Friday, September 30, 2016

The Village Feudists

Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945)
From Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men

Palmer's Shipyard, Connecticut, c. 1910, oil on board by American artist Reynolds Beal (1867–1951). Noank shipbuilder Robert Palmer is featured in Dreiser’s story.
Published in 1919 Theodore Dreiser’s Twelve Men includes a dozen portraits of people the author admired. Many of the sketches were written in the first years of the century, after Dreiser had left his job as a reporter and during a period in which he was depressed by the sales of his first novel, Sister Carrie. Literary scholar Ellen Moers, in her study of Dreiser’s major works, writes:
Apparently the most effective therapy Dreiser found was searching out people about the ideals that produced their contentment. It was a strange use to which to put the interviewing technique he had once practiced as a journalist; but it was the literary as well as psychological technique that produced Twelve Men. Each portrait was a stage in his own quest for purpose, for what he once called a “stern conclusion.”
Fictionalized to various degrees, the twelve sketches depict both good Samaritans and individualists—and a few men who can be seen as both. The first six feature acquaintances who Dreiser regarded as successful; the final six are failures in spite of their virtues.

Perhaps the earliest written of the final six is “The Village Feudists.” Originally titled “Heart Bowed Down,” it was based on a 1901 interview with Elihu Potter (Elihu Burridge in the story), a curmudgeonly shopkeeper in the fishing village of Noank, Connecticut. The narrator investigates the mystery of how such an admired and upstanding man alienated so many of his neighbors, especially the town’s leading citizen, the real-life shipyard owner Robert Palmer. Upon the book’s publication, one critic wrote that “the best of the lot as psychology is probably ‘The Village Feudists,’ a study of the warping into marked eccentricity of an essentially fine and generous character.”

Almost universally praised by the critics upon publication (and still considered one of Dreiser’s greatest works), Twelve Men sold fewer than 4,000 copies. But, in an unexpected way, the book did find happiness for its author. S. E. Woodward, senior vice-president of a financial company in New York, was a fan of Dreiser’s books and for a while added a postscript to his business letters: “If you have not read Twelve Men, get it and read it.” Intrigued, Woodward’s secretary, Helen Richardson, purchased a copy, loved the book, and mentioned to her boss that Dreiser was actually her grandmother’s nephew—although she had never met him. “Well,” Woodward responded, “why don’t you go around and see him? If he were my cousin, I certainly would.” So in September 1919, with no introduction or advance notice, she rang the door of the author’s studio at 165 West 10th Street in New York. Five years later, he wrote in an unpublished sketch that, irritated by the disturbance, he nearly didn’t answer—but, after they exchanged greetings, he welcomed her “as I would a beautiful light in a dungeon.” Helen later recalled in her memoir, “I felt as if I had been looking for Dreiser all my life.”

The couple eventually traveled together to Los Angeles, where Helen managed to get roles in movies, including a supporting role in Rudolph Valentino’s first film, The Four Horsemen in the Apocalypse. Dreiser’s attempt to sell movie scenarios in Hollywood came to naught, but while they lived in California he began work on An American Tragedy. Theodore and Helen remained together for the next quarter century and finally married in 1944, the year prior to Dreiser’s death.

Notes: On the first page of the selection is a reference to Parson Thirdly, a character who appears in Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd and his poem “Channel Firing.” The parson’s name is a mocking reference to the habit of dividing sermons into enumerated paragraphs. Decoration Day (page 1043) was observed after the American Civil War as a time to decorate the graves of dead soldiers; after World War II, it became more widely known as Memorial Day. Founded in 1866, G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) was an organization of Union veterans of the Civil War; at its height, there were hundreds of posts across the country.

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In a certain Connecticut fishing-town sometime since, where, besides lobstering, a shipyard and some sail-boat-building there existed the several shops and stores which catered to the wants of those who labored in those lines, there dwelt a groceryman by the name of Elihu Burridge, whose life and methods strongly point the moral and social successes and failures of the rural man. . . . 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, September 23, 2016

A Matter of Freedom

Juanita Nelson (1923–2015)
From War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing

Juanita Nelson in front of her home in Deerfield, Massachusetts, 2010. Click on the image to see the house in the background. (Wikipedia Commons)
Juanita Morrow Nelson was arrested for the first time in 1943. A student at Howard University and secretary of the campus’s NAACP chapter, she participated in a sit-in at a segregated Washington D.C. lunch counter. The students ordered hot chocolate and were denied service. “Well, we have plenty of time. We’ll just sit here,” she recalled saying. They were eventually served but charged twenty-five cents each rather than the advertised ten cents. Each of the students left only a dime, walked out, and were promptly taken into custody.

That same year Juanita met her husband Wally Nelson, and for the next six decades—until Wally’s death in 2002—the couple were a familiar presence in the civil rights, tax resistance, and peace movements. To avoid paying taxes that would go to military spending, they kept their income below taxable levels and, beginning in the 1970s, chose to live a virtually self-sustaining existence on a small lot near Deerfield, Massachusetts, without electricity or running water. “It seemed logical that the less we participated, the less we’d be giving to that system,” said Wally. A stanza in Juanita’s song “Outhouse Blues” drolly conveys the challenges of their Thoreau-like existence:
Well I try to grow my own food, competing with the bugs.
I even make my own soap & my own ceramic mugs.
I figure that the less I buy, the less I compromise
With Standard Oil & ITT & those other gouging guys.
Oh but it ain’t easy to leave my cozy bed
To make it with my flashlight to that air-conditioned shed.
When the seat’s so cold it takes away that freedom ecstasy,
That’s when I fear the simple life maybe wasn’t meant for me.
But, as the song progresses, such inconveniences are weighed against the benefits of living off the grid, and she concludes, “Long as I talk the line I do & spout my way-out views / I’ll keep on usin’ the outhouse & singin’ the outhouse blues.”

Juanita published a number of articles and essays, some of which were included in the 1988 collection A Matter of Freedom and Other Writings. The title selection, perhaps her most famous work, describes with characteristic aplomb and humor the day in 1959 she was arrested in her bathrobe.

Lawrence Rosenwald, who knew the Nelsons, shares additional information and recollections in the headnote preceding the essay.

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In March 1959, I hunted through the Sears-Roebuck sales catalogue for something to throw around my nakedness when I emerged from the bath or lounged around the house, an economical garment to double as a beach robe. . . . 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, September 16, 2016


John O’Hara (1905–1970)
From John O’Hara: Stories

John O’Hara in 1962. (Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
In March 1959 James Thurber wrote to a New York Post reporter writing a profile on fellow New Yorker colleague John O’Hara, who had been a friend for “thirty years, off and on, but mostly on”:
John O’Hara being Irish and artist is doubly interesting, twice as complicated, and maybe three times as difficult as he would be if he were only one of those volatile beings. . . . He can always tolerate a major aggression, but takes fire about minor misunderstandings, and thus gained the name of being “Master of the Fancied Slight.” . . . I guess a man cannot have an ear and eye and mind as sensitive as O’Hara’s without also having feelings that are hypersensitive. He is, of course, one of the major talents in American literature.
Read as a whole, Thurber’s letter was probably meant as a humorous encomium for a fellow writer and friend, but O’Hara’s reputation for orneriness seeps through. The irony, perhaps, was that such characterizations came from Thurber’s pen; as Charles McGrath recalls, “At The New Yorker in the mid-1970's, it was still possible to hear editors debating which of the magazine's illustrious contributors had been the bigger jerk and the more impossible to deal with—James Thurber or John O'Hara.” McGrath also writes that “in his later years O'Hara mellowed considerably,” particularly after he give up drinking in the mid-1950s.

O’Hara’s propensity for feelings of betrayal and for grudges led, in part, to his absence from the pages of The New Yorker for more than a decade. In August 1949 his latest novel, A Rage to Live, was published to extraordinary sales and generally good reviews. One of the least favorable notices, however, appeared in The New Yorker itself, where Brendan Gill called it “sprawling” and “discursive” and compared the sexual content of the novel to the Kinsey Report. O’Hara felt betrayed, and a decade later bitterly complained to Thurber that “the most dramatic event in my association with magazine was a review written by a snotnose.” Compounding O’Hara’s resentment toward the magazine, according to John Updike, was its refusal to pony up a “kill fee” for each story it declined to publish: “O’Hara felt that New Yorker short stories were so specialized that a writer could not sell elsewhere a story written with its pages in mind.” For the next eleven years, O’Hara boycotted the magazine and wrote virtually no short fiction at all, focusing instead on long blockbuster novels.

Finally, in the summer of 1960, O’Hara offered to submit his work to The New Yorker again—but only if an editor came out to his home in Quogue and accepted a story on the spot. William Maxwell, an editor who had worked well with O’Hara before the break, agreed to spend the night. After reading two novellas not up to the magazine’s standards, he was delighted to realize that the third, “Imagine Kissing Pete,” was good enough to publish in its entirety, and O’Hara received a reported ten thousand dollars. One of the longest works of fiction ever published in The New Yorker, “Imagine Kissing Pete” is widely regarded as among his best works of fiction.

The breach repaired, O’Hara would write almost thirty stories for the magazine over the next three years. Between 1930 and 1967 he published 247 stories in The New Yorker alone—the all-time record for any fiction writer—and dozens more in other magazines and in book collections. It would be difficult to overstate the influence of this body of work on American letters. McGrath writes that O’Hara “liberated the story from the formulas of popular magazine fiction of the ’20s—the reliance on surprise climaxes; the elaborately articulated structure of beginning, middle and end. . . . Hemingway typically gets credit for this revolution in story writing, but among practitioners O’Hara was probably more influential.” In his editor’s note for a new Library of America edition collecting sixty of O’Hara’s stories and novellas (including “Imagine Kissing Pete”), McGrath adds:
He was a gifted and sensitive writer, with talents quite different from those of his more highly regarded contemporaries: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald. His strength and his limitation was that he was stubbornly earthbound. There are no similes in his work, no flights of lyricism or fancy writing, no hints of a deeper meaning beyond the moment. Nothing in O’Hara is “like” anything else. Things are vibrant and valuable for their own sake, and he described them—the make of a car, the cut of a suit, the song on the radio, the brand of cigarette, the sound of a broken tire chain on a snowy morning—with a scrupulousness that bordered on devotion. . . .

He became, among other things, one of the great listeners of American fiction, able to write dialogue that sounded the way people really talk, and he also learned the eavesdropper’s secret—how often people leave unsaid what is really on their minds.
The stories from O’Hara’s later period, says McGrath, “were longer and plottier. . . . He was easier in his own skin, and it shows a little in the writing: there are fewer stories about loneliness, isolation, or exclusion.” In celebration of the release of the new Library of America edition, we present here one of those later stories, about a wealthy woman who “had had three husbands and an undetermined number of gentleman friends” and who is navigating the challenges of growing older.

Notes: O’Hara includes several references (pages 466–67) to various mid-century haunts of the upper crust. Pine Valley is a golf club in southern New Jersey, generally considered among the best golf courses in America, with highly restricted access; the resort town of Thomasville, Georgia, is the home of the Glen Arven Country Club. Canoe Place, built in 1923 was an upscale inn and dance pavilion in Hampton Bays, New York, legendary for attracting bootleggers and gangsters, as well as the sons and daughters of the wealthy; six miles away in Southampton were the tennis courts and facilities of the ultra-exclusive Meadow Club (founded in 1887 and still in operation). The course at Elizabeth Arden (page 470) was hosted at the health retreat of cosmetics and beauty entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden (pseud. Florence Graham, 1878–1966) on her Maine Chance Farm estate in Maine.

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Both dogs had been out. She could tell by the languid way they greeted her and by the fact that Jimmy, the elevator operator, had taken his twenty-five-cent piece off the hall table. . . . 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, September 9, 2016

Unlighted Lamps

Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941)
From Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories

End of the Trolley Line, Oak Park, Illinois, 1893, oil on canvas by American artist Frederick Childe Hassam (1859–1935), painted when Hassam was in Chicago for the World's Fair. Like Oak Park, Anderson’s fictional Huntersburg is due west of Chicago—albeit forty miles further out. Image courtesy of WikiArt.
As early as 1913, two years before he began drafting the stories of Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson worked simultaneously on two novels, “Talbot Whittingham” and “Mary Cochran.” The first was a semi-autographical study of a young man struggling to become an artist; according to biographer Walter B. Rideout, the surviving manuscript reveals much about Anderson’s evolution as a writer, but “the novel has serious flaws.” “Talbot Whittingham” remains “unpublished and unpublishable” and survives among his papers, examined only by scholars and biographers.

“Mary Cochran,” on the other hand, is a portrait of a New England village girl who moves west with her father and eventually ends up working an office job in a Chicago factory, insisting upon her independence while looking for a suitable husband. This novel, too, was ultimately set aside and never published. Yet, according to Rideout, “Mary Cochran” is “so well-conceived and shows so much sympathetic understanding of its woman protagonist that it is surprising Anderson remained dissatisfied with it.”

Toward the end of 1919 Anderson still hoped to finish the book, but—because of the success of Winesburg—he reconceived it as a collection of interrelated stories rather than a novel. He wrote to his publisher:
One of these days I shall be able to give you the Mary Cochran book. It has tantalized me a good deal but is coming clear now. In its final form it will be like Winesburg, a group of tales woven about the life of one person but each tale will be longer and more closely related to the development of the central character.
Only a few weeks later, however, Anderson’s tone sounded a more discouraging note:
The tales that are to make up the Mary Cochran book are waiting like tired people on the doorstep of the house of my mind. They are unclothed. I need to be a tailor and make warm clothes of words for them.
In the end, Anderson revised only two sections of the novel as stories (“Unlighted Lamps” and “The Door of the Trap”), and he included them in The Triumph of the Egg, his follow-up collection to Winesburg, Ohio. Given the tortured paths of these two stories to publication, some critics have dismissed them as “pages salvaged from discarded novels” (to quote one reference work). Such an appraisal is misleading. The stories had been extensively revised from the episodes in the novel manuscript, each was accepted for publication as a stand-alone story by editors of two different magazines (Smart Set and Dial), and neither was regarded by readers as a novel excerpt. Rideout argues that the transformation is especially noteworthy in “Unlighted Lamps,” which is drawn from the opening chapter. “Granted the necessary differences between a short story and the first chapter of the novel,” Rideout writes, “it is clear that [Anderson] knew now how to reject extraneous material and to concentrate on the essentials of the action.”

Although the Mary Cochran narrative didn’t live up to the author’s original expectations, the two published tales are hardly out of place in The Triumph of the Egg. In a retrospective essay published shortly after Anderson’s death in 1941, his longtime friend Robert Morss Lovett evaluated Anderson’s writing and found that many of his stories “are concerned with the frustration of human life that comes from isolation, the inability of one being to come near, to enter into understanding with another.” Of all the stories in the collection, “Unlighted Lamps” is probably the most successful at bringing together these twin themes of crippling loneliness and of the failure of loved ones to communicate.

Note: Much of the background in this introduction and the letter excerpts have been culled from the first volume of Rideout’s masterful biography, Sherwood Anderson: A Writer in America (2006).

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Mary Cochran went out of the rooms where she lived with her father, Doctor Lester Cochran, at seven o’clock on a Sunday evening . . . 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, September 2, 2016

Imaginary Countries

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018)
From Ursula K. Le Guin: The Complete Orsinia

Two Children on Their Way to the Fairytale Forest, 1901–02, casein and oil on canvas by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
During her college years in the early 1950s, Ursula Kroeber began working on her first novel. She later recalled that the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia and subsequent events had “roused the political spirit in me,” but she hadn’t yet visited the countries of Eastern Europe and didn’t feel comfortable writing about them. She explains:
I was twenty years old, working at one of the dining tables about midnight, when I got the first glimpse of my other country. An unimportant country of middle Europe. One of those Hitler had trashed and Stalin was now trashing. . . . I see the river, the Molsen, running through an open, sunny countryside to the old capital, Krasnoy (krasniy, Slavic, “beautiful”). Krasnoy on its three hills: the Palace, the University, the Cathedral. The Cathedral of St Theodora, an egregiously unsaintly saint, my mother’s name. . . . I begin to find my way about, to feel myself at home, here in Orsenya, matrya miya, my motherland. I can live here, and find out who else lives here and what they do, and tell stories about it [from the Introduction, The Complete Orsinia].
It’s not a coincidence that the name of this imaginary country (Orsinia) and her own name both stem from Latin words for a female bear (orsa in Italian, from ursa in Latin). As Ursula K. Le Guin (she married in 1953) explained to James W. Bittner, “It’s my country so it bears my name”—and presumably the pun was intended.

Le Guin’s first published story, which appeared in 1961, was about a musician in a backwater province of this invented region. During the next three decades she wrote and published a total of thirteen stories and one novel set in Orsinia, and the tales span in chronology from the twelfth century to the late 1980s. “For years I felt as if I were a transmitter of some kind, that would be suddenly activated by an urgent message from Orsinia, from one century or another and from various persons.”

Eleven of those stories appeared in 1976 as Orsinian Tales, and the story that closes the collection is, appropriately enough, “Imaginary Countries.” Set during the last days of summer in 1935, it describes the Egideskar family as they end another year at “Asgard,” their vacation home. The three children—Stanislas, Paul, and Zida—have been spending the summer exploring the environs, mapping the trails, and envisioning make-believe realms, often based on Norse mythology, while their father and Josef, his research assistant, have been working on a history of medieval Orsinia, also known as “The Ten Provinces.”

As Bittner points out, both Ursula and Zida were six years old in 1935, so the story is, “among other things, a portrait of the artist as a young girl. Le Guin has written a tale about the family of a professor who is writing a history of Orsinia, a country she invented.” As she reminisced to an interviewer in 1988, the young Ursula and her brother “played narrative games with stuffed animals, with toy soldiers, or acting out parts ourselves,” and her vast reading that informed this recreation included science fiction stories and Norse myths. In addition, like the Egideskars, the Kroebers spent summers during the 1930s at a family getaway, a Napa Valley ranch named “Kishamish” (from a myth invented by Ursula’s brother). During those summers Ursula’s father, Alfred L. Kroeber, worked on what would become his monumental study in comparative cultural anthropology, Configurations of Culture Growth.

Still, in spite of the parallels with Le Guin’s own childhood, the story is very much a work of fiction. As she recently admitted, “Nothing and no one in it much resembles anywhere or anyone in my life, but all the same, it’s about as autobiographical as I ever got.”

Notes: The name of the Egideskars’ summer home, Asgard, is the realm of the high gods (the Aesir) in Norse mythology. The children incorporate numerous other references to Norse myths in their play. Yggdrasil is the World Tree, an enormous ash whose roots and branches connect the human home of Midgard (Middle Earth) with other realms, including Asgard. The half-giant Loki turned against his divine companions and was punished by being chained to a rock; one tradition places his prison under a grove of hot springs. In yet another myth, Baldur, the Norse god of light, is doomed by prophecy to die young. To forestall his death, his mother asks all things not to harm Baldur, but fails to ask the mistletoe. Since nothing will harm him, he is essentially invulnerable, and it becomes a game among the gods to aim missiles at him. His blind brother Hodur is left out of the game, but Loki makes an arrow out of the mistletoe and helps Hodur aim the bow, killing his brother. Finally, Ragnarök is the Twilight of the Gods, when everything will be destroyed and a new creation brought into being

Note also that the date at the end, 1935, refers to the year in which the story is set.

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“We can’t drive to the river on Sunday,” the baron said, “because we’re leaving on Friday.” . . . 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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