O. Henry, Conscience in art (#Review)

Followers of the short story form will probably know of O. Henry, the pen-name of American author William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). Although he also wrote poetry and non-fiction, Henry was best known for his prodigious short story writing. His legacy, as Wikipedia says, includes the O. Henry Award, which is an annual prize awarded to outstanding short stories. The award was first made in 1919, and since then the winning stories have been published in an annual collection. I was introduced to this via the 2003 collection which includes stories by writers like A.S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr, T. Coraghessan Boyle, William Trevor, and Alice Munro. You can see the quality we are talking about. The 2003 issue also introduced me to another writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose “The American Embassy”, I read from the collection, and whose novel, Half of a yellow sun, I went on to read as a result.

All this is to introduce the fact that Library of America (LOA) recently published an O. Henry short story, and I thought I’d share it here.

“Conscience in art”

LOA, as always, provides some introductory notes to the story, starting a bit mysteriously in this case, by referencing the turn of the century Pittsburgh millionaires, such as electricity magnate George Westinghouse, steel company executives F. T. F. Lovejoy, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Clay Frick, and other wealthy industrialists. Many “were passionate collectors of art”. Then they make their point, because this fact, they say, “supplies the plot of O. Henry’s story”. It’s worth pointing out, too, that an article referenced by LOA, says that Henry disliked Pittsburgh.

LOA goes on then to say that in November 1906, the editors of McClure’s magazine, wrote that

“In five years of magazine writing, O. Henry has reached the top of current fiction. The quantity as well as the quality of his work is remarkable, and he grows with every story. More stories of New York, the field of his great book The Four Million, will appear in McClure’s in the coming year.” 

O. Henry, LOA continues, had signed a contract for a dozen stories at $300 each. This might sound a big ask, but he was famously productive, having published 121 stories in 1904 and 1905. However, as it turned out, not one O. Henry short story appeared in McClure’s that year, largely because his health was declining as his drinking increased. Henry did, however, write some stories that year, with nearly half of them, says LOA, featuring “an affable con man named Jeff Peters” who had debuted in a 1903 story. Some ten or so Jeff Peters stories were distributed nationally by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate in 1907 in a series they called “The Gentle Grafter.” 

Then came the information that surprised me, because I don’t know Henry’s story. LOA says that these Jeff Peters stories came out of Porter’s three years in prison – for embezzlement – at the turn of the century. He worked the night shift as the druggist in the prison’s hospital, and is believed to have first drafted some of these tales during that time. According to LOA, the prison’s head pharmacist Dr. John M. Thomas reported that many of the stories were told to Henry on his rounds. Thomas said that he would frequently “find a story written on scrap paper on my desk in the morning, with a note telling me to read it before he sent it out.” LOA says that “Conscience in Art” is perhaps the best-known story in the collection. In it, they say, “the criminal principles and linguistic malapropisms of the swindler Jeff Peters finally meet their match in the ethically challenged Andy Tucker.”

So, the story concerns two con men, Peters who has some conscience – “I never believed in taking any man’s dollars unless I gave him something for it” – and Tucker who had no such qualms. Tucker comes up with the idea of swindling the Pittsburgh millionaires, who, Tucker tells Peters, will be easy to meet because:

‘They are rough but uncivil in their manners, and though their ways are boisterous and unpolished, under it all they have a great deal of impoliteness and discourtesy. Nearly every one of ’em rose from obscurity, … If we act simple and unaffected and don’t go too far from the saloons and keep making a noise like an import duty on steel rails we won’t have any trouble in meeting some of ’em socially.’ 

Tucker comes up with an art fraud plan, and of course there’s a twist in which Tucker manages to succeed in a scam in a way that doesn’t offend his accomplice’s conscience. I’ve only read one other O. Henry story, “The gift of the magi” – which is often compared with Guy de Maupassant’s “The necklace”. It’s an intense story, and different to “Conscience in art”, which is lighter, more comic, in tone. However, behind the lightness is some insight into those heady turn-of-the-century times in the US when faith in rags-to-riches held rein, and perhaps, Henry’s attitude to the rich.

Have you read any O. Henry? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

O. Henry
“Conscience in art”
First published: by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate (July 1907); then collected in The gentle grafter (1908). 
Available: Online at the Library of America

Ernest Hemingway, Cat in the rain (#Review)

As I often do with Library of America (LOA), I bookmarked their recent Story of the Week featuring Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Cat in the rain” to read later. “Later” came today. I have no Hemingway on my blog, so this seemed a perfect opportunity, and I do like short stories anyhow.

First ed. cover, from Wikipedia article. Public domain.

With many of my LOA posts, I need to start by introducing the writer, but this is not one of those occasions. However, if, perchance, you don’t know who Hemingway is, you can check his Wikipedia article.

Meanwhile, some background to the story. It was originally published in Hemingway’s first short story collection, In our time, in 1925. It is a very short, short story, but it has, according to LOA’s notes, garnered much critical interest. There is also a Wikipedia article on it. I’m not sure how much more I can add to what’s been said, given I am not a Hemingway scholar. However, I enjoyed reading it, partly because it felt more sensitive than macho, so I will say something!

“Cat in the rain”

The storyline is simple. An American couple is on holiday in Italy, and the story is set in and around their hotel. It’s raining, so they are stuck in their hotel room, she staring out the window and he lying on the bed reading. She sees a cat outside, hiding under a table, and she wants to rescue it. On her way outside, she sees the hotel-keeper (“padrone”), whom she likes. When she gets outside, however, the cat has gone, so she returns to her room and her husband. Wikipedia tells you exactly what happens, but generally I try not to spoil stories here, unless I know they are well-known (like, say, Pride and prejudice.)

The thing I like about Hemingway’s writing – though I’ve only read a little, and that was decades ago – is its spareness, and this is on display here. There are short, plain sentences, and simple repetition. These make it not only strangely beautiful to read but convey so much while seeming to say little. They convey a tone of lassitude, and also a sense of tension or lack in the marriage, though not a cross word is spoken.

Here is the wife, passing the hotelkeeper on her way out to find the cat:

He stood behind his desk in the far end of the dim room. The wife liked him. She liked the deadly serious way he received any complaints. She liked his dignity. She liked the way he wanted to serve her. She liked the way he felt about being a hotel-keeper. She liked his old, heavy face and big hands.

There is lovely rhythm to this – but there is also information about her character and about what she likes in people. Later, back in the room, her husband George asks her what happened. She tells him the cat had gone, then:

“I wanted it so much,” she said. “I don’t know why I wanted it so much. I wanted that poor kitty. It isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain.”

George was reading again.

George, in other words, is not listening to her wants or, indeed, needs, because both are wrapped up in this statement. I love this: the repetition (again), the staccato-like rhythm, and the direct, plain statement about George conveys, almost paradoxically, such intensity.

David Lodge, according to LOA, has written a “thorough and now-classic examination of the story” noting conflicting interpretations. They quote him as saying:

“although it is a well-formed narrative, with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, the primary action is not the primary vehicle of meaning.” That is, the story presents “a plot of revelation (the relationship between husband and wife) disguised as a plot of resolution (the quest for the cat).”

That makes sense to me from my reading of the story; I read it as being about the wife, her needs and her relationship with her husband.

The story also – and Lodge’s comment doesn’t contradict this – exemplifies Hemingway’s theory of omission (or “iceberg theory”), which is the idea that, as with icebergs, there is more below the surface than above. In this case, there is the idea, for example, that there is more to the cat than just being a cat, even though Hemingway doesn’t tell us what. That’s for us to consider – and the critics sure have.

There are other reasons this story interests critics and Hemingway aficionados, a major one concerning whether it is autobiographical. According to LOA, Hemingway, himself, wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald saying that it wasn’t about his wife, Hadley, even though they thought it was. However, continues LOA, there’s evidence that she was at least the inspiration, and that biographers agree. Hemingway biographer, Michael Reynolds “admits … that Hadley must have recognized her own marriage in the portrait of the couple”, and Hadley biographer, Gioia Diliberto agrees that “it’s not hard to see Hadley’s vulnerability and loneliness in ‘Cat in the Rain.’”

I can see why this story has garnered such interest. Despite its seeming simplicity – the story itself isn’t hard to understand – there are multiple ways it can be thought about and interpreted, from the opening sentence to the intriguing last.

If you haven’t read it, do consider giving it a go at the link below – it really is short, and quick to read. If you have read it, what do you think?

Ernest Hemingway
“Cat in the rain”
First published: in In Our Time, 1925
Available: Online at the Library of America

James Weldon Johnson, Stranger than fiction (#Review)

Several months ago, I bookmarked a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering – as I often do for later use – but, despite its being a very brief offering, I’ve only got to it now. It’s on James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), and was timed, 17 June 2021, to synchronise with the 150th anniversary of his birth.

American readers here may know Johnson, but many of the rest of us probably don’t. Wikipedia describes him as an American writer and civil rights activist, but that hides a wealth of accomplishments. LOA, lists his achievements in a news item. He

  • wrote one novel, The autobiography of an ex-colored man, “which is considered by many critics to be the first modern African American novel and a major inspiration for Harlem Renaissance writers”.
  • was a lawyer, the first African American from his county, or perhaps state, to pass the Florida bar exam.
  • was an educator, and president of the Florida State Teachers Association (for Black teachers).
  • was a songwriter who, with brother Rosamond and friend Bob Cole, wrote dozens of popular songs. Many ended up in Broadway musicals of the early 1900s. They also wrote two songs used for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 campaign. One of these, “Under the bamboo tree,” was a big national hit in 1902 and was later performed by Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis). He and his brother wrote and composed the hymn “Lift every voice and sing,” also known as the “Black national anthem”.
  • was a diplomat, U. S. Consul in Venezuela (1906–1909) and in war-torn Nicaragua (1909–1912).
  • was a journalist at The New York Age, supervising its editorial page and writing a daily column for over ten years.
  • was an activist with the NAACP, who, in his role as field secretary, significantly increased the number of branches and the size of the membership.

LOA’s Story of the Week includes some biographical information that inspired his novel, and the text of his 1915 New York Age editorial which discussed the critical reaction to the novel.

“Stranger than fiction”

When I saw the title of this offering, I expected an essay, perhaps an entertaining one, on that old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction”, but I didn’t the author then. What I got was something far more interesting.

LOA prefaces the essay, as usual, with some explanatory material. In this case, they start with two “dramatic experiences that would inform his writing and activism for the remainder of his life”. One occurred in 1895, when, as an enterprising new teacher (a black man, remember) he asked to visit a white school to see and compare practices. He did so, but apparently a few days later he learnt that his visit “had raised a hullabaloo”. Parents had objected to the presence of a “Black man” in their children’s classrooms. Johnson wrote that “The affair was fomented to such an extent that the board of education felt it necessary to hold a meeting to inquire into the matter and fix the responsibility for my action.” To their credit, the superintendent and the school’s principal stood their ground, and it all blew over.

The second involved his meeting a journalist in a park in 1901, at her request. She wanted to fact-check an article she was writing on the disproportionate damage done to Jacksonville’s Black neighbourhoods by the Great Fire. They were confronted by “eight or ten militiamen in khaki with rifles and bayonets” who had “rushed to the city with a maddening tale of a Negro and a white woman meeting in the woods”. Again, it was resolved, but the ordeal left its mark.

Johnson’s novel, The autobiography of an ex-colored man (1912), which was inspired by experiences like these, has been described as the first fictional memoir by a black person. Set in late nineteenth to early twentieth century America, its protagonist is a young biracial man, known only as the “Ex-Colored Man”. Because of such experiences as witnessing a lynching, he decides to “pass” as white for safety and advancement reasons. The book chronicles his experiences and ambivalent feelings about his decision.

The book did not sell well initially, but sold very well three years later, after, says LOA, Johnson revealed himself as the author and “distributed several thousand copies of a glowing review that had appeared in Munsey’s Magazine“. This brings us, finally, to the essay, “Stranger than fiction”, which was published in 1915 in his daily column in The New York Age, where he was editor.

His aim was to give “a brief overview of the novel’s critical reception” but it was partly inspired, says LOA, by rumours that the estate of a wealthy woman publisher, Miriam (Frank) Leslie, was being contested by her late husband’s relatives on the grounds that she was the daughter of an enslaved women and therefore ‘her relatives had “no heritable blood”‘.

Johnson states at the beginning of his essay, that his book (novel)

produced a wide difference of critical opinion between reviewers on Northern and Southern publications.

Northern reviewers generally accepted the book as a human document, while Southern reviewers pronounced the theme of the story utterly impossible. A few of the Northern reviewers were in doubt as to whether the book was fact or fiction.

For many Northern reviewers, in other words, the work was so “real” they could barely believe it was fiction. (It doesn’t sound that, like Helen Garner’s critics, this bothered them.) Southern critics, on the other hand, asserted that the work was unbelievable because, writes Johnson,

the slightest tinge of African blood is discernible, if not in the complexion, then in some trait or characteristic betraying inferiority. This is, of course, laughable. Seven-tenths of those who read these lines know of one or more persons of colored blood who are “passing.”

As it turned out the Miriam Leslie rumours were unfounded, but Johnson at the time, believed it could have been true, and, if so, was “stranger than any fiction”. Which, ironically, just goes to prove the adage, whether the story was true or not!

Meanwhile, I was interested, though not surprised given how things are still playing out, in the disparity between Northern and Southern critical responses some 50 years or so after Abolition. Not strange at all, unfortunately.

James Weldon Johnson
“Stranger than fiction”
First published: New York Age, 1915
Available: Online at the Library of America

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