Friday, April 28, 2017

Four Men in a Cave

Stephen Crane (1871–1900)
From Stephen Crane: Prose & Poetry

The Camp Fire, c. 1880, oil on canvas by American artist Winslow Homer (1836–1910). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
In the spring and early summer of 1892 The New York Tribune published fourteen short works by a twenty-year-old author named Stephen Crane. Set in the Catskill Mountains of New York’s Sullivan County, these comic tales and slice-of-life pieces form the core of what have become known as the Sullivan County Sketches. The more journalistic articles are about hunting, backwoods living, and Native American lore. The five selections most often identified as fiction feature four unnamed men, identified simply as pudgy, little, tall, and quiet and corresponding loosely to Crane’s group of friends, with Crane himself claiming the role of the little man—or perhaps, other readers contend, the quiet one. Two additional stories about these four men appeared later that year in other periodicals, and three remained unpublished until after his death eight years later.

Crane began writing these tales and sketches while camping with his friends in the Catskills, and he hesitantly showed a couple to Tribune editor Willis Fletcher Johnson, a family friend who heard about them at some point from Stephen’s brother Townley. Stephen had been working for several years as a stringer for Townley’s Asbury Park news bureau and he had already filed a number of unsigned pieces on local events for the Tribune—but he had not yet met his brother’s editor at the newspaper. Johnson was impressed by what he read, and Crane's sketches began appearing in the Tribune’s Sunday feature section. The first “fictional” tale was “Four Men in a Cave,” to which the editors added the subhead “LIKEWISE FOUR QUEENS, AND A SULLIVAN COUNTY HERMIT.” And so “Four Men in a Cave” can rightfully claim the place of being Stephen Crane’s first published short story. It was not reprinted during Crane’s lifetime, although Cora Crane (his “common-law” widow) selected it as the only Tribune piece in the posthumous collection Last Words.

As it happens, none of the Sullivan County selections would be reprinted during Crane’s lifetime. In 1895, when Crane was looking for material to collect in a book, he wrote to one small press, “I have considerable work that is not in the hands of publishers. My favorites are eight little grotesque tales of the woods which I wrote when I was clever. . . . If you think you can make one of your swell little volumes of 10000 [words], the tales would gain considerable lengthy abuse no doubt.” We have no way of knowing which eight Crane considered “tales” worthy of such a collection, but after requesting to see the material the firm ended up not publishing the volume and he abandoned the idea. Only a year later his feelings about these early writings had become decidedly mixed: “I am heartily ashamed of them now, but every little while someone rakes them up and tells me how much pleasure he had from reading them.”

Most of the Sullivan Country stories “have the form of jokes,” writes the poet John Berryman, and “nearly all of them have a dark, grotesque air” in which the “little man is chief or sole victim or hero.” Crane’s biographer R. W. Stallman adds, “The nameless little man of his Sullivan County tales becomes the blustering man of his later fiction.” As literary scholar Edwin H. Cady acknowledges, “The enigma rests not in the fact that his earliest work was crude but in the fact that some of it became surprisingly good—and, of course, we know in retrospect that it served as preparation for the brilliance to come.” Of the rest of the Sullivan County tales and sketches, “Killing the Bear” is often cited by critics for the maturity of its prose style, the posthumously published fable “The Mesmeric Mountain” presages themes found in The Red Badge of Courage, and the eerie fantasy “The Black Dog” continues to be anthologized (most recently by Peter Straub in American Fantastic Tales). Otherwise, these early writings have been largely forgotten, but Cady maintains that to revisit the best of them is “an opportunity to watch young Crane in his workshop.”

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The moon rested for a moment in the top of a tall pine on a hill. . . . 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, April 21, 2017

Me and Old Duke

Albert Murray (1916–2013)
From Albert Murray: Collected Essays & Memoirs

“Duke Ellington, with the mirror reflecting his always present piano, his conservative ties, his 20 suits, his 15 shirts, his suede shoes and his smiling self,” Paramount Theater, New York City, c. Sept. 1946, photograph by William P. Gottlieb. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
At the end of the last century, Albert Murray—who was then in his eighties—looked back on a remarkable career and, during an interview, recalled his “three most sophisticated friends”: writer Ralph Ellison, artist Romare Bearden, and jazz legend Duke Ellington. Ellison, Bearden, and Murray “were all about the same age, within two years of each other, whereas Duke was the age of my father. But he had the sophistication of a genius who could make his connections fast and who could explain them.”

If there is a central figure in Murray’s non-fiction writing, it is indeed Duke Ellington. In the introduction to his best-selling The Omni-Americans Murray cites Ellington as “a hero of this book,” in which he writes:
Perhaps the most magnificent synthesis, historical continuity and esthetic extension of all of the best elements of the New Negro period are to be found in the music of the Duke Ellington orchestra. No other institution in the United States represents a more deliberate and more persistent effort to come to terms with black heritage as it relates to the ever shifting complexities of contemporary life. Nor has Ellington simply clung to traditional folk forms. Culture hero that he is, he has not only confronted every esthetic challenge of his times, but has grown ever greater in the process. (Someday, Ellington may well come to be regarded as the Frederick Douglass of most black artists. He is already regarded as such by most musicians.)
In his later book Stomping the Blues Murray similarly argues that Ellington is the “the most representative American composer” and compares him to “Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Hemingway, and Faulkner in literature.” And Ellington’s influence can even be seen in Murray’s four novels: “My attempt to suggest an image of the hero as improviser is Scooter, the first-person narrator . . . , in which I try to make the literary equivalent of an Ellington orchestration,” he wrote in 1989.

As a teenager and then as a young man, Murray had been enthralled with Ellington’s music. After listening to his hit songs for two decades, he finally got the chance to meet him. Between 1943 and 1948 Ellington and his orchestra played a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall, which Murray calls “that citadel of white European identity.” Each of the annual concerts was a sold-out success and spawned still-available and much-cherished recordings. One of Murray’s army buddies, who was related to band member Harry Carney, arranged a backstage meeting with Ellington after the fourth concert in January 1946. The two men hit it off, and within a few years Murray would find himself sitting in on recording sessions. In turn, Ellington himself became a fan, praising Murray as “a man whose learning did not interfere with understanding. An authority on soul from the days of old, he is right on right back to back and commands respect. He doesn’t have to look it up. He already knows. If you want to know, look him up. He is the unsquarest person I know.”

In 1999, on the occasion of Ellington’s centennial, Murray was asked by The Village Voice to contribute a short piece, and he wrote the following account chronicling his transformation from one of Duke’s greatest fans to one of his idol’s friends.

Notes: In his opening sentence, Murray refers obliquely to Kenneth Burke’s 1938 essay “Literature as Equipment for Living.” The book Ellington and Stanley Dance were “trying to put together” became the 1973 autobiography Music Is My Mistress. American diplomat Ralph Bunche was a key member of the U.N. team in the early postwar years. He received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the late 1940s on the Arab-Israeli truce in Palestine.

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Back in 1927, when I was eleven years old and in the fifth grade at Mobile County Training School on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama. . . . 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, April 14, 2017

The Bird Tragedy of Laysan Island

William T. Hornaday (1854–1937)
From American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

“Nesting albatrosses on Laysan Island.” The photograph, taken by a Honolulu resident, originally appeared in the August 1903 issue of Popular Science Monthly. A few years later, it was hand-tinted and mass-produced as a postcard, shown above, with the wholly erroneous caption “A Northern Convention, or a Family Reunion. Sea Gulls in Alaska.”
By 1890 about a thousand American bison remained of the tens of millions that had lived on the plains a century earlier. And so in 1886 William T. Hornaday, chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian Institution’s United States National Museum, went off to kill a few of them. “To all of us the idea of killing a score or more of the last survivors of the bison millions was exceedingly unpleasant,” he wrote decades later, “but we believed that our refraining from collecting the specimens we imperatively needed would not prolong the existence of the bison species by a single day.” Hornaday felt his role was to preserve for future generations the memory of vanishing species—in the form of carcasses for the museum.

Hornaday bagged his bison—and then changed his mind. He was appalled by the decimation he witnessed. When he returned to Washington, he wrote in his report, “The nearer the species approaches to complete extermination, the more eagerly are the wretched fugitives pursued to the death whenever found. Western hunters are striving for the honor (?) of killing the last buffalo, which, it is to be noted, has already been slain about a score of times by that number of hunters.” In 1905 Hornaday founded, with the support of Theodore Roosevelt, the American Bison Society, which proved instrumental in saving enough of the remaining animals to reintroduce them into wildlife reserves. In the intervening years, Hornaday left the Smithsonian and became the founding director of the New York Zoological Park (what we now know as The Bronx Zoo), but his tenure was not without controversy, as Bill McKibben discusses in the headnote preceding “The Bird Tragedy of Laysan Island,” a selection from Hornaday’s 1913 book Our Vanishing Wild Life.

In 1857 one of the earliest white voyagers to Laysan recorded his astonished impressions of this tiny “dot” in the middle of the Pacific:
The island is literally covered with birds; there is, a low estimate, 800,000. [Later calculations were as high as two million.] Seal, turtle, and fish were numerous on the beach and might be easily taken. These animals were evidently unaccustomed to the sight of man, as the seal and turtle would scarcely move at our approach, and the birds were so tame and plentiful that is was difficult to travel without stepping upon them.
Abandoned shed containing an estimated 50,000 wings from
slaughtered birds on Laysan Island. The photo is mentioned in
Hornaday’s essay.
The island remained virtually untouched until the 1890s. But then, from 1896 until 1909, it was managed by Maximilian Schlemmer, an immigrant to the Hawaiian Islands from Germany, who became jokingly known as “King of Laysan.” Schlemmer introduced guano mining and then egg harvesting. Yet it is not entirely accurate to imply, as Hornaday does in his essay, that Schlemmer came up with the idea of hunting the birds for their feathers. Instead, as Schlemmer’s grandson Tom Unger explains in a biography, the financially strapped “king” sold the rights to “phosphate, guano, and products of whatever nature” for $150 a month to a Japanese entrepreneur. The Japanese workers quickly realized that most of the guano had already been mined and, with Schlemmer no longer living on the island, began harvesting the feathers, which would bring $6 a pound on the market. Schlemmer’s lease from the territorial government, however, clearly prohibited the killing or capture of the birds and he was—and is—considered primarily responsible for the calamity that ensued.

The environmental tragedy did not end with the events described by Hornaday. As mentioned toward the end of the essay, Schlemmer had introduced rabbits to the island, presumably as food for him and his family while they were living there. As Unger notes, they escaped or were freed, “multiplied rapidly, and were soon munching their way into what was to become one of Hawaii’s greatest ecological disasters.” It took nearly fifteen years to exterminate all the rabbits—but not before they had destroyed the habitats of three endemic bird species, which became extinct. Two other species unique to the island—a finch and a duck—remain on the endangered list to this day.

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In the far-away North Pacific Ocean, about seven hundred miles from Honolulu west-b’-north, lies the small island of Laysan. . . . 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, April 7, 2017

Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie

Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1898–1910

Detail from On the Threshold (of a Proposal), 1900, oil on canvas by English painter Edmund Blair Leighton (1852–1922). Click on image to see full painting. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 1895 Edith Bronson, an American living in Venice, married an Italian count. The young woman’s mother was a friend of Henry James, and the circumstances of the affair gave him an idea for a story, which he jotted down in his notebook.
His family would give her, first, no sign whatever—his mother wouldn’t write to her: they being Florentines de vieille souche [of old stock], proud, ‘stuck up,’ etc. They demanded that she should write first—make the overture. She brought a fortune; she brings, in short, almost everything. But she consented—she wrote first. One can imagine a case in which the Girl—an American Girl—wouldn’t: would have taken her stand on her own custom —her own people—that of the bride’s being welcomed, always, by the mother, in the family into which she is to enter. . . .
The resulting story, “Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie,” would showcase themes that appear often in James’s fiction: the opposition of American democratic notions to European aristocratic traditions, the clash between the brashness of the nouveau riche and the stodginess of the nobility—with both the generation gap and the battle of the sexes thrown in for good measure. Lily Gunton, a young American woman, demands much of the Italian prince who courts her: at the beginning of the story, she has compelled him to pursue her clear across Europe and, if necessary, he will have to continue on to America to prove his love for her. But the ultimate test for the young couple arrives when she is asked to bow to convention and request an audience with the prince’s mother. An inordinately wealthy heiress who is able to “draw” unreservedly on her future inheritance, Lily expects to be invited.

In real life Edith Bronson gave in and capitulated to her future mother-in-law, but things don’t turn out that way in James’s retelling. “American toughness confronts European protocol; America wins,” Martin Scofield writes in The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story. “Miss Gunton is a kind of tougher Daisy Miller who has already passed from innocence to experience.” Indeed, a few months before James sketched out the idea for “Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie,” an editor had begged him to do another story like Daisy Miller, which had long been one of his most popular works and which featured a young American woman who (as he wrote to friend) “never took the measure really of the scandal she produced, and had no means of doing so.” Yet even before the editor’s request, James had been thinking along those lines; he had previously commented in his notebook on “the growing divorce between the American woman (with her comparative leisure, culture, grace, social instincts, artistic ambitions) and the male American immersed in the ferocity of business.” He felt there was “plenty of opportunity for satiric fiction in the facts involved in all this.”

James’s willingness to accommodate editors and write fiction that might be more commercially appealing was fueled in part by financial anxiety; at the end of the 1899, he took out a mortgage to purchase Lamb House in Rye, England, for $10,000. “If ever there was an ‘economic motif’ in his writing, it existed during these weeks,” notes his biographer Leon Edel. James hired a new agent, James Pinker, and wrote a story or essay nearly every week during the winter of 1899–1900. It was at this time that he finally went back to that idea in his notebook and wrote “Miss Gunton.” He ended up being paid for the story four times that year: when it first appeared in the British Cornhill Magazine, then in the mass-circulation New York publication Truth, and finally as one of the dozen stories in the dual, cross-Atlantic editions of his new book, The Soft Side. Now fifty-six years old, he wrote excitedly to Pinker about “the germs of a new career,” and that winter marked the beginning of one of the most fertile decades of any American writer.

Notes: As noted above, James mocks the then-trendy American use of the word “draw” (i.e., to “draw” on one’s income or inheritance). On page 217, the French expression “Tirez-vous de lĂ ” means “Explain (or, Think about) that.”

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“It’s astonishing what you take for granted!” Lady Champer had exclaimed to her young friend at an early stage; and this might have served as a sign that even then the little plot had begun to thicken. . . . 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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