Bill curates: Mary Church Terrell’s What it means to be coloured …

Bill Curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. In 2011, when today’s post was first published, Barack Obama was in his first term as President and then Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, was pursuing a scorched earth policy of refusing to even allow Democrat legislation to be debated, with the stated aim of making Obama a one-termer. Obama got a second term, but then there was Trump, and racism in America seemed to take a giant step back into the light, giving new relevance to this talk from 1907.

This is the last Bill Curates post he sent me a few months ago. I intended to publish it then, but life, reading and blogging got busy, and I tucked this away in my drafts folder for another time. I think now is the time to post it and to thank Bill for the wonderful support he gave my blog through my dark year. It was so appreciated. Thank you Bill, you helped save my sanity.

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My original post titled: Mary Church Terrell, What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States

Mary Church Terrell. Public Domain, National Parks Service, via Wikipedia

I heard a radio interview this week with Jane Elliott of the brown-eye-blue-eye experiment fame, and she suggested that racism is still an issue  in the USA (through the efforts of a vocal minority) and is best demonstrated by the determination in certain quarters that Barack Obama will not win a second term*. It’s therefore apposite (perhaps) that my first Library of America post this year be on last week’s offering, “What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States” by Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954). This essay originated, according to LOA’s introductory notes, in a talk Terrell gave at a Washington women’s club in 1906. It was then published anonymously, LOA says, in The Independent, in 1907.

Now, I’d never heard of Terrell, but she sounds like one amazing woman. Not only did she live an impressive-for-the-times long life, but she had significant achievements, including being, it is believed, the first black woman to be appointed to a Board of Education (in 1895). She also helped found the National Association of Colored Women. On a slightly different tack, she was a long-time friend of H.G. Wells. Interesting woman, eh?

I have a few reasons for being interested in this essay, besides Jane Elliott’s comment. I lived in the DC area – in Northern Virginia – for two years in the early-mid 1980s and was surprised by some of my own experiences regarding race there. And, as a teen in the 1960s and early 1970s, I was aware of and fascinated by the Civil Rights movement in the USA. I was surprised but thrilled to hear, late last year, an audio version of John Howard Griffin‘s book, Black like me, that I read and loved back in those days.

But enough background. To the essay… I’ll start by saying that I’m not surprised that it began as a talk, because it seemed to ramble a bit. However, as I read on, some structure did start to appear. She starts by listing the various areas in which she, as a black woman, was (or would have been if she’d tried) discriminated against in the national capital. These include finding a boarding house and a place to eat, being able to use public transport, finding non-menial employment, being able to attend the theatre or a white church, and gaining an education. She introduces her section on transport as follows:

As a colored woman I cannot visit the tomb of the Father of this country, which owns its very existence to the love of freedom in the human heart and which stands for equal opportunity for all, without being forced to sit in the Jim Crow section of an electric car …

The irony here is not subtle – but she’s in the business of education where subtlety would not get her far!

She then returns to many of these issues – and this is where I started to wonder about her structure – but what she does is move from introducing the issues by using herself as an example to exploring each one using real examples of people she knows or has heard of. She describes, for example, how employers might be willing to employ a skilled black person, but are lobbied by other staff and threatened with boycotts by clients and so take the easy path of firing (or not hiring) the black person in favour of a white person. In one case the employer is  a Jew,

… and I felt that it was particularly cruel, unnatural and cold-blooded for the representative of one oppressed and persecuted race to deal so harshly and unjustly with a member of another.

You can guess why, in 1907, this was published anonymously!

Anyhow, I won’t repeat all the examples she provides to demonstrate the extent of prejudice at play, because you can read the essay yourself. I will simply end with her conclusion:

… surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep.

Some 100 or so years later, the US sees itself as the leader of the free world and yet it seems that this chasm is still rather wide. What are the chances that it will completely close one day?

* Please note that this is not a holier-than-thou post. We Aussies have our own problems with racism and prejudice, and so I am not about to throw stones at anyone else.

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I love that Bill decided to choose a non-Australian post for this BC. It’s so depressing to think that no improvements seem to have been made in the decade since I wrote this – there, or I fear in most countries. Certainly, statistics coming out here in Australia are showing no improvement in important measures, like life expectancy and incarceration. Indeed there’s been some sliding. This is not good enough.

Thoughts?

Gene Stratton-Porter, The last Passsenger Pigeon (#Review)

I have passed up reading and/or posting on so many Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offerings over the last months – sadly, because there have been some excellent selections chosen for their political relevance. However, when I saw a sentimental favourite, Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924), pop up, I knew I had to break the drought.

Gene Stratton-Porter (Uploaded to Wikipedia, by gspmemorial; used under CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Some of you may not be familiar with this American Midwest author who wrote, says LOA, “sugary (and extremely popular) fiction to underwrite her work in natural history”. It was one of these works, The girl of the Limberlost, that I loved, and later introduced to Daughter Gums who also loved it. Yes, it was sentimental, though it has its tough side, but it did also leave an everlasting impression on me of its setting, Indiana’s Limberlost Swamp. According to LOA again, it was the immense success of this book, and Freckles which I also read, that resulted in her publisher agreeing to also publish her less saleable nature books. She was, writes LOA, “a fighter for the world she saw disappearing around her, as Standard Oil of Indiana drilled new wells and farmers drained more land”.

Interestingly, LOA’s as usual excellent introductory notes focus not on Stratton-Porter but on her subject, the Passenger Pigeon. LOA discusses others who have written about this bird – novelist James Fenimore Cooper, a chief of the Potawatomi Indians Simon Pokogon, and naturalists John James Audubon and John Muir – before eventually getting to Stratton-Porter herself. LOA’s point is to document the extinction of these birds from the early 1800s, when they were still seen in immense flocks, to a century later in 1914 when the last one died in captivity. Stratton-Porter wrote her piece just 10 years after that.

So Stratton-Porter’s piece. She commences by describing the beauty of her childhood farm, including its woods and forests where birds, such as the Passenger Pigeon, loved “to home”. She writes, introducing her environmental theme, that:

It is a fact that in the days of my childhood Nature was still so rampant that men waged destruction in every direction without thought. Nature seemed endlessly lavish …

When people started to clear land they “chopped down every tree on it” without, she says, having any “vision to see that the forests would eventually come to an end”. She writes – and remember, this was 1924:

… as the forests fell, the creeks and springs dried up, devastating winds swept from western prairies, and os the work of changing the climatic conditions of the world was well under way.

She talks of animals and game birds “being driven farther and farther from the haunts of civilisation”, but she also talks of people who did not believe in living so rapaciously, preferring instead to live in log cabins in small clearings. She describes her family’s own hunting practices, including of quail. As their numbers decreased, her minister father forbade the family’s trapping and egg-gathering. He’d noticed that when bird numbers were low, grain-damaging insect pests were high.

He had never allowed, however, the hunting of Passenger Pigeons, despite their being significantly more numerous in those days than quail. Stratton-Porter thinks this stemmed from his having “a sort of religious reverence” for pigeons and doves. Others, though, had no such qualms, and she describes some brutal hunting practices involving wild pigeons, which apparently made good eating. Gradually, it became noticeable, writes Stratton-Porter, that their numbers were decreasing. Not only did her family miss the sound and beauty of these birds, but

The work that they had done in gathering up untold quantities of weed seeds and chinquapins was missed and the seeds were left to germinate and become a pest, instead of pigeon food.

Once again, she notes the wider ecological or environmental implications of species reduction or loss. She then writes of the death of the final two birds in captivity before sharing her own searching for any remaining wild birds. It was while she was watching and photographing, over a period of time, a brooding goldfinch, that she heard the unmistakable “wing music of a bird that should reasonably have been a dove, but was not”. She describes this beautiful bird, but says “it had not the surety of a bird at home; it seemed restless and alarmed”. This was, she argues, “one of the very last of our wild pigeons”, a male bird “flying alone, searching for a mate and its species”.

Stratton-Porter closes her essay with a cry from the pigeon, whose song she says sounds like “See? See?”:

Where are your great stretches of forest? Where are the fish-thronged rivers your fathers en- joyed? Where are the bubbling springs and the sparkling brooks? Why is this land parching with thirst even in the springtime? Why have you not saved the woods and the water and the wildflowers and the rustle of bird wings and the notes of their song? See what you have done to me! Where a few years ago I homed over your land in uncounted thousands, to-day I am alone. See me searching for a mate! See me hunting for a flock of my kind! See what you have done to me! See! See! See!”

And that was written in 1924! Nearly 100 years ago, and yet we still destroy habitat including, here in Australia, that of one of our most popular native animals and national symbols, the koala. Will we never learn?

Gene Stratton-Porter
“The last Passenger Pigeon”
First published: Good Housekeeping, 1924 (Collected in Tales you won’t believe, 1925)
Available: Online at the Library of America

Fannie Barrier Williams, Women in politics (#Review)

It’s been months since I posted on a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering, but this week’s piece by African American activist, Fannie Barrier Williams, captured my attention. Several LOA offerings this year have been relevant to the times – including stories about infectious diseases – but this one is so spot on for so many reasons that I could not pass it up.

Fannie Barrier c1880, photographer, public domain via Wikipedia

Fannie Barrier Williams (1855-1944) was, according to Wikipedia (linked above), an American political and women’s rights activist, and the first black woman to gain membership to the Chicago Woman’s Club. According to LOA, she was also the first African-American to graduate from Brockport Normal School and “quickly became part of Chicago’s black elite when she moved there with her lawyer husband in 1887”. She was a distinguished artist and scholar.

However, it’s her activism that is my focus here. Wikipedia says that “although many white women’s organizations did not embrace their black counterparts as equals, Barrier Williams made a place for herself in the Illinois Woman’s Alliance (IWA).” She represented the viewpoint of black Americans in the IWA and “lectured frequently on the need for all women, but especially black women, to have the vote”.

And so we come to her little (in size not import) piece, “Women in politics”, which was published 1894. It concerns women voting. Universal suffrage was still some way off in the USA, but Barrier Williams commences by arguing that the “fragmentary suffrage, now possessed by women in nearly all states of the union”, will certainly and logically lead to “complete and national suffrage”. So, with this in mind, she, says LOA’s notes, “challenged women to use their newfound political power wisely”. She asks:

Are women ready to assume the responsibilities of this new recognition of their worth? This question is of immense importance to colored women.

She then poses, provocatively,

Must we begin our political duties with no better or higher conceptions of our citizenship than that shown by our men when they were first enfranchised? Are we to bring any refinement of individuality to the ballot box?

Her concern is that women – but we could read anyone really, giving it broader relevance – should not vote on partisan lines. Her concern is that voting along party lines will achieve nothing, and that

there will be much disappointment among those who believed that the cause of temperance, municipal reform and better education would be more surely advanced when the finer virtues of women became a part of the political forces of the country.

Hmmm … this seems to trot out the belief that women will bring “womanly” virtues, those more humanitarian-oriented values, to politics, which history has not necessarily borne out. However, this doesn’t belie the main point about voting thoughtfully.

She then discusses the opportunity for women to vote in Chicago for the trustees of the state university, but notes that the two women candidates have aligned themselves, respectively, to the republican and democratic tickets. She says that “so far the campaign speeches and methods have not been elevated in the least degree above the dead level of partisanship”. She doesn’t want to discredit these women’s good motives but argues that

this new opportunity for self-help and advancement ought not to be lost sight of in our thirst for public favors, or in our eagerness to help any grand old “party.” We ought not to put ourselves in the humiliating position of being loved only for the votes we have.

It seems that these two women candidates were white women. What she says next reminds me of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism (2000)which Angharad of Tinted Edges recently reviewed. Angharad writes that “Moreton-Robinson argues that because of feminism’s inherent but insufficiently examined white perspective, Indigenous women are excluded, minimised or merely tolerated conditionally. She argues that because race is considered to be something that is “other”, white feminists are unable to acknowledge their own race and associated privilege, their own role in perpetuating racial discrimination and are therefore unwilling to relinquish some of that power.”

A similar point was made over 100 years earlier by Barrier Williams:

The sincerity of white women, who have heretofore so scorned our ambitions and held themselves aloof from us in all our struggles for advancement, should be, to a degree, questioned. It would be much more to our credit if we would seek, by all possible uses of our franchise, to force these ambitious women candidates and women party managers to relent their cruel opposition to our girls and women in the matter of employment and the enjoyment of civil privileges.

She continues that “we should never forget that the exclusion of colored women and girls from nearly all places of respectable employment is due mostly to the meanness of American women” and that voters should use the franchise to “check this unkindness”. She urges voters not to focus on “the success of a party ticket for party reasons”. This would make them “guilty of the same folly and neglect of self-interest that have made colored men for the past twenty years vote persistently more for the special interests of white men than for the peculiar interests of the colored race”.

Strong words, but history surely tells us true ones. So, she asks voters “to array themselves, when possible, on the side of the best, whether that best be inside or outside of party lines”.

For Barrier Williams, as for many who fought for women’s suffrage, the vote was not just about equality but about what you could do with the vote. It was about having the opportunity to exert “a wholesome influence in the politics of the future”. The words may be strange to our 21st century ears, but the meaning still holds true – and is a timely one to consider now!

Fannie Barrier Williams
“Women in politics”
First published: The women’s era, 1894
Available: Online at the Library of America

Joan Didion, Quiet days in Malibu (#Review)

Malibu from Malibu Pier, August 1993

As for many people I expect, Joan Didion’s now classic The year of magical thinking made a lasting impression on me, so I was keen to read her essay “Quiet days in Malibu” when it popped up as a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week back in November. I was also interested in the subject matter. Having lived in Southern California in the 1990s, I wanted to see what Didion had to say about Malibu, a place that has always conveyed the romance of Californian beaches to me, largely through Gidget! There, I’ve admitted my teen-girl secret.

What Didion had to say was not what I expected. She starts with:

In a way it seems the most idiosyncratic of beach communities, twenty-seven miles of coastline with no hotel, no passable restaurant, nothing to attract the traveler’s dollar. It is not a resort. No one “vacations” or “holidays,” as those words are conventionally understood, at Malibu. Its principal residential street, the Pacific Coast Highway, is quite literally a highway, California 1, which runs from the Mexican border to the Oregon line and brings Greyhound buses and refrigerated produce trucks and sixteen-wheel gasoline tankers hurtling past the front windows of houses frequently bought and sold for over a million dollars. The water off Malibu is neither as clear nor as tropically colored as the water off La Jolla. The beaches at Malibu are neither as white nor as wide as the beach at Carmel. The hills are scrubby and barren, infested with bikers and rattlesnakes, scarred with cuts and old burns and new R.V. parks. For these and other reasons Malibu tends to astonish and disappoint those who have never before seen it, and yet its very name remains, in the imagination of people all over the world, a kind of shorthand for the easy life [my emph]. I had not before 1971 and will probably not again live in a place with a Chevrolet named after it. 

Things have, naturally, changed since Didion lived there for seven years through the 1970s, but only a little I think. Pacific Highway 1 still runs through it, alongside the beach, though the more inland 101 Freeway is the main north-south route. It is still home to many celebrities and other well-to-do living in expensive mansions. This opening paragraph, however, also introduces us Didion’s style – including her use of repetition (“The water off … The beaches at … The hills are …”) and quietly pointed commentary (as in “I had not before 1971 and will probably not again live in a place with a Chevrolet named after it.”)

This essay, published in a 1979 collection titled The white album, was in fact a reworking of two pieces published in Esquire in 1976. LOA’s notes say that those pieces “showcase the beach community” not through its celebrities but through “the lifeguards on the beach and the manager of a local orchid farm.” To these pieces, which form the bulk of the essay, Didion added the above-quoted introductory paragraph and a concluding section, about which more later.

The white album, LOA’s notes also tell us, opens with her famous line, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”. The stories she tells in this essay are about “ordinary” people, as much as anyone, really, is ordinary. First up is lifeguard Dick Haddock. She introduces him thus – with that same use of repetition:

Dick Haddock, a family man, a man twenty-six years in the same line of work, a man who has on the telephone and in his office the crisp and easy manner of technological middle management, is in many respects the prototypical Southern California solid citizen.

She describes visiting his “office”, the lookout on Malibu’s Zuma Beach, on Thanksgiving morning in 1975, when

A Santa Ana wind was just dying after blowing in off the Mojave for three weeks and setting 69,000 acres of Los Angeles County on fire. Squadrons of planes had been dropping chemicals on the fires to no effect. Querulous interviews with burned-out householders had become a fixed element of the six o’clock news. Smoke from the fires had that week stretched a hundred miles out over the Pacific and darkened the days and lit the nights and by Thanksgiving morning there was the sense all over Southern California of living in some grave solar dislocation. It was one of those weeks when Los Angeles seemed most perilously and breathtakingly itself, a cartoon of natural disaster …

Oh no! As I post this story, we are suffering similarly from bushfires. We certainly feel that we are living in “some grave … dislocation”. Note too another of those pointed comments – on LA seeming “most perilously and breathtakingly itself, a cartoon of natural disaster”. Anyhow, Didion’s description of Haddock, his colleagues and their work, is respectful and evocative, recognising both the drama and the tedium of what they do.

The second piece is about another prototypical Southern Californian, “a Mexican from Mexico”, or “resident alien” (just as I, a wife, was a “derivative alien” to my husband’s “primary alien”!) Amado Vazquez is anything but ordinary, though, as he’s an expert orchid breeder for Arthur Freed Orchids. Didion shares with us her love of greenhouses:

all my life I had been trying to spend time in one greenhouse or another, and all my life the person in charge of one greenhouse or an- other had been trying to hustle me out.

And here, finally, was her opportunity to spend time in one! Again, in her chatty style, she explains the work of an orchid breeder – of stud plants, of orchid fertility, of the naming of plants, of the business of orchid breeding. She references that racist name-changing behaviour that white people often do, whereby the orchid named for Vazquez’s wife “mysteriously” becomes “Vasquez”.

But, I want to close on the short concluding section in which, after significantly mentioning the drowning death, “a casualty of Quaaludes”, of one of her 12-year-old daughter’s friends, she describes another horrendous fire:

Within two hours a Santa Ana wind had pushed this fire across 25,000 acres and thirteen miles to the coast, where it jumped the Pacific Coast Highway as a half-mile fire storm generating winds of 100 miles per hour and temperatures up to 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Refugees huddled on Zuma Beach. Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach, birds exploded in the air. Houses did not explode but imploded, as in a nuclear strike. By the time this fire storm had passed 197 houses had vanished into ash …

This fire also destroyed three years of the orchid breeder’s work … Malibu, you see, with its peculiar geography, has is rife for natural disasters.

It was at this point that I realised the irony of the title. Through restrained, respectful reportage about the ordinary people of Malibu, Didion conveys that, in fact, Malibu is rarely quiet, and that few of its inhabitants enjoy an “easy life”.

Joan Didion
“Quiet days in Malibu”
First published: The white album, 1979 (sections published in Esquire in April and June 1976)
Available: Online at the Library of America

Lafcadio Hearn, Yuki-Onna (#Review)

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve posted on a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week. I usually “do” a few a year, but this is the first for 2019, even though I’ve identified several that I’ve wanted to do. However, when Lafcadio Hearn popped up last week – and with a Japanese story – I knew I really had to break the drought.

Image of Lafcadio Hearn's houseLafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) has appeared in this blog a couple of times before, the main time being in a Literary Road post from our 2011 trip to Japan when we visited Matsue. Hearn only lived there briefly but he met his Japanese wife there and it has a museum dedicated to him. Hearn is a fascinating man. Greek-born to a Greek mother and Irish father, he spent childhood years in Ireland before moving to the USA in 1869, where he then lived for two decades. Here he married a former slave who worked in his boardinghouse kitchen, and built his career as a journalist. In 1890 he went to Japan on a publisher’s commission. He married again, and lived out the rest of his life here, taking the name of Koizumi Yakumo. He became chair of English Language and Literature at the Tokyo Imperial University.

In their usual introduction, the Library of America quotes an article by another writer who appeared here only recently, Roger Pulvers. The article, in Japan Times, is titled “Lafcadio Hearn: ‘Japanese thru and tru'”. Pulvers provides a thoughtful, clear-eyed run-down of Hearn’s life, of his attitude to Japan, and particularly of his achievements as a writer. He says that Hearn:

was the shadow-maker, the illusionist who conjured up his own visions of Japan and gladly lost himself in them. He strove to leave Japan and return to the United States. Perhaps he realized that it was there that he had created his most accomplished work, attaining something he savored: notoriety. Again an ironical paradox emerges: He is remembered now in United States, if at all, not for his superb reportage on modern America but for his adoration of a long-gone Japan.

Pulvers says that Hearn loved “old” Japan –

He worshipped the static and wanted to see his beloved quaint Japan remain as sweet as it always was in his eye and the eyes of the world, bemoaning all progress: “What, what can come out of all this artificial fluidity!”

– but

loathed the modern Japanese male and what he stood for, and in this he recognized the futility of his task, a futility keenly felt toward the end of his years, where he heard “nothing but soldiers and the noise of bugles”.

Remember, when he died in 1904, Japan’s imperialism was at its height.

Hearn published roughly a book a year for the fourteen years he lived in Japan, but is best known for two of them, Kwaidan: Stories and studies of strange things (from which this post’s story comes) and Japan: An attempt at interpretation. Kwaidan comprises a number of ghost stories plus a non-fiction study of insects. Intriguing, eh?

Yuki-Onna, says the Library of America, means “snow woman”, and is “an ancient spirit who appears often in Japanese fiction, plays, and movies”. Hearn explains in the Introduction to Kwaidan that he’d heard this story from a farmer as a legend from his village. He says that he doesn’t know “whether it has ever been written in Japanese” but that “the extraordinary belief which it records used certainly to exist in most parts of Japan, and in many curious forms.” Wikipedia confirms in an article about this spirit that it dates back to the 14th to 16th centuries, and can be found in many Japanese prefectures including Aomori, Yamagata, Iwate, Fukushima, Niigata, Nagano, Wakayama, Ehime. If you know your Japan, you’ll know that these take us from northern Honshu down through the island and across to Shikoku.

The story is pretty simple, plot-wise, and given it’s just 4 pages long I’m not going to describe it here, except to say that it is about a vengeful snow spirit. Why she is vengeful is not made clear in Hearn’s story, but Wikipedia says that some legends believe she is the spirit of someone who perished in the snow. The legends vary over place and time, particularly in terms of how evil or aggressive she is.

I suggest you read it at the link below, as it will only take a few minutes. Meanwhile, I’m glad to have had this opportunity to remind myself of this intriguing 19th century character. Next, I’d love to read some of those American articles of his that Pulvers praises.

Lafcadio Hearn
“Yuki-Onna”
First published: Kwaidan: Stories and studies of strange things, 1904.
Available: Online at the Library of America

Kate Chopin, Her letters (#Review)

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

There are a few American authors who, when they pop up as a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week, I try to read. These include Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Kate Chopin. I don’t always manage to read them, but I have read the latest Kate Chopin story they’ve published, “Her letters”. And my, what a powerful one it is. Yes, I know, most of her stories are powerful, but this is certainly up there.

The story is pretty simple, plot-wise, though I shall avoid spoiling it as you may wish to read it from the link below. It starts with a woman, sitting by a “generous wood fire … in an ample fireplace” though outside is “a leaden sky in which there was no gleam, so rift, no promise”. She’s decided that she needs to destroy some letters that, we soon realise, relate to an adulterous affair. She’s been meaning to do this for four years in fact, but they’ve “sustained her … kept her spirit from perishing utterly”. However, she believes her days are numbered and, like many diary-writers and letter-owners, she fears their impact on those left behind, particularly on one “near to her, and whose tenderness and years of devotion had made him, in a manner, dear to her.” Her husband, in other words. The “in a manner” here is telling, isn’t it?

But, she can’t do it. Chopin’s description of her pain at the idea of losing them is visceral. What should she do? She lights on a solution, which is to leave them “in charge of the very one who, above all, should be spared knowledge of their contents.” So, she ties them back up, and leaves them with this note:

“I leave this package to the care of my husband. With perfect faith in his loyalty and his love, I ask him to destroy it unopened.”

Of course, she does die first, and he finds the bundle of letters with the note. (On a day much like that day we’d met her: “The day was much like that day a year ago when the leaves were falling and rain pouring steadily from a leaden sky which held no gleam, no promise.”) What do you think he does?

It’s another powerful story from Chopin, about love, passion, adultery – and also honour and trust. It is a story of its time, but there’s a universality to it too. What is so good about it, though, is the controlled way Chopin unravels the plot, and her language. It’s a little full-blown to our ears, perhaps, but she sustains melancholic tones so well, while at the same time conveying character and emotion.

Without spoiling the ending, I’ll share another excerpt. When the husband finds the bundle of letters, he guesses, of course, that they contain a secret, one that may unlock to him something about this wife whom he’d known “to have been cold and passionless, but true, and watchful of his comfort and his happiness.” He’s affected, but he ponders:

… she had embodied herself with terrible significance in an intangible wish, uttered when life still coursed through her veins; knowing that it would reach him when the annihilation of death was between them, but uttered with all confidence in its power and potency. He was moved by the splendid daring of the act, which at the same time exalted him and lifted him above the head of common mortals.

The conclusion is predictable when you get there, but Chopin leads you carefully along with the husband as he works through the problem. The story has no simple answer, and certainly no condemnation, which is Chopin’s way. She doesn’t judge or pontificate. Rather, she leaves it open for (or, forces!) the reader to consider the ways in which our actions affect others, not to mention the issue of love, passion and marriage, and the accommodations we do or don’t make.

As with other stories by her – including “Fedora”, the last one I reviewed – Chopin didn’t immediately find a publisher for “Her letters”. LOA says:

When she finished the story in December 1894, Chopin sent it off to The Century, which had published several of her previous submissions. By this time Chopin was a well-known and respected writer, but the story was rejected—almost surely because it dealt with a woman’s adulterous affair. The magazine’s editor, Richard Watson Gilder, “felt that fiction should be pleasant and avoid the horrifying, the indelicate, or the immoral,” as Chopin scholar Per Seyersted puts it.

Vogue, though, had no such compunctions – and published it as they had other previously rejected stories of hers. One day I’ll read a biography of her …

Let me know what you think, if you read it (just 8 pages) at the link below.

Note: My other Kate Chopin reviews are A pair of silk stockings, After the winterA respectable womanDésirée’s baby, Morning walk and Fedora.

Kate Chopin
“Her letters”
First published: Vogue, April 11 and 18, 1895
Available: Online at the Library of America

Carson McCullers, Home for Christmas (#Review)

Carson McCullers, 1959

Carson McCullers, 1959 (photo by Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As you will guess from the title of this Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week, I meant to post on it closer to Christmas Day than I have in fact achieved. I chose it for two reasons – firstly the obvious seasonal one, and secondly because my first Carson McCullers post was an unusual piece and perhaps not completely reflective of the writer she was. Her story “Home before Christmas”, while nothing like her best-known novels, does get us a bit closer to them.

First, though, some background. LOA’s notes tell us that the story, written in 1949, was the first of a few essays McCullers wrote for magazines like Mademoiselle and Redbook. McCullers’ biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, says, according to LOA, that “even as a preschooler Carson would be asked what she wanted and the answer was, ‘I want book—lots of books, Mama’.” I suspect many of you reading this will say the same about yourselves. I know I would!

LOA shares a couple of other stories about the adult Carson and gift-giving – including one that resulted in such a kerfuffle that someone was written out of a will, and another involving Truman Capote. However, they take us further away from the point of THIS story.

“Home for Christmas” was apparently commissioned by Mademoiselle for its 1949 Christmas issue, and was published alongside pieces by food writer MFK Fisher and novelist Jessamyn West (whom I plan to cover here one day via the Library of America). LOA chose to share McCullers’ piece this last Christmas because 2017 was the centenary of McCullers birth.

Now I said in my opening paragraph that this story, although nothing like her best-known novels, does connect us a little with them. Firstly, an autobiographical piece, it describes life in a southern family, but more significantly, like The member of the wedding, it is seen through a child’s eye. It is not like her novels in the sense that it is not Gothic, and nor does it deal in any major way with the loneliness or “outsiderness” that I remember from her oeuvre – though there is a touch of melancholy in it, all the same.

In some ways, it’s a traditional story about childhood yearning for Christmas. It begins in August with our young first person narrator, that is, Carson, pondering Christmas, and it concludes, just after Christmas, with her yearning for the next Christmas. In between, we hear about the buying of Christmas presents, the cooking of Christmas food, and how Christmas day itself was spent. But, there is also a little unifying theme running through this – the “mystery of Time”.

In the second paragraph, it is August and our narrator is up a tree thinking:

I did not want to talk with my brother. I was experiencing the first wonder about the mystery of Time. Here I was, on this August afternoon, in the tree-house, in the burnt, jaded yard, sick and tired of all our summer ways. (I had read Little Women for the second time, Hans Brinker and the Silver SkatesLittle Men, and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. I had read movie magazines and even tried to read love stories in the Woman’s Home Companion—I was so sick of everything.) How could it be that I was I and now was now when in four months it would be Christmas, wintertime, cold weather, twilight and the glory of the Christmas tree? I puzzled about the now and later and rubbed the inside of my elbow until there was a little roll of dirt between my forefinger and thumb. Would the now I of the tree-house and the August afternoon be the same I of winter, firelight and the Christmas tree? I wondered.

You can see biographer Carr’s point about books can’t you? Anyhow, again, I suspect many of us have pondered Time in this way. McCullers doesn’t labour the point but it pops up a few more times in the article,  including the notion of time behaving differently for different people. “How”, she writes, “could it be that when she [her sister] opened her eyes it would be Christmas while I lay awake in the dark for hours and hours? The time was the same for both of us, and yet not at all the same.” There’s also a delightful little – almost throwaway – line about how her father would manipulate the clocks to enable them to get up early on Christmas morning but not too early for the parents.

“Home before Christmas” is not a particularly deep story/article, but then as an article for a Christmas edition of a magazine, it probably wasn’t meant to be. It is, however, an enjoyable read and, while presumably part of that bread-and-butter work that writers do to survive, it also provides some insight into a significant writer of, and from, America’s south.

Carson McCullers
“Home for Christmas”
First published: Mademoiselle, December 1949
Available: Online at the Library of America

William T Hornaday, The bird tragedy of Laysan Island (Review)

William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937), whose article “The bird tragedy of Laysan Island” was a recent Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering, is a tricky man to write about. Originally a taxidermist, he became one of the pioneers of the wildlife conservation movement in America after he realised, around the 1880s, the dire situation regarding the country’s bison population. In this LOA article,  published in 1913, he chronicles the bird massacre on Laysan Island and the role played by President Theodore Roosevelt in helping to end the plumage trade. But he wasn’t without controversy, of which I’ll write more a little further on.

Laysan Island

Laysan Island. By Robert J. Shallenberger, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (http://www.doi.gov/photos/06152006_photos.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

“The bird tragedy” is a powerful piece which starts by describing the island as “sandy, poorly planted by nature, and barren of all things likely to enlist the attention of predatory man” but as the home of many varieties of birds, including the “Laysan albatross, black-footed albatross, sooty tern, gray-backed tern, noddy tern, Hawaiian tern, white tern, Bonin petrel, two shearwaters, the red-tailed tropic bird, two boobies and the man-of-war bird.” It was a “secure haven” for them, and, since 1891, had been viewed as “one of the wonders of the bird world”.

But, along came “man, the ever-greedy” looking for ways to make money, first via guano and egg collecting, then feathers for the plumage trade. The culprit was Max Schlemmer, who also introduced rabbits and guinea-pigs which multiplied and started to destroy the vegetation. Hornaday describes the horrendous massacre in 1909 of 300,000 birds for their wings. According to LOA, Hornaday is somewhat wrong in ascribing the massacre to Schlemmer. The say a biography of Schlemmer argues that he was ‘”cash-strapped” and sold the rights to the island to a Japanese entrepreneur. Whatever the situation, the destruction of the birdlife was massive in number and horrific in cruelty. Fortunately, it was stopped before complete destruction by a Zoology Professor who called the Government who in turn sent in the Navy – as you do!

Hornaday’s language makes clear his disapprobation of what happened and of the people who carried it out. His description of the massacre is horrifying, some of it quoted from a report by a 1911 scientific expedition to the island. This report notes that their “first impression” was that the island had been stripped of its birdlife:

Only the shearwaters moaning in their burrows, the little wingless rail skulking from one grass tussock to another, and the saucy finch remained. It is an excellent example of what Prof. Nutting calls the survival of the inconspicuous.

Hornaday says that if the Government had not intervened

it is reasonably certain that every bird on Laysan would have been killed to satisfy the wolfish rapacity of one money-grubbing white man.

Fortunately – albeit a little after the horse had bolted – Roosevelt, in 1909, created “the Hawaiian Islands Reservation for Birds” which includes Laysan and which, Hornaday writes, will ensure that

for the future the birds of Laysan and neighboring islets are secure from further attacks by the bloody-handed agents of the vain women who still insist upon wearing the wings and feathers of wild birds.

However, as Bill McKibben, the environmentalist whose memoir Oil and honey I’ve reviewed, writes in the headnote to the article, Hornaday had his own controversy. He became, in the late 1890s, the head of the New York Zoological Park (the Bronx Zoo), but, as McKibben writes,

a rough sense of the reasons why the social justice and environmental movements have often parted ways may be garnered from the fact that he saw nothing wrong with exhibiting a live African pygmy, named Ota Benga, in the zoo’s monkey house, later remarking that it was the “most amusing passage” in the institution’s history. His 1913 book Our Vanishing Wild Life … has a strongly nativist edge: immigrants and negroes are singled out as villains for their hunting of indigenous fauna.

According to Wikipedia, he was criticised, including by African-American clergymen James Gordon, who said that “Our race … is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes … We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.” With the controversy, Benga was released to roam the zoo, even though Hornaday did not see anything wrong with what he’d done. Benga was later released to Gordon’s custody, but eventually committed suicide at the age of 33 when the start of World War 1 prevented his return to Africa.

Another wonderful LOA offering in a genre I always enjoy reading – nature or environmental writing.

William T Hornaday
“The bird tragedy of Laysan Island”
First published: Our vanishing wild life, 1913
Available: Online at the Library of America

Ellen N. La Motte, Alone (Review)

I decided to read Ellen N La Motte’s story “Alone” from recent Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offerings because it was a war story, but as I read LOA’s notes I became more and more intrigued. I hadn’t heard of La Motte (1873-1961) before, but she was an American nurse. Two years before the US formally joined the First World War in 1917, she offered to work at the American Hospital of Paris.

She wasn’t pleased by what she saw. Rather than a serious “warzone” she found a bunch of “alleged do-gooders crowding out the recuperating soldiers”. In an essay written at the time, “An American Nurse in Paris,” she described the workers, as follows:

nearly all are dressed in the becoming white gowns of the French Red Cross and a few are pearled and jeweled, rouged and scented till they are quite adorable. . . . This system floods the institution with a mass of unskilled labor, some of which is useful, much superfluous, and some a positive menace to the patients themselves.

Not surprisingly, La Motte decided to move on, and worked for a year in a military hospital in Rousbrugge outside Dunkirk. She was little prepared, LOA writes, for the horror she witnessed. She herself described it as “beyond and outside and apart from the accumulated experience of a lifetime.”

Ellen N LaMotte, The backwash of warWhile working at the hospital, she wrote of her experiences, and upon her return in 1916 published a dozen or so sketches in The backwash of war: The human wreckage of the battlefield as witnessed by an American hospital nurse. However, it was withdrawn in 1918 by her publisher, due to government pressure. It was too “unpalatable”, and wasn’t published again until 1934!

“Alone” is one of the sketches in the book. It tells the story of injured soldier, Rochard, who has gas gangrene. It’s a straightforward story – story-wise, anyhow. Rochard is brought into the hospital within six hours of being injured, but his wounds are inoperable and all know he will die. All they can do is offer pain relief and nursing care to keep him as comfortable as possible. What impressed me about the piece was La Motte’s insight, her humanity, and her ability to write, all of which turn this sad story into something more powerful.

La Motte describes the doctors in the hospital as comprising, primarily, young recent graduates from medical schools, and old doctors who had graduated long ago. She writes that

all those young men who did not know much, and all those old men who had never known much, and had forgotten most of that, were up here at this field hospital, learning. … there were not enough good doctors to go round, so in order to care for the wounded at all, it was necessary to furbish up the immature and the senile.

Oh dear. She describes the initial treatment given to Rochard in rather gruesome detail – which I won’t share here – and then describes his dying. He is given morphia, which “gives a little relief, at times, from the pain of life, but it is only death that brings absolute relief”. She never mentions euthanasia but, from her description of Rochard’s horrendous pain, you sense she’d support it. His death is a long and painful one. She writes, after one trying night:

So when the day nurse came on in the morning, there was Rochard strong after a night of agony, strong after many picqures of strychnia, which kept his heart beating and his lungs breathing, strong after many picqures of morphia which did not relieve his pain. Thus the science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying.

As Rochard nears death, the screams of pain reduce and he becomes quiet. She writes that:

he had been decorated with the Médaille Militaire, conferred upon him, in extremis, by the General of the region. Upon one side of the medal, which was pinned to the wall at the head of the bed, were the words: Valeur et Discipline. Discipline had triumphed. He was very good and quiet now, very obedient and disciplined, and no longer disturbed the ward with his moanings.

Bitter, eh. The piece moves to its inevitable end – Rochard’s death – but the language La Motte uses to describe it and the way she controls the narrative to deliver a punch at the end, is impressive. This woman could have been a writer – well I suppose she was! – but her passion lay elsewhere, nursing and public health.

After the war La Motte, who wrote many books and articles on her nursing experiences, travelled in Asia and saw the devastation caused by opium addiction. According to the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, where her papers are stored, she became an authority on opium trafficking, and reported to the League of Nations. She was awarded the Lin Tse Hsu Memorial Medal by the Chinese government in 1930 and received the Order of Merit from the Japanese Red Cross.

But, she did more, too, so I’m going to conclude with the final paragraph from the American National Biography Online:

Ellen La Motte’s professional life was devoted to causes she analyzed through the lens of public health advocacy. Her efforts on behalf of the antituberculosis campaign, woman suffrage, and the anti-opium crusade emerged from a firm belief that promoting ways to improve the health of the larger community could create a more equal and just society for all.

Someone well worth knowing about … I’m glad I decided to read this LOA story.

Note: The backwash of war is available in entirety at Project Gutenberg.

Ellen L. La Motte
“Alone”
First published: The backwash of war: The human wreckage of the Battlefield as witnessed by an American hospital nurse (1916)
Available: Online at the Library of America

Noah Webster, On the absurdity of a Bill of Rights (Review)

Noah Webster

By James Herring (1794 – 1867) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve read my last post you may have guessed from the title why I’ve chosen Noah Webster’s “On the absurdity of a Bill of Rights” as my next Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week to discuss. For those of you who haven’t read that post, or who, like me, have a memory like a sieve, I discussed the play adaptation of Frank Moorehouse’s Cold light, and protagonist Edith Campbell Berry’s desire for government (or, those governing) to act according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Now, before I briefly share Webster’s arguments, a little background to this clearly very tricksy man! I’ll start by admitting that my main knowledge of Noah Webster was as the creator of America’s best known dictionary, Webster’s of course. It wasn’t initially, or even in his lifetime, called that, though. He published his first dictionary in 1806 under the title, A compendious dictionary of the English language, but his first big, comprehensive dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, wasn’t published until 1828.

All this, though, came after the writing I’m talking about here, but it is related because it was through his writing and publishing work that he became interested in federation, and thus the Bill of Rights issue. You see, as LOA’s notes tell us, in 1783, when he was a twenty-five-year-old schoolteacher, Webster “began publishing his Grammatical Institute of the English Language, the first part of which became The American Spelling Book”. A spelling book leading to the Bill of Rights? How, you might wonder? Well, here’s LOA again:

Less familiar to many readers is the pivotal role Webster played in the founding of the American republic and the adoption of its new constitution—and his advocacy was very much related to the success of his publications. The difficulty of securing copyrights from thirteen separate state governments for each subsequent edition of his spelling book convinced him of the need for an effective national government, and he became an advocate for the Federalist cause.

He started campaigning for the federalist cause in 1785, and here comes the particularly “tricksy” bit because when the new constitution was proposed in 1787, he wrote articles supporting its ratification under various pseudonyms! One of these was Giles Hickory under which he wrote the article I’m discussing here. As LOA writes,

One of the main objections to the new constitution was that it did not include a bill of rights, an argument Webster dismisses in his first Hickory letter by responding that such documents are only needed as protection against tyrants and would become unnecessary in a government elected by the people.

This is one of the main arguments he puts in “On the absurdity of a Bill of Rights”. He argues that a Bill of Rights [like the “Magna Charta”] against “the encroachment of Kings and Barons, or against any power independent of the people, is perfectly intelligible” but that a Bill of Rights in a democracy would essentially be the people guarding against the people. In other words, in an elected legislature “the rulers have the same interest in the laws, as the subjects have” so, he argues, “the rights of the people will be perfectly secure without any declaration in their favour”. Hmm, that sounds perfectly good in theory, but in practice, well, it doesn’t always seem to quite work out that way does it?

Anyhow, as it turned out, those in favour of a Bill of Rights won the argument, as Massachusetts, for example, only agreed to ratify the Constitution with the addition of “ten amendments”. These became known as the “Bill of Rights“, and were adopted in 1791.

Webster’s second argument, which he calls his “principal point”,  is also, given how the Bill of Rights has played out in the US, very interesting:

I undertake to prove that a standing Bill of Rights is absurd, because no constitutions, in a free government, can be unalterable. The present generation have indeed a right to declare what they deem a privilege; but they have no right to say what the next generation shall deem a privilege.

He argues, in other words, that times change, and what one generation might see as a right may not be appropriate to another generation, and that it is therefore inappropriate to set such rights in stone. He uses, as an example, “trial by jury”:

The right of Jury-trial, which we deem invaluable, may in future cease to be a privilege; or other modes of trial more satisfactory to the people, may be devised. Such an event is neither impossible nor improbable. Have we then a right to say that our posterity shall not be judges of their own circumstances? The very attempt to make perpetual constitutions, is the assumption of a right to control the opinions of future generations; and to legislate for those over whom we have as little authority as we have over a nation in Asia.

Would the US be different now, if, for example, they did not have the “perpetual”, enshrined right to “bear arms”?

Webster suggests that:

There are perhaps many laws and regulations, which from their consonance to the eternal rules of justice, will always be good and conformable to the sense of a nation. But most institutions in society, by reason of an unceasing change of circumstances, either become altogether improper or require amendment …

He makes some excellent points, but I’d like to believe there are some rights which stem from “the eternal rules of justice”. However, I can also see how temporal and cultural it all is. Australia, rare for a western democracy, does not have a federal bill of rights – the issue arises occasionally – but my state (well, territory) did pass one in 2004, and was followed by Victoria in 2006.

What do you think?

Noah Webster (as Giles Hickory)
“On the absurdity of a Bill of Rights”
First published: American Magazine, December 1787
Available: Online at the Library of America