Saturday, July 29, 2017

Eight Miles—Straight Up!

Hawthorne C. Gray (1889–1927)
From Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight

Captain Hawthorne Gray before his fatal world altitude record attempt, November 4, 1927. From Scott Air Force Base Historical Photos, via Wikipedia Commons.
During the 1920s the U.S. Army Air Service divided its energies between airplanes, balloons, and giant rigid airships like the Los Angeles and Shenandoah and ran separate training schools for each. Captain Hawthorne Gray (1889–1927) graduated from all three schools before dedicating himself to military ballooning. He was the second-place finisher in the 1926 Gordon Bennett contest, held annually from 1906 to 1938, which awards a much-coveted trophy to the balloonist (or team) traveling the furthest distance. (Resurrected in 1979, the event will occur next on September 8, 2017.)

Gray was perhaps the best-known Army aeronaut of his day, a reputation burnished by his efforts to regain the world balloon altitude record for the United States. All three attempts were made from Scott Field in Belleville, Illinois. The first, on March 9, 1927, had been a relative failure. The second, on May 4, reached a height of 42,470 feet and would have reclaimed the record but for the fact that Gray left his balloon and landed by parachute, disqualifying him according to the rules. That summer he wrote an account of his second flight, “Eight Miles—Straight Up!,” which appeared in Popular Mechanics.

Gray tried again on November 4, 1927. His balloon rose smoothly but the chase planes soon lost sight of him due to clouds. Unable to reconnect with the balloon after some hours, the planes eventually landed, figuring that Gray by then would himself be on the ground. His body and balloon were discovered in the treetops the next morning by a boy near Sparta, Tennessee.

Flights into the stratosphere—“eight miles straight up” and beyond—were clearly perilous, yet ironically Gray was not a victim of what doctors most worried about at such altitudes: the effect of low atmospheric pressure on the human body. The military’s posthumous inquiry revealed that he died of asphyxiation. During his prior flight Gray had discarded too much ballast too quickly, and ascended too fast. On his fatal and final flight Gray let his balloon rise much more slowly—but as a result he consumed more of his limited oxygen supply. At 3:17 p.m. he wrote in his log, “clock frozen,” indicating that he had lost his ability to calculate how much breathing time remained. Yet he continued upward and a barograph recovered from the crash site indicates he reached a maximum height virtually identical to his previous flight. Shortly afterward Gray began his descent, but around 4:38 p.m., the point at which he had calculated he would run out of oxygen, he was either unconscious or already dead and still descending through air too thin to support human life. According to its instruments, his balloon landed in a tree at 5:20 p.m.

Gray was buried in Arlington National Cemetery and posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The award citation concludes, “His courage was greater than his supply of oxygen.”

The above introduction is adapted from the headnote that precedes this selection in Into the Blue: Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight, edited by Joseph C. Corn.

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How does it feel to soar more than eight miles into the air, higher than man has ever gone before, up where the air becomes too thin to support life; where the thermometer, headed for the absolute zero of outer space, has already reached nearly seventy below zero? . . . 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, July 21, 2017

A Stick of Green Candy

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

Detail from Landscape with Flight of Stairs, c. 1922, oil on canvas by Russian-French artist Chaim Soutine (1893–1943). Click on image to see entire painting. Courtesy of The Athenaeum.
In July 1947, using the money from the advance for a novel, Paul Bowles left for Morocco, a country he had visited years earlier on the advice of Gertrude Stein. His wife, Jane, remained behind in the U.S. and began an affair with Jody McLean, a New England woman who owned a tea shop. Paul, who with a friend bought a house in the Casbah of Tangier, encouraged Jane to join him in Africa. Fearful of a transatlantic journey, she kept putting it off but in January finally went to Morocco with Jody and found herself enthralled by their new home. Jody returned to the U.S. in the spring, and Jane decided to stay alone in Morocco when Paul went to New York to finish the incidental music for Tennessee Williams’s new play, Summer and Smoke. During Paul’s absence, Jane befriended—and became a bit obsessed with—a group of women she met in the grain market, including Cherifa, who operated a stall in the market and who would become Jane’s closest companion for two decades.

Paul returned to Tangier in December 1948 and suggested that he and Jane travel into the Sahara. Somewhat to Paul’s surprise, she was as enchanted by the desert as she had been with Tangier. “It is not like anything else anywhere in the world (and I do remember New Mexico), not the sand—or the oasis,” she wrote in March to friends. “It is very quiet, no electricity, no cars. Just Paul and me. And many empty rooms. The great sand desert begins just outside my window. . . . We plan to be in the desert about a month and then back to Fez. Then to Tangier, where I can resume my ‘silly life’ with the grain market group.”

During their Sahara trek, while staying in Taghit, Algeria, Jane broke through her recurring writer’s block and finished “A Stick of Green Candy.” Paul—whose famous novel The Sheltering Sky was published that year—was excited that Jane was writing again, but according to his biographer Virginia Spencer Carr he “feared that she would never stop tinkering with it.” When they returned to Tangier, Jane ended up stashing the story in a closet. In 1956 Tennessee Williams and his partner Frank Merlo visited Tangier, and Jane dusted off the manuscript for Merlo to read. Jane allowed him to take it back to the U.S. and he sent it to Vogue, which immediately accepted the story. It appeared in the magazine a couple of weeks shy of Jane’s fortieth birthday.

Millicent Dillon, Jane Bowles’s biographer and the editor of the recently published Library of America edition of her collected writings, explains how “A Stick of Green Candy” evokes Jane’s insecurity as a writer of fiction, and more specifically her “loss of belief in her imagination”:
Jane was telling of the breakdown in her imaginative world. In the desert, as she wrote the story, her sense of its truth held her, and she could complete it. Like Mary, she had to believe in the truth of what she said. . . . But when the story was done, when she returned to Tangier, she began again to disbelieve her own words, to mistrust her own imagination. . . . “A Stick of Green Candy” was to be the last work of fiction she was ever to complete.

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The clay pit had been dug in the side of a long hill. By leaning back against the lower part of its wall, Mary could see the curved highway above her and the cars speeding past. . . . 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, July 14, 2017

Southern Peace Walk: Two Issues or One?

Barbara Deming (1917–1984)
From War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing

Members of the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) leafleting and picketing in Albany, Georgia, early 1964. Photographer unknown (courtesy of Gene Keys’s website). A. J. Muste is walking in front and Yvonne Klein is leafleting behind him. From December 1963 to February 1964 an integrated group of CNVA members attempted several times to march through downtown Albany, part of the Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo Walk for Peace. The police chief would only allow them to walk down the “black side” of Oglethorpe Avenue, Albany's main street, but the marchers insisted on walking on the “white side” and were arrested. For more information on the Albany confrontation, see Swarthmore College’s Global Nonviolent Action Database.
Founded in 1957 in opposition to nuclear weapons testing, the Committee on Nonviolent Action (CNVA) never became a large group, but its influence and the future prominence of a number of its members belied the size of its roster. It existed for a decade and—following both the death of A. J. Muste, one of its founding leaders, and the increased American involvement in the Vietnam War—eventually merged with the War Resisters League.

In the early 1960s, both to attract members and to publicize their cause, CNVA sponsored a series of “peace marches,” including the San Francisco–to-Moscow Walk for Peace (December 1960 to October 1961) and the Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo Walk for Peace (May 1963 to October 1964). Between those two major events, they planned a shorter march, from Nashville to Washington in April 1962, for which the organization decided to make a concerted effort to attract non-white participants. CNVA’s leaders were motivated not only by shared principles and but also by tactics. “Radical pacifists looked admiringly, even wistfully, at the vitality of the civil rights movement,” notes historian Marian Mollin. “The black freedom struggle provided a compelling example of how nonviolence could mobilize the masses and push the nation toward fundamental social change.”

Yet, as Barbara Deming writes in her account “Southern Peace Walk,” the presence of black participants in the walk met with criticism, scorn, and worse, not only from outside observers but also others activists, and threatened to sidetrack the group’s aims. Deming describes her frustration with the resistance to integration yet concludes her report with the tense confrontation that vindicated her belief that the peace and civil rights movements were inseparable: “For the issue of war and peace remains fundamentally the issue of whether or not one is going to be willing to respect one’s fellow man.” Or, as she wrote two years later, “Hasn't the time come to try to define them much more clearly as part of one movement?” The essay’s brief headnote by Lawrence Rosenwald for the Library of America collection War No More provides additional information about Barbara Deming, whose centennial is on July 23, 2017.

Note: Deming mentions the S.N.C.C. (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) on page 351. Founded in 1960, it became one of the most prominent organizations of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

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The man took a leaflet and read a few lines. “This is the Nashville, Tennessee to Washington, D. C. Walk for Peace,” it began. . . . 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, July 7, 2017

A Walk to Wachusett

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
From Thoreau: Collected Essays & Poems

View of Wachusett from Harvard, undated, oil on canvas by American painter George Frank Higgins (1850–1885).
Twenty-five-year-old Henry David Thoreau had been writing essays and poems for half a decade and had published a few pieces in The Dial, the small journal edited by Margaret Fuller. Yet, at the start of 1823, he had not yet earned a penny from his writing. One might expect, then, that “A Walk to Wachusett” was “a triumph of sorts for Thoreau,” as historian Robert Kuhn McGregor suggests. It was to be “the first sustained essay for which he received monetary payment—except that the Boston Miscellany never paid him.” Alas, the short-lived Boston magazine “of Literature and Fashion” folded after the very next issue.

“A Walk to Wachusett” details a four-day trek (some fifty miles round trip) that Thoreau undertook in July 1842 with Richard Fuller, Margaret’s younger brother. The essay had its genesis at least a year earlier, however. In a May 1841 journal entry Thoreau addressed an ode to the various hills he could see from Concord, where he had just begun living in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home as a handyman and gardener. The poem opens with these lines:
Especial I remember thee,
Wachusett, who like me
Standest alone without society. . . .
Margaret Fuller rejected a subsequent version of this poem when Thoreau submitted it to The Dial. She leveled overall criticisms (“Thought lies too detached, truth is seen too much in detail”) and made suggestions for revision, although she did offer several encouraging comments. “Its merits to me are, a noble recognition of nature, two or three manly thoughts, and, in one place, a plaintive music.” A later version of the poem takes up most of the first three pages of his Mount Wachusett travel essay, and Thoreau would again revise and expand the poem for inclusion in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).

The young writer was already gaining a reputation for his eccentricities. A few weeks after the hike to Wachusett, on August 31, he met and befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had just married Sophia Peabody. The older writer recorded the event in his journal:
Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character—a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty. . . . [For] two or three years back, he has repudiated all regular modes of getting a living, and seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men—an Indian life, I mean, as respects the absence of any systematic effort for a livelihood. . . . Mr. Thoreau is a keen and delicate observer of nature—a genuine observer—which, I suspect, is almost as rare a character as even an original poet; and Nature, in return for his love, seems to adopt him as her especial child, and shows him secrets which few others are allowed to witness.
By the time he dined with the Hawthornes, Thoreau had begun a draft of his travel essay—and, in fact, it was almost certainly Hawthorne who suggested he submit the piece to Boston Miscellany, which boasted a much larger audience than The Dial. Even though he never was paid for it, the essay marked a turning point for Thoreau. “What is new in ‘A Walk to Wachusett,’” writes biographer Robert D. Richardson, “is the clear trip narrative and the gentle, sociable one of the familiar essay, combining to make a miniature version of the travel book. . . . [The essay] is only a beginning, but it is the first fully characteristic Thoreauvian excursion.”

Notes: The epigraph is Thoreau’s own composition, a two-line poem originally titled “Westward, Ho!” in his journal. On page 44, Rasselas refers to the hero of Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), whose home is the Happy Valley. A rifle (page 45) is a piece of wood used by mowers to sharpen their scythes. On page 46, Thoreau jokes that he and Fuller “could get no further” than “atque altæ moenia Romæ,” which is only the seventh line of Virgil’s Aeneid. The lines of verse later in the page are from Virgil’s Georgics. The wars of the neighboring Lancaster refers to King Philip’s War (1675–76). The Latin phrase gelidæ valles (page 47) means “cold valleys.”

The lines of poetry on page 47 are all from William Collins’s poem, “Hassan; or the Camel-Driver” (1742), while the excerpt in the middle of page 50 is from Wordsworth’s Peter Bell (1798). Helvellyn is a mountain in the Lake District in England. The poem at the bottom of page 50 is Thoreau’s own composition. On page 51, Thoreau quotes the last two lines of Virgil’s first eclogue.

On page 54, Thoreau and Fuller travel to the scene of Mrs. Rowlandson’s capture. On February 10, 1676, during King Philip’s War, Mary Rowlandson was captured during a Narrangansett raid on Lancaster and held prisoner for 82 days. She later wrote of her captivity in The Sovereignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed. On the next page, he refers to several participants in the war: Paugus, a Pequawket war-chief, as well as Captain Benjamin Church, and John Lovewell (Lovell), prominent soldiers fighting for the Puritans. Myles Standish was a military leader in Plymouth Colony earlier in the century

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Summer and winter our eyes had rested on the dim outline of the mountains, to which distance and indistinctness lent a grandeur not their own, so that they served equally to interpret all the allusions of poets and travelers. . . . 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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