.

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Mrs. Cartwright left the streetcar at the nearest corner, and walked the half of a city block that led to her own gateway, and up the flower-bordered flagged walk across the green lawn to the verandah where her two children, Talbot and Cecile, were playing, under the supervision of a white-capped nurse. . . . 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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