Friday, February 24, 2017

Death in the School-Room

Walt Whitman (1819–1892)
From Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose

“Caught Napping,” engraving of a now-lost painting by British artist Alexander Hohenlohe Burr (1835–1899). Originally published in The Illustrated London News (February 14, 1866) and reprinted in Harper’s Weekly (March 10, 1866).
Last year Zachary Turpin, a graduate student at the University of Houston, discovered a previously overlooked newspaper series of fitness essays, Manly Health and Training, written in 1858 by none other than Walt Whitman. And now (to steal the Walt Whitman Quarter Review’s exclamatory phrase), he “has done it again.” Turpin has unearthed a previously unknown novel by Whitman: Life and Adventures of Jack Engle.

The novel appeared anonymously in six consecutive issues of the New York Sunday Dispatch in 1852—four years after most biographers thought Whitman had given up writing fiction and only three years before the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Yet Jack Engle was quickly and quietly forgotten, partly because of the poet’s reluctance to give any of his fiction a second life and partly because of the newspaper in which this particular work appeared. Each week’s issue of the Dispatch was jammed full of reading material—tales, serialized novels, travel essays, memoirs, sketches, and more—and few of its pieces ever had the chance to stand out. More than a century and a half later, however, Whitman’s novel is finally available in book form: in paperback, as an e-book, and even free (as a PDF).

Longtime Story of the Week readers will recall that, before he became America’s poet, Whitman published more than twenty short stories (including our previous selections, “Wild Frank’s Return” and “One Wicked Impulse!”) and one novel (Franklin Evans, on the evils of alcohol), the latter of which sold in excess of 20,000 copies. All of Whitman’s fiction is very much steeped in the sentimental and moralistic traditions of mid-century American literature, in which, as Turpin recaps, “the guilty are punished, the greedy impoverished, the innocent or repentant redeemed, and the parted reunited by coincidence.”

Yet there are suggestions of other fictional works (or attempts at other works) in a “red notebook” belonging to Whitman. Most intriguing to Turpin was the notebook’s last and longest entry, which begins, “Introduce Jack’s friends.” Using the vast archives of old newspapers that have now been digitized and made available online, Turpin entered some of the key words he found in Whitman’s notebook and stumbled upon an advertisement in the March 13, 1852, issue of The New York Times for what appeared to be the very work described in the entry. And that led him to the pages of the Sunday Dispatch, to the Library of Congress (which has the only surviving copies of the newspaper), and to the novel itself. “Though formulaic at times,” Turpin writes,
Jack Engle is also beautifully lyrical, occasionally hilarious, and peopled throughout with charmingly eccentric characters. It is some of the better fiction Whitman produced. Readers familiar with David Copperfield or Bleak House will recognize much that is Dickensian in it; indeed, Jack Engle was likely directly influenced by Dickens’ novels.
In the introduction to the new edition of Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, Turpin argues that past critics have made a mistake overlooking Whitman’s fiction, particularly since “Leaves of Grass did not have to be, and came close enough not to being, poetry.” At the outset, Whitman pondered in his journals how best to “personify the general objects of the creation and give them voice”:
. . . every thing on the most august scale—a leaf of grass, with its equal voice . . . Novel?—Work of some sort / Play?—instead of sporadic characters—introduce them in large masses, on a far grander scale . . . A spiritual novel?
Once he became celebrated for his poetry, however, Whitman did what he could to suppress his early fiction. “My serious wish were to have all those crude and boyish pieces quietly dropp’d in oblivion,” he wrote in a preface to the 1882 collection Specimen Days and Collect, for which he reluctantly agreed to include, in a section titled “Pieces in Early Youth,” a handful of the better-known stories.

In celebration of the discovery of what is (perhaps!) the last work of fiction published by Walt Whitman, we present the first, “Death in the School-Room.” Written in 1841, when Whitman was a young man of twenty-two, this sensationalistic tale was reprinted far more often than any of his other stories, appearing in nearly 150 newspapers and other periodicals during the next quarter century. For several years previous to writing the story, Whitman had been teaching in a one-room school in Woodbury, Long Island, where he practiced the new casual and informal teaching methods of the type advocated by Horace Mann. Although the experience seems to have worn him down (“O damnation, damnation! thy other name is schoolteaching and thy residence Woodbury”), over the course of the 1840s he published numerous editorials denouncing “the teacher . . . who has no other means of making his pupils obey him, than blows [and] who thrashes boys for the most trivial oversight”—an argument this didactic story presents in fictional form.

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Ting-a-ling-ling-ling! went the little bell on the teacher’s desk of a village-school one morning, when the studies of the earlier part of the day were about half completed. . . . 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, February 17, 2017

East Side: North Africa

Jane Bowles (1917–1973)
From Jane Bowles: Collected Writings

Street scene, Tangier, Morocco, c. late 1920s–1930s. Detail from a hand-tinted photograph on a postcard.
In 1965, after the publication of the UK edition of Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies, the London publisher Peter Owen proposed a collection of her shorter fiction. Jane was hesitant to republish her stories, and she claimed that she had lost all her copies anyway. But, as her husband Paul Bowles later told biographer Virginia Spencer Carr: “I was able to come up with tear-sheets of everything at hand, including the travel article ‘East Side: North Africa’ that she had written [in 1950] for Mademoiselle. I saw that in ten minutes it could be transformed into a story. As I expected, she refused to consider it. So I did it myself, called it ‘Everything Is Nice,’ and included it. . . . When I showed her the result, she said angrily: ‘Do whatever you like.’”

Paul condensed the original Mademoiselle piece and turned what Jane had written as a first-person memoir into a third-person work of fiction. He then edited and prepared six other stories for the collection, which was published in England as Plain Pleasures. In the United States, Farrar, Straus and Giroux included the stories with her novel Two Serious Ladies and her play In the Summer House in an omnibus edition, The Collected Works of Jane Bowles, which Jane regarded dismissively as the “Dead Jane Bowles.” Thirty years later, Paul seemed to express regret for his dabbling with the Mademoiselle essay: “I believed that because we had collaborated before when she was having difficulties getting something down on paper that she desperately wanted to say and asked me to look at it and make suggestions, it would be fitting for me to tinker with this one. I was wrong, of course.”

“East Side: North Africa” describes a single day in Tangier during which Jane (“Jeanie”) is invited to visit with Moroccan women who know her housekeeper and companion Cherifa. Literary scholar Brian T. Edwards, in Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express, explains the significance of the central expression in both the original essay and the story:
“Everything is nice” seems at once to translate and not to translate a common Moroccan expression (kulshi mizzian) and more generally a Moroccan manner of speech in which precision of meaning gives way to a refusal to condemn or to judge God’s world. Indeed, whatever the expression Jane Bowles would have heard in the context, it would likely have been followed by hamdullah (“praise to God”), a phrase Bowles doesn’t render or include. In this sense, the phrase “everything is nice” is not a translation of the Moroccan expression but rather the representation of the failure of communication.
In early 1950, about the time Jane was working on the article for Mademoiselle, she wrote to her husband and mentioned how Morocco makes her feel “connected” with her work. Her main aggravation was learning to speak Arabic. “I just can’t accept having gotten this far in the damn language, and not getting any further,” she wrote. “With me, as you know, it is always the dialogue that interests me, and not the paysages [scenery] so much or the atmosphere.” And, as readers will discover, it is the dialogue—and her frustration with it—that forms the center of her text.

Both versions—“East Side: North Africa” and “Everything Is Nice”—are included in the latest Library of America volume, Jane Bowles: Collected Writings. We present here, as our Story of the Week selection, the original article Jane wrote for Mademoiselle.

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The highest street in this blue Arab town skirted the edge of a cliff. I walked over to the thick protecting wall and looked down. . . . 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, February 10, 2017

The Great Eaters of Georgia

Carson McCullers (1917–1967)
From Carson McCullers: Stories, Plays, & Other Writings

Barbecue stand near Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia, 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott (1910–1990) for the Farm Security Administration (Library of Congress). “It is in Columbus that I feel most strongly the continuity of the past,” McCullers later wrote. “It was at Fort Benning that I spent the happiest years of my childhood.”
By 1953 Carson McCullers’s long-troubled marriage was at a breaking point: both she and her husband were in Paris, drinking heavily, and Carson found out that Reeves had (once again) forged her name on checks. That summer he attempted to kill himself and tried to talk Carson into committing suicide with him. She fled Paris and returned alone to her home in Nyack, New York.

A few months earlier, Holiday magazine had offered Carson McCullers fifteen hundred dollars to write a piece on Georgia and so she planned a return to the state in November to gather materials and memories. She wrote to a friend, the novelist and social critic Lillian Smith, and announced her intention to visit the town of Clayton and stay at the home Smith shared with Paula Snelling. But Smith was exhausted and frail; she had just finished her latest novel and had recently undergone surgery for breast cancer. “It was not easy to change Carson’s plans once her mind was made up,” Snelling later told McCullers biographer Virginia Spencer Carr. Yet when the unwanted guest arrived, they all stayed up late drinking bourbon and caught up on their lives and gossip, and McCullers complained at length about her rocky marriage.

During her stay with Smith and Snelling, McCullers learned that her husband had committed suicide in the Hôtel Chateau Frontenac on November 18. Although her hosts initially urged her to remain at their home to recover from the shock, McCullers insisted on going to visit Hervey Cleckley, a friend who was also a psychiatrist. Cleckley, who was busy at work (with coauthor Corbett H. Thigpen) on his book The Three Faces of Eve, later told Carr that he and McCullers discussed his research in psychopathology and talked at length about Reeves’s suicide. Their conversations helped McCullers understand both her husband and their relationship, as she later described in her unfinished memoir:
Hervey Cleckley has written a masterful book called The Mask of Sanity, and in that book I could see Reeves mirrored. Psychopathic people are very often charming. They live on their charm, their good looks and the weaknesses of wives or mothers.
McCullers finally returned to Nyack at the end of November—and the next day The New York Times published her husband’s obituary, which suggested as a possible cause of death injuries suffered from a car accident several weeks before. Yet the actual cause was hardly a secret to the couple’s acquaintances and, amidst the deluge of calls and condolences, there seemed to be a palpable sense of relief among some of McCullers’s friends. Carr reports that the actress Helen Hayes, who also lived in Nyack, dropped by and told Carson’s mother, “I’m not going to say I’m sorry, Bebe, because I don’t think I am.”

McCullers soon returned to the task of writing the article for Holiday, and she completed a version in early 1954. The events of the previous year surely explain the wistful and somewhat melancholy tone, and the essay was rejected because (according to biographer Josyane Savigneau) the magazine was “looking for a lighter, more descriptive, less personal piece.” McCullers’s various drafts were eventually stored at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas, Austin, and in 2004 Carlos L. Dews and James G. Mayo collated the drafts to prepare “The Great Eaters of Georgia” for publication in Oxford American. It has been reprinted in the Library of America’s new collection Carson McCullers: Stories, Plays, & Other Writings and we present it here as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: Une petite combine is French for “a little scheme.” Annie Dennis' Cookbook: A Compendium of Popular Household Recipes for the Busy Housewife was originally published in 1893; the volume familiar to McCullers was probably the later publication The New Annie Dennis Cook Book, which appeared in various editions between 1901 and 1921.

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After many years in Europe I visited my home state, Georgia. Until that time I did not realize that I was homesick, homesick for Georgia countryside, Georgia voices, Georgia ways. . . . 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, February 3, 2017


Kate Chopin (1850–1904)
From Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories

The Coming Train, 1880, oil on canvas by American artist Edward Lamson Henry (1841–1919).
When Kate Chopin was “rediscovered” in the early 1970s, readers were led to believe that her masterpiece, The Awakening, had been “banned” soon after publication and that its censorship was a primary reason both she and it had fallen into oblivion. Yet later scholars—particularly her biographer Emily Toth—have not found any proof that was the case. As Toth summarized her findings in 2009, “We’d been suckered into reading a banned book that hadn’t been banned after all, at least in St. Louis. . . . But any adult who’d wanted to read The Awakening in 1899 could easily have done so, just as we did from 1970 onward.”

The legend of The Awakening as a banned book was given life by a series of conflicting memories and misreadings of sources. One example is instructive: Early scholars suggested that, soon after publication, The Awakening had been banned in St. Louis, Chopin’s hometown. There were four copies in the St. Louis Mercantile Library in 1899, and all four copies were marked as “condemned” in the records. But the term “condemned” does not mean that the book was “banned” but that it was removed because of wear-and-tear; “more than 75 percent of the books acquired by the library in 1899–1900 are now marked ‘condemned,’” reveals Toth. Similarly, the St. Louis Public Library purchased three copies and, when one was lost in 1906 (two years after Chopin’s death), it was immediately replaced with a new copy—hardly an act for a book that was banned. The Awakening was in fact reprinted that same year, and only later went out of print for six decades. Of the rest of Chopin’s writings, just a handful of stories (particularly “Désirée's Baby”) were kept in print by appearances in anthologies.

Still, The Awakening unquestionably met with controversy on its publication, and it was greeted with numerous shocked and disapproving notices: “morbid,” “sex fiction,” “poison,” were some of the terms scattered in the more hostile reviews. A young reviewer named Willa Cather huffed, “I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme.”

Similarly, some of Chopin’s pieces of short fiction were considered too hot for publication in national magazines, and “Fedora” might have been one of them. When she finished the story in the 1896, she was at the peak of her fame: her writing regularly appeared in many major national magazines. We’ll never know for sure the reason this particular work was rejected by editors, but (says Toth) “Chopin gave ‘Fedora’ a twist—and one that made it hard to publish.” We’ll leave it to readers to discover that “twist” for themselves.

In 1897 “Fedora,” along with another story Chopin had been unable to sell, did appear in The Criterion, a local weekly that also published six of her essays on literature that same year. Unlike the essays, the stories appeared under the pseudonym “La Tour” (French for the tower). It’s unknown why Chopin chose “La Tour” as a pen name. One of Chopin’s childhood favorites was the novel Paul and Virginia, published in 1788 by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Could the alias have been inspired by the lead character, Virginia de la Tour? Or, although the pronunciation is not quite the same, might “La Tour” be Chopin’s clever pun for l’auteur (the author)?

Regardless, the pseudonym was probably not meant to mask her identity, which seems to have been an open secret in St. Louis. Indeed, she apparently planned to include “Fedora” under her own name in her next story collection—which, alas, remained unpublished at the time of her death.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the entire text of Chopin’s short story below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs, and this selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Fedora had determined upon driving over to the station herself for Miss Malthers.

Though one or two of them looked disappointed—notably her brother—no one opposed her. She said the brute was restive, and shouldn’t be trusted to the handling of the young people.

To be sure Fedora was old enough, from the standpoint of her sister Camilla and the rest of them. Yet no one would ever have thought of it but for her own persistent affectation and idiotic assumption of superior years and wisdom. She was thirty.

Fedora had too early in life formed an ideal and treasured it. By this ideal she had measured such male beings as had hitherto challenged her attention, and needless to say she had found them wanting. The young people—her brothers’ and sisters’ guests, who were constantly coming and going that summer—occupied her to a great extent, but failed to interest her. She concerned herself with their comforts—in the absence of her mother—looked after their health and well-being; contrived for their amusements, in which she never joined. And, as Fedora was tall and slim, and carried her head loftily, and wore eye-glasses and a severe expression, some of them—the silliest—felt as if she were a hundred years old. Young Malthers thought she was about forty.

One day when he stopped before her out in the gravel walk to ask her some question pertaining to the afternoon’s sport, Fedora, who was tall, had to look up into his face to answer him. She had known him eight years, since he was a lad fifteen, and to her he had never been other than the lad of fifteen.

But that afternoon, looking up into his face, the sudden realization came home to her that he was a man—in voice, in attitude, in bearing, in every sense—a man.

In an absorbing glance, and with unaccountable intention, she gathered in every detail of his countenance as though it were a strange, new thing to her, presenting itself to her vision for the first time. The eyes were blue, earnest, and at the moment a little troubled over some trivial affair that he was relating to her. The face was brown from the sun, smooth, with no suggestion of ruddiness, except in the lips, that were strong, firm and clean. She kept thinking of his face, and every trick of it after he passed on.

From that moment he began to exist for her. She looked at him when he was near by, she listened for his voice, and took notice and account of what he said. She sought him out; she selected him when occasion permitted. She wanted him by her, though his nearness troubled her. There was uneasiness, restlessness, expectation when he was not there within sight or sound. There was redoubled uneasiness when he was by—there was inward revolt, astonishment, rapture, self-contumely; a swift, fierce encounter betwixt thought and feeling.

Fedora could hardly explain to her own satisfaction why she wanted to go herself to the station for young Malthers’ sister. She felt a desire to see the girl, to be near her; as unaccountable, when she tried to analyze it, as the impulse which drove her, and to which she often yielded, to touch his hat, hanging with others upon the hall pegs, when she passed it by. Once a coat which he had discarded hung there too. She handled it under pretense of putting it in order. There was no one near, and, obeying a sudden impulse, she buried her face for an instant in the rough folds of the coat.

Fedora reached the station a little before train time. It was in a pretty nook, green and fragrant, set down at the foot of a wooded hill. Off in a clearing there was a field of yellow grain, upon which the sinking sunlight fell in slanting, broken beams. Far down the track there were some men at work, and the even ring of their hammers was the only sound that broke upon the stillness. Fedora loved it all—sky and woods and sunlight; sounds and smells. But her bearing—elegant, composed, reserved—betrayed nothing emotional as she tramped the narrow platform, whip in hand, and occasionally offered a condescending word to the mail man or the sleepy agent.

Malthers’ sister was the only soul to disembark from the train. Fedora had never seen her before; but if there had been a hundred, she would have known the girl. She was a small thing; but aside from that, there was the coloring; there were the blue, earnest eyes; there, above all, was the firm, full curve of the lips; the same setting of the white, even teeth. There was the subtle play of feature, the elusive trick of expression, which she had thought peculiar and individual in the one, presenting themselves as family traits.

The suggestive resemblance of the girl to her brother was vivid, poignant even to Fedora, realizing, as she did with a pang, that familiarity and custom would soon blur the image.

Miss Malthers was a quiet, reserved creature, with little to say. She had been to college with Camilla, and spoke somewhat of their friendship and former intimacy. She sat lower in the cart than Fedora, who drove, handling whip and rein with accomplished skill.

“You know, dear child,” said Fedora, in her usual elderly fashion, “I want you to feel completely at home with us.” They were driving through a long, quiet, leafy road, into which the twilight was just beginning to creep. “Come to me freely and without reserve—with all your wants; with any complaints. I feel that I shall be quite fond of you.”

She had gathered the reins into one hand, and with the other free arm she encircled Miss Malthers’ shoulders.

When the girl looked up into her face, with murmured thanks, Fedora bent down and pressed a long, penetrating kiss upon her mouth.

Malthers’ sister appeared astonished, and not too well pleased. Fedora, with seemingly unruffled composure, gathered the reins, and for the rest of the way stared steadily ahead of her between the horses’ ears.