Friday, April 29, 2011

The Domain of Arnheim

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
From Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales

Le domaine d’Arnheim, 1949, oil on canvas
by French painter René Magritte (1898–1967).

In a 2009 New York Times blog entry, Academy Award–winning director Errol Morris answered reader responses to an article he had written about the nature of photography, its “reliability” as a source, and the tenuous boundary between photojournalism and art. Morris discusses specifically whether Ansel Adams altered (“retouched”) his photographs (he did) and points out that previous “artists have argued that natural landscapes are imperfect and can be improved.”

One of those “artists” was Edgar Allan Poe, and Morris draws special attention to the story “The Domain of Arnheim” and its protagonist, Ellison, who has inherited $450 million (in the early nineteenth century!) and decides to use his inheritance to create “the perfect landscape.” The story is an expanded version of a sketch Poe had published earlier as “The Landscape Garden,” and Morris notes that it “is omitted in most scholarly discussions of Poe’s work, but it may be his greatest story.” Morris contemplates the story’s ambiguity:
There is something endlessly puzzling about his imagery. Is the narrator describing something beautiful or horrific? Is this seemingly one-way trip down a river an excursion into Paradise or into Hell? Is the narrator mad, delusional or hopelessly imprisoned in Ellison’s odd vision? Is Ellison’s vision of Heaven more terrible than what we might presume to be a vision of Hell?
To biographer Kenneth Silverman “Arnheim seems dead as well as alive, suffused with in-betweenness”; he notes that Poe finished this story while his young wife, Virginia, lay on her deathbed and that perhaps the story amounts “to declaring that only the dead know beauty, to imagining Virginia’s pleasure in her transfiguration.”

This week’s selection was suggested by Story of the Week reader Lisa Lideks from Canoga Park, California; she comments that, with its “mystical” themes rather than with elements of horror, the work “defies what is typically thought of as a ‘Poe story.’” She also reminds us that another admirer of the story was the painter René Magritte, who between 1938 and 1962 finished a series of paintings inspired by it. (Morris lists nine paintings known to exist and reproduces five of them online with his blog post.) One of the more intriguing entries in the series (above) shows a broken window that had been painted over with the same landscape that can be seen through the window. Pondering Magritte’s shattered attempt to portray a landscape, Morris asks, “The window, no different from the painting? Is there something ultimately imperfect in every attempt to depict reality?”

Notes: The epigraph by Giles Fletcher is from the second canto of Christ's Victorie and Triumph, in Heaven, in Earth, over and after Death (1610). A.R.J. Turgot, Richard Price, and Joseph Priestley were philosophers identified by philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet as proponents of the doctrine of the perfectibility of human beings.

Claude (p. 859) refers to landscape painter Claude Lorrain (1600–1682). Joseph Addison (p. 862) is the author of the play Cato (1712), a tragedy based on the life of Cato the Younger, a contemporary of Julius Caesar. Timon (p. 864) lived in ancient Athens and was famous for his misanthropy. Madame de Stael (1766–1817) was a French writer most famous for her novel Corinne. Fonthill (p. 865) is a reference to Fonthill Abbey, the grand architectural project of William Thomas Beckford, who inherited one million pounds in 1771 at the age of ten.

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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From his cradle to his grave a gale of prosperity bore my friend Ellison along. Nor do I use the word prosperity in its mere worldly sense. I mean it as synonymous with happiness. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Morning Walk

Kate Chopin (1850–1904)
From Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories

Previous Story of the Week selections by Kate Chopin include “Désireé’s Baby,” with its daring treatment of race and its unexpected ending, and “A Respectable Woman,” about a woman who is unsettled by her attraction to her husband’s friend. Chopin gained fame (and notoriety) during the 1890s startling readers with her handling of topics considered bold for the era, but she also continued to publish light or pleasant fiction for local magazines. Among these latter stories are several holiday tales—a genre whose prevalence, along with its promise of good pay, proved attractive to writers during the nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic, from Charles Dickens and Washington Irving to Robert Louis Stevenson and Willa Cather (who published hers under a pseudonym).

One of Chopin’s holiday stories, which she titled “A Morning Walk,” appeared in 1897 as “An Easter Day Conversion” in the Criterion, a local magazine that had recently changed its name from St. Louis Life and that published society news and some fiction. She had hoped to include the selection in her next story collection, but her fortunes changed drastically after the publication of her scandalous novel The Awakening. When Penguin issued the collection twenty years ago, Chopin scholar and biographer Emily Toth summarized what happened next:
[I]n February 1900, Hebert S. Stone & Company cancelled Kate Chopin’s contract; they would not publish her third story collection, A Vocation and a Voice. Herbert Stone did not actually say that The Awakening’s notoriety caused him to cancel A Vocation and a Voice; apparently he gave Kate Chopin no reason at all and let her assume the worst. (In fact, Stone was cutting back on the firm’s list and not necessarily making a judgment on Chopin’s work).
Whatever the real reason for this setback, the previously prolific Chopin wrote and published very little afterward. In 1904 she suffered from a brain hemorrhage at the St. Louis World's Fair and died two days later, at the age of fifty-three.

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Archibald had been up many hours. He had breakfasted, and now he was taking a morning stroll along the village street, which was little other than a high ledge cut into the mountain-side. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Dog’s Tale

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From The Collected Shorter Works of Mark Twain

1904 American edition
Although Mark Twain is best known for his uproarious humor and biting satire, “A Dog’s Tale” is a surprisingly sentimental polemic by an author who was “a longtime opponent of sentimentalism,” notes John H. Davis in the Critical Companion to Mark Twain. Twain may have composed this story at the request of his daughter, an opponent of vivisection—although his own hostility to the practice and his overall interest in animal welfare predate the story by many years. In any case, Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin acknowledges that by the beginning of the twentieth century Twain had become “the most prominent American author to inveigh against the practice of experimenting on conscious, unanaesthetized animals.” After the story’s appearance in 1903 in Harper’s, it was published as a pamphlet for the National Anti-Vivisectionist Society in Britain. The story was also issued in the United States as a hardcover edition (pictured above), with illustrations by W. T. Smedley, and included in the 1906 collection, The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories.

Among the tale’s clear influences is the poem “Tray,” by Robert Browning, which was also written in opposition to vivisection and relates a similar story. Some critics and readers have regarded Twain’s version in yet another light: as a parable about the evils of slavery, with the animals parodying “family separations, docile servitude, loss of identity, and roles as children’s playthings and guardians” (J. R. LeMaster, The Mark Twain Encyclopedia).

Notes: Aileen Mavourneen, the hero-dog’s name, is the title of a popular ballad, with lyrics by the novelist Mrs S. C. Hall (Anna Maria Fielding Hall, 1800–81). The male dog’s name, Robin Adair, is also the title of ballad, this one by Lady Caroline Keppel (b. circa 1734); she wrote the song about her future husband, Robert (Robin) Adair. It was extremely popular in the nineteenth century and, in Jane Austen’s Emma, the character Jane Fairfax plays the tune on a pianoforte.

This week’s selection was suggested by Kelly Nguyen from Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon.

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My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian. This is what my mother told me; I do not know these nice distinctions myself. To me they are only fine large words meaning nothing. My mother had a fondness for such; she liked to say them, and see other dogs look surprised and envious, as wondering how she got so much education. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, April 8, 2011

A Wagner Matinée

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

In 1897 Willa Cather heard her first opera by Richard Wagner when she attended a performance of Lohengrin in Pittsburgh; she had moved there the previous year to take a job as a magazine editor. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for the music of Wagner—in spite of the fact the performance was apparently abysmal. All the singers had severe colds (and not much talent) and the actor playing a lead, according to Cather biographer James Woodress, “had to stop in the middle of an aria for a coughing seizure.”

Cather’s fondness for opera would inspire several of her works of fiction, but “A Wagner Matinée” got her in a bit of trouble with the folks back home when it was first published in 1904. A local editor criticized her portrayal of prairie life: “If writers of fiction who use western Nebraska as material would look up now and then and not keep their eyes in the cattle yards, they might be more agreeable company.”

But even more upsetting to family and friends was their belief that Cather had based the character of Aunt Georgiana on her Aunt Franc, who lived in Boston and had studied music before marrying George Cather and moving to Nebraska. “Cather wrote a friend that the whole affair had been the nearest she ever had come to personal disgrace,” writes Woodress. “That she could not have intended cruelty to her aunt is perfectly clear from the warm affectionate tone of all her letters to Aunt Franc.” Nevertheless, when Cather revised and shortened the story for her 1920 collection, Youth and the Bright Medusa, she altered the portrait of Georgiana out of consideration for her Nebraskan family.

Notes: Franz-Joseph-Land (p. 490) is an archipelago located north of Russia in the Arctic Ocean. “Joyous Farmer” (p. 491), or “The Happy Farmer”, is one of forty-three short piano works in Album for the Young, composed for beginners by Robert Schumann. Euryanthe (p. 491) is an opera by German composer Carl Maria von Weber. Les Huguenots (p. 491) is an opera by French composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. Since 1876 Bayreuth (p. 494) has been the site of an annual Wagner festival featuring Richard Wagner’s music. Trovatore, (p. 495), refers to Il trovatore, or “The Troubadour,” an opera by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi.

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I received one morning a letter, written in pale ink on glassy, blue-lined note-paper, and bearing the postmark of a little Nebraska village. This communication, worn and rubbed, looking as if it had been carried for some days in a coat pocket that was none too clean, was from my uncle Howard, and informed me that his wife had been left a small legacy by a bachelor relative, and that it would be necessary for her to go to Boston to attend to the settling of the estate. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Pitchers and Catchers

Moe Berg (1902–1972)
From Baseball: A Literary Anthology

In 1932 Washington Post reporter Shirley Povich learned that Moe Berg had been invited to spring training by the Washington Senators. He asked outfielder Dave “Sheriff” Harris for his opinion of the team’s new catcher, who so far had a notably second-rate career. “We’ll find out tomorrow,” Harris responded. “I just wanted to tell you he speaks seven languages,” Povitch said. “Yeah, I know,” Harris retorted, “and he can’t hit in any of them.”

During the next few years, according to biographer Nicholas Dawidoff (The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg), Povich delighted his readers with anecdotes about the brainiac who had invaded the ranks of baseball. “The average mental capacity of the Washington Ball Club was hiked several degrees with the acquisition of the eminent Mr. Moe Berg.” And, until his death in 1972, Berg made himself available to reporters, willingly fashioning a legend that far outsized his career as a catcher—and certainly as a hitter. “More profiles of Berg were published than of any other journeyman ballplayer in history,” Dawidoff contends.

Yet, in spite of his mediocrity as a player, Berg became a member of the 1934 traveling American All-Star baseball team. A summary for the PBS program Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies describes what gives this trip its historical interest:
Fellow teammates and baseball fans wondered why a player with a lifetime average of only .243 was chosen for the All-Star team with the likes of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Why he was chosen was never disclosed, yet significantly, while the All-Star team was in Tokyo, Berg, who spoke Japanese, slipped away and took covert movies of the Tokyo skyline, Tokyo harbor, and munitions facilities from the top of the city's tallest building. The movies were later used in the planning of U.S. bombing raids over Tokyo in 1942.
Some have conjectured that Berg may have begun his second career as a spy during his baseball career—although Berg himself later insisted he didn’t become an employee of the Office of Strategic Services (which later became the CIA) until he turned over the Tokyo footage in 1942, three years after his retirement from baseball.

The year before he was hired as a spy, Berg wrote for the Atlantic Monthly an article on baseball that displays his erudition—from the Latin phrase in the opening paragraph (ne quid nimis: “nothing in excess”) to the Shakespearean allusion of its last sentence. Recommended by Story of the Week reader Ryan Ross, of Champaign, Illinois, it is “not only a classic essay on the intricacies and strategies of our nation’s pastime, but it is also a fitting introduction to the man Casey Stengel called ‘the strangest fellah who ever put on a uniform.’”

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Baseball men agree with the philosopher that perfection—which means a pennant to them—is attainable only through a proper combination of opposites. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.