Saturday, November 25, 2017

Taming the Bicycle

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890

Woman on tricycle, followed by men on penny-farthings, c. 1887. Detail from a chromolithographic print of an aquarelle (water color) by Canadian artist Henry “Hy” Sandham (1842–1910). Printed by L. Prang & Co. (Boston). Click on image to see full painting. Image courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s the first of several bicycling crazes swept across America, and riding schools, cycling clubs, races, and tournaments were established in cities from Boston to San Francisco. The first bicycle models eventually became known as “high-wheels” or “Ordinaries” or (importing from England) “penny-farthings,” their front and back wheels reminding onlookers of a penny leading a farthing, but at the time everyone simply called them “bicycles.” The earliest contraptions, however, were famously hazardous—as 48-year-old Samuel Langhorne Clemens found out in May 1884, when he decided to learn how to ride one.

In The Autobiography of Mark Twain, the massive work that would not be published in full until a century after his death, Clemens recalls with characteristic exaggeration his adventures in cycling. “I must have been rather young for my age then, for I was trying to tame an old-fashioned bicycle nine feet high.” He and his friend Joseph Twichell took lessons from a German employee from the nearby Columbia bicycle factory in Hartford. Their instructor (if Clemens is to be believed) never cracked a smile or offered a kind word. “When he had been teaching me twice a day for three weeks, I introduced a new gymnastic—one that he had never seen before—and so at last a compliment was wrung from him . . . : ‘ Mr. Clemens, you can fall off a bicycle in more different ways than any person i ever saw before.’”

Later that year Clemens gave a speech in Springfield, Massachusetts, at the banquet of one of the clubs of “wheelmen,” as cyclists sometimes called themselves. Wearing his new glasses and promising to stay “well within the ten-minute limit allowed each speaker,” he delivered one of his shortest-ever speeches:
I have been asked to tell, briefly, what bicycling is like, from the novice’s point of view. . . .

It was on the 10th of May, of the present year, that a brace of curiously contrasted events added themselves to the sum of my experiences; for on that day I confessed to age by mounting spectacles for the first time, and in the same hour I renewed my youth, to outward appearance, by mounting a bicycle for the first time.

The spectacles stayed on.
His bruising experiences with the penny-farthing turned him off bicycles forever. Much to his chagrin Twichell “succeeded, and became a master of the art of riding that wild vehicle.”

The same year Clemens tried to ride a bicycle, he started up his own publishing firm. In June he wrote to his nephew-in-law and business manager Charles L. Webster with an update on a new sketch he had been struggling with: “I revised, & doctored, & worked at the bicycle article, but it was no use, I didn’t like it at all—so I tore it up.” He asked Webster to destroy the copy he’d sent him and indicated he would work on the idea some more during the following year. He ultimately abandoned it, but fortunately a manuscript and part of a typescript survived. Mark Twain’s literary executor Albert Bigelow Paine found the piece among Clemens’s papers and included it in the 1917 collection What Is Man? and Other Essays.

Note: Pond’s Extract, a patent medicine made of witch hazel, was developed by Theron T. Pond in 1846. The company founded in 1849 to distribute the product is the forerunner of the beauty products company that still exists today.

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I thought the matter over, and concluded I could do it. So I went down and bought a barrel of Pond’s Extract and a bicycle. . . . 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, November 17, 2017

Our City Charities

Margaret Fuller (1810–1850)
From Writing New York: A Literary Anthology

“Dancing by Lunatics. Ball Given to the Patients of the Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, New York, November 6, 1865,” sketch by W. H. Davenport for Harper’s Weekly, December 2, 1865.
During the nineteenth century orphanages, almshouses, hospitals, asylums, and prisons were must-see destinations for many North American tourists. In Hartford, “the Orphan Asylum is delightfully situated on an eminence, and consists of handsome and spacious edifices, well managed,” recommends Willis Pope Hazard’s American Guide Book, Being a Hand-book for Tourists and Travellers. At Sing Sing, only “33 miles from the city [New York] . . . is the celebrated State Prison, an object of great interest for visiting, with cells for upwards of 1000 prisoners,” touts The New World in 1859: Being the United States and Canada. In one of his travelogues globetrotter Alexander Marjoribanks describes the sentries “with loaded guns” and the impossibility of escape from the penitentiary in Ontario and proclaims that “no one who visits Kingston should omit seeing it.” A guide to St. Louis published in 1888 boasts of the city’s asylum, which accommodated 800 patients. “Almost every form of insanity may be witnessed where the number is so great. The patients are afforded a variety of amusements such as theatricals balls etc. The balls occur every Friday night to which visitors are invited. Visitors are shown through during the day.” In his book Theaters of Madness (2008), Benjamin Reiss observes that the “New York Lunatic Asylum at Utica averaged 2,700 visitors a year, outstripping Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.”

As a journalist and social reformer, Margaret Fuller disdained the gawking presence of guidebook authors, local reporters, and vacationing tourists and instead visited private and public institutions as an advocate and activist. In late 1844 she accepted a job offer from Horace Greeley to become a columnist for the New-York Tribune; of the more than 250 pieces Fuller wrote over the next two years, a good number of the longer articles were investigations of the plight and treatment of the city’s underclass, especially women "from the lowest haunts of vice." In a letter sent to a friend soon after her arrival in New York, she described one of her first journalistic projects.
Just as I was beginning to visit the institutions here, of a remedial and benevolent kind, I was stopped by influenza. So soon as I am quite well I shall resume the survey. I do not expect to do much, practically, for the suffering, but having such an organ of expression as the Tribune, any suggestions that are well grounded may be of use. I have always felt great interest for those women who are trampled in the mud to gratify the brute appetites of men, and I wished I might be brought, naturally, into contact with them.
A remarkable series of columns chronicled Fuller’s excursions to the various hospitals, prisons, and poorhouses of New York City and its environs. In October 1844 Fuller went to Sing Sing prison to meet with women who had been incarcerated for prostitution and public drunkenness. She returned to the facility on Christmas Day and spoke at the services held in the prison’s chapel; her column about the holiday excursion solicited funds to help women prisoners. This appeal and her other fundraising efforts on behalf of the Women’s Prison Association helped bring about the establishment during the following summer of the Home for Discharged Female Convicts—perhaps the world’s first halfway house for women.

Another column, “St. Valentine’s Day,” detailed in mostly positive terms her visit in February 1845 to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane (on land currently occupied by Columbia University).* A month later, in March, she continued her “survey” with the essay “Our City Charities,” describing, with increasing displeasure, her trips to the poorhouse at Bellevue (now a medical center), to a “farm school” for orphans and children from impoverished families, and to the new asylum and the penitentiary, both on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island).

In late 1846 Fuller became the America’s first female foreign correspondent and set sail for Europe. Over the next four years she sent dispatches to the Tribune on European politics and culture, and while in Italy she covered the 1848 revolutions and met (and secretly married) the Marquess Giovanni Ossoli. In May 1850 the couple, with their 22-month-old son, returned to America on the freighter Elizabeth, which was loaded with blocks of Carrara marble, silks, paintings, and other valuable cargo. Encountering a severe summer squall, an ill-trained first mate, who had assumed command when the captain died of smallpox early in the voyage, ran the ship aground on a sandbar just off the shore of Fire Island, New York, at four in the morning of July 19. For the next twelve hours wind and waves, aided by blocks of marble, battered the ship while spectators on the shore plundered the cargo as it floated away from the wreck. Seven men were later arrested and charged with looting, and a surviving crew member complained to Henry David Thoreau, “The men on shore had not courage enough to launch the lifeboat—they might have launched it without risk of life.” As the boat disintegrated, eight people were swept into the sea and drowned, including all three members of the Fuller-Ossoli family.

Learning of the tragedy, Ralph Waldo Emerson asked Thoreau to go to the scene and search for the bodies and personal belongings. Joined by the poet Ellery Channing, Thoreau found only some garments and Fuller’s desk, which held a few letters and a short journal from early 1849. The manuscript for Fuller’s just-finished book on the Italian revolutions and the short-lived Roman Republic was lost. The infant’s body, which had been crated and buried in the dunes by local residents, was later located and removed to Cambridge, but the bodies of Fuller and her husband were never recovered.

* By the end of the decade the Bloomingdale Asylum had become a victim of its success, as the city—with the complicity of the asylum’s board of governors—used the center as a dumping ground for the disorderly and the incurable, with the inevitable overcrowding and insufficient supervision. In 1851 social reformer Dorothea Dix, who like Fuller had approved of the asylum’s performance early in the 1840s, prepared a scathing evaluation for the facility’s administrators.

Notes: The selection includes a short headnote by Phillip Lopate. Anastatic printing was a type of transfer lithography for the rapid printing of facsimiles. Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay in 1845 on this new, if short-lived, innovation—and the potential for its abuse by copyright pirates. Opthalmia (or, correctly, ophthalmia) is inflammation of the eye; usually the sign of such conditions as conjunctivitis or trachoma. The Tombs was the common name for Manhattan’s Halls of Justice, built in 1838. The block is currently the location of the Collect Pond Park. In 1842 former City Inspector John H. Griscom, a physician, issued a critical report on sanitary conditions in the city.

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The aspect of Nature was sad; what is worse, it was dull and dubious, when we set forth on these visits. . . . 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, November 10, 2017

The Lost Cause

Red Smith (1905–1982)
From Football: Great Writing about the National Sport
Also included in American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith

President Harry S. Truman and Bess Wallace Truman at the Philadelphia Municipal Stadium for the Army-Navy football game, November 27, 1948. Courtesy Harry S. Truman Presidential Library.
When Red Smith attended the Army-Navy game in 1948, he—like most of the spectators—expected nothing more than a “pageant of youth,” complete with a cameo appearance by Harry Truman, fresh from his reelection three weeks earlier. Many Americans had not expected Truman to win his race and, similarly, most of the crowd in the stadium didn’t expect an even match-up between the two football teams, much less the “exhibition of pure, unbridled fury” that actually occurred.

“The Lost Cause,” Smith’s account of the game, was included in the Library of America anthology of great football writing and John Schulian, the book’s editor, provided the following introduction:

Elegance is a rare word in any discussion of sportswriters and yet it is the first word that comes to mind when remembering Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith (1905–1982). One thinks back to his self-effacing graciousness, his Brooks Brothers sport coats, and, most of all, his crystalline prose. Reading Smith was like discovering that E. B. White knew what an onsides kick is.

After apprenticing in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and a decade in Philadelphia, Smith arrived at the New York Herald Tribune in 1945 and was quickly embraced for the keen eye and gentle wit he brought to his daily column. His virtues are on full display in the piece that follows, about the Army-Navy football rivalry when America still cared about it. It’s easy to imagine the joy he must have felt when he described President Truman as a “prominent fancier of hopeless causes.”

Smith outlived the Herald and moved on to write for The New York Times, where his “Sports of the Times” columns won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 that most felt was long overdue. To those who shook his hand afterward, his response was vintage Red Smith: “Well, God bless. Don’t let anything happen to you.”

Over the course of a career lasting nearly fifty years, Smith wrote some ten thousand columns—a total of approximately eight million words. “He never wrote a book. His work appeared in 800-word increments in daily newspapers,” notes Daniel Okrent in his introduction to the LOA edition of Smith’s best columns (which also includes “The Lost Cause”). “For half a century American sports fans were granted the privilege of reading his crystalline sentences four, six, for a period seven times a week.”

Notes: The Minneapolis line refer to the odds established weekly by the Athletic Publications Inc., established in Minneapolis by Leo Hirschfield in the 1930s and highly regarded by bookmakers and gamblers for three decades. “Gallup Picks Army” is a mocking allusion to the Gallup poll that confidently predicted Thomas Dewey would win the 1948 presidential election against Harry Truman. The sign reading “Send in Alan Ladd” refers to the Hollywood star, who briefly served stateside in the Army during World War II but was discharged for recurring stomach problems and influenza. In early 1947 he was cast in the title role of the much-publicized Paramount film Whispering Smith—Ladd’s first starring role both in a Western and in color. Based on a real-life Western detective and made popular by a best-selling novel and five previous movie adaptations, the character earned his name from his subdued demeanor and lightning-fast gun draw. After many production delays, the movie was released the week after the Army-Navy game.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce Smith’s column, in its entirety, below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

Philadelphia, Pa., November 27, 1948
A slight, four-eyed man stood teetering on tiptoe down near the 40-yard line in Municipal Stadium, his pearl-gray hat bobbing like a floating cork as he craned and twisted and strained to see over the wall of blue Navy overcoats and white Navy caps whose owners towered in front of America’s Commander in Chief.

Harry Truman, of Independence, Missouri, a former haberdasher and prominent fancier of hopeless causes, was struggling to focus his lenses on the hopeless Navy football team, a team that had lost thirteen successive games and now, with fifty-eight seconds of its season remaining, stood tied with undefeated Army, champion of the East, third-ranking power of the nation, and twenty-one-point favorite in the trustworthy Minneapolis line.

Fifty Secret Service men fidgeted, watching protocol go down the drain. For safety’s sake, it has been their custom to get the President clear of the crowd two minutes before an Army-Navy game ends. Hot or cold, out he goes with two minutes to play.

But Harry Truman wouldn’t budge. Like the 102,580 others present at the forty-ninth meeting of service academies, he simply had to see Navy fire the last shot in its locker.

Pete Williams took a pitch-out and lost three yards. Bill Hawkins went twisting and wrestling through the line, gaining five. The clock showed thirty-three seconds left. Slats Baysinger, the quarterback, tried to sneak around end. He lost six. Navy huddled once more, rushed up to the line for one more play, but the referee stepped in, waving his arms.

The red hand of the clock stood at zero, and the best, most exhilarating and least plausible Army-Navy game in at least twenty years was over. The score, 21 to 21, was the same as that of 1926, the year historians always mention first when they try to name the finest of all Army-Navy games.

And even if you’d seen it, it was fearfully hard to believe. While the referee tossed a coin to decide on permanent possession of the ball, Baysinger walked around the periphery of huddled players, shook hands with Army’s Tom Bullock and then with Arnold Galiffa. Army’s guys walked off hurriedly, but Navy’s froze to attention while the midshipmen’s band played “Navy Blue and Gold.”

Then all the players save two departed, as civilians and non-combatant midshipmen and cadets swarmed over the field. Dave Bannerman, Navy’s substitute fullback, and Ted Carson, left end, just stayed there where the deed had been done. When small boys came asking for autographs, they signed abstractedly and kept rubbering around through the crowd. Maybe they were looking for a couple of peach cakes to share an evening’s liberty. But it seemed more likely they were waiting in the hope that someone would give them one more crack at Army.

The great, sunswept crowd that paid six dollars a head hadn’t expected anything like this. The customers had come for the show, the spectacle, the pageant of youth that always is about as thrilling as anything in American sports. They had thought to get their money’s worth out of just being there; out of seeing the magnificent parade these kids always bring off superbly before the game; out of the shiver that scampers along the spine when the colors are brought to midfield and the band plays the national anthem and the packed stands are a frozen block of color, with the bright blue-gray of the Army on one side and the shimmering white of Navy caps on the other.

They figured to get a chuckle out of the kids’ musty nonsense. And of course they did. There was a Navy dreadnought that rolled around the cinder track and shot off cannon and went down in flames. There was a huge papier mâché goat and a huge papier mâché mule. There were signs in the Navy stands: “Gallup Picks Army” (to which the Army stands replied with a cheer: “Gallup, Gallup, Gallup!”) and a sly reference to the difference between Army and Navy schedules: “When do you play Vassar?” (“Vassar, Vassar, Vassar!”) and then after the Navy scored first: “Send in Alan Ladd”; (no response to this).

But nobody expected a ball game, except the few people who bore in mind an old, old truth which the game restated dramatically. That is, that there never can be between undergraduate football teams of the same league a gap in ability too great to be bridged by spirit alone. Navy proved that beyond remotest doubt, and the guy who did most to prove it was a fellow playing on spirit and very little else. Bill Hawkins, ill a long while this season with a blood disorder that doctors call acute infectious mononucleosis, was entirely out of action for three weeks in midseason. Without preparation, he came back to play against Michigan on November 6. Then he played three minutes against Columbia and was hurt November 13. Since then he hadn’t a minute of physical contact until today.

But today he was a bull, and a mad bull into the bargain. He ran the ball fourteen times and made fifty important yards. He scored two touchdowns. He backed up the line, his blocking was like a crime of passion, and he played almost all afternoon.

It wasn’t exactly a football game, it was an exhibition of pure, unbridled fury on both sides for both sides persistently moved the ball against incredibly savage resistance. It was, altogether, as good a thing as could possibly happen to football.

Thirty-two Navy players got into the game, which means—if there is such a thing as justice—that the Navy added thirty-two full admirals today. For the guys down there on the field today were officer material, as ever was. It goes without saying that there are more than thirty-two full admirals in Philadelphia tonight.

Originally appeared in the New York Herald Tribune (November 27, 1948) and reprinted in Out of the Red (1950). Copyright © 1950. Reprinted by permission of Terence Smith and Catherine O’Meara.

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Friday, November 3, 2017

The Namesake

Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings

“Despite the dullness of the light, we instantly recognized the boy of Hartwell's ‘Color Sergeant,’” 1907, painting by American artist Ernest L. Blumenschein (1874–1960) as an illustration for Willa Cather’s “The Namesake” in McClure’s Magazine. Image courtesy of the Willa Cather Archive.
For most of her life Willa Sibert Cather claimed she was named for William Seibert Boak, her mother’s revered brother who died at Manassas fighting for the Confederacy. She even wrote a poem dedicated to him, “The Namesake: To W.S.B., of the Thirty-Third Virginia,” and included it in her first book, the 1903 poetry collection April Twilights, which she paid to have published.
. . . He was twenty to a day
When he got his jacket gray—
He was barely twenty-one
When they found him by his gun. . . .

Proud it is I am to know
In my veins there still must flow,
There to burn and bite alway,
That proud blood you threw away;
And I'll be winner at the game
Enough for two who bore the name.
Cather’s story of the origin of her name, however, appears to be part fantasy, part misremembered family history. She was born Wilella Cather—not in honor of her uncle but in memory of an aunt who had died of diphtheria. For much of her childhood she was called Willie but around the time her family moved from Virginia to Nebraska she began telling friends she had been named Willa Love Cather after both her dead uncle and the Dr. Love who attended her birth. During her college years she altered the spelling of her middle name to Lova, and not until 1897—when she was twenty-four years old—did she change it to Sibert. Muddying the waters even further is that there was no male relative in the family’s past with the initials “W.S.B.” As Cather scholar Ann Romines reveals, the long-dead uncle's name “was actually James William Boak, as his military records and tombstone confirm. (Another Confederate uncle was Jacob Seibert Boak, but he survived the war.)”

In 1907 Cather transformed the dead soldier-uncle of her poem into an inspiration for a story. She had been living in Pittsburgh for the previous ten years and had spent the summer of 1902 in France. And so the story version of “The Namesake” features an American expatriate living in Paris who experiences an artistic epiphany when he returns home to Pennsylvania. Furthermore, Cather changes the allegiance of the “namesake” uncle: identified as a Confederate soldier in the poem (“he got his jacket gray”), he is now a staunch Unionist.

Several critics have also noticed a transitional melding of literary influences in “The Namesake,” from the labored ornateness of Cather’s early fiction to the earthy realism of her more famous works. The framing story, set in a Paris studio, sedulously evokes the style and themes of Henry James’s fiction; “even the protagonist’s name, Lyon Hartwell, smacks of the Master,” remarks Steven Trout in an article on Cather’s war fiction. Yet the story-within-the-story set in the New World—and particularly the battle scene—will remind readers both of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage and of Cather’s more mature work. “Our brief glimpse of patriotic gore,” writes Trout about this section, “belongs in the same category as the tramp’s bizarre suicide in My Ántonia, Ivy Peter’s psychotic and sadistic blinding of the woodpecker in A Lost Lady, and the parenthetical tale in Shadows on the Rock of the little girl devoured by carp at Fontainebleau. The scene of the solder’s demise is shocking because, like these other examples, it seems to come out of nowhere.”

Cather eventually regretted her decision to publish her book of poetry, much of it outmoded in style and subject. In 1908 she paid to destroy the remaining copies and in 1923, when she reissued April Twilights, she removed over a dozen selections—including the poem dedicated to W.S.B.—and heavily revised the rest. Similarly, she never reprinted the story version of “The Namesake” after its appearance in the March 1907 issue of McClure’s. And, finally, in 1920 she jettisoned her middle name altogether and was known simply as Willa Cather—although her stationery retained the middle initial. Thus, for the last three decades of her life, the memory of her beloved Confederate uncle all but disappeared from both her writing and her name.

Notes: On page 53 are mentions of the queens of France, referring to the statues of queens and illustrious women that line the terrace in the Luxembourg Gardens, and the Quarter, shorthand for the Latin Quarter, the university section of Paris on the left bank of the Seine. Perroquets (page 54) are parrots. The Destinies (page 62), also known as the Fates, are three goddesses in later Greek mythology who watch over human lives. Gare Saint-Lazare (page 63) is one of the six large railway terminals in Paris.

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Seven of us, students, sat one evening in Hartwell's studio on the Boulevard St. Michel. . . . 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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