Friday, May 26, 2017

Decoration Day

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
From Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels & Stories

Illustration used in back cover advertising for White Smith & Co. sheet music. The drawing first appeared as a black and white etching in the mid-1870s and was hand-tinted later in the century for use when the company began publishing color covers. A list of the company’s recent publications would appear underneath the commemorative artwork.
Three years after the Civil War ended, in 1868, General John A. Logan—the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans—established that May 30 should be set aside as Decoration Day, so-called from the tradition of decorating graves with flowers. More than five thousand participants gathered for the first Decoration Day in Arlington National Cemetery and lavished flowers and flags on some twenty thousand graves, and similar events took place in cemeteries all over the country. The commemoration spread more widely in subsequent years and by the 1880s the day was known in some places as Memorial Day, which over the course of the next century became the more common designation. It was only in 1968 that the federal government passed the law that, beginning in 1971, officially shifted the date to the last Monday in May.

On the morning of Decoration Day, in either 1889 or 1890, Sarah Orne Jewett wrote from her home in South Berwick, Maine, to her friend and companion Annie Fields in Boston about the events planned for that day:
There is going to be an unwonted parade in honor of the day and I am glad; for usually everybody trots off to Dover or Portsmouth and nothing is done here except to put the pathetic little flags about the burying-grounds. It seems to me that I have just begun to understand how grown people felt about the war in the time of it,—at any rate it brought tears to my eyes yesterday when John said that over two hundred men went from this little town to the war. You can see how many young sons of old farmers, and how many men out of their little shops, and people who had nobody to leave in their places, went to make up that number.
This “unwonted parade” almost surely inspired Jewett a couple of years later to write “Decoration Day,” in which a small group of aging Civil War veterans convinces the residents of their small Maine rural village to host a long-overdue procession honoring the local residents killed in the war.

After Jewett included the story in her collection A Native of Winby, the reviewer for The Writer singled it out as “one of the best stories that she has ever told,” and the poet John Greenleaf Whittier similarly wrote, just before his death, that the tale “was one of her very best.” In 1895 Jewett boasted to a reporter that the story had “kept its hold surprisingly and is making part of the exercises of the day this year.” And according to a handwritten note in a friend’s edition of A Native of Winby, Jewett later told a neighbor in Boston that “if she were remembered by any of her stories, she should be glad if it might be this one.”

In the last century, however, the opinions of critics have been decidedly mixed. When Willa Cather was assembling a 1925 edition of Jewett’s best writings, she belittled it as a “conventional magazine story” and recalled a conversation with Jewett two decades earlier. “When I told her that ‘Decoration Day’ to me seemed more like other people’s stories, she said with a sigh that it was one of the ones that had grown old-fashioned.” Cather convinced the editor at Houghton Mifflin not to include it in the volume.

Some of Jewett’s biographers have likewise dismissed the story as “sentimental.” But during his life the late Jewett scholar Richard Cary argued that the story is one of her finest—and by far the strongest of the many holiday-themed tales she published in magazines. The story “defines the pathos of short-lived gratitude,” Carey wrote, and Jewett “prevents pity from turning maudlin through an unexpected deliverance or a bracing touch of comedy.”

Note: On page 778, Jewett mentions the Wilderness, referring to the Overland Campaign, a series of battles in Virginia during May and June 1864, including the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–7) in the Spotsylvania area measuring about twelve by six miles known locally as the Wilderness for its dense woods and undergrowth.

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A week before the thirtieth of May, three friends—John Stover and Henry Merrill and Asa Brown—happened to meet on Saturday evening at Barton's store at the Plains. They were ready to enjoy this idle hour after a busy week. . . . 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, May 20, 2017

Inside the Cages of the Zoo

Ellen Sander (b. 1944)
From Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z

Posters for Led Zeppelin’s second American concert tour, April 18 through May 31, 1969. Left: Fillmore West and Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco. Center: The Rose Palace, Pasadena. Right: Civil Auditorium, Honolulu. Randy Tuten, the designer of the first poster, writes, “Every time Led Zeppelin played, they used blimps on posters and ads, so I thought I'd do something different. For a class project in college I had to design a menu for a fictitious restaurant, which I called the Avocado Club. I thought it would make an interesting poster, and so it did. The avocado was photographed at my direction. It was such a hit with [concert promoter] Bill Graham that I tried to talk him into a series of crazy fruit posters, but he said I should relax and didn't go for it.”
The front page of the November 1968 issue of the countercultural monthly The Realist featured “The Case of the Cock-Sure Groupies,” an eye-opening article by 24-year-old music journalist Ellen Sander:
They press up against the stage, the young ones, their faces bathed in delight or clenched in crumpled ecstatic agony. They lean over the edge of the platform, clutching gifts and beads or notes or the group’s latest album. And some reach, reach out, squirm on their bellies trying to get up over the edge of the state, just maybe to-touch-one-of-them . . . once. . . .

Often they work in pairs, sometimes in gangs. . . . They’ll cooperate with each other to outfox whatever stands between them and the rock and roll boys—but only to a point. That is, they’ll gang a door to get inside, but once it’s broken in, it’s every girl for herself. . . .
Since so many of the groupies were underage, Sander used pseudonyms for two of the girls profiled in her article, but in an accompanying caption the editors noted that “the girls want not only their correct names published but also their photo, because of the increasing imposter problem.” The editors agreed to print the grainy Polaroid but identified the girls only by their real first names.

Sander’s gritty pieces on Sixties subcultures soon caught the attention of national editors, and she began to get commissions from national publications. For her first assignment for Life Magazine, Sander agreed to go on the road with a rock band and report on the grueling demands and tawdry hijinks of the concert tour, including the coterie of girls and young women who pursued band members. According to Mick Wall in When Giants Walked the Earth, Sander had hoped to cover The Who, but that didn’t pan out and she was instead invited to join the still-up-and-coming Led Zeppelin for the last two weeks of their second American tour in May 1969.

Sander met up with the band in Detroit and stuck it out until their last performance at New York’s Fillmore East. She was so infuriated and disturbed by the now-infamous incident that occurred after that show (and described on the last page of her story), that she didn’t write their publicity-seeking magazine profile. Instead, four years later, after the band had become international megastars, she included her account in the book Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties. According to Wall, when guitarist Jimmy Page—who had befriended Sander on the tour—was asked about her story, he admitted, “That’s not a false picture.”

Sander’s piece on her two weeks with Led Zeppelin has been reprinted in the just-published anthology Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z. A brief headnote by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar offers additional biographical information about the author.

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Some years later, a group called Led Zeppelin came to America to make it, taking a highly calculated risk. . . . 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, May 12, 2017

My Girls

Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888)
From Louisa May Alcott: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings

Two paintings by May Alcott Nieriker (1840–1879): Still Life with Bottle, oil on canvas, was exhibited in Paris Salon of 1877 and is described in Louisa May Alcott’s “My Girls.” La Negresse, oil on canvas, was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1879.
The November 7, 1871, issue of the Lawrence [Massachusetts] Daily American included the following notice:
The boys and girls will be delighted,—we can vouch for two enthusiastic ones already,—with the announcement that Messrs. Roberts Brothers, Boston, have in press, and are to issue on the first of next month, a new volume by Miss Alcott, under the taking title of “Aunt Jo’s Scrap Book,” and containing twelve stories, the opening one being called “My Boys.” . . .
The introductory sketch in the book describes some of the “boys” Louisa May Alcott knew earlier in life—including her Polish friend Ladislas Wisniewski, who inspired the character of Laurie in Little Women. It’s hardly news to her fans that, as a teenager, Louisa preferred the companionship of boys. In her essay she admits, “I don’t mind the rough outside burr which repels most people,” and she recalls that for her childhood friends, “the moment they outgrow their babyhood their trials begin, and they are regarded as nuisances till they are twenty-one, when they are again received into favor.” Or, as the summary in The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia puts it, “The boys who figure prominently in her early childhood are depicted as sympathetic comrades in a society unsympathetic to her high spirits and lust for adventure.”

The book, Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, with the subtitle, My Boys, Etc., was a huge success, and readers (and not a few critics) begged for more. “Dear Aunt Jo!” cried a reviewer in the Providence Press, “Your scrap-bag is rich in its stores of good things. Pray do not close and put it away quite yet.” And so, over the next decade, five additional Scrap-Bag volumes appeared. Yet, if Alcott herself is to be believed, after the publication of the first volume, some readers complained: What about the girls she had known?

Thus, the fourth volume of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, which appeared in 1878, carried the subtitle My Girls, Etc. Echoing her earlier sketch, the opening selection describes six young women in her circle of friends, those who have pursued careers instead of, or in addition to, the traditional roles of wife and mother. She doesn’t refer to any of the women by name, yet there are enough clues to identify the inspirations for two of them. The doctor called “A” has been alternately identified by scholars as one of two women (or a composite portrait of both): her close friend Laura Whiting Hosmer, a homeopathic physician in Concord, or Lucy Sewall, Alcott’s second cousin and financial advisor and a resident physician of the New England Hospital for Women and Children who became its director in 1869.

There’s no doubt, however, concerning the identity of the painter Alcott calls “B,” who is her sister May. As described in the selection, May departed for Europe, first to produce reproductions of paintings by English artist J. M. W. Turner and eventually to create original works. In 1877 she submitted an entry in the famous biennial Salon of Paris and wrote to her mother that, if her painting were accepted for display, “it will be a very great honor, and a fine feather in my cap to start a career with, for color-dealers, picture-purchasers, and all nationalities, turn to the Salon catalogue as the criterion by which to judge of an artist whose name is unknown to them.” Her painting, a still life (shown above), was selected for the exhibit, and her proud sister Louisa wrote “My Girls” a few months later.

The following year May married Swiss businessman Ernest Nieriker. “I mean to combine painting and family, and show that it is a possibility if let alone,” she insisted in one of her letters home. “In America this cannot be done, but foreign life is so simple and free. . . . I often wonder if I could step back into my old life and feel at home there, for I seem quite a different person from the woman who bade you good-bye so long ago.” A second painting, La Negresse, was accepted for the Salon in 1879 and she even published a book for would-be artists, Studying Art Abroad, and How to Do it Cheaply. Unfortunately, May Alcott Nieriker died in December of that year, only weeks after giving birth to a daughter, christened Louise Marie in honor of her aunt. The infant was sent to Boston and raised by Alcott until her death in 1889, when “Lulu” (as her Boston relatives called her) was returned to her father and spent the rest of her ninety-six years in Switzerland.

Notes: On page 851, Alcott refers to several J.M.W. Turner paintings her sister sold as reproductions. You can view the originals at the following links: Venice, seen from the Giudecca Canal, The Sun of Venice Going to Sea, The Fighting Temeraire, Admiral Van Tromp’s Barge at the Entrance of the Texel, and Datur Hora Quieti.

Pillicoddy, mentioned on page 854, is a character in the nautical comedy Poor Pillicoddy: A Farce in One Act (1843). The Infant Phenomenon (p. 855) is Ninetta Crummles, a member of the theatrical troupe in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. Bijou Heron (page 857), was a famous child-actress who starred in the comedy The Little Treasure (1855). Topsy (p. 588) is a slave girl in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin whose famous response to the catechistical question “Who made you?”—“I spect I grow’d. Don’t think nobody never made me.”—inspired the popular figure of speech “it grow’d like Topsy,” used to suggest development without the benefit of guidance or direction.

On the last page, Alcott lists several contemporaries as models for young women: woman suffrage and temperance reformer Mary Livermore, who edited The Agitator and Woman’s Journal, for which Alcott wrote; Ednah Cheney, a writer, suffragist, abolitionist, and lecturer at Bronson Alcott’s Concord School of Philosophy, who later wrote two biographies of Alcott; Julia Ward Howe, author and activist for suffrage, prison reform, and international peace, best known for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; Maria Mitchell, an astronomer and professor at Vassar College and the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and Lucy Stone, the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree, a leader of the women’s rights movement, and founding coeditor (with her husband) of the Woman’s Journal.

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Once upon a time I wrote a little account of some of the agreeable boys I had known, whereupon the damsels reproached me with partiality, and begged me to write about them. . . . 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, May 6, 2017


Edward Lucas White (1866–1934)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Illustration for the jacket of the first edition of Lukundoo and Other Stories (1927).
“Curses,” explains cultural critic Alan Warren in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural, “are one of supernatural fiction’s most enduring genres.” And of the many works of fiction that revolve around curses—by witches and witch doctors, wizards and alchemists—“stories featuring African curses are legion.” Such tales first made their appearance in British and American literature when journalists and missionaries brought back reports of the horrors of the rubber trade in the Congo. As Warren reminds us, “the sociological implications are obvious, and the racial divide gapes wide.”

Among the entries in this subgenre, perhaps no story is more famous or influential than Edward Lucas White’s “Lukundoo.” A Baltimore school teacher for fifteen years, White was better known during his life as a writer of historical novels, three of which, published between 1910 and 1921, approached best-seller status and remained in print for decades. Before he became a novelist, however, he wrote close to a dozen tales of fantasy and horror. His legacy today rests almost entirely on the African curse tale “Lukundoo,” which he wrote in 1907 (eight years after Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), although it was not published until it was accepted by Weird Tales in 1925. During the last century it has been included in at least thirty anthologies, including Alfred Hitchcock’s provocatively titled 1957 collection Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV.

White claimed that many of his fantastic stories were based on his nightmares, but S. T. Joshi, the go-to source on the history of weird fiction, reports that White once admitted that he would never have had the dream that resulted in “Lukundoo” if he hadn’t first read “Pollock and the Porroh Man,” an 1897 H. G. Wells story about an arrogant British traveler in Sierra Leone who is cursed by a tribal witch doctor. “Both tales,” notes Joshi, “are fundamentally tales of revenge, and in both tales we find the victims overcome by remorse at their mistreatment of African natives and inexorably losing their very will to live.” One major difference between the two stories is that Wells allows the reader to wonder if the curse is real or entirely in Pollock’s mind, while White leaves no room for ambiguity. The entry for “Lukundoo” in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Horror Fiction suggests that “the ending must have come as a considerable shock . . . when the story was first published.”

Joshi also describes a project that preoccupied White for most of his adult life: a utopian science fiction novel called Plus Ultra. He began working on the book in 1901 and finished a short version (never published) in 1919. He picked it up again in 1928, the year after his wife died, and amassed a doorstop novel of over half a million words that no publisher would touch. He killed himself seven years to the day after his wife’s death; his last book, Matrimony (1932) was a memoir of their marriage.

Notes: In the first page of the story, White refers to the explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s claim (since disproved) that, in 1888, he was the first European explorer to encounter members of an African pygmy tribe.

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“It stands to reason,” said Twombly, “that a man must accept the evidence of his own eyes, and when eyes and ears agree, there can be no doubt. . . .” 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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