Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Diary of a Retreat

H. L. Mencken (1880–1956)
From World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

“Sinking of a hostile armed troop carrier by German submarine in the Mediterranean sea,” 1917. Painting by German artist Willy Stöwer (1864–1931), reproduced on a postcard printed during the war. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
In December 1916, with the war in Europe intensifying, Mencken went to Germany as a correspondent for The Baltimore Sun. His first dispatch was answered with complaints from some readers accusing him of German sympathies. The editors of the Sun took the unusual step of prominently announcing, “MENCKEN IS NOT NEUTRAL. . . . He has told you so in his first Free Lance column time and again. But this will not prevent him from giving you the real report of actual conditions in wartime Germany.” The paper went on to suggest that “he will be allowed greater latitude by the censor” and that his “great admiration for everything German will help him get the ‘inside story.’”

On January 27 Mencken left Berlin to visit the German-Russian front along the Dvina River in the northeast Lithuanian province of Vilna. Mencken biographer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers summarizes his reports: “There could be no doubt among Sun readers that ‘Herr Mencken’ not only was impressed by the German army but had also enjoyed himself.” He returned to Berlin on January 31 but was unable to revisit the front after the Kaiser announced a campaign of “unrestricted” submarine attacks against British shipping—an act that threatened the already strained relationship between the United States and Germany. On February 4 Mencken and his fellow reporters received word that, in fact, the United States had severed diplomatic relations with Germany, and they immediately realized their days in the country were numbered.

The German-American dispute over submarine warfare had been simmering for over two years. In February 1915 the United States warned Germany that sinking American ships, or ships carrying American passengers, would be considered “an indefensible violation of neutral rights.” In subsequent months American patience was seriously tested in a series of attacks on passenger ships, including, most famously, the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, which killed 1,198 people (including 128 Americans). In August, hoping to placate the U.S. government, the Germans suspended its unrestricted U-boat campaign, but the following March the French passenger ship Sussex was torpedoed, injuring several Americans. Wilson warned Germany that the U.S. would break diplomatic relations if attacks on passenger ships continued, and the Germans again pledged to abide by the established rules of naval warfare. At the end of 1916, however, Henning von Holtzendorff, the chief of the German naval staff, sent to General Paul von Hindenburg a secret memorandum, in which he projected that an unrestricted U-boat campaign would force Britain to sue for peace after five months. The allure of the quick victory promised in the memo—miscalculated as it proved to be—was too tempting.

On February 1, 1917, the day after his return to Berlin, Mencken wrote a detailed journal entry that became “Berlin at Time of Break,” the first of a series of articles published by the Sun the next month under the rubric “The Diary of a Retreat,” a chronicle of his flight from Europe. This initial installment has been included in the latest Library of America volume World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It, edited by Pulitzer Prize–winning author A. Scott Berg, and—on the centennial of the crisis, which led two months later to the American entry into the war—we present it below as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: Mencken sprinkles a few references in his story that would have been familiar to most of his newspaper readers who had been following the war. On the first page he mentions Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States from 1908 to 1917. On the following page: Gamaschen are leggings, and Die Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger was a daily German newspaper. On page 284: The term Feldgrau refers to German soldiers (from “field gray,” the color of the German uniform), and the rumor mentioned by Mencken, that General Erich von Falkenhayn’s forces were on the Danish frontier, turned out to be false. North German Lloyd was a German shipping company. The last sections of the article include interviews with Conrad Roediger, who worked for the German foreign ministry, and Fritz Thiel, the chief of the German information service. The final paragraph refers to James Watson Gerard, the American ambassador to Germany.

*   *   *
Across the front page of the Tageblatt this morning ran the long-awaited, hat-in-the-ring-throwing, much-pother-throughout-the-world-up-stirring headline: Verkündung des uneingeschränkten U-Boot-Krieges!—Proclamation of the Unrestrained U-Boat War! . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Pelican

Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1891–1910

Mother Feeding Child, pastel on wove paper (mounted on canvas) by American artist Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). The painting was completed in 1898, the same year as Wharton’s story. Cassatt knew Wharton but was not fond of her fiction; she wrote to a friend that she preferred the expansive social themes and naturalism of Émile Zola over the psychological character studies of Paul Bourget, a friend of Wharton’s and an early influence. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Edith Wharton began planning her first story collection in 1894 and promised a finished book by the end of the year, but its publication was repeatedly delayed. She was reluctant to include any of her early stories, which (in spite of protests from Edward Burlingame, her editor at Scribner’s Magazine) she dismissed as “the excesses of youth . . . all written at the top of my voice.” For several years she was plagued by self-doubt, illness, and serious case of writer’s block. Thus, all the stories for her debut collection were newly written, and she wrote most of them in a few weeks’ time during the summer of 1898. The volume was further delayed until the following year, since Burlingame and Wharton agreed it would be advisable to publish a couple of selections—including “The Pelican”—in the magazine in advance of the book’s appearance.

Containing eight stories, The Greater Inclination was finally issued by Charles Scribner’s Sons in March 1899. The collection received enthusiastic reviews, but—like so many authors before and since—Wharton almost immediately complained about the lack of advertising. In late April she sent a strongly worded letter comparing Scribner’s efforts “with the notices given by other prominent publishers under the same conditions” and obliquely threatening to send her next book to another firm. The response must have mollified the debut author, because by October she wrote that she was “very much pleased” with sales, which had topped three thousand copies—a remarkable total for a story collection by an unknown author. She would remain with Scribner’s for her entire career.

In her memoir A Backward Glance, she recalls she was surprised by her early success—by the thought that “any one walking along the streets might go into any bookshop, and say: ‘Please give me Edith Wharton's book,’ and the clerk, without bursting into incredulous laughter, would produce it, and be paid for it, and the purchaser would walk home with it and read it, and talk of it, and pass it on to other people to read!” Her first book—and the resulting accolades—gave her the assurance she needed:
The publishing of The Greater Inclination broke the chains which had held me so long in a kind of torpor. For nearly twelve years I had tried to adjust myself to the life I had led since my marriage; but now I was overmastered by the longing to meet people who shared my interests. . . . What I wanted above all was to get to know other writers, to be welcomed among people who lived for the things I had always secretly lived for.
Discussing the short fiction of Wharton’s early career, biographer Hermione Lee writes that a number of stories deal “with professional integrity, the betrayal of the artist’s true self or the loss of privacy in the literary market-place,” and she regards the scathing satire “The Pelican” as the best of this group. Wharton’s earlier biographer, R.W.B. Lewis agrees that the tale, about a widow who becomes a lecturer to support her child, ranks near the top of her early writings; it shows “an acute eye for the folly, pretentiousness, and vulgarization to which the American cultural scene was vulnerable” and “sums up an entire modern phase of pseudoerudition.”

But why, many readers might wonder after reading the story, is it called “The Pelican”? Some critics maintain that the title is a reference to Psalms 102: “I am like a pelican of the wilderness. . . . Mine enemies reproach me all the day; and they that are mad against me are sworn against me.” In his commentary on this psalm, Augustine relates an ancient fable about pelicans: “These birds are said to slay their young with blows of their beaks, and for three days to mourn them when slain by themselves in the nest: after which they say the mother wounds herself deeply, and pours forth her blood over her young, bathed in which they recover life.” Literary scholar Sharon L. Dean suggests a more naturalistic parallel between a mothering pelican and Mrs. Amyot, who, as a lecturer, is “emotional and intuitive, but lacks intellectual integrity, her mouth, like a pelican’s, made to feed the young and in the process herself.” And, finally, it’s worth noting that biologists used to classify both the pelican and the booby in the same order (Pelecaniformes), and—the OED reminds us—in the nineteenth century both words became American colloquialisms for a worthless person or a fool, used frequently with old, as in “you thundering old pelican.”

Notes: On page 78, Mrs. Amyot paraphrases two lines from Emerson’s 1847 poem, “The Rhodora”: “Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing, / Then Beauty is its own excuse for being.” Critic and editor N. P. [Nathaniel Parker] Willis (p. 79) was a dominant figure in the American literary scene during the middle of the nineteenth century. Lewes’s book (p. 80) is The Life and Works of Goethe, an 1885 work by George Henry Lewes. The biblical reference on page 81, Infant-Samuel-like, is to 1 Samuel 2:18–19 (“But Samuel ministered before the Lord, being a child, girded with a linen ephod. Moreover his mother made him a little coat, and brought it to him from year to year. . . .”). Professor Huxley (p. 84) is English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, a champion of Darwin’s theory of evolution

*   *   *
She was very pretty when I first knew her, with the sweet straight nose and short upper lip of the cameo-brooch divinity, humanized by a dimple that flowered in her cheek whenever anything was said possessing the outward attributes of humor without its intrinsic quality. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Angel of the Odd

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
From Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales

Detail of drawing by Jean-Édouard Dargent (better known as Yan' Dargent) to illustrate a section about Edgar Allan Poe's The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall in Jules Verne's Edgar Poe et ses œuvres (1864). A hot-air balloon figures prominently in “The Angel of the Odd,” published months after Poe’s infamous Balloon Hoax.
Soon after Edgar Allan Poe moved to New York City in 1844, he submitted a report to The New York Sun, which rushed out an “Extra” edition with the front-page headline, “ASTOUNDING NEWS! BY EXPRESS VIA NORFOLK! — THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS!” Poe’s article described the first manned balloon flight from Europe by Monck Mason, who had landed safely in Charleston, and the story was picked up the next day by the Sunday New York Times. By Tuesday, however, the editors of The Sun realized that they had been had; although Thomas Monck Mason was certainly the name of a famed European balloonist, the entire work was a piece of fiction written to resemble a work of journalism.

It’s not surprising, then, that Poe’s very next story, “The Angel of the Odd,” poked fun at “the extravagant gullibility of the age” and readers’ (and editors’) eagerness to believe “improbable possibilities.” He also took the opportunity, as he frequently did, to mock works by other authors and literary taste in general. It is the “oddest of odd stories,” concedes Poe scholar Eric W. Carlson, “but it is characteristic Poe even in its oddness.” This amusing tale is also “akin to material that has been successful in media other than literature: comparable surreal compoundings of comic catastrophes occur in silent film comedies.” In a book detailing Poe’s influence on the movies, David Huckvale concurs: “This truly bizarre comedy, with its succession of unlikely perils, near-misses and slapstick stunts, has the mood of a Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton film.”

Although the Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe acknowledges that it was one of Poe’s more popular pieces when it first appeared, the story has not received much scholarly attention. It was resurrected a century ago in the 1920 collection The Best American Humorous Short Stories and in the last half century has become better known in France, thanks to its inclusion in André Breton’s celebrated 1966 publication, Anthologie de l'humour noir.

In the late 1960s the French scholar Claude Richard highlighted the importance of the story’s list of books, which—along with a vast amount of wine—makes the narrator “a little stupid.” The works include the epic poems Leonidas (Richard Glover), Epigoniad (William Wilkie), and The Columbiad (Joel Barlow); the travel book A Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Alphonse de Lamartine); and the romance Isabel, or Sicily: A Pilgrimage (Henry Theodore Tuckerman). In his discussion of these titles, Richard writes, “Poe did not select those books at random. Some of them had already been the subjects of reviews by Poe—reviews which seem to indicate, moreover, that neither had Poe selected the books merely as examples of ponderous tedium. Rather, he must have chosen them all as examples of perverted or slipshod narrative techniques.”

But Richard admitted to puzzlement by the addition of Curiosities of American Literature, by Poe’s frequent nemesis Rufus Wilmot Griswold, since that book was not published until 1847—three years after Poe wrote his story. As it happens, Griswold’s work, which is not a “narrative” in any sense of the word, did in fact first appear in 1844, as an appendix to a Philadelphia edition of Isaac Disraeli’s Curiosities of Literature—a work Poe often cited in letters and reviews. Poe likely included Griswold’s latest publication in this list of tedious and “slipshod” works merely to goad his rival. The relationship between the two authors was, at best, frosty; in a letter sent not long after the story appeared, Griswold referred to their past contretemps: “Although I have some cause of personal quarrel with you, which you will easily enough remember, I do not under any circumstances permit, as you have repeatedly charged, my private griefs to influence my judgment as a critic, or its expression.”

Yet familiarity with these long-forgotten books and literary squabbles is not essential to understanding Poe’s story, which turns rather quickly to pure, uproarious farce. Like a number of other tales, such as “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” (a previous Story of the Week selection), “The Angel of the Odd” shows a less-familiar side of Poe: his sense of humor.

Notes: Lafitte (or Chateau Lafite) is a French wine. “This folio of four pages, happy work / Which not even critics criticize” is from William Cowper's “The Winter Evening,” Book IV of his blank verse masterwork The Task (1785). In medieval mythology Cocaigne is a land of plenty, and by the early 1800s was a common, somewhat playful, nickname for London. Kirschenwasser is a cherry brandy from the Black Forest in Germany. Gil-Blas is an eighteenth-century picaresque novel by Alain-René Lesage, and "beaucoup de bonheur et un peu plus de bon sens" translates as “much happiness and a bit more common sense.”

*   *   *
It was a chilly November afternoon. I had just consummated an unusually hearty dinner, of which the dyspeptic truffe formed not the least important item, and was sitting alone in the dining-room, with my feet upon the fender, and at my elbow a small table which I had rolled up to the fire, and upon which were some apologies for dessert, with some miscellaneous bottles of wine, spirit and liqueur. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Toward Human Unity

Emily Greene Balch (1867–1961)
From War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing

Jane Addams (behind the “P” in “PEACE”) and Emily Greene Balch (behind the final “E”) aboard the Noordam in April 1915, on the way to the International Congress of Women at The Hague. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
What Emily Greene Balch later called the “turning point in my life” almost didn’t happen. In 1915, when the prominent activist Jane Addams asked her to travel to Europe to an international conference of women opposed to the war, Balch declined, citing her duties as professor and chair of Wellesley College’s department of economics and sociology. But Addams persisted: “Don’t you think that there is a certain obligation on the women who have had the advantages of study and training, to take this possible chance to help out?” Balch ultimately changed her mind, hiring a substitute to teach her classes and convincing the college president to grant her a leave of absence. After arriving in The Netherlands in May 1915, Balch sent a letter to her students, which was reprinted in the college newspaper:
When I sailed on the Noordam in April with forty-two other American delegates to the International Congress of Women at The Hague, it looked doubtful to me, as it did to many others, how valuable the meeting could be made. I felt, however, that even a shadow of chance to serve the cause of peace could not to-day be refused.
Their transatlantic voyage was not without incident:
We were first stopped one evening under the menace of a little machine gun trained full upon us by a boat alongside while two German stowaways were taken off and searched and carried away. If the proceeding had been staged for dramatic purposes, it could not have been more effective. One prisoner, with a rope about him to prevent his escaping or falling overboard, shouted Hoch der Kaiser. Deutschland über Alles before he stepped upon the swaying ladder over the ship's side. . . .
After the stowaways were discovered, the travelers still had to face the British blockade of European waters. The authorities held up their ship for four days and the women helplessly watched combat vessels of several nations surround them or steam on pass. Worried they would arrive too late for the conference, the Americans sent messages to diplomats and ambassadors, all of whom claimed to be unable to interfere. The ship was released at last, and they ended up arriving in Rotterdam just hours before the opening session.

More than one thousand women gathered for the conference to confer “on the vital subject of international relations.” Addams served as the convention’s president, and Balch was impressed by her skill in managing the meetings and sessions, “difficult as it was to conduct business with so mixed and differing a constituency, with different languages [and] divergent views.” Upon returning to the United States, Addams and Balch collected the proceedings, including the letter Balch had sent to her students, as the book Women at The Hague.

In the short term, of course, the Congress failed: the war intensified and the United States entered the fighting two years later. But in the long term, its influence was immeasurable. From the meeting came the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, an organization that continues to thrive today. In 1931 Jane Addams received the Nobel Peace Prize, for her advocacy “for a peace that would not engender a new war,” as well as for her campaign to prohibit the use of chemical warfare in combat. Fifteen years later Balch, who served as the League’s International Secretary and opened offices and programs in some fifty countries, received the Prize herself, both for her peace and disarmament activism and her work with refugees during World War II, including “the refugees who came to the United States, especially for the Jews.”

To commemorate Balch’s sesquicentennial (she was born January 8, 1867) and to mark the centennial of America’s entry into the First World War in 1917, we present two selections: her 1918 letter to Wellesley College expressing her opposition to the war (which resulted in her termination) and excerpts from her Nobel speech thirty years later. Additional information about Balch will be found in the headnote by Lawrence Rosenwald preceding the selections.

Notes: In her letter Balch disparages Junkerism, a reference to the spirit of the Junkers, aristocratic German army officers, especially from East Prussia, who were devoted to militarism and authoritarianism. The speech mentions the Kellogg Pact (also known as the Kellogg–Briand Pact or Pact of Paris), a 1928 international agreement signed by Germany, France, and the United States resolving not to resort to armed conflict to resolve “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them.” Bertha von Suttner, a Czech-Austrian novelist and peace activist, was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1905. Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully was the most trusted minister of King Henry IV of France and was widely credited for bringing about, after the Wars of Religion (1562–98), peace and prosperity during the last decade of the reign.

*   *   *
If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission.
To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.