Saturday, December 16, 2017

Home for Christmas

Carson McCullers (1917–1967)
From Carson McCullers: Stories, Plays, & Other Writings

Wynnton School, Columbus, GA, late 1920s. Postcard (no. 28 in a series on Columbus landmarks) printed in 1930 by Curt Teich Co., Chicago, IL, from artwork provided by The White Company, Columbus, GA. As a third grader, Carson McCullers transferred to the Wynnton School in 1925, two years after the school’s current building was completed.
In the 1920s, when Carson McCullers was a child, a highlight of Christmas (perhaps the highlight) was gift giving—as is still true for most children. There was never any question about what to give little Lulu Carson, however. According to biographer Virginia Spencer Carr, even as a preschooler Carson would be asked what she wanted and the answer was, “I want book—lots of books, Mama.”

As an adult, Carr writes, “Carson was almost as excited over Christmas as she was over birthdays.” She would become obsessed with worrying (for weeks) and choosing and giving “just the right present,” but her inability to keep a secret led to occasionally awkward situations. When her therapist, Mary Mercer, learned that McCullers was planning to give her a mink stole, she was appalled—not by the idea of owning a stole but by the cost of one. Unaware that the fur had already been purchased (and was actually not that expensive, as far as such things go), Mercer decided to confront her patient directly and told her that she “simply did not want a blond mink stole and would not wear it.” McCullers was “crushed,” Carr reports, and the ensuing misunderstanding and kerfuffle (which eventually involved several others and is too complicated to be detailed here) ended up with a cousin being struck from the will.

Fortunately, most of McCullers’s holiday gestures did not end up with somebody being disowned. Friends and other writers gratefully recalled holidays spent with McCullers. In 1971 New York Times reporter Mary Cantwell asked Truman Capote to describe favorite Christmases of the past. In the mid-1940s, before he had become a published author, he met McCullers, who invited him to join her and her sister for Christmas at their place in Nyack, thirty miles up the Hudson in New York. On Christmas Eve his Manhattan apartment was robbed—along with all the presents he had bought for the hosts and their guests. “I went up anyway and we played old Marlene Dietrich records and drank wine. It was a very southern Christmas—my last southern Christmas up north—and we had all kinds of fried chicken and pies and cakes. And everybody was very kind about my not giving them a present although they all gave me one.”

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that among the writings published during McCullers’s all-too-short career are four autobiographical pieces about childhood Christmas memories. She wrote her first yuletide essay in 1949. The piece was commissioned by Mademoiselle for a special “Home for Christmas” issue, and it appeared alongside offerings with the same title by popular food writer M.F.K. Fisher and novelist Jessamyn West, author of The Friendly Persuasion. In what strikes us as a fitting close to McCullers’s centennial year, we present her version of “Home for Christmas” as our Story of the Week selection.

Note: One of the books Carson read during summer vacation was Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland, an 1865 novel by American writer Mary Mapes Dodge.

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Sometimes in August, weary of the vacant, broiling after noon, my younger brother and sister and I would gather in the dense shade under the oak tree in the back yard and talk of Christmas and sing carols. . . . 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, December 9, 2017

Thurlow’s Christmas Story

John Kendrick Bangs (1862–1922)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

“Face to Face,” “The Demon Vanished,” and “Look at Your So-Called Story and See.” Three drawings by American illustrator Arthur Burdett Frost (1851–1928) that accompanied “Thurlow’s Christmas Story” when it appeared in the 1894 Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly.
For most of the nineteenth century—and in some places well into the twentieth—Christmas was the occasion for telling scary tales. “No one quite knows why winter, and Christmas more specifically, became the time of ghost stories,” writes Judith Flanders in her just-published book, Christmas: A Biography. The prevailing belief is that the combination was a natural outgrowth of the long winter nights and the pagan rituals linked to the winter solstice. As Prince Mamillius announces in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, “A sad tale’s best for winter; I have one / Of sprites and goblins.” The novelist Paul Theroux describes the tradition as “a revolt against sanctimony—Christmas pulls one way, pagan skepticism the other, and the result is frequently a blend of the pious and supernatural.”

The most famous Christmas ghost story is, of course, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1842), but the custom of telling such tales at Christmas—and of writing supernatural Christmas stories—predates Ebenezer Scrooge by centuries. Jon Kaneko-James, a researcher specializing on supernatural topics in literature, summarizes the frequent mention of revenants at Christmastime in medieval Icelandic sagas. Flanders identifies a book from 1658 (the snappily titled An history of apparitions, oracles, prophecies, and predictions with dreams, visions, and revelations and the cunning delusions of the devil, to strengthen the idolatry of the gentiles, and the worshipping of saints departed) that “includes five tales that link ghosts and ghostly happenings to the holidays.” The late David Parker, who was the curator of the Charles Dickens Museum, claimed that the first book devoted entirely to supernatural Christmas tales may have been the popular Round about Our Coal-Fire: or, Christmas Entertainments (c. 1730), which went through several editions in the decade it first appeared and which featured tales about ghosts and ogres, including “The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean,” an early version of Jack and the Beanstalk.

In 1820 Washington Irving described in “The Christmas Dinner” the festivities at the “old-fashioned” Bracebridge Hall in the English countryside. After a lavish meal and children’s games, the parson sits in “a high-backed oaken chair” in the drawing room and relates “strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country.” Most of the tales shared by the parson and by others in the company concern a crusader whose crypt is in the nearby church; “the gold and jewels buried in the tomb, over which the spectre kept watch”; and “all kinds of ghosts, goblins, and fairies” associated with his legend.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Christmas ghost story had become so ubiquitous that in 1891 the British humorist Jerome K. Jerome would grouse:
Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet around a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders and blood.
And so in 1894, when John Kendrick Bangs, the humor editor at Harper’s Weekly, had to write a piece for the magazine’s Christmas number, he slyly submitted “Thurlow’s Christmas Story,” about a writer haunted by phantasmal visions while struggling to come up with “the usual ghostly tale with a dash of the Christmas flavor thrown in here and there.” As the deadline for the story looms, a mysterious visitor arrives and presents a Faustian opportunity to publish the masterpiece that will ensure the writer’s literary reputation long after his death. Bangs himself never seemed to suffer from writer’s block; during a career lasting four decades, he published dozens of books and hundreds of stories and sketches. Virtually everything he wrote is now forgotten, and his name has become an arcane footnote for his creation of “Bangsian fantasies,” a subgenre in which famous figures from literature and history are characters in an otherworldly afterlife. Although (as far as we know) Bangs made no Faustian bargain when he wrote “Thurlow’s Christmas Story,” it seems fitting that out of his entire oeuvre this frequently anthologized tale is the work for which he is most remembered a century after his death.

Note: On page 171, Bangs namechecks a quartet of nineteenth-century authors who inspired many of his own stories, as well as the “masterpiece” written by the visitor in this story. In addition to Edgar Allan Poe, he mentions E.T.A. Hoffmann, a Prussian writer of Gothic horror; Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, the German writer most famous for his fairy tale Undine; and Fitz James O’Brien, an Irish American story writer and poet whose various fantastic tales are regarded by literary historians as important precursors to science fiction.

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I have always maintained, my dear Currier, that if a man wishes to be considered sane, and has any particular regard for his reputation as a truth-teller, he would better keep silent as to the singular experiences that enter into his life. . . . 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, December 1, 2017

Shooting Down a “Hun”

Charles J. Biddle (1890–1972)
From World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

Charles J. Biddle with his SPAD S.XII "cannon fighter," which he flew with the American 13th Aero Squadron in November 1918. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The month he turned twenty-seven, Charles J. Biddle, of the prominent Philadelphia family, left his father’s law firm and joined the French aviation service to fight in the war in Europe. On April 15, 1917, barely four weeks after arriving in France—and nine days after the United States declared war on Germany—he sent the first letter of an extraordinary series chronicling his military experiences over the next twenty months:
My application for permission to enlist in the French Foreign Legion, Aviation Section, went in on March 24th. It takes several weeks for this to go through however and it was not until last Tuesday that Dr. X— notified me that I had been accepted. . . . The aviation fields and hangars literally stretch for miles and I can hardly guess how many machines there are here. I should say about six hundred. At the Curtiss school at Newport News there were about fifteen. This is the largest school in France but there are many other very large ones scattered all over the country. Any morning or afternoon when the weather permits the machines look like the crows flying home to roost from the marshes on the Delaware.
By the end of July Biddle was assigned to an escadrille at the front; his cousin Julian had also enrolled as a pilot and was sent to the same unit. Within two weeks Biddle was flying combat missions “over the lines,” and he wrote to a friend, “I certainly hope I can become skilful enough before long to drop one of these fellows good and proper as the saying is.” Yet it wasn’t until mid-November when he finally came close to “bagging” an enemy aircraft; he badly damaged the engine of a fighter plane, which somehow remained aloft and was able to land. “I could see the Hun sitting there staring up at me through his goggles the color of his bonnet and all the details of the show. . . . Why he did not fall I do not know.”

On December 5 Biddle was flying a single-seat French SPAD XIII fighter armed with two machine guns synchronized to fire through the propeller arc. He spotted a German Albatros two-seater and gave chase—but during the dogfight both his guns malfunctioned, and he suddenly found himself without any working weaponry and within fifty meters of the enemy. Biddle’s letter, written three days later, recounts the pursuit and its outcome. With the dry, plainspoken humor that pervades his correspondence, he also describes the discomfort of plummeting 4,000 meters in a few minutes and the inadvisability of flying upside down for any length of time.

In January 1918 Biddle transferred to the American 103rd Aero Squadron and was commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army. On May 15 he was shot down by a German plane and crashed in No Man’s Land with a wounded leg, but he managed to reach British lines. He returned to duty in July and was promoted to major in October—two weeks before the war ended. In all, Biddle was credited with eight victories in aerial combat.

Note: Throughout his letter Biddle refers to the Germans as Boches, a pejorative term often used for German soldiers. Chasse (page 439) is the French word for hunt or pursuit. A renversement is an aerial maneuver in which the pilot reverses direction by doing a half-roll followed by a downward half-loop. The “Disparu” report (page 443) listed those missing in action.

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You already know that from one cause or another, I have not been able to get out on the lines for some time, and when I finally did get out last Wednesday, it was exactly three weeks since I had last seen 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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