Friday, August 26, 2016

The Deacon’s Masterpiece: or the Wonderful “One-Hoss-Shay”

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894)
From American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume One: Freneau to Whitman

Two illustrations by American artist Howard Pyle (1853–1911), drawn for the 1892 edition of The One-Hoss Shay, with Its Companion Poems and reissued in color in 1905.
While attending medical school in 1831–32, twenty-two-year-old Oliver Wendell Holmes stayed in a Boston boarding-house. His experiences in communal living inspired two essays he submitted to New England Magazine, each published under the title “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table” and each conveying the fictionalized dialogue of boarding-house residents at mealtime. The stories were well received but soon forgotten; Holmes later referred to them as “crude products of [an] uncombed literary boyhood.” He never allowed them to be reprinted: “I find it hard to pardon the boy’s faults, others would find it harder.”

Although he anonymously published a collection of poems in 1836, Holmes spent the next quarter-century establishing himself as a highly regarded physician, medical researcher, and (from 1847 to 1853) dean of the Harvard Medical School. His second book, alliteratively titled Puerperal Fever as a Private Pestilence (1855), was considered a landmark in the field of obstetrics—but hardly a work to insure an enduring legacy to the American public. For a short period he delivered well-received lectures on the English poets but found that the out-of-the-way country stops on the lecture circuit wearied him. Approaching fifty (what he called the “five-barred gate”), he worried that he had reached that period of life when “a man must move upward, or the natural falling off in the vigor of life will carry him rapidly downward.”

Everything changed in 1857 when James Russell Lowell, a fellow professor at Harvard, was hired as the editor of a new magazine, and he in turn insisted that his friend Holmes become one of its founding contributors. Initially hesitant, Holmes agreed and even suggested the magazine’s name, The Atlantic Monthly. Holmes then lit on the idea that would make him famous: reviving the Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table as a monthly column. Far more mature in style and content than the essays from a quarter-century earlier, each piece is written as a table conversation monopolized by the unnamed Autocrat, with interruptions (including poetry, stories, and jokes) from other residents—including the Professor, the Landlady’s Daughter, the Schoolmistress, the Poet, the Old Gentleman, the Divinity-Student, “the young fellow called John,” and others. The new and improved “Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table” appeared in the debut issue of The Atlantic (November 1857) and immediately became the most popular feature in a magazine that boasted works by such celebrities as Emerson, Whittier, and Longfellow. The first twelve installments were collected at the end of 1858 in book form, selling over 10,000 copies in three days and going through several printings and editions during the following decades.

In the eleventh installment, which appeared in the September 1858 issue, “the Professor” shares with his fellow residents “a rhymed problem” titled “The Deacon’s Masterpiece,” describing a one-horse chaise built to last a hundred years. The poem became famous in its own right and was published separately in 1892 as an illustrated book, for which Holmes wrote the following preface:
“The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay” is a perfectly intelligible conception, whatever material difficulties it presents. It is conceivable that a being of an order superior to humanity should so understand the conditions of matter that he could construct a machine which should go to pieces, if not into its constituent atoms, at a given moment of the future. The mind may take a certain pleasure in this picture of the impossible. The event follows as a logical consequence of the presupposed condition of things.

There is a practical lesson to be got out of the story. Observation shows us in what point any particular mechanism is most likely to give way. In a wagon, for instance, the weak point is where the axle enters the hub or nave. When the wagon breaks down, three times out of four, I think, it is at this point that the accident occurs. The workman should see to it that this part should never give way; then find the next vulnerable place, and so on, until he arrives logically at the perfect result attained by the deacon.
A semi-farcical ode to Yankee ingenuity and New World rationality, “The Deacon’s Masterpiece” would be interpreted by later critics as Holmes’s satirical allegory of the demise of Calvinism. Curiously enough, the poem’s fame was such that one-hoss shay became a term used in economics and statistics, designating “a capital asset that exhibits neither input decay nor output decay during its lifetime.”

Notes: A few historical references are packed into the second verse of the poem. Georgius Secundus . . . from the German hive refers to King George II of England, who was of the German House of Hanover. Most of the city of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake on November 1, 1755. Earlier that year, on July 9, British forces commanded by Edward Braddock were ambushed by French and Canadian forces in Pennsylvania; over half were killed and Braddock himself was mortally wounded. The third stanza mentions various parts of a horse-drawn chaise, including the felloe (rim of a wheel) and the thill (the shaft connecting to the horse).

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Save the Redwoods

John Muir (1838–1914)
From John Muir: My First Summer in the Sierra & Selected Essays

John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt at the Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Big Tree Grove, 1903. Photograph by Joseph N. LeConte (1870–1950). Left to right: Two Secret Service agents, Secretary of the Navy William Henry Moody, California Governor George Pardee, Roosevelt, Dr. Presley Marion Rixey, Muir, Nicholas Murray Butler, Presidential secretary William Loeb Jr, and University of California president Benjamin Ide Wheeler. Image courtesy of the Sierra Club.
This month—on August 25, 2016, to exact—the National Parks Service celebrates its centennial. At the time of its founding, there were already a dozen national parks, including the first, Yellowstone (established in March 1872) and some thirty national monuments, such as Devils Tower in Wyoming, the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico, and other “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” protected by the 1906 Antiquities Act. The 1916 law brought all these areas under the umbrella of a single agency, which today manages 59 national parks, 82 national monuments, and several hundred other preserves, recreation areas, and historic sites.

John Muir, who died two years before the founding of the NPS, is widely considered one of several men responsible for its creation. For four decades Muir published articles in the national press urging protection of such natural wonders as the Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and—above all—Yosemite. In 1889 Muir met Robert Underwood Johnson, associate editor of The Century Magazine, and the two men traveled to Yosemite in early June. They were alarmed to find substantial damage caused by lumbering, sheepherding, and tourism. Muir agreed to write two articles for the magazine proposing the creation of a Yosemite national park, and Johnson returned to Washington to lobby Congress. In October 1890, largely in response to the public debate that resulted from the Century articles, Congress passed legislation creating a park that was even larger than the one Muir had proposed.

Muir also played a significant and persistent role in saving several forests of giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum), which include the largest trees in the world, and of coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), which include the tallest trees in the world. One location was the North Calaveras Big Tree Grove, the first group of sequoias encountered by white settlers. On February 25, 1900, The San Francisco Chronicle published an article that was widely reprinted in the national press. “THE CALAVERAS BIG TREES: Cry of Alarm from California that the Entire Grove May Be Sold and Cut Down for Lumber” ran the headline in The New York Times. For the previous forty years, James Sperry had owned the land, operating a hotel for tourists and protecting the nearly 100 giant sequoias in the grove. (The South Grove, which was not nearly as accessible, hosts another 1,000 trees.) Now seventy-five years old and unable to pay for its maintenance, Sperry needed to sell his land and had been trying to “see the great trees preserved as a public park.” Instead, Job Whiteside, a lumberman from Wisconsin, put down a deposit for the grove, with a 90-day option to come up with the remaining money. Because of the public outcry, Congress passed legislation almost immediately, authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to negotiate for the park with its new would-be owner.

It was around this time that Muir wrote the brief essay “Save the Redwoods,” arguing that Americans should save the scattering of sequoia groves outside the already-established Sequoia National Park, as well as the forests of redwoods along the coast. In the opening paragraph he recounts the demise of the two most famous trees in the North Grove. The Discovery Tree, the first giant sequoia seen by white settlers, was cut down shortly after its discovery in 1852, and its stump was used as a dance floor and, later, a bowling alley. The immense Mother of the Forest, stripped of its bark in 1858, soon died and was destroyed by fire in 1908; the 100-foot stump—about a third of its original height—still stands.

As it happened, after Muir wrote this piece (which was found among his papers after his death), Whiteside refused to sell his new purchase to the federal government. Upset by the way he had been portrayed by the national press, however, he agreed that the sequoias would be preserved, and his family moved into the hotel and continued to operate Sperry’s tourist business. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt (who, during his first term in office, had accompanied Muir on a camping trip through the Yosemite area) was authorized by Congress to exchange federal land for the grove and create the Calaveras Big Tree National Park—but Whiteside again refused to give up the land.

Although most major sequoia and coastal redwood groves (including Muir Woods National Monument) were eventually gathered under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, the Calaveras groves proved an exception, remaining in private hands until 1931, when it became Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Whiteside’s stepson served as the park’s first warden.

Note: On the third page of “Save the Redwoods,” the editors of the Sierra Club Bulletin, which first published this piece in 1920, mistakenly inserted the year 1905, apparently confusing state legislation transferring control of the Mariposa Grove to the federal government on March 3, 1905, with the Calaveras Grove bill approved by the U.S. House on March 3, 1900.

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We are often told that the world is going from bad to worse, sacrificing everything to mammon. . . . 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, August 12, 2016

The Enchanted Bluff

Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings

“He led us into marshes and stubble fields.” Detail from illustration by Howard E. Smith, engraved by F. A. Pettit to accompany Cather’s story when it appeared in Harper’s Magazine. Click on the image to see the full illustration.
Willa Cather’s debut story collection, The Troll Garden, appeared in 1905 and attracted the attention of the editor S. S. McClure, who convinced her to move from Pittsburgh to New York City and work at his magazine. McClure was notoriously difficult to work for; the job was offered to her when much of the staff, including the popular writers Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, quit in protest and established a competing magazine. Nevertheless, Cather accepted the position and eventually became the managing editor. She moved into a Washington Square apartment building that was also home to Edith Lewis, whom she had met three years earlier in Nebraska, and the two women would live together until Cather’s death four decades later.

The years at McClure’s were both rewarding and grueling; she proved a perfect foil to her boss’s temperament and was even the ghostwriter of his 1914 autobiography. McClure admitted to his wife, “The best magazine executive I know is Miss Cather.” But the long hours made it difficult for Cather to attend to her career as an author. The novelist Sara Orne Jewett, an admirer of her first book, warned, “I cannot help saying what I think about your writing and its being hindered by such incessant, important, responsible work as you have in your hands now. I do think it is impossible for you to work so hard and yet have your gifts mature as they should. . . . Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience.”

Lewis, who left a job at another publisher to join Cather at McClure’s, described life at the magazine as “working in a high wind” in which magazine cofounder S. S McClure was the “storm center.” In the 1953 memoir Willa Cather Living, Lewis recalled that Cather managed to write and publish several short pieces of fiction but felt that none of them “reached the level of the best stories in The Troll Garden”—with one notable exception:
. . . in 1909 she wrote a brief sketch which she called “The Enchanted Bluff,” and sent it to Harper’s Magazine. This slight narrative, so unlike anything she had written heretofore, was like an excursion into the future, a tentative foreshadowing of what was to come. It was as if she had here stopped trying to make a story, and had let it make itself, out of instinctive memories, deep-rooted, forgotten things. It was almost like a song without words—so little was it written, so little was set down on the page; just the talk of some young boys around a camp fire at night; yet it was curiously impressive in its suggestion of an intense experience.
At the center of “The Enchanted Bluff” is the legend of the lost tribe of the Enchanted Mesa, the famous 430-foot-high sandstone butte in New Mexico. Like the boys in her story, Cather had been fascinated by the legend since she was a child but had never visited the region. Finally, in 1912, she and Lewis stayed in the Southwest for several months—and they would return again and again for many years. Cather would re-use the legend of the lost tribe in two of her novels: once in the “Tom Outland’s Story” section of The Professor’s House (1925) and again in Death Come for the Archbishop (1927).

Notes: The Divide mentioned on page 65 is the tableland in southern Nebraska between the Republican and Little Blue rivers. On pages 67–68 the boys share bits of knowledge culled from both classroom texts and popular children’s magazines, such as Golden Days for Boys and Girls. In 1492 Columbus observed during his voyage that the ship’s compass varied as compared to the position of the North Star and realized that this was due both the variation of magnetic north from true north and from the movement of the North Star relative to the surface of the earth. In addition, because of the precession of the earth’s axis, the star identified as the North Star has changed over the millennia. A number of sources posthumously claimed that Napoleon—a believer in signs and omens—told them he was guided to military glory by a lucky star.

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We had our swim before sundown, and while we were cooking our supper the oblique rays of light made a dazzling glare on the white sand about us. . . . . 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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