Friday, March 31, 2017


Ellen N. La Motte (1873–1961)
From World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

Nurses in gas masks at the trenches, France, c. 1917 (U.S. postcard). From the archives of the National Library of Medicine, via Wikimedia Commons.
One hundred years ago, on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany. The resolution was approved by the Senate (82–6) on April 4 and by the House (373–50) on April 6. By this time the decision to go to war seemed a foregone conclusion; two months earlier, Germany had announced that they would resume unrestricted submarine warfare, which led the U.S. to break off diplomatic relations. [See “The Diary of a Retreat” by H. L. Mencken, who was stuck in Berlin at the time.] Then, on the last day of February, Wilson released to the media the decoded text of the infamous Zimmerman telegram, a diplomatic message proposing a German-Mexican alliance against the United States if the U.S. did not remain neutral and promising to help Mexico “reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” And finally, on March 18, three American merchant ships were torpedoed without warning, killing fifteen Americans.

The war in Europe had already been raging for nearly three years and Americans there had been sending back to their homeland increasingly distressing reports on the carnage. In early 1915 Ellen N. La Motte, a trained nurse, offered her services at the American Hospital of Paris. Instead of a warzone, she found a coterie of alleged do-gooders crowding out the recuperating soldiers: “society women of the American colony in Paris, young society girls gathering experiences which will tell well in year's ball-rooms, artists, painters, opera singers, writers, a few members of the French nobility, and others of a nondescript variety.” Near the end of her stay, she wrote “An American Nurse in Paris,” an essay describing the atmosphere of the hospital in scathing terms. “Nearly all are dressed in the becoming white gowns of the French Red Cross and a few are pearled and jeweled, rouged and scented till they are quite adorable. . . . This system floods the institution with a mass of unskilled labor, some of which is useful, much superfluous, and some a positive menace to the patients themselves.”

Frustrated by the scene at the American Hospital, on June 20–21 La Motte traveled to Dunkirk, where Mary Borden had established a military hospital in the nearby village of Rousbrugge. La Motte reported that she found little evidence of the conflict: “Shops were open and business thriving; the streets were full of civilians going about their daily tasks, unheeding, apparently, the threatening danger. Confidence was restored; there had been no bombardment for six weeks. . . .” But then, the very next day, Germans began bombing the city at three in the morning in an unrelenting air campaign that lasted until late afternoon, and she and her compatriots were forced to abandon the building in which they were staying and ended up across the town in a cellar. Trapped, she spent the day writing a draft of “Under Shell-Fire at Dunkirk,” which was published by The Atlantic later in the year.

Little prepared her for the cruelties and indignities and terror she would witness. “There was nothing in past experience, nothing of will-power, of judgment, of intuition, that could serve me. I was beyond and outside and apart from the accumulated experience of a lifetime.” Nevertheless, she spent the next twelve months at Borden’s hospital in the village of Rousbrugge. The year in Belgium made her cynical about both the war and her own efforts: “Was it not all a dead-end occupation, nursing back to health men to be patched up and returned to the trenches, or a man to be patched up, court-martialled and shot?” she wonders in “Heroes” (a previous Story of the Week selection). After returning to America, she published The Backwash of War, which gathered a dozen profiles of soldiers and civilians at the front. As literary scholar Hazel Hutchinson notes, “La Motte’s writing demonstrates [that] one of the most insidious traits of war is the way in which it strips the individual of his or her particularity.”

This trait is starkest, perhaps, in “Alone,” a notably grisly sketch about a soldier brought to the hospital with gas gangrene. La Motte remarks that the swiftness with which this particular ailment killed its victims led her contemporaries to believe that the cause was a particularly toxic poison used in German ammunition. In fact, gas gangrene is caused not by a chemical agent but by infection by Clostridia, a genus of anaerobic bacteria. The problem was so prevalent during the war that, in 1929, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a special report concluding that the microbes originated in the soil on the battlefield, where they “thrive on decaying animal and vegetable matter, but not on living tissue, and through their resistant spores are able to retain their vitality through long periods of conditions unfavorable to their multiplication.”

Notes: La Motte scatters a few French expressions in her essay: M├ędecin Chef (chief doctor); Cela pique! Cela brule! (It stings! It burns!); picqures (injections), and C’est triste! C’est bien triste! (It’s sad! It’s very sad!).

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Rochard died to-day. He had gas gangrene. His thigh, from knee to buttock, was torn out by a piece of German shell. . . . 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, March 24, 2017

Dalyrimple Goes Wrong

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
From F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922

Detail from War Hero Job Hunting [Welcome Home Hero], oil on board by American artist Norman Rockwell (1894–1978), illustration for the cover of the March 1, 1919, issue of Collier’s magazine. See the full image at Sotheby’s website.
In early August 1919 Edmund Wilson wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of his friends from Princeton, and asked him to contribute to a volume of war stories:
No Saturday Evening Post stuff, understand! Clear your mind of cant! Brace up your artistic conscience, which was always the weakest part of your talent! Forget for a moment the phosphorescences of the decaying Church of Rome! Banish whatever sentimentalities may cling about you from college! Concentrate in one short story a world of tragedy, comedy, irony, and beauty!!!
Fitzgerald posing for publicity photos for "The Evil Eye,"
a musical he wrote in 1916 for the Princeton Triangle Club.
Fitzgerald had dropped out of Princeton to serve in the army—but he never actually saw combat. Soon after the U.S. entered the war in April 1917 he signed up for three weeks of military training and took the officer’s exam. He returned to school in September but soon received a commission as second lieutenant in the infantry and reported for training to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in November. (The captain in charge of his training platoon was Dwight D. Eisenhower.) During 1918 he was stationed at Camp Zachary Taylor, near Louisville, transferred to Camp Gordon in Georgia, and then to Camp Sheridan in Alabama. When the war ended on November 11, Fitzgerald’s regiment was still waiting to embark for France. He was discharged from the army in February 1919.

In spite of his lack of combat experience, Fitzgerald accepted Wilson’s challenge to write a war story. But he instead mailed the final draft, with the title “Variety,” to his new agent, Paul Revere Reynolds. The cover note shows he had ignored at least part of Wilson’s advice:
This is the best story I ever wrote. I wrote it with the Saturday Evening Post in mind and, if in your judgment there’s a chance there or with the Cosmopolitan, I wish you’d try them because I think it’s worth at least $250.00.
Reynolds was apparently unable to sell the story and at some point Fitzgerald changed the title to “Dalyrimple Goes Wrong.” Fitzgerald ended up sending it, along with a playlet (“Porcelain and Pink”), to The Smart Set, edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, “tho I think their stuff is rather punk as a rule and never send them anything until some better magazine has passed it up,” he admitted to Scribner’s Magazine editor Robert Bridges. Plus, he complained in a subsequent letter to Reynolds, “they only pay $40.00.”

The story has not received much critical attention, perhaps because it is so unlike Fitzgerald’s other work. Still, it has “the genuineness of all the stories he based on his own inner experience,” acknowledges the critic Arthur Mizener. Biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli notes that “Dalyrimple Goes Wrong” is Fitzgerald’s “earliest ironic treatment of the Horatio Alger success story,” and literary scholar Alice Hall Petry cites Theodore Dreiser’s naturalism as an influence on the depiction of Bryan Dalyrimple, who is “an extreme case of a character torn between self and society.” Perhaps the most obvious irony of this early story is to be found in the title itself: Does Dalyrimple “go wrong” when he becomes a masked burglar to make ends meet—or when he is rewarded at the end because he has learned to “cut corners” and land on “the right side of the fence”?

Notes: Mentioned on the first page is Sergeant [Alvin Cullum] York, one of the most decorated American army soldiers of World War I. British-Canadian author Robert Service is compared to burlesques shows and billiards on page 402; Fitzgerald detested his poetry, which was often set in or inspired by the Yukon. Doctor [Frank] Crane (page 408) wrote a widely syndicated inspirational newspaper column from 1909 to 1928 and published such books as Four Minute Essays (1919).

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In the millennium an educational genius will write a book to be given to every young man on the date of his disillusion. . . . 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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Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Company Is Not Responsible

Mary McCarthy (1912–1989)
From Mary McCarthy: Novels & Stories 1942–1963

Detail from Tom Hackett Walking Along Commercial Street Past the Delight, Delight, Delight House, undated, oil on board by American artist Mary Hackett (1906–1989). Visit the Provincetown History Preservation Project site to see the full painting. The Delight House (mentioned in McCarthy’s story) was in front of the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Cold Storage Plant in Provincetown.
Mary McCarthy met literary critic Edmund Wilson in 1937 at the office of the newly relaunched Partisan Review, whose editors eventually hired her to write theater criticism. She and Wilson married the following year and their seven-year marriage was tumultuous and occasionally violent. “By 1944 my parents' marriage was pretty well on the rocks, with my mother ensconced in New York and my father holding the fort with me in Wellfleet,” Reuel Wilson recalled in his memoir of a childhood spent on Cape Cod. By the end of the year, “my mother and I took final leave of the house my father was renting on Henderson Place in uptown Manhattan, just off East End Ave. All that remained for them was to haggle over the terms of a divorce.”

In spite of the tumult of her marriage, the early 1940s marked a turning point for McCarthy’s writing career. In 1942 her debut book, The Company She Keeps, with its six interrelated stories, became the scandale du jour, both for its accounts of sexual liaisons that vaguely resembled her own experiences and for its thinly disguised composite portraits of members of the New York intellectual and Provincetown bohemian milieus. After reading a couple of the stories when they had appeared in periodicals, New Yorker editor William Maxwell invited her to contribute to the magazine. Thus, biographer Frances Kiernan writes, “McCarthy arrived at The New Yorker as a fully formed writer known for her immaculate prose, her wit, her glamour, her sexual adventures, and her vexed marriage to the eminent critic Edmund Wilson, as well as for the impossibly high standards of her Partisan Review theatre criticism and the shocking candor of her fiction.”

Yet Maxwell went on leave before any of her pieces actually appeared in the magazine, and it was Katharine White who returned to the The New Yorker’s staff and bought “The Weeds,” a story that unsparingly fictionalized McCarthy’s stormy relationship with Wilson and that was perhaps the nail in the coffin of their marriage. Unusually lengthy for fiction published at the time in the magazine, “The Weeds” effectively established McCarthy as one of its stable of writers—but it was actually not her first story for The New Yorker. Maxwell had previously accepted “The Company Is Not Responsible,” a story that (as Kiernan notes) “was mild and even heartwarming and nothing like anything she had ever written.” The story languished in the magazine’s stockpile until White dusted it off and published it after accepting “The Weeds.”

Describing a group of strangers who unexpectedly bond “together, in amity,” on the bus to Provincetown, “The Company Is Not Responsible” was never included by McCarthy in one of her books but has now been restored to print, along with several other uncollected stories, in the just-published Library of America edition of Mary McCarthy’s complete fiction.

Notes: On pages 850–51, McCarthy namechecks several real-life Cape Cod and Provincetown references. Established in 1798, the Atlantic House has served a notably bohemian and eccentric crowd since the early 1900s and a predominantly gay clientele since World War II. McCarthy and Wilson’s teenage son, Reuel Wilson, went to the bar with his mother in the 1950s and recalled that “Provincetown nightlife, with its all-female bands and transsexual performers, was quite an eye-opener.” The Delight, Delight, Delight House is pictured above and described in the caption. The girl named Halcyon almost certainly refers to Halcyon Cabral (Durst), whose Portuguese ancestors immigrated to Provincetown in the 1870s and whose family was prominent in the development of its business center and wharf from the 1940s to the end of the century. Camp Edwards is a U.S. military training base, established in 1931 on Cape Cod. On page 852, the passengers sing two songs. “My mother sells snow to the snowbirds” is from the bawdy song “How the Money Rolls In,” sung to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” German composer Friedrich Silcher’s popular song “Die Lorelei” (1837) set to music the poem of the same name by Heinrich Heine. The excerpt translates:

      And on one peak, half-dreaming
      She sits, enthroned and fair;
      Like a goddess, dazzling and gleaming,
      She combs her golden hair.

      With a gold comb she is combing . . . [trans. Louis Untermeyer]

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There was a girl named Margie, a girl named Ann, a honeymoon couple, a man named George, the girl called Blondie, and me; a middle-aged woman, a drunken sailor, four Harvard boys, a machinist’s mate (first class), the driver—called Mac, though that was not his name—and several supernumerary passengers, among them noticeably a soldier with a pipe. . . . 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, March 10, 2017

On the Absurdity of a Bill of Rights

Noah Webster (1758–1843)
From The Debate on the Constitution

“Noah Webster, The Schoolmaster of the Republic,” 1886 print by Root & Tinker. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. The image of Webster at the center is an engraving based on an oil portrait, c. 1823, by American painter Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872).
Noah Webster’s name will endure—as it has already endured for two centuries—for his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language published in 1806, as well as for the larger American Dictionary of the English Language that appeared in 1828. It was a lifelong project begun much earlier. In 1783, as a twenty-five-year-old schoolteacher in Goshen, New York, he began publishing his Grammatical Institute of the English Language, the first part of which became The American Spelling Book. (Part Two was a guide to grammar, and Part Three contained a reader.) Commonly referred to as the “Blue-Backed Speller” or the “Old Blue Back” for its distinctive covers, the spelling book sold tens of millions of copies during the subsequent century as it became the required text for (and the bane of) generations of American students.

Less familiar to many readers is the pivotal role Webster played in the founding of the American republic and the adoption of its new constitution—and his advocacy was very much related to the success of his publications. The difficulty of securing copyrights from thirteen separate state governments for each subsequent edition of his spelling book convinced him of the need for an effective national government, and he became an advocate for the Federalist cause. Until the new Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1790, he was forced to spend much of his time during the 1780s traveling from state to state to obtain the copyrights for his various works.

Webster intially advocated for a stronger national government in a 1785 pamphlet titled Sketches of American Policy. He later boasted that his tract was the first proposal for a new constitution—a claim the historian Joseph Ellis calls “debatable [since] several new schemes for a more effective government came into circulation about this time.” But Webster’s influence was extensive, in part because of his ability to distribute the pamphlet as he traveled among all thirteen states. In fact, in an article written for a Connecticut newspaper in 1786, he coined the terms “federal” and “antifederal” to describe the opposing factions.

When a new constitution was proposed in 1787, he used various pseudonyms to publish articles supporting ratification. Under the name “Giles Hickory,” Webster published four papers in American Magazine, a short-lived periodical he himself had established that year. His articles attacked common principles of Revolutionary thought that might constitute limitations on the will of the people—a stance that contradicted some of the views he had expressed earlier in Sketches. One of the main objections to the new constitution was that it did not include a bill of rights, an argument Webster dismisses in his first Hickory letter by responding that such documents are only needed as protection against tyrants and would become unnecessary in a government elected by the people. Webster’s arguments would be echoed by Alexander Hamilton in May 1788:
It has been several times truly remarked that bills of rights are in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of prerogative in favor of privilege, reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince. . . . Here, in strictness, the people surrender nothing, and as they retain every thing, they have no need of particular reservations. . . . [Bills of rights] would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? [From Federalist No. 84]
In the end, of course, the opposing factions reached a compromise. When the Massachusetts legislature hesitated to ratify the Constitution, John Hancock proposed ratifying it with the proviso that various amendments be adopted afterward—an idea followed by four other states. The ten amendments we know as the Bill of Rights were finally adopted at the end of 1791.

Notes: In the second paragraph Webster refers to the Magna Charta and the view, first asserted by seventeenth-century royalists to undermine the claim by the House of Commons to being immemorial, that there was no record of a Commons until the 49th year of the reign of Henry III (1265). The statute of the 2d of William and Mary, mentioned at the top of page 670, is the Habeas Corpus Act (1679), passed to prevent imprisonment without proper legal authority.

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One of the principal objections to the new Federal Constitution is, that it contains no Bill of Rights. . . . 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, March 3, 2017

The Birth-mark

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
From Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales & Sketches

Detail from The Laboratory, 1895, oil on canvas by British artist John Maler Collier (1850–1934). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
The latest edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction includes an entry for Nathaniel Hawthorne that discusses the themes in his work common to science fiction and acknowledges his influence on the genre. “His extensive notebooks outline dozens of projected science fiction works—some of which he was able to complete, while others he worked on unsuccessfully until his death—featuring a long line of doctors, chemists, botanists, mesmerists, physicists and inventors, who parade their creative and destructive skills through his fiction.” The fraught relationship between scientific experimentation and human ambition is the focus of many of Hawthorne’s works, including several that “stand as masterpieces of the genre”: “The Artist of the Beautiful,” featuring a robotic butterfly; "Rappaccini's Daughter," about a botanist whose daughter develops an immunity to poisonous plants yet becomes toxic herself; the comic “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” in which a scientist concocts an elixir of youth; and “The Birth-mark,” the story we present as this week’s selection.

From his earliest days as a writer, Hawthorne was troubled by the deceptive attractiveness of the artificial. He wrote in his journal in October 1837:
Man’s finest workmanship, the closer you observe it, the more imperfections it shows; as in a piece of polished steel a microscope will discover a rough surface. Whereas, what may look coarse and rough in Nature’s workmanship will show an infinitely minute perfection, the closer you look into it. The reason of the minute superiority of Nature’s work over man’s is, that the former works from the innermost germ, while the latter works merely superficially.
A few days later he jotted down a story idea based on the human struggle for synthetic perfection: “A person to spend all his life and splendid talents in trying to achieve something naturally impossible,—as to make a conquest over Nature.” This is the first hint of the themes and characters that would appear in several of his stories. He had previously toyed with a more specific plot idea: bachelors looking for wives who “would take none of Nature’s ready-made works, but want a woman manufactured particularly to their order.” These thoughts together formed the kernel of what would become “The Birth-mark.”

Hawthorne’s tale deals with surprisingly modern themes; it may well be the first American story tackling the subject of cosmetic surgery. The actress Lili Taylor referred to it when explaining her refusal to undergo rhytidectomy. The story also became news in January 2002 when the principles posed by Hawthorne were the focus of a meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics. The council’s chairman opened the session with these comments:
[“The Birth-mark”] does deal with certain important driving forces behind the growth and appreciation of modern biology and medicine, our human aspiration to eliminate defects and to pursue some kind of perfection. Goals to which science and technology more and more have been put into service. But it also invites us to think about the human meaning of a birth-mark, being marked at birth. Therefore, it enables us to start talking about bioethics by locating our current concerns in relation to certain enduring matters and questions.
In Hawthorne’s story, a scientist, Alymer, has married a beautiful wife but soon becomes so distracted by a small hand-shaped birthmark on her face that it becomes “a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.” His frequent, disturbing “gaze” upon her cheek soon affects Georgiana herself—to the point that she becomes willing to take whatever cure he can devise. In The Cambridge Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Leland S. Person writes, “From an artistic point of view, Aylmer also represents a Pygmalion or modern-day plastic surgeon, creating or re-creating a woman as if she were a statue he is sculpting.” Similarly, notes the literary scholar Judith Fetterley, the tale is actually a “brilliant analysis of the sexual politics of idealization and a brilliant exposure of the mechanism whereby hatred can be disguised as love, neurosis can be disguised as science, . . . and success can be disguised as failure.”

Notes: On page 765, Hawthorne mentions the Eve of Powers, a then-famous statue of Eve by sculptor Hiram Powers. On page 774, the friar who created the prophetic Brazen Head is a reference to a legend in which the thirteenth-century philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon constructed a head that would speak to him about the progress of his projects.

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In the latter part of the last century, there lived a man of science—an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy—who not long before our story opens, had made experience of a spiritual affinity, more attractive than any chemical one. . . . 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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