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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Edmund White on Paul Bowles and the mysterious pull of the desert

In the July 14 issue of The New York Review of Books (subscription req'd for full article) Edmund White revisits the work of Paul Bowles to explore the peculiar attraction the desert can have for a writer:
Bowles embraced the desert as a Christian saint embraces his martyrdom. His self-abnegation and his love of traditional culture made him one of the keenest observers of other civilizations America has ever had. Unlike some of his countrymen he did not brashly set out to improve the rest of the world. For Bowles, Americanization was the problem, not the solution.
After spending several weeks in the Sahara in 1952, Bowles wrote about what can happen if you go to the desert, alone, at night, and give yourself up to it in his 1953 essay “Baptism of Solitude”:
Presently, you will either shiver and hurry back inside the walls, or you will go on standing there and let something very peculiar happen to you, something that everyone who lives there has undergone and which the French call le baptéme de la solitude. It is a unique sensation, and it has nothing to do with loneliness, for loneliness presupposes memory. Here, in this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares, even memory disappears; nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating. A strange, and by no means pleasant, process of reintegration begins inside you, and you have the choice of fighting against it, and insisting on remaining the person you have always been, or letting it take its course. For no one who has stayed in the Sahara for a while is quite the same as when he came.
Like Bowles, White found that “the absolute solitude of the desert may exert a strong appeal, but that magnetism is not necessarily salutary.” Bowles dramatized this through the fateful travels of the characters of Port and Kit in his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky. Port is seriously ill but rather than seek help, the couple head farther and farther into the desert. In The Married Man (2000) White writes a story that ends with the same obsessive trek into the desert, but his was inspired not by Bowles’s novel, which he had read, but by White’s own experiences traveling in Africa in the last months of his lover’s life.

White found rereading The Sheltering Sky this year painful: “The feeling of living through a death in an alien world was all too familiar.” Yet there were new discoveries:
I was also struck by how different our books are, not to mention that Bowles’s book is a work of genius. There is lots of humor in my novel and none in The Sheltering Sky . . . Bowles writes in a cool metaphysical dialect whereas mine is all human, circumstantial, psychological. All of which is a way of saying how extreme and unusual Bowles’s book is, which is also what is remarkable about it.
But he closes with the fundamental mystery unresolved:
What is it about the desert that attracts the ill and the dying? Could Bowles be right that it represents a taste for the absolute? And what does that mean?
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Paul Bowles: The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down, The Spider's House; Paul Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings (includes “Baptism of Solitude”)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A controversial Pulitzer Prize brings Edith Wharton and Sinclair Lewis together

In June 1921 Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. The Columbia trustees praised Wharton’s twelfth novel for its “wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Wharton wondered whether they had really understood it. And the decision was not without controversy.

The three fiction judges—literary critic Stuart Pratt Sherman, literature professor Robert Morss Lovett, and novelist Hamlin Garland—voted to give the prize to Sinclair Lewis for his epic satire Main Street, but Columbia University’s advisory board, led by conservative university president Nicholas Murray Butler, overturned their decision and awarded the prize to The Age of Innocence. (Pulitzer had originally stipulated that the award be bestowed on the novel that best represented the “whole atmosphere of American life,” but Butler had changed the wording to “wholesome.”) Outraged, Sherman and Lovett protested the decision in the pages of The New Republic.

Lewis was also furious but, as a longtime admirer of Wharton, he wrote her a gracious, congratulatory letter. Wharton responded from France with great warmth and appreciation of Lewis's work:
When I discovered that I was being rewarded—by one of our leading Universities—for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair. 
Subsequently, when I found the prize shd (sic) really have been yours, but was withdrawn because your book (I quote from memory) had “offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West,” disgust was added to despair.
Wharton found Lewis’s kind words:
the first sign I have ever had—“literally”—that “les Jeunes” at home [at thirty-six, Lewis was twenty-three years younger than Wharton] had ever read a word of me. . . Some sort of standard is emerging from the welter of cant & sentimentality, & if two or three of us are gathered together, I believe we can still save Fiction in America.
Wharton invited Lewis and his wife to visit her home the Pavillon Colombe at St. Brice, and they did so in October. A few weeks after the visit, Lewis wrote to ask if he could dedicate his next novel, Babbitt, to Wharton. “Dear Mr. Lewis,” she responded, “I am a little dizzy! No one has ever wanted to dedicate a book to me before--& I’m so particularly glad that now it’s happened, the suggestion comes from the author of Main Street.” In 1923 the judges made Babbitt their choice for the Pulitzer, but the decision was again overturned, this time in favor of Willa Cather’s war novel One of Ours.

Lewis would finally win the Pulitzer for Arrowsmith in 1926 but he refused to accept it. His note of refusal took particular objection to the Pulitzer being given to the novel that “best presents the wholesome atmosphere of American life.” A few years later, the trustees of the prize reverted the description back to “whole atmosphere of American life.”

Over the ensuing years Wharton and Lewis continued to correspond, but, as Wharton biographer Hermione Lee notes, “each of them became less enthusiastic about the other.”

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Edith Wharton: Novels (includes The Age of Innocence); Sinclair Lewis: Main Street and Babbitt

Thursday, June 23, 2011

James Weldon Johnson hires Clarence Darrow for the landmark 1925 Sweet murder trial

“What most Americans know about [Clarence] Darrow,” Bruce DeSilva wrote recently on The Nervous Breakdown,
comes from Spencer Tracy’s heroic portrayal in Stanley Kramer’s 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, although Darrow’s name was changed to Henry Drummond in the script. Many also know the legendary lawyer from Orson Welles’ equally heroic portrayal in Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion the previous year, although again Darrow’s name was changed, this time to Jonathan Wilk.
John A. Farrell's acclaimed new biography Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned should help fix that. He draws on papers unavailable to previous biographers to offer vivid recreations of Darrow’s most famous cases—the Leopold and Loeb murders, the Scopes Trial, and the trial of the Scottsboro Boys. One of Darrow’s most dramatic defenses came immediately after the Scopes Trial in 1925 when he defended Dr. Ossian Sweet, his two brothers, and eight of their friends who were all charged with first-degree murder for killing a member of a mob that tried to drive them from Dr. Sweet’s new home in a white Detroit neighborhood.

James Weldon Johnson, who in 1920 had become the first black secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), hoped to make the Sweets case a landmark civil rights trial and hired Darrow and his Scopes colleague Nathan Garfield Hays as attorneys for the eleven defendants.

Farrell summarizes the issues in the case:
The sturdy old saw “a man’s home is his castle” reflected the belief that an individual may use deadly force when defending himself, his family, or his home. So two questions ruled the case: Did Negroes have the same right of self-defense as white people? And if so, had the Sweet defendants been truly threatened?
The jury trial turned on Darrow’s ability, on cross-examination, to expose as perjury the testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses that “only a dozen” people had assembled before the house:
    “When you first started to answer the question . . . you started to say you saw a great crowd there, didn’t you? Darrow asked one witness.
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Then you modified to say a large crowd, didn’t you?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Then you said a few people . . .”
    “Yes, sir.”
    [The witness] had been coached by the police, Darrow said, and instructed to testify that only a few people had gathered. Wasn’t that so?
    “Yes, sir,” the man, now thoroughly miserable, admitted.
    Afterwards, Robert Toms [the prosecuting attorney] conceded that the witnesses were inferior—in terms of education, intellect, aplomb, and appearance—to the Negro defendants.
The first trial ended with a hung jury. Five months later the state opted to retry the defendants separately and began with Henry Sweet, the doctor’s youngest brother, who had admitted under questioning by the police to firing shots from the house. Johnson attended this trial and recounted in Along This Way his experience hearing sixty-eight-year-old Darrow present his closing arguments, and then the verdict:
He talked for nearly seven hours. I sat where I could catch every word and every expression of his face. It was a wonderful performance. Clarence Darrow, the veteran criminal lawyer, the psychologist, the philosopher, the humanist, the apostle of liberty, was bringing into play every bit of skill, drawing on all the knowledge, and using every power that he possessed upon the twelve men who sat in front of him. At times his voice was as low as though he was coaxing a child. At such times, the strain upon the listeners to catch his words made them appear rigid. At other times his words came like flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder. He closed his argument with a plea that left no eyes dry. I walked over to him to express my appreciation and thanks. His eyes were wet. He placed his hands on my shoulders. I tried to stammer out a few words, but broke down and wept. The jury brought in a verdict of “Not guilty,” and the Association had won another victory in its fight to maintain the common rights of citizenship for the Negro.
The case became a milestone: a black defendant had been acquitted in a murder trial by an all-white jury, and, as Darrow told the press afterwards, “The verdict meant simply that the doctrine that a man's house is his castle applied to the black man as well as the white man. If not the first time that a white jury had vindicated this principle, it was the first time that ever came to my notice.” Farrell describes its importance to the NAACP:
The case was a huge victory for the NAACP. The publicity it garnered and the money it raised from black and liberal donors in 1925 and 1926 helped cement the organization’s position as America’s leading civil rights group, and allowed it to build the superb legal defense team that, over thirty years of litigation, would persuade the federal courts that separate was not equal.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: James Weldon Johnson: Writings (includes Along This Way); H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series (2 books — includes several pieces related to the Scopes Trial)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dinaw Mengestu on American writers who have astounded, moved, haunted, and influenced him

How to Read the Air
by Dinaw Mengestu
(Riverhead, 2010)
In our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry, Dinaw Mengestu, whose second novel, How to Read the Air, was published last October, describes the impact several American writers have had on his work.
Like many writers, I can’t help but wear my influences on my sleeve, and while those influences are many, and grow each year, I always think first and foremost of Saul Bellow. I read Bellow for the first time in high school, while living in Chicago. An old friend gave me his tattered paperback copy of The Adventures of Augie March and told me this is where I should begin if I wanted to be a writer. He was right in telling me that Augie March was the proper starting point, but he failed to mention how remarkable Bellow’s later novels were.

From Augie March I found my way to Herzog, a novel which even after multiple readings still astounds me with its density, humor, passion and love, and then later to Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Humboldt’s Gift, Henderson the Rain King, and finally to Bellow’s collected short stories. Of all the novels and characters though, it’s the mad, letter-writing Herzog who somehow manages to find his way into all my work, and to whom I return faithfully at least once a year.

Bellow was the first great writer to cement my conviction that there was nothing I wanted to do more in my life than write novels. Since then that conviction has been continually reinforced by other writers who may not share Bellow’s unique style, but in my opinion are equally great. Out of the many writers I would include in that list, the American novelists who come to mind first are:

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Guardian helps you plan your summer "greatest non-fiction" reading

The editors of The Guardian this week published what they are calling “The 100 greatest non-fiction books . . . our list of the very best factual writing, organized by category, and then by date.” We were pleased to find quite a few Library of America offerings making the list—and perhaps joining you on the beach.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)
“Stein’s groundbreaking biography, written in the guise of an autobiography of her lover. . . Audacious, sardonic and characteristically self-confident, this is a definitive account by the American in Paris.”

Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977)
"The best book I have ever read on men and war in our time."—John Le Carre

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (1845)
“This vivid first person account was one of the first times the voice of the slave was heard in mainstream society. . . how he endured the daily physical and spiritual brutalities of his owners and drivers, how he learned to read and write, and how he grew into a man who could only live free or die.”

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov (1951)
“Nabokov reflects on his life before moving to the US in 1940. Young love, butterflies, tutors and a multitude of other themes thread together to weave an autobiography, which is itself a work of art.”

Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
“An account of two years spent living in a log cabin, which examines ideas of independence and society . . . his refusal to play by the rules of hard work and the accumulation of wealth and above all the freedom it gave him to adapt his living to the natural world around him.”

The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
“A series of essays makes the case for equality in the American south. With its singular combination of essays, memoir, and fiction, this book vaulted W.E.B. Du Bois to the forefront of American political commentary and civil rights activism.”

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (1902)
“James argues that the value of religions should not be measured in terms of their origin or empirical accuracy.“

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941)
“Evans’s images and Agee’s words paint a stark picture of life among sharecroppers in the U.S. South. . . an extraordinary collaboration and a watershed literary event . . . one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.”

Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (1869)
“Twain’s tongue-in-cheek account of his European adventures is a burlesque of the sentimental travel books popular in the mid-nineteenth century.”

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:

Thursday, June 16, 2011

James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F. B. Morse, “constantly together” in Paris in the 1830s

In his bestselling new group biography, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough devotes an entire chapter to the remarkable friendship between the writer James Fenimore Cooper and the artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse. The two first met in Washington during Marquis de Lafayette’s triumphal Grand Tour of the United States in 1824–25. Renewing their acquaintance in New York, they became fast friends and traveling companions soon thereafter in Italy and France.

When Cooper brought his family to Europe in 1826, he found he was already an international sensation, as America’s most famous author, with The Last of the Mohicans on display in every Parisian bookshop. During his seven years abroad, Cooper continued to write novels set in America, publishing The Prairie, The Red Rover, and The Water-Witch during this period. By 1832, when Morse began his grand project—a giant interior view of the Louvre that would recreate in miniature thirty-eight European masterworks—the two had become inseparable, as Cooper reveals in his description of his daily routine in a letter that March:
I get up at eight, read the papers, breakfast at ten, sit down to the quill at ½ past ten, work till one, throw off my morning gown, draw on my boots and gloves, take a cane . . . and go to the Louvre, where I find Morse stuck up on a high working stand, perch myself astraddle of one of the seats, and bore him.
Reviewers often praised Cooper’s “painterly” descriptions, which may explain the many helpful suggestions he records offering his friend while he watched:
Lay it on here, Samuel–more yellow–the nose is too short–the eye too small–damn it, if I had been a painter what a picture I should have painted.
In Gallery of the Louvre, the masterpiece that would establish Morse’s reputation as a painter, we can recognize Cooper and his wife Susan in the lefthand corner, watching their daughter Sue, a student of Morse’s, as she paints. The painter offering instruction in the center is Morse himself.

Nathaniel Parker Willis, whom Adam Gopnik has said “invented the casual voice in American journalism,” was also in Paris at the time as a correspondent for the New York Mirror and McCullough often draws on his firsthand observations. Here he is sketching the two friends as they tour the Tuileries:
Here come two of our countrymen who are to be seen constantly together—Cooper and Morse. That is Cooper with the blue surtout buttoned up to his throat and his hat over his eyes. What a contrast between the faces of the two men! Morse with his kind, open, gentle countenance, the very picture of goodness and sincerity; and Cooper, dark and corsair-looking, with his brows down over his eyes, and his strongly lined mouth fixed in an expression of moodiness and reserve. The two faces, however, are not equally just to their owners—Morse is all that he looks to be, but Cooper’s features do him decided injustice. I take pride in the reputation which this distinguished countryman of ours has for humanity and generous sympathy . . . the untiring liberality of Mr. Cooper particularly, is a fact of common admission and praise.
Cooper had commissioned some paintings from Morse, and Morse hoped he would buy Gallery of the Louvre. But Morse was back in New York when he finished it, more than a year later, and Cooper’s offer never came. Morse hoped the painting would bring $2,500; it sold for $1,300. In 1982, the Terra Foundation for American Art, a museum in Chicago, bought it for $3,250,000, at the time the highest sum ever paid for a work by an American artist.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: James Fenimore Cooper: The Leatherstocking Tales, Volume One; Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology (includes selections from Nathaniel Parker Willis’s 1830s dispatches and James Fenimore Cooper’s vivid account of attending six parties in one night)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Keith Olbermann, Rosemary Thurber, and friends gather to celebrate James Thurber

Rosemary Thurber and Keith Olbermann
backstage at the 92nd Street Y
In anticipation of Father’s Day, Keith Olbermann, former host of MSNBC’s Countdown, and Rosemary Thurber, daughter of James Thurber, gathered with friends at the 92nd Street Y Sunday night to honor their fathers by reading from and sharing stories about Thurber’s works. Olbermann recalled that it was about a year and a half ago that he discovered that his readings from James Thurber: Writings and Drawings brought his father, then hospitalized in intensive care, the most pleasure.

“You really should read Thurber on Countdown,” his father recommended. When Olbermann demurred, his father persisted. “How often have I ever suggested anything for your shows? Try it. You never know.”

A few weeks later, his father slipped into a coma but Olbermann continued to read Thurber to him and, one Friday night, he shared his father’s recommendation with Countdown viewers, and read the Thurber fable “The Peacelike Mongoose.” The next day he received an email from Thurber’s agent telling him how much Rosemary Thurber, a regular Countdown viewer, enjoyed his reading.

At last night's event Rosemary Thurber recounted how Olbermann’s broadcast solved a problem that had been troubling her. A publisher wanted permission to include “The Peacelike Mongoose” in a collection of stories for high school students, but wanted to omit the word “mongoosexual.” Hearing Olbermann read the fable unedited convinced her not to agree to the change. “You gave us the courage to say ‘print it as it is’,” she told Olbermann.

Olbermann’s readings from Thurber became a regular feature of his Friday night broadcast and caused the LOA edition to sell out immediately, leading to two hefty reprints of the book in the past year. Olbermann confirmed that when he launches the new version of Countdown on Current TV on June 20 he will continue to close his Friday night broadcasts with a reading from Thurber.

Rosemary Thurber’s mother didn’t tell her that James Thurber was her father until she was eight. On Sunday she read “The Little Girl and the Wolf,” a fable whose moral is “It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.” She remembers loving the fable as a little girl: “It was like a great burden lifted from me that there was an adult out there somewhere who knew that little girls weren’t so stupid. And then to find out that it was my father. That was just excellent.” She related that her father created The Last Flower in one night. He dedicated it: “For Rosemary. In the wistful hope that her world will be better than mine.” In 2007 the Iowa University Press published a new edition of the book designed by Thurber’s granddaughter, Sara Thurber Sauers.

Also joining the festivities were New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin and the magazine’s cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. Mankoff noted that “as important as Thurber was to writing, he was more important to cartooning. What he did with brilliant perfection in writing he did with brilliant imperfection in cartooning . . . and he always won his own caption contest.” Mankoff credits Thurber with revolutionizing New Yorker cartoons and opening the magazine up to a new breed of cartoonists.
Thurber’s cartoons are no longer just illustrated anecdotes. They are whole worlds of fantasy that open up many, many possibilities. This style was very liberating for cartoonists. In the interplay of fantasy and reality, many things can happen that can’t happen in reality.
Trillin illustrated Thurber’s lasting legacy at The New Yorker by telling a story about his own rivalry with fellow staffer Thomas Meehan (later author of the book for the musical Annie). They both vied to get more than five “casuals” into the magazine in any one year (what were called “casuals” now appear in the section called “Shouts and Murmurs”). Neither ever succeeded. Years before, Trillin noted, Thurber had placed fifty-one “casuals” in the magazine in one year.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: James Thurber: Writings and Drawings

Friday, June 10, 2011

Harriet Beecher Stowe starts her writing career in Cincinnati’s lively “parlor society”

In his LOA interview about American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, David S. Shields recounted how important literary coteries were to aspiring writers in pre-colonial and colonial America:
Whom you knew and who was your friend was attested by the fact that you owned writing in that person’s handwriting. It demonstrated your access to someone who was witty and wonderful.
As Americans migrated west, literary coteries continued to thrive, serving as a way for transplanted citizens to network, share news, and nurture new talent. Early in her twenties, Harriet Beecher Stowe launched her writing career in Cincinnati’s “parlor society,” as Stowe biographer Joan D. Hedrick describes in her LOA interview celebrating Stowe’s Bicentennial:
When the Beechers moved to Cincinnati in 1832, Harriet was invited to join a literary club, called the Semi-Colons, which met in the parlor of Harriet’s uncle, Samuel Foote. Members’ literary contributions were read aloud, anonymously, and then discussed and criticized by the group. One can imagine how useful such an apprenticeship must have been to an aspiring writer. Perhaps even more important to Harriet Beecher was the intimate nature of this gathering. She could see the faces of her audience and observe what moved them, what made them laugh, what reminded them of the New England many of them had left behind. She developed what would become the hallmark of her prose, an intimate narrative voice. Moreover, the semi-public space of the parlor gave her important access: her first story appeared in the Western Literary Messenger, published by a member of the Semi-Colon Club.
These meetings involved more than readings. Hedrick offers more details about what a lively evening at the Semi-Colons was like in her Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life:
The Semi-Colons met every Monday evening at 7:30. A reader—apparently always a male—was appointed for each meeting. Although some put their names to their productions, many wrote anonymously or under pseudonyms. After the readings there was discussion, followed by dancing, sandwiches and coffee, and, at Samuel Foote’s, a find brand of madeira. The evening finished off with “a gay Virginia reel led by the reader of the evening and a merry-hearted girl.”
Read the entire interview (PDF) with Joan D. Hedrick about Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Harriet Beecher Stowe: Three Novels

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Richard Snow on America’s “Hooligan Navy” vs. German U-boats in the early days of WWII

Guest blog post by Richard Snow, former American Heritage editor-in-chief and author of A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II, which has just been published in paperback

I’ve been reading with pleasure and admiration The Library of America’s Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944. This seems to me more than an anthology of fine journalism: the articles are arranged in such fluent chronology that the book also offers a uniquely vivid narrative history—at once intimate and spacious—of the entire war.

I was particularly struck with Helen Lawrenson’s stark account of what the men of the Merchant Marine were up against in the first months after America’s entry into the conflict. Her story underscores a part of the war that has nearly vanished from the national memory.

The men Lawrenson writes about were being attacked by German submarines not in the far, stormy reaches of the North Atlantic but, in one sinking she mentions, within sight of the shore lights of Fort Pitt, Florida. The Battle of the Atlantic was the only campaign of the war whose progress American civilians could often watch from their homes.

As soon as Germany declared war on the United States, Admiral Karl Doenitz, the dismayingly capable head of Hitler’s U-boat fleet, was eager to get to our east coast. He believed Germany’s only chance was to throttle Great Britain by cutting off the supplies America was sending. He knew that ninety-five per cent of the oil from the Louisiana and Texas fields went in tankers along the coast, and he guessed that our navy, now spread thin, could do little to protect this crucial traffic.

He was right. A month later Captain Reinhard Hardegan, the first U-boat skipper to arrive, cruised around unchallenged in New York harbor: “I cannot describe the feeling in words,” he said “but it was unbelievable and beautiful and great. . . We were the first to be here, and for the first time in this war a German soldier looked out on the coast of the USA.”

A few hours later he torpedoed the Coimbra, carrying 80,000 barrels of oil (fifty-three gallons to the barrel) so close inshore that Long Island citizens called local police stations to report a fire.

That May another U-boat captain harvesting this rich field arrived off Miami and was astounded to find the city glowing bright. This early in the war, nobody seemed to have the authority to order the mayor to turn off the lights. When the Navy begged Mayor Reeder to extinguish them, he said the hell with that: it would discourage the tourists.

The spectacle certainly cheered at least one tourist. Captain Cremer of the U-333 wrote, “Against the footlight glare of a carefree new world were passing the silhouettes of ships recognizable in every detail and shape as the outlines in a sales catalog. Here they were formally presented to us on a plate: please help yourselves.”

The Germans helped themselves with a free hand. In the first four months of 1942 the U-boats sank 515,000 tons—eighty-seven ships—along the East Coast.

The government responded to the crisis by bringing into the service yachts and sports fishing boats and their owners—equipping the larger vessels with a couple of depth charges or a pair of twenty-millimeter guns and begging their crews to do what they could. (Ernest Hemingway got in on the act, talking the navy out of $32,000 worth of range and direction finding equipment for his thirty-eight-foot fishing boat Pilar.)

The improvised mini-navy couldn’t do much, of course, and it certainly didn’t intimidate the Germans. Once, off the Florida coast, the crew of a militant cabin cruiser was astounded to see rise from the sea beside them a tall steel conning tower, from which the skipper called down in what was reported to be “excellent Americanese”: “Get the hell out of here, you guys! Do you want to get hurt? Now scram.”

The Coast Guard gave these little boats the gallant name the Corsair Fleet. The fleet’s members knew their chances. They immediately christened themselves the Hooligan Navy.

Nevertheless, they went out night after night, month after month. If they never hurt a U-boat, they were there combing the debris of what were in effect scores of forgotten Pearl Harbors for survivors of torpedoed ships. They saved hundreds.

It is worth remembering that this is the first time since the War of 1812 that the United States sent raw militia against the world’s best-trained professional military men. And that there are still people among us today who owe their lives to the fact that the Hooligan Navy was on duty when the war came to our shores.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944

Monday, June 6, 2011

The “Best” Short Stories? Two lists—one recent and one from 1914—show their strengths and limitations

“Best of” lists often make us wonder if they exist solely to goad us into generating new and better lists. Many of us love lists, and indeed in only two months we’ll be announcing here the sure-to-be-controversial “Fifty Funniest American Writers” selected by Andy Borowitz for an upcoming Library of America volume.

Along these lines, we noticed the “Best Short Stories of All Time,” a recent list bravely compiled by the fifteen staff members of One Story, who posted a “long list” on their blog and featured the top ten, plus a few runners-up, on Flavorwire. Among the excellent stories on the long list were entries by three Library of America authors: Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and Flannery O’Connor. Still, it’s notable that a mere two stories (by Kafka and Garcia Marquez) were originally written in a language other than English—and only two others (by Joyce and Gallant) were written by non-Americans. And, except for the selections by Kafka and Joyce, all the stories were published since World War II.

While pondering whether every “best of” list inevitably reflects the prejudices of the time, we stumbled upon “What is the Best Short Story in English?,” a survey The New York Times conducted in 1914. The Times sought out the opinions of “a score of men and women on both sides of the Atlantic . . . who are writing or have written the short stories of this generation.” And, sure enough, we found that even a century ago the distinguished jurors did not reach much beyond their contemporaries or the previous generation for their favorites.

Among those who participated in the survey were writers who are still familiar to readers today: Richard Harding Davis, Edna Ferber, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, Jack London, Booth Tarkington, Owen Wister. We are also gratified to see among the jurors several less well-known authors whose works have been revisited in recent Library of America anthologies: Robert W. Chambers (author of the chilling “The Repairer of Reputations”), Irvin S. Cobb (“Cobb Fights It Over Again”), Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (“Luella Miller,”), and Owen Johnson (“The Great Pancake Record”).

Thomas Hardy echoed his fellow writers when he rejected the concept of “best”:
One may be the best tragic short story, the other may be the best tranquilly domestic short story, and so on, and unless you decide which is "best," tragedy, comedy, or tragi-comedy, the question is unanswerable. It seems as impossible to say which is the best of these forms of art as to define which is the best color, or the best taste in food.
Owen Wister adds, “You have asked a question to which there really is no answer, and you know as well as I do that if the replies you are going to receive coincide it would be amazing enough to become historic in a small way.”

Like One Story’s list, most of the 1914 selections were written during the previous half-century—and a good number were written by the jurors’ contemporaries. Half of the forty-five stories were written by just four authors: Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe. Although the list includes many stories and authors still read and loved by readers today, there are notable omissions for a survey conducted in 1914: Scott, Hawthorne, Disraeli, Trollope, and Gissing (all of whom were featured in a best-selling story anthology published the same year by Oxford University Press). Missing, too, is “Désireé’s Baby,” by Kate Chopin, which was called “one of the most perfect stories” and “well nigh perfect” by anthologists in 1906 and 1915, respectively. And, of course, readers and critics wouldn’t rediscover poor, neglected Herman Melville until the 1920s.

Without further ado, then, here are the “Best Stories in English” from 1914:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tom Perrotta on superiority and vulnerability in Flannery O’Connor’s satire

In the latest of her continuing series focusing on “a specific piece of writing” that has influenced a writer or critic, Jenny Attiyeh discusses Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” with Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children, Election, and The Abstinence Teacher. Perotta’s relationship with O’Connor, notes Attiyeh, “borders on kinship, and he admires and admonishes her as he would a family member.”

After reading a small excerpt from the story, Perrotta talks about the religious, autobiographical, and satirical elements of the story, and how in O’Connor’s later works she featured characters who were somewhat educated yet trapped at home, often with domineering mothers. “Good Country People” features the thirty-two-year-old Joy, who has lost her leg in a childhood accident and who, to her mother’s chagrin, has a PhD in philosophy. Joy has changed her name to Hulga, and her mother is “certain that she had thought and thought until she had hit upon the ugliest name in any language.” Perrotta, who was introduced to O’Connor as a teenager, describes how his approach to the story has evolved:
For a while, I really resisted the story, which seemed so simple: [Hulga] just gets humiliated. But when I read the biography I thought, oh my god, it’s not so simple as that, because O’Connor is seeing herself as Hulga. She’s the afflicted, college-educated, superior person who still wants love, and she still thinks she’s in control of a relationship that she’s not in control of. . . . It really made me see the story in a very different light, [because of] that doubleness: [O’Connor] is humiliating educated liberals who have gotten away from the truth of God, but she’s also implicating herself. And I think any satire that implicates the writer becomes much more complex and interesting—the position of superiority disappears. And I think that was the place O’Connor was moving towards in her later work: this way to keep her satirical tone but make herself vulnerable.
You can hear the full interview here. Perrotta also discusses his own writing, including his forthcoming novel The Leftovers, which will be published at the end of the summer.

Related LOA volume: Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Peter Israel on how he became editor of two science fiction classics by Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein

During the next year two landmark works of science fiction celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their publication. In June 1961 G. P. Putnam’s published Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which won the Hugo Award and became a cult classic. The following summer Putnam’s published The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, which won the subsequent Hugo Award and is considered by many to be, in the words of the New Statesman, Dick’s “most finely wrought work.” Both novels are famed for having been extensively reworked from their original manuscripts prior to publication—and both had the same editor: the young Peter Israel, who would go on to become president and chairman of Putnam’s. Here Israel offers his reminiscences of working with two legends.

Guest blog post by Peter Israel:

Phil Dick? Philip K. Dick? The Philip K. Dick? Now there’s a name out of my past! Let me explain. Once upon a time (as though in a galaxy far, far away), when—oh, say, a mere half-century ago—I was a wet-behind-the-ears editor at G. P. Putnam’s Sons and hungry for new authors, an enterprising young agent in Scott Meredith’s office, Henry Morrison, sent me a manuscript called The Man in the High Castle by a little-known writer, also young and aspiring. Although, as I learned, he’d already published several science fiction novels and tons of short stories, I’d never heard of the author.

At the time I was not a particular fan of the genre. True, we’d recently begun publishing one illustrious science-fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein, but even that had come about in an odd way. Publishing science fiction in hardcover in the 1960s was a marginal proposition, the sales modest, limited mostly to libraries. The true market was in rack-sized, mass-market paperbacks, the readership mostly young. Even classics-in-the-making—I’m thinking, for example, of Frank Herbert’s Dune—had trouble finding a home in hardcovers. (Dune, which also won a Hugo, would finally be published in 1965 by Chilton, a publisher that specialized in automotive manuals!)

No matter. I was enthralled to discover The Man in the High Castle. Frustrated by it too. Gripping as its central concept was—what would life be like in America if the Axis powers had triumphed in World War II? (doubled, so ingeniously, by a “science-fiction” novel-within-the-novel which presupposed the opposite!)—the narrative seemed to wobble the further it went. The second half of the script, though highly readable (as Phil Dick’s work always was), hardly seemed to hold together.

No matter indeed. Wasn’t I, after all, the boy-genius editor, hungry for new talent? So we acquired the book for Putnam—the advance, I seem to remember, was on the order of $1,500—and set to work on a revision, particularly of that problematic second half. Far be it from me to remember the nuts and bolts of all the changes after all these years, but for once the author-editor collaboration bore fruit. At his end, Phil showed a remarkable ability to edit and rewrite his own work. I also think he was grateful to have found an editor who cared enough to go through the editorial process with him. At my end, I was convinced that if we could present the book as a thriller rather than as an exceptional genre novel, we might find a larger audience for this most interesting writer.

In this, of course, I was dead wrong, at least as far as sales of the hardcover in book stores were concerned. I doubt the net sale of our edition reached 1,500 copies, a decidedly money-losing proposition. On the other hand, the book was adopted by the Science Fiction Book Club, the paperback rights were sold (if for a modest advance), and the Hugo Award followed. In its Berkley paperback edition, the book has never been out of print, not even fifty years later. As for me, in my wisdom, I declined Phil’s next book, and he went on to write dozens of other works, all, alas, published elsewhere. But I am pleased to see his prolific, almost legendary career culminate, if posthumously, in the exalted sphere of The Library of America.

Meanwhile, I survived the publishing wars—in France and then again in the U.S.—and though I never did become a dyed-in-the-wool fan of science fiction, it was my privilege, ironically enough, to have published three of the great luminaries in the field: Phil Dick, Bob Heinlein, and Frank Herbert. The latter two, in later years, became personal friends, but Phil is the one I look back on still with a young editor’s pride and immense enthusiasm.

I mentioned above that Robert Heinlein landed at Putnam in an odd way. I might have said in an Alphonse-Gaston way. This is what happened. At the time Bob had two publishers—one for his adult novels, one for his juvenile. He submitted a manuscript which his adult publisher (I seem to remember it being Doubleday) said wasn't "adult" and which his juvenile (Scribner's maybe?) said didn't fit their category either. Perplexed, he and his agent then offered it to us. We said we didn't care what it was, we'd happily take it on, and its author with it. And so it came about. The book in question was Starship Troopers. It too has never been out of print.

Could I take this opportunity to set the record straight on one other aspect of my work with Bob? My protestations to the contrary, he always credited me with having come up with the title of his most famous work, Stranger in a Strange Land. This is what actually happened. When Bob’s agent, Lurton Blassingame, delivered that extraordinary manuscript to Putnam, it bore some impossible title. (It may have been something like The Heretic, but I seem to recall that “groking” was a part of it. At any rate, it simply wouldn’t do.) Now my editorial mentor, in those far-off days was our hugely gifted, if rather quixotic, editor-in-chief, Howard Cady, and Howard always kept a folder on his desk of “eligible” titles. That is, whenever he ran across a phrase or a quotation that, one day, might make an excellent title for this or that needy manuscript, he jotted it down and stuck it in the folder. And it was there, as I was grasping desperately for straws trying to find a substitute for the “groking” one, that I found Stranger in a Strange Land. So thank you, Howard, wherever you are. And Robert, kindly accept this belated corrective.

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: The Philip K. Dick Collection (3-book boxed set)
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