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Friday, July 29, 2011

S. T. Joshi on Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War

Even though the Civil War was then only three months old, by this date in July, 1861 Ambrose Bierce had already fought in three battles for the Union forces and received a commendation for carrying a wounded soldier under enemy fire. Bierce expert S.T. Joshi, editor of the new LOA volume Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, talks about how Bierce drew on his wartime experiences in his work in an exclusive Library of America interview:
LOA: Bierce was not quite twenty when, a week after the firing on Fort Sumter, he enlisted in the Union army in Indiana. He saw considerable action over the next four years, fighting at Shiloh and Chickamauga, taking a bullet to the head at Kennesaw Mountain, and being captured by and escaping from the Confederates in 1864. He wrote about his experiences decades later, sometimes as essays, sometimes as fiction. Many consider these pieces, as H. L. Mencken put it, “some of the best war stories ever written.” What distinguishes Bierce’s war writings? 
Joshi: Bierce’s war stories are indeed based on first-hand experience, and Bierce himself took pride in that fact; but beyond that, these tales convey the widely varying emotions felt by common soldiers—terror, panic, heroism, tedium, self-preservation—in an absolutely detached and unsentimental manner. The grim paradoxes that were peculiar to the Civil War—where brother turned against brother, where soldiers were ordered to kill their fellow-countrymen and destroy property not in a foreign field but in their own land—are rendered particularly vivid in such Bierce’s tales as “A Horseman in the Sky” and “An Affair of Outposts.”

LOA: Eight of the eleven “Bits of Autobiography” included in this volume deal with Bierce’s war experiences. What aspects of war do these essays get at that his stories don’t? 
Joshi: There is a tone of pensive, elegiac melancholy in these essays that one doesn’t find in any of Bierce’s other work. It is clear not only that his Civil War experiences affected him deeply, but that he reflected on many of these experiences for the whole of his life. Bierce was always insistent on the radical distinction between the “soldier” and the “civilian,” and he felt that the latter could never fully understand what the former had gone through. Some scholars think that “What I Saw of Shiloh” is the single best piece Bierce ever wrote, and I am inclined to agree. The final paragraph brings tears to my eyes. Bierce seems to have felt that in writing about himself he could express—and evoke—more emotions than he chose to do in his fiction, which is written with a certain emotional restraint that precludes even the slightest hint of sentimentality. Some of the later essays in “Bits of Autobiography” are light-heartedly comical in ways one almost never finds in the dark satire that is typical of his writing.
Read the entire interview

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs; Poets of the Civil War

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Timothy Schaffert on how Ambrose Bierce, Willa Cather, and William Faulkner have treated “our often tawdry funerary customs”

The Coffins of Little Hope
by Timothy Schaffert
(Unbridled Books, 2011)
Timothy Schaffert joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry. Much like Essie, the 83-year-old, widowed obituary writer who narrates his recently published fourth novel, The Coffins of Little Hope, Schaffert is a bit obsessed with what can be discovered when “chronicling the dead.” Here he revisits how three master storytellers use end of life tales to plumb the nature of love, grief, prejudice, and horror.
As a child, I once saw an undertaker close the coffin lid on its inhabitant, and I’ve spent years trying to describe that dip-in-the-road feeling I got in my gut at the sight of it. The organist had stopped her wheezy hymn, bringing a thudding silence to the church. As sudden as a buzzard the undertaker then swooped up to the altar to unprop the pillow of the deceased (my great-grandfather), and a shadow slowly consumed the casket’s bed, my great-grandfather’s suit, his gaunt, stoic, pioneer’s face, then, lastly, his lovely and stately bald head. In my memory, I seem to recall hearing every squeak of the hinges and rustling of lace. The undertaker did everything but lock the lid and throw away the key. I felt I’d witnessed at the front of the church a bit of business that should’ve taken place at the back of the church, and such errors of decorum tend to echo across the years.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that some of my favorite short stories are those that have done exactly what that undertaker did—stories that offer unsettling insight into our often tawdry funerary customs.

Monday, July 25, 2011

John A. Farrell on the testy ties between Clarence Darrow, H. L. Mencken, and Edgar Lee Masters

Guest blog post by John A. Farrell, author of Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned

When H. L. Mencken helped convince Clarence Darrow to go to Dayton, Tennessee, and defend biology teacher John Scopes in the 1925 Monkey Trial, the great newspaperman stumbled upon one of Americaʼs most virulent personal feuds.

Mencken was a friend to Darrow. And Mencken was a friend, as well, of Edgar Lee Masters, the poet-lawyer who had achieved great fame for publishing the Spoon River Anthology of poems.

But Darrow and Masters were no friends of each other.

“Iʼll make that son of a bitch the most detestable figure in American history,” Masters had vowed, a few years earlier.

It was not always so. In the early years of the twentieth century, Masters and Darrow had been law partners in Chicago.They were much alike: literary men, defenders of individual liberty, with Jeffersonian political beliefs and a taste for sex and money. “I have never been able to see anything wrong in erotic indulgence,” Masters would recall. “On that subject I was as emancipated as an animal.”

“Sex,” Darrow told a mistress, was “the only feeling in the world that can make you forget for a little while.”

Then came their falling out. Masters became persuaded that Darrow had cheated him of $9,000 of the firmʼs profits. He chewed on the grievance and then, in 1916, at the height of his Spoon River fame, threw the first punch, describing Darrow in a published poem as “A giant as we hoped, in truth a dwarf;/ A barrel of slop that shines on Letheʼs wharf.”

Darrow fumed, but decided that revenge, indeed, was best served cold. He said nothing to Masters, and continued to pose as his former partnerʼs friend— praising his poetry and sending him young female admirers. And when the poetʼs marriage disintegrated (due in part to what Masters dismissed as his “lighthearted adulteries”), Darrow offered to counsel the couple, and settle things amiably.

“Of course you know me well enough to know that I would never . . . try to make you any trouble,” Darrow said.

To his subsequent regret, Masters agreed. Darrow had “waited for a chance to revenge himself” and then “approached me extending his hand with an ingratiating smile,” a rueful Masters would recall. Too late, he discovered that his wife was “in the hands of Darrow, avaricious and sordid.” In the divorce, Masters lost his house, his country home, his children, and his fortune.

When Darrow announced that he would go to Dayton, to clash with prosecutor William Jennings Bryan and defend Scopes for teaching evolution in a public school biology class there, Masters dashed off a letter to Mencken:
You will find that Darrow is not the man to fight Bryan. I have seen Darrow perform. . . . He must have the stage set, a complaisant judge or a fixed jury to be bold and even there his forte is a speech, such as it is. He fails in cross examination due to his lack of concentration, patience, sequences of plan, pugnacity and will. I have seen Darrow quit cold more than once where he could see that it meant labor to fight, and where the publicity was doubtful, or adverse. In a word, he lacks character.
Mencken didnʼt disagree, but in his reply to Masters, he suggested that Darrowʼs flaws were irrelevant. “The way to handle it is to convert it into a headlong assault upon Bryan,” he wrote.

That Darrow did, in his famous showdown with Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential nominee and former Secretary of State, later immortalized in the play and film Inherit the Wind.

The showdown was “inconceivably dramatic: two ancient warlocks brought jaw to jaw at last,” Mencken wrote. “It was superb to see Darrow throw out his webs, lay his foundations, prepare his baits. His virtuosity never failed. In the end Bryan staggered to the block and took that last appalling clout. It was delivered calmly, deliberately, beautifully. Bryan was killed as plainly as if he had been felled with an axe. He rolled into the sawdust a comic obscenity.”

Even Masters was impressed. “At last Darrow has his hour,” he wrote a friend. “He is a grey-eyed infidel, and all his life he has been talking this stuff; now he can empty his mind of it on a good occasion.”

Mencken continued in his somewhat awkward role as friend to the two feuding lawyers. He found himself in the middle, again, when Darrow chaired a special review board, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to evaluate the National Recovery Administration, a key element in the New Deal.

Darrow had endorsed FDR, and the White House staff thought he was a safe choice. Masters strove to warn them.

His old antagonist had spent a lifetime “winding serpent-like where there was food, and winding safely away when there was danger,” Masters wrote the White House. “Money and publicity have been his life objects and to get them he has sacrificed parties and friends and principles all along."

“I do not refer to Darrowʼs malodorous career, to his indictment for jury bribing in California, nor to his dubious reputation as a lawyer in Chicago, but rather to his insidious and subtle faculty of playing fast and loose with labor and capital,” said Masters. If FDR allowed Darrow “inside the breastworks,” he was sure to turn and “fang” the president.

Mencken tried to reassure Masters. The White House knew what it was doing, he wrote. Darrow was just an old pussycat, entranced by the “catnip” of the press.

But Masters knew his man. The reports released by Darrowʼs review board in 1934 scored the NRA for favoring big industry over small business and consumers. FDR swiftly, and unceremoniously, cut Darrow loose.

“I hear from Washington that Darrow is wandering around in a fog, scarcely knowing where he is at or what he is doing,” Mencken wrote to Masters. “His report will take its place among the comic documents of all time. When it came in the Brain Trust boys threw back their ears and howled with delight.”

That was the White House spin. But Congress listened to the Darrow board, and so perhaps did the Supreme Court. In the spring of 1935, a year after Darrowʼs report, the court ruled unanimously that the NRA represented an unconstitutional excess of federal power.

Darrowʼs death, in 1938, failed to placate Masters.

“They will try to get a bust of him and make him an heir of fame, but what he did in life, his dishonesty and his treachery and his selfish grabbing and living will seep up from the grass of any pedestal and fill the circumambient air with feculence,” Masters told a friend.

Mencken was more generous. He hailed the “Gladiator of the Law” in the Baltimore Evening Sun. “In his private life and philosophy he was singularly gentle and even sentimental, but when he enlisted for a cause he was a terror,” Mencken wrote. “It was to his credit that he was most often a terror to quacks and dolts, hypocrites and scoundrels.”

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series (boxed set); American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume one: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker (includes twenty-four poems from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Brooks D. Simpson on Confederate women and the First Battle of Bull Run

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, co-editor of The Civil War: The First Year

Confederate women played surprisingly crucial roles both in the run-up to the first major battle of the Civil War and in its aftermath. In Battle Cry of Freedom James McPherson relates how the Confederate commander Pierre G. T. Beauregard was prepared for Union general Irvin McDowell’s advance into northern Virginia in part because of information supplied by an espionage network of southern women in Washington: “coded messages carried by southern belles riding fast steeds brought word of Union plans.”

No such coding occurs of course in their plantation diaries. These invaluable documents capture in nuanced prose the wide range of reactions felt by those at home to the ebb and flow of events on the battlefield. And public opinion matters. Morale at home is as important as morale in camp; the interplay of home front and battle front often determines whether wars are won or lost.

On July 21, 1861, Union and Confederate forces clashed near Bull Run, a few miles northwest of Manassas Junction. Although Union forces enjoyed initial success, the Confederates rallied, held, and eventually counterattacked, driving the foe from the field. As disorganized by their victory as the Union forces were by defeat, the Confederates failed to follow up on their triumph and advance on Washington. In later years this would be judged by some to be a missed opportunity; at the time, Confederate women shared conflicting reports, debated what victory meant, and wondered whether it was worth the cost.

In Charleston, South Carolina, Emma Holmes, daughter of a plantation owner, was ecstatic. Although the enemy had outnumbered the gallant Confederates by a margin of more than 2:1, she recorded in her diary, none other than President Jefferson Davis had helped lead his men to victory. Several Union regiments were cut to shreds, including the renowned 11th New York Zouaves, while the “celebrated” battery of T. W. Sherman had been captured. Among the South Carolinians who had fallen was General Barnard Bee; Holmes made no mention of the service of Virginia’s Thomas J. Jackson, whose command, according to Bee’s oft-quoted observation, had stood there like a stone wall astride Henry House Hill. Even as Holmes devoured reports of the disastrous fate that had befallen Union forces, she steeled herself in preparation for the arrival of Confederate dead at Charleston.

Another South Carolinian, Mary Chesnut, reflected on what had happened. She now lived in Richmond: her husband James, a member of the Confederate Congress, had seen action as a volunteer aide to Beauregard and had delivered orders to none other than Jackson himself. Mary Chesnut wrote that she listened in disgust as President Davis took credit for the victory: she knew that, contrary to earlier reports, Davis had not been on the field during the battle itself. When she asked why the Confederates had not followed up on their triumph by advancing on Washington, one politician told her to be quiet; another politely advised her, “Don’t ask awkward questions.” She also recorded the skeptical assessment of another politico, who averred, “This victory will be our ruin. It lulls us into a fool’s paradise of conceit at our superior valor.”

In both cases celebration was tempered by a feeling that more could have been achieved. At the same time, the cost of battle proved sobering. Holmes noted the wives who had lost husbands and the children who had lost fathers; Chesnut wrote, “Now this horrible vision of the dead on the battlefield haunts me.” Her husband told her of how he had cared for several badly wounded men on the field, including a Union soldier “who begged for water”: further inspection revealed that his legs were “smashed” and that the best Chesnut could do was to administer some morphine to relieve the pain and ease the suffering. “This is my first battle,” James Chesnut remarked. “I hope my heart will not grow harder.”

A week after the battle Mary Stark of Columbia, South Carolina, wrote Mary Chesnut of her reaction to the news of the victory at Manassas, as southerners would soon term the battle. “I think every man on that battlefield on our side was a hero,” she enthused, later adding: “That was a dear-bought, but such a grand, victory. It seems incredible.” And it was only the beginning.

Also of interest:
  • “The Union Army Retreats,” William Howard Russell classic eyewitness account of the First Battle of Bull Run, this week’s Story of the Week
  • At Bull Runnings Harry Smeltzer hosts digitized material related to the First Battle of Bull Run including links to the orders of battle, correspondence, and biographical sketches, as well as his own blog
  • At Crossroads Brooks D. Simpson blogs about history, historians, and the academic life, much of it related to the Civil War
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It (includes diary entries by Emma Holmes and Mary Chesnut, and Mary Stark's letter)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Liesl Schillinger on what to reread this summer and why

Guest blog post by Liesl Schillinger, New York-based writer, literary critic, and creator of the whimsical neologisms blog wordbirds

I’m about to go on my first true vacation this year, to an island in the middle of a lake where there’s no Internet and no electricity. In the daytime, our light comes from the sun; at nightfall, from oil lanterns whose glow extends halfway across our birch-bough beds. As a literary critic, I read at all times; but on holiday, I indulge in the pleasure of rereading. And since the Adirondacks (where I’ll be) are steeped in this country’s mythic past, I’ll be bringing American authors with me to reread. Here are the ones I’ll be dipping into, while the light lasts:

Edith Wharton. When I first read Wharton’s The House of Mirth, at 16, I loved this book and rued Lily Bart’s cruel fate. Reading it decades later, I was struck instead by the cruelty of Wharton’s social world and by her heroine’s bottomless venality. Wharton’s Collected Stories tend to be breezier and better-humored than her longer work (though still a little wicked), and I’ll be diving back into them—particularly “Charm Incorporated,” a story about a businessman who marries a beguiling immigrant whom the reader imagines to be a gold-digger, but who in fact rescues her husband’s fortunes.

John Dos Passos. What Carl Sandburg did with poetry for Chicago, Dos Passos did with prose for New York. In his tour de force, Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos wrote with striking, cinematic visual imagery, using dialogue (mostly) to convey a living, breathing portrait of Manhattan in the first two decades of the last century. Though Dos Passos includes the wealthy among his characters, he gives unusual voice to working American men, women and immigrants. Like Sandburg, who defended ordinary citizens in his long cycle, The People, Yes, Dos Passos championed the working man, and he ought to be more forcefully championed by those who admire Hemingway, Steinbeck and the modern novel.

F. Scott Fitzgerald. Many people reread The Great Gatsby. But the Fitzgerald novel that haunts me is Tender Is the Night, in which he transmits love’s poignancy more evocatively than just about anyone else. And his passage about Nicole’s Paris shopping trip is my favorite run-on sentence of all time: “For her sake trains began their run at Chicago and traversed the round belly of the continent to California; chicle factories fumed and link belts grew link by link in factories; men mixed toothpaste in vats and drew mouthwash out of copper hogsheads; girls canned tomatoes quickly in August or worked rudely at the Five-and-Tens on Christmas Eve . . .” Best read when one is far from toil . . . say, on a dock in the afternoon, as the first gin and tonics come around.

Kurt Vonnegut. Growing up in Indiana (Vonnegut’s home state), I got to take an eccentric class in high school devoted to Vonnegut’s oeuvre—taught by a wry, obese teacher who resembled (I thought) Vonnegut’s portly “Mr. Rosewater.” I must have read Cat's Cradle—Vonnegut’s parable of connection and empathy in the age of mass destruction—five times. I have also reread Slaughterhouse-Five, his stories Welcome to the Monkey House, and even his wacky, cartoon-filled Breakfast of Champions. His books are mosaics studded with fertile, glinting thoughts and images, always worth poring over again, always producing a fresh impression.

Anne Tyler. I consider some of the novels Anne Tyler wrote in the 1970s and 1980s to be American classics: Searching for Caleb, The Accidental Tourist, and, my favorite, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (about a dysfunctional family, before that term came into wide use). Understated humor runs through her books like a stream among the rushes: in one novel, a woman drives a car that’s missing a door; after she parks it, another character rips an ad from a magazine and tapes it to the frame: "Wouldn’t You Really Rather Have a Buick?" Later, she pops a piece of candy into her mouth from a bowl on a coffee table, only to realize it’s made of glass. This is American vision, American nuance, told in American language. And even Tyler’s sharpest observations have a generous, merciful quality to them, elevating her writing above satire or tale-telling.

John Updike. Rabbit runs, Rabbit gets reduxed, and Rabbit is reread; but the Updike novel I’m drawn to over and over is his stately retelling of the American century through the multi-generational saga In the Beauty of the Lilies. Written in 1996, this book begins in the rural, decent small-town America we associate with Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart, and progresses relentlessly but organically to the media-oversaturated 90s, by which time an uncentered population has lost its context, and a neglected boy (who is nonetheless somebody’s son) joins a Waco-like cult, and shakes off its spell too late. The confident breadth of Updike’s span inspires awe. It’s an ideal book to wrap up at sunset . . . before returning for reassurance and warmth to the companionship of friends and family around the campfire.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Edith Wharton: Novels, Novellas, Stories, and Other Writings; John Dos Passos: Novels 1920-1925; Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems; Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Writers in love: walking in New York and the light of Los Angeles

In the past two months Flavorwire has collected bouquets of literary love letters to America’s two largest cities—and we couldn’t let them go unrequited. In May Kathleen Massara assembled memorable quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. B. White, Ralph Ellison, Gary Shteyngart, Colum McCann, Joseph O’Neill, Patti Smith, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo, and Zadie Smith on different facets of New York City. The quote from Patti Smith’s Just Kids conjures with “Frank O’Hara territory” and reminds us of the long tradition of New York “walking around” poems that began with Walt Whitman. Phillip Lopate traced some of this history in his introduction to Writing New York: A Literary Anthology, the LOA’s motherlode of New York love:
Once Whitman perfected the catalogue or list, it became a favorite technique among New York poets for conveying sensory saturation. Whitman’s impact on later peripatetic city poets (such as Frank O’Hara, Charles Reznikoff, and James Schuyler) was vast, partly because the all-embracing, synthesizing persona he developed offered a solution to the problem of integrating the random stimuli of modern life. The walk poem is a species of travel literature in which the writer puts himself through culture shock in his own city.
Here is Whitman not just walking but traversing time in a passage from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever
        so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look at the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright
        flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift
        current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-
        stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.
In poems like “A Step Away from Them” and “The Day Lady Died,” Frank O’Hara built on Whitman’s walk poem to create “diary poems” that, in Lopate’s words “found some larger resonance in the trivia and detritus of the passing moment. You can hear Frank O'Hara, Patti Smith, and others read some “walking around” poems on this Poetry Foundation UbuWeb podcast.

Last week Massara paid homage to the other coast’s big city with Literary Love Letters to Los Angeles. Enjoying quotes from Joan Didion, Christopher Isherwood, Raymond Chandler, Steve Erickson, Karen Tei Yamashita, Charles Bukowski, Bret Easton Ellis, James Ellroy, Nathanael West, and the bicoastal F. Scott Fitzgerald, we were delighted to find that seven of these ten are among the seventy-seven contributors to Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology. One commenter found “all of [the quotes chosen by Massara] pretty damning” and, for a corrective, we immediately turned to Lawrence Weschler’s luminous essay “L.A. Glows” in which he interviews artists, poets, scientists, cinematographers, environmental engineers, art gallery directors, and even Vin Scully, the veteran Dodgers announcer, to probe the ethereal quality of L.A.’s light. Here’s a taste from his session with writer and public information officer D. J. Waldie, author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir:
It seems to me, actually, that there are four—or, anyway, at least four—lights in L.A. To begin with, there’s the cruel, actinic light of late July. Its glare cuts piteously through the general shabbiness of Los Angeles. Second comes the nostalgic, golden light of late October. It turns Los Angeles into El Dorado, a city of fool’s gold. It’s the light William Faulkner—in his story “Golden Land”—called “treacherous unbrightness.” It’s the light the tourists come for—the light, to be more specific, of unearned nostalgia. Third, there’s the gunmetal-gray light of the months between December and July. Summer in Los Angeles doesn’t begin until mid-July. In the months before, the light can be as monotonous as Seattle’s. Finally comes the light, clear as stone-dry champagne, after a full day of rain. Everything in this light is somehow simultaneously particularized and idealized: each perfect, specific, ideal little tract house, one beside the next. And that’s the light that breaks hearts in L.A.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and the two O’Hara poems); Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology—ON SALE: $9.95 (includes William Faulkner’s “Golden Land,” Lawrence Weschler’s “L.A. Glows,” and an excerpt from D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Harold Schechter on two strikingly similar murder trials: Casey Anthony and Alice Crimmins

Alice Crimmins with her two children
Guest blog post by Harold Schechter, professor of American literature, Queens College, the City University of New York, and editor of True Crime: An American Anthology

Besides satisfying our secret need for “murderous excitement” (in William James’s phrase), sensational homicide cases demonstrate timeless truths about the human condition, one of which receives its definitive formulation in Ecclesiastes: “There is no new thing under the sun.” Apart from a few specifically current-day details—the accused taking part in a “Hot Body” contest a few days after her daughter went missing, the celebratory “Bella Vita” tattoo she had etched on her shoulder around the same time—there is little in the recent case of Casey Anthony that we haven’t seen before. As several commentators have observed, it strongly resembles another tabloid sensation that riveted the public nearly a half-century ago: the case of Alice Crimmins, aka “The Medea of Kew Gardens Hills,” (as Albert Borowitz entitles his masterful account in the Library of America volume, True Crime: An American Anthology).

On the morning of July 14, 1965, Crimmins—a twenty-six-year-old Queens homemaker who had taken a job as a cocktail waitress after separating from her husband and becoming embroiled in a nasty custody dispute—reported that her two children, five-year-old Eddie and four-year-old Missy, had vanished from their ground-floor bedroom. A few hours later, Missy’s corpse was found in a nearby vacant lot, her pajama top knotted around her neck. Another week passed before Eddie’s badly decomposed body turned up on a highway embankment about a mile away.

From the instant he set eyes on her, Detective Jerry Piering, the lead investigator on the case, was convinced of Alice’s guilt, not on any sound forensic basis but because she didn’t conform to his conception of proper motherhood. An attractive redhead who favored tight-fitting toreador pants, high-heeled white shoes, and a teased bouffant hairdo, she struck the strait-laced Piering as a heartless hussy—an impression seemingly confirmed when she failed to react with a sufficient degree of hysteria to the sight of her slain daughter’s remains.

Branded as a brazen tramp by the tabloids—a deplorable “symptom of America’s sex revolution”—Crimmins was put on trial in May 1968 for the murder of Missy. Never wavering from her original story, she repeatedly interrupted the proceedings to protest her innocence and finally took the stand in her own defense. The prosecuting attorney, however, turned her testimony into an opportunity to catalogue her long, titillating history of boyfriends and casual flings. Even her own attorney called her “amoral.” The trial ended with a conviction by a jury of twelve married men of first-degree manslaughter, subsequently overturned on appeal. She was tried for the second time in April 1971 and convicted again, of first-degree manslaughter of Missy and this time of first-degree murder for Eddie’s death.

As in the case of Casey Anthony, the Crimmins verdict provoked a good deal of outrage—though for the opposite reason. Feminists in particular believed that Alice had not been justly convicted but punished for her free sexual behavior, scapegoated by a society threatened by the burgeoning women’s movement. Times have changed in this regard. No such charge has occurred in the Anthony case. The countless people (myself included) outraged by the verdict believe that this time a mother has gotten away with murder.

Also of interest:
  • TruTV's online crime library devotes several pages to the story of the Alice Crimmins case
  • On Forbes.com Kiri Blakeley questions the phenomenon of sensational murder trials and explains “Why I Won’t Follow the Casey Anthony Trial”
  • Harold Schechter is the author or editor of several books on true crime, most recently Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend
Related LOA works: True Crime: An American Anthology  (includes "The Media of Kew Garden Hills" on the Alice Crimmins case)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Suzanne Vega talks about Carson McCullers

Suzanne Vega as Carson McCullers
Photo: Sandra Coudert
Earlier this year singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega drew on a lifelong fascination with the work of Carson McCullers to create, with Duncan Sheik, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, a one-woman show Vega performed at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Greenwich Village. The play ranged across McCullers's many friendships, loves and infatuations; her successes and illnesses; the characters she created, the writer she aspired to be and became. Vega talked about what McCullers has meant to her in an exclusive interview with The Library of America.
LOA: In previous interviews you’ve mentioned discovering Carson McCullers as a teenager and, at Barnard College, adapting some of her short stories into songs for an undergraduate thesis. Now, some thirty years later, you’ve just finished a month-long run of Carson McCullers Talks About Love. What is it about Carson McCullers’s work that has kept her such a presence in your life all this time? 
Vega: It’s really more like four years spread out over thirty. There were years when the project had to take a back seat to raising my daughter and being on tour. The things I find compelling about Carson McCullers are: First, her character. Brilliant, funny, droll, compassionate, bitchy, needy, but never pathetic. Second, her work itself. Her social vision—so unusual in a girl her age when she wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter—beautifully and humanely rendered in language and imagery. And yet odd and unique at the same time. Her details resonate with me. For example, Mick Kelly takes an art program sponsored by the government—I was that kind of child.
Vega and Sheik wrote fourteen songs for the show and one of the evening’s most entertaining moments comes when everything McCullers ever felt or thought about other writers seems to get poured into the song “Harper Lee” (see YouTube video below).Vega talked about her research for the song:
LOA: The McCullers in your play has a winning feistiness but she’s not always entirely likable. In “Harper Lee” she sings:
Virginia Woolf, she leaves me cold.
I recognize the genius, but I’m twice as bold.
I have more to say than Hemingway.
Lord knows, compared to Faulkner,
I say it in a better way.
She goes on to sing that her Ballad of the Sad Café is better than The Great Gatsby and pokes fun at Harper Lee because she “only wrote the one book” compared with McCullers’s “more than three.” Did all of these sentiments really come from her writings?

Vega: Her actual phrase about Virginia Woolf comes from a transcript of a lecture she gave at the 92nd Street Y with Tennessee Williams. She says that she is a genius, but doesn’t “send her, as they say in the theater, the way Katherine Mansfield does.” She did actually say “I have more to say than Hemingway,” and “Lord knows, I say it better than Faulkner.” The quote about Ballad of the Sad Café—I found it on Amazon, written in a review by a reader. She didn’t say it about herself, but I thought she would have liked it. Of course she actually was a Fitzgerald fan. I made up that line about Harper Lee and the “one book.” However, she did say that Harper Lee was “poaching on my literary preserves.” The whole verse about Truman Capote “plagiarizing her cadences” is taken verbatim from the biography The Lonely Hunter by Virginia Spencer Carr.
Read the entire interview

Watch Suzanne Vega perform "Harper Lee" on WNYC's Soundcheck

Related LOA works: Carson McCullers: Complete Novels

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Christoph Irmscher on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his beloved wife, Fanny

Longfellow and his wife Frances "Fanny" Appleton
 with sons Charles and Ernest, ca. 1849
(Photo from the National Park Service,
Longfellow National Historic Site).
Guest blog post by Christoph Irmscher, professor of English, Indiana University, Bloomington, and editor of John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings

On the afternoon of July 9, 1861, as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was asleep in his study, his wife Fanny came running in. She was engulfed in flames. Instantly awake, Longfellow grabbed a rug and wrapped it around her to extinguish the fire, injuring himself quite badly in the process. It was too late. Fanny’s lower body and torso were so severely burned that she died the next day. In a matter of minutes, Longfellow’s life was destroyed, too.

There are different stories about what exactly caused this dreadful accident. The traditional version has Fanny sealing an envelope containing a lock of hair cut from one of her daughters when the candle she had used to melt the wax ignited her frilly summer dress. But Longfellow’s daughter Annie, who was only five years old at the time, later admitted, privately, that she might have been responsible for what happened. She had been messing around with a box of matches, she said, when one of them suddenly dropped, flared, and set her mother’s white muslin dress on fire. There is some evidence for the latter version. When Annie was born, her father, smitten with all things Italian, had given her the wonderfully resonant middle name “Allegra,” the cheerful one. After the accident, Longfellow would refer to her as “Panzie,” short for “Penserosa.” Laughing Allegra (this is how readers knew her from Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour”) had become a sad, melancholy, pensive little girl.

No one was affected more by what had happened than Longfellow himself. As Fanny’s body was still lying upstairs, Longfellow cowered down below, numb with grief, fearing he had lost his mind. Please, please do not send me to an asylum, he begged his friend Cornelius Felton, who had shown up to help, only to find that he really couldn’t. The disaster that had befallen Longfellow was monumental. On July 13, they buried Fanny in Mount Auburn Cemetery, without Longfellow, who was too ill to leave the house. A day later, Fanny’s father, Nathan Appleton, one of the richest men in Massachusetts, died too. “How I am alive after what my eyes have seen I know not,” Longfellow eventually wrote to Fanny’s sister Mary, struggling mightily to find words that would recreate his “beautiful” life with Fanny. “I never looked at her without a thrill of pleasure,” he said, in one of the most moving declarations of married love I know in all of American literature. “She never came into a room where I was without my heart beating quicker, nor went out without my feeling that something of the light went with her.”

Longfellow’s grief knew no bounds, and it remained so for the rest of his life. He tried to be the best father he could to his five children, but something inside him had died, too. Frances Appleton had been brilliant, irreplaceably smart, and witty: a committed pacifist, a clever observer, a writer with a gift for nuances that rivaled that of any of her male contemporaries. Longfellow revered her. And he found himself helplessly drawn to her, looking forward to the “delicious” time he was able to spend with her alone, “in her chamber.”

What her loss did to him is clear to anyone who so much as skims his still mostly unpublished journals, now kept at Harvard’s Houghton Library. Longfellow’s wedding day was the beginning of his “Vita Nuova of happiness,” he claimed, a happiness that never gave way to familiarity, that never dulled his senses to the heartbreakingly beautiful sight of Fanny’s face at night, in the lamplight, as she was bending over her book. Their anniversary, celebrated in his journal year after year after year, was, he said, his own personal “Easter.”

His deep love for her led him to recruit his dentist--since no physician seemed disposed to try it--to administer ether to his wife as she gave birth to their daughter, also named Fanny, on 7 April 1847, the first American woman to deliver a child under such circumstances. “No pain,” Longfellow noted with satisfaction. “Women have so much to suffer. I told [Fanny] that she could congratulate herself upon having had it in her power to show her countrywomen how some of their agony might be safely avoided.” I would be hard pressed to name another male American poet so attuned to the needs not only of his wife but of women in general.

How agonizing to him, then, to watch Fanny slip away from him so suddenly, so wretchedly, so needlessly. His own pain never subsided. He hid it from the world, especially from his children, performing the roles society and his ever-growing fame as a poet demanded of him, while inwardly he carried his grief, a grief that had grown to the size of a mountain, as he revealed in “The Cross of Snow,” a poem he wrote a full eighteen years after Fanny’s death and never published.

In the summer of 2006, I was preparing an exhibit for the Longfellow Bicentennial at Houghton Library. As I was sifting through the poet’s papers, I came across a little envelope that had, in Longfellow’s own handwriting, the year 1862 inscribed on it. Imagine my distress when I opened it and found tucked away inside it, tenderly wrapped, a beautiful curl of hair, light brown, mixed with some strands of white. The date (the correct one) written shakily on the wrapping—10 July 1861—left no doubt whose lock I had found in there. Someone had taken it from Fanny’s head the day she died. Outside, the waning sunlight danced on the leaves of the crabapple trees in Harvard Yard. For a moment, time stopped.

Fanny Longfellow's hair.
Longfellow Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University
(MS Am 1340 [51])
(Photo courtesy of Houghton Library)
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings (includes “The Cross of Snow”)

George Kimball (1943–2011): A Memorial

The Library of America is saddened to learn of the death on July 6 of legendary sportswriter George Kimball. For twenty-five years Kimball wrote a sport column for the Boston Herald, retiring in 2005. As his friend and colleague Thomas Hauser wrote in a 2004 profile:
Over the years, Kimball has covered thirty Super Bowls, the World Series, the NBA Finals, all four golf majors, Wimbledon, the summer and winter Olympics, and countless other sports events.
Kimball is best known as one of America’s premier boxing writers, having covered more than 350 title bouts and receiving the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1986. Starting in 1997, he wrote the weekly “America at Large” column on boxing for The Irish Times. As testimony to his tirelessness, his last piece, “On the (root) beer for Dunne's world title bout” appeared there on June 30.

In 2005 Kimball, 62, was diagnosed with inoperable esophageal cancer. But that didn’t slow him down. As Hauser wrote in a memorial on The Sweet Science this morning:
Many people engage in a flurry of activity when they’re in their sixties to make up for time lost when they were young. George was determined to make up for time that he knew he would lose at the end.

Over the next six years, George was living, not dying. He was as content and productive as most people are at any time in their lives.

He added to his legacy as a writer by authoring Four Kings (the definitive work on the round-robin fights among Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, and Roberto Duran). That was followed by Manly Art (a collection of George’s own columns about the sweet science). He also edited two anthologies with John Schulian (At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing [for The Library of America] and The Fighter Still Remains: A Celebration of Boxing in Poetry and Song).

George took pride in his writing. He was more than a chronicler of the boxing scene; he was part of it. He was one of the people who I knew would always be at ringside when I went to the fights. It’s sad that he’ll no longer be there.
Kimball’s note to Hauser, asking him to be available in case Kimball wasn’t able to make a reading in April of this year, is indicative of the veteran writer's kindness and humor, his clear-sighted understanding of his condition, and his indomitable will:
I agreed to do an April 7th event. But I start a pretty heavy-duty chemo regimen on Monday [January 17th]. I've had all three drugs they'll be using before, though not in this particular combination. None of them were much fun. They'll do another PET scan in early March to see if it had any effect. If it hasn't, I imagine they'll discontinue treatment and just try to make me comfortable for as long as I last. In other words, there is a possibility that I won’t last until April, in which case you might have to do my share of the reading. I have every intention of being there on April 7th. But if I'm not, I'll have the best of all excuses. Cheers, GK.
In keeping with his wishes, there will be no funeral. A memorial service will be held at a later date.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Looking back: what readers have enjoyed most from Story of the Week and Reader’s Almanac

It was on July 4 one year ago that The Library of America launched Reader’s Almanac, which we are delighted to see regularly rank as a top literary blog on Wikio and Technorati. Just six months earlier, LOA started Story of the Week. Now nearly eighty thousand subscribers receive the weekly alert for a free short story. Many thanks to all our readers, especially those who have made comments and recommendations, for helping these two initiatives succeed. We thought this an appropriate time to share some findings about which selections and posts you have enjoyed the most.

Story of the Week
  1. “The Lady in the Bookcase,” James Thurber – week of April 23, 2010
  2. “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” Nathaniel Hawthorne – June 27, 2011
  3. “I’ll Be Waiting,” Raymond Chandler – December 6, 2010
  4. “The Little Room,” Madeline Yale Wynne – October 18, 2010
  5. “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey,” Mark Twain – November 19, 2010
  6. “The Train,” Flannery O’Connor – October 4, 2010
  7. “The Christmas Fireside (for Good Little Boys and Girls),” Mark Twain – December 17, 2010
  8. “An Interview with Mark Twain,” Rudyard Kipling – April 16, 2010
  9. “What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States,” Mary Church Terrell – January 14, 2011
  10. “A Box to Hide In,” James Thurber – June 17, 2011
The revival of interest in James Thurber has been one of the most remarkable stories of the past two years. Its start can clearly be traced to Keith Olbermann’s decision to end each of his Friday Countdown broadcasts with a reading from James Thurber: Writings and Drawings. And perhaps there was pent-up demand for Thurber. Six months ago, “The Lady in the Bookcase” was not even in the top five stories. Readers searching for Thurber found it in the Story of the Week archives and caused its climb. “A Box to Hide In,” on the other hand, just mailed two weeks ago and jumped to #10.

Another surprise in the rankings is the Nathaniel Hawthorne tale about “the hubris of science and the idea of eternal youth.” It mailed just last week and it’s #2! Is this really the perfect summertime read? Or perhaps it confirms our readers’ taste for the macabre? The ghoulish stories clustered near the top nevertheless show a discriminating range: from Madeline Yale Wynne’s disturbing little gem to ominous classics by Raymond Chandler and Flannery O’Connor. And speaking of life beyond the grave, we know nothing would please this year’s bestselling deceased author Mark Twain more than dominating this list with three entries—except perhaps being #1.

Reader’s Almanac
  1. The Best-Selling Titles in The Library of America’s First Three Decades – January 3, 2011
  2. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan: Desolation Angels led to “Desolation Row” – October 21, 2010
  3. Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita first published in the U.S. 52 years ago – August 18, 2010
  4. Forthcoming from The Library of America (Summer—Fall 2011) – February 7, 2011
  5. Andy Borowitz’s marketing copy for The Library of America: “Does being funny get you girls?” – March 17, 2011
  6. Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, and How to Sell a Banned Book – September 29, 2010
  7. Adam Levin: American literary influences on The Instructions – January 19, 2011
  8. Elaine Showalter on Philip Roth, Albert Camus, and plagues – October 20, 2010
  9. Zora Neale Hurston: Video of her ethnographic work in Florida in 1928 – July 26, 2010
  10. James Baldwin on hearing Martin Luther King preach in Montgomery – January 14, 2011
One of the most surprising findings in this list is how appealing readers find LOA’s sales data and lists of forthcoming titles. Expect more details on these fronts in the future. And we are very pleased that our new guest blog posts—represented above by Adam Levin and Elaine Showalter—have been so well received, and there are many more are in the pipeline. Showcasing a variety of voices has always been what The Library of America has been about.

The popularity of two posts—one on Kerouac, Ginsberg and Dylan; another on Zora Neale Hurston—seem driven as much by the accompanying videos as by the text. If you know of a compelling video on a literary subject, please bring it to our attention. We’d love to add it to our Library of America YouTube channel, and possibly also include it in a blog post.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

July 4, 1861: North and South mark the first Fourth of July of the Civil War

Twenty-year-old Kate Stone records in her journal her impressions of the first Fourth of July after secession at her family’s cotton plantation in Madison Parish, Louisiana:
The boys have holiday in honor of the Fourth but more I think to keep up old customs than for any feeling of respect for the day. This is the first Fourth in our memory to pass without a public merrymaking of some kind, but we do not hear of the day’s being celebrated in town or country. There are other and sterner duties before us. It would ill become us as a Nation to be celebrating a day of Independence when we are fighting for our very existence. 
Other parts of the South did observe the Fourth, at least in the war’s first year, as Adam Goodheart notes in 1861: The Civil War Awakening:
In the latter years of the Civil War, most of the Confederacy would let the day go unobserved, or even openly scorn it. In 1861, however, the Fourth of July was one of the few things that the two halves of the sundered nation still kept in common—more or less, anyway.
In one instance, Union troops holding Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula thought the artillery volley they heard on the other side of the James River was the beginning of a surprise attack—but it was the Confederates celebrating the holiday.

On the morning of the Fourth in the Capitol, at just before nine o’clock, President Lincoln, General Winfield Scott, Secretary of State William Seward and several other Cabinet secretaries mounted the reviewing stand set up under a large canopy on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Among the hundred thousand drably uniformed troops then camped in the Capitol, one regiment brought a decidedly jaunty note to the morning parade. Goodheart describes the scene:
The day’s great sensation was the Thirty-Ninth New York, a regiment known as the Garibaldi Guards. Its ranks included not just Italians but Germans, Frenchmen, Hungarians, Spaniards, and Swiss, along with a smattering of Russian Cossacks and Indian Sepoys. The men wore green-plumed bersaglieri hats and red shirts . . . The soldiers had already delighted Washington with their habit of singing “La Marseillaise” as they marched along with baguettes speared on their bayonets . . . Now each of the dashing warriors sported a sprig of evergreen or a small bouquet of flowers tucked into his hatband. As they passed, the men flung their botanical offerings onto the reviewing stand with Continental panache. Most seemed aimed at Winfield Scott—whether in tribute to him as head of the army or because he presented such a large target—and before long, the nonplussed general-in-chief resembled nothing so much as a mountainside in springtime.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It (includes several entries from Kate Stone’s Journal)
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