Week Nineteen: An Interview with NPR’s Nina Martyris!

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Nina Martyris

 

The journalist Nina Martyris has written for many publications including The Guardian, The New Republic, Salon, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Times of India, Slate, and The Millions.
She is also a regular contributor to NPR, where she writes about food politics, and this week she graciously agreed to be our book club guest!
Two of Nina’s articles serve (pun intended) to shed light on food politics in United States social history.

 

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Frederick Douglas

 

 

In the first article, Frederick Douglass On How Slave Owners Used Food As A Weapon Of Control  (NPR’s “The Salt,” 2/10/17) Martyris tells us;

“Hunger was the young Fred’s faithful boyhood companion. “I have often been so pinched with hunger, that I have fought with the dog – ‘Old Nep’ – for the smallest crumbs that fell from the kitchen table, and have been glad when I won a single crumb in the combat,” he wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom. “Many times have I followed, with eager step, the waiting-girl when she went out to shake the table cloth, to get the crumbs and small bones flung out for the cats.”

Her article explores Douglas’s slave narrative within the context of food used by masters as a form of violence and oppression against slaves.

The second piece studied is  How Suffragists Used Cookbooks as a Recipe for Subversion (NPR’s “The Salt” 11/5/15).

This piece and one very touching one about women visiting Susan B Anthony’s grave, were NPR’s two most-tweeted pieces on the evening of Nov 8 of the most recent presidential election.

 

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members of the women’s suffrage movement planning to march.

 

“In the movie Suffragette,” says Martyris, “ Englishwomen march on the streets, smash shop windows and stage sit-ins to demand the vote. Less well-known is that across the pond, a less cinematic resistance was being staged via that most humble vehicle: the cookbook.”

Both famous authors and everyday women distributing pamphlets on the street contributed recipes which sprinkled a healthy dose of revolution in-between the pickles and gravy.

Cookbooks as revolution? Absolutely, and we’ll have seconds.

 

On Thursday at 12:30 EST Nina joined us for a “live” Facebook chat

Here’s the great conversation we shared. Enjoy!¹

 

Nina Martyris: Hi Celeste! Are we on?

Celeste Helene Schantz:  Welcome, Nina Martyris! Yes, we’re on! Thank you so much for joining The Wonderlings today. It’s much appreciated! As you can see, we have some questions lined up . . .

Nina Martyris:  Thank you for your question and for inviting me to do this chat. Very flattered!

Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina, what drew you to write about food culture and politics?

Nina Martyris: Well, the answer is a mix of the political and personal. I’ve always been interested in literature, culture and politics, especially the ways in which they crisscross in our daily lives. Food, however, was something I was barely interested in until I got married and more or less had to start cooking (else I’d starve!).

One day, I was looking up an Italian recipe which had oregano in it. The chef providing the recipe added a little history. He said oregano only became popular in the US after WWII. Before that it was used largely by Italian immigrants. It was American soldiers who fought on the Italian front who tasted this fragrant herb and brought a taste for it back home. Then it began to boom. Consumption went up 6000 per cent in the 1950s. I was fascinated by this story — and the window it opened on how food travels and how history affects our palates.

On a whim, I pitched a “how oregano became popular in the US” story to NPR on the anniversary of V-E Day. The editor loved the idea, and that became the first of a series of food-history-politics stories.

Celeste Helene Schantz: Had you written for NPR before?

Nina Martyris: No, that was my first pitch. The editor was testing me, but she gave me a chance, which I’ll always be grateful for. I think she was intrigued by the idea of soldiers and oregano.

Celeste Helene Schantz: David Delaney asks: “Nina, Do you believe most wars are ultimately fought over food? “the Taste of War” notes that WW2 was fought for that reason. Has the author found an instinctual need (that becomes obsessive) for the security more food seems to provide people? And do you see any parallel in food use (control as in American slavery) and any current situations on our planet?”

Nina Martyris: Hello David! I’m so glad you posted in advance. It gave me a chance to do some preparation. I’m going to answer it in three parts.

Nina Martyris: Your question goes to the very heart of historical conflict. On a light note, the first conflict between man and God was fought because of an apple. But more seriously, yes, food has always been a major reason for conquest.

For instance, as I’m typing out this response, I have by my side a delicious cup of tea, two of whose ingredients (tea leaves and sugar) have a history covered in what Jonathan Swift liked to call “blood and treasure.” Britain was so addicted to tea that it fought two opium wars with China to protect the source of this afternoon elixir. And every cup of tea was sweetened by sugar grown by slaves on British-owned Caribbean plantations. Shelley, Southey and other radicals didn’t take sugar in their tea as a form of protest (one more of my NPR pieces!). In India, where I’m from, one of the most landmark mass protests against British rule was Gandhi’s Salt march against the punitive salt tax (which was much like the Boston tea tax). So yes, food features prominently as a source of conquest and war.

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Tea has a long and quite political history

Nina Martyris: To move more specifically to your question about WWII. Thank you for pointing me to Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham, whose book Curry I dip into frequently. Collingham does pursue her thesis doggedly, but there’s no question that Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 for one overwhelming reason: bread. He had his eye on the rich soil of Ukraine, the bread basket of the region. Before Hitler, during the thirties, millions in Ukraine starved thanks to Stalin exporting its wheat to crush peasant rebellion. The Ukrainians even have a word for it: Holodomor (Man-Made Famine). Hunger and war are bedfellows.

Nina Martyris: And, finally, about examples of food wars from today. The Ivory Coast in West Africa is a heartbreaking example — of a non-violent food war (though hunger is a form of violence). This country is the world’s largest producer of cocoa producing 40% of all cocoa in the world. Big companies like Mars, Hershey and Nestle use Ivorian cocoa for their chocolate.

 

Everyone loves chocolate, yes. Why then is poverty on the rise in this otherwise well-off country?

 

The answer is complex but to put it briefly, cocoa is a source of wealth but also a crop that is used as a weapon of control by MNCs and the country’s politicians. Politicians have been known to block exports of cocoa and seize control of cocoa income to fund the buying of arms. MNCs, who want bumper crops, often push for unsustainable farming practices which has long-term effects that poor farmers have to face. We enjoy chocolate so much today, but there’s no doubt that it, too, comes covered in “blood and treasure.”

Anna Schantz: Nina Martyris and now we see consumer boycotts of some foods for political or environmental reasons: eschewing products using palm oil, in order to protect the dwindling orangutan population comes to mind. And veganism.

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris , I so appreciate the fact that your writing is not driven by retributive passion or soapbox morality, instead you have a panoramic historical vision. Hats off to you!

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina, what was the readership like when Douglass’s work was first published? When a writer (as custodian of facts) has to be heard in a resistant or hostile environment, the challenges must be immense. To relate this question to your personal experience: do educators, commentators, scholars, artists, and writers have to take on the role of a hermeneutical mafia of sorts when there is a major dislocation in the codes observed in public discourse, and multi-faceted, in-depth exploration of issues is no longer prioritized? In this present time, which I like to call a period of etymological burlesque, how does a journalist who is a curator of history as it is unfolding, remain true to his/her calling?

Nina Martyris:  Shabnam! I’m here today because of you. But more important, you were one of the first people who encouraged me and made be believe that I could become a journalist. You were such a fabulous, imaginative teacher – one of a kind. I can still remember your wonderful lecture on Van Gogh.

Nina Martyris: To answer the first part of your question, it’s comforting to know that Douglass’ autobiography was very well received. It got good reviews and became an immediate bestseller. Within three years, it was reprinted nine times, and translated into French and Dutch. It is still the most widely read slave narrative in American history. Scarcely surprising given Douglass’ eloquence and the powerful theme he tackled — his life as a prism into the misanthropy of slavery.

Celeste Helene Schantz: Thank you, Shabnam! Nina Martyris, she is a treasure 🙂

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris thank you, you were the best and brightest, and I could not be prouder of what you have accompished.

Shabnam Mirchandani Celeste Helene Schantz it is kind of emotional to experience this virtual reunion, so thank YOU!

Nina Martyris: Moving on to our contemporary age of “etymological burlesque” — love the phrase — yes, as a journalist one is acutely conscious of how, in this age of fake news, facts are twisted, language is corrupted, and history misrepresented.

 

Indeed, the spur that got me researching the Frederick Douglass story was Fox news commentator Bill O’Reilly’s glib comment that slaves were well-fed. This from an educated person who writes on history. So I turned to Douglass’ book and began to read about what it was like to grow up as a slave. Of course it was an awful story, but Douglass is such a fine writer and thinker that his writing went beyond the misery to reveal the cynicism underpinning the system, and how food was used as a weapon of control. This piece touched a chord. I think it’s my most-read piece on NPR second only to the suffragist article.

Nina Martyris: Finally, talking about etymology, I did another short piece for the Economist on the word “mogul” at the time when Trump was calling for a Muslim ban. My point was that Trump enjoyed being called a real-estate mogul by the press, probably unaware that the title comes from the most powerful Islamic dynasty in history. My point being that we are all interconnected and influenced by other cultures even without knowing it. So bans are an absurd policy.

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris very astute observations, and you have harvested much from these teachable moments. It takes a lot of stamina and courage to wade through the sheer volume of dubious material being fed to us. As Stephen King recently pronounced: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” ( “bigly” comes to mind…)

Anna Schantz:  I’ve recently been involved in a number of enlightening discussions concerning cultural appropriation, particularly regarding music and dress, and particularly in reference to Indigenous peoples in Canada (Happy Indigenous Peoples Day, as well as Junet eenth, btw!). I’d like to ask Nina if she considers cooking and food culture an area calling for more sensitivity in appreciation, or whether it is perhaps exempt from rampant dominant culture commodification.

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When are we respecting and educating ourselves about food and when are we appropriating it? (Photo by James Sutton, Unsplash)

 

Also, how would she suggest we all, white and people of colour, might approach the celebration of food and our varied histories with it, for the promotion of greater mutual understanding and peace? Thank you!

Nina Martyris:  Hi Anna! Thank you for your wishes and for this question. Yes, it’s a tricky one — and it goes to the heart of freedom of expression. Who gets to tell whose stories? I’ve thought about it and I feel quite strongly that anyone should be able to write about anything. The job of a writer is to imagine and empathize and identify with people beyond those from his or her background. So if an Indian writer wants to set a novel in the American Mid-West she should go right away. Likewise, if a White American wants to write about China or India or any culture, he should go right ahead. I’m with Lionel Shriver on this one.

When it comes to food, the same rule should apply, in my view. Anyone should be able to cook anything. If a Vietnamese chef wants to make shrimp and grits, great. If a Southern chef wants to make pho, great.

 

The second half of your question — how we might approach the celebration of food and our varied histories with it, for the promotion of greater mutual understanding and peace — is in wonderful counterpoint to David’s question above. Food has been a historical source of conflict but it can also be a marvelous and delicious bridge between cultures. Breaking bread with a new group of people makes it slightly harder to hate them.

Nina Martyris: Anna, I’d also be interested in your views on cultural appropriation.

Anna Schantz:  Nina Martyris the recently resigned editor of a Canadian publication felt the same way. I think his refusal of any kind censorship and admittedly too flippant attitude regarding appropriation caused an uproar, partly because it was taken the wrong way. I understand your prioritizing freedom of speech, particularly journalistic freedom.

Nina Martyris:  I think my view is unpopular among liberal circles, but I feel strongly that stories belong to everyone.

Anna Schantz: I believe that it is not a level playing field, however, and that people of privilege owe a debt of respect and greater care when using traditions from marginalized peoples. In a perfect world it would not need to be legislated.

Nina Martyris:  Yes, I agree one should always be sensitive, but the freedom of speech absolutists who bridle even at that kind of demand. I’m not an absolutist, but lean towards that kind of freedom.

Jeri Harbers Thomson: In the suffragette article you say that a Henry James, Sr. was in favor of a woman’s right to vote, but that he didn’t feel many would avail themselves of that privilege. In our last presidential election, it was suggested (wish I had a cite here, but that he didn’t feel many would avail themselves of that privilege. In our last presidential election, it was suggested (wish I had a cite here, but memory fails!) that one reason. Clinton lost the election is because many women were swayed against voting for her by their husbands, because many men did not want a female president…especially a female Commander-in-Chief. Do you feel there is merit in this suggestion?

Nina Martyris: Hi Jeri! Thanks for this question about the suffragist piece.

Nina Martyris Though I wrote it in 2015 (the peg was the Meryl Streep movie), NPR re-posted it on social media on the evening of the election last year. It became one of if not the most tweeted pieces. This piece and one on women visiting Susan B Anthony’s grave in Rochester. It was so touching to see literally thousands and thousands of (mainly) women tweeting and commenting on it. It was a real moment. It’s something I’ll always remember.

Of course the next morning we knew that things had turned out differently!

Nina Martyris: To answer your question. I worked that Henry James Sr. anecdote into my article because I was so taken aback by the sheer condescension of his views. I’m glad his student fought him over it.

 

About the election, I’m quite sure there are women everywhere who vote the way their husbands do. Indeed when women in America were fighting for their Great Cause, many men were bewildered by their demand, saying that women were already represented by their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, so what did they want the vote for?

 

Even Frederick Douglass who was a staunch support of the suffragist movement, broke with it a little when it came to giving the black man the right to vote before women were given it. He said white women already had their husbands voting for their interests, whereas Blacks had no suffrage to represent them, and that if the black man voted, then, in an indirect way, the black woman would be represented too.

 

So perhaps some women did vote according to their husbands’ diktats but I would like to believe that they were not the majority. I’ve met many women (especially young women) who said they didn’t want to vote for Clinton. Many of them couldn’t abide Trump either, but they seemed to be thinking independently. One can only hope they were and that Henry James Sr. was wrong.

Anna Schantz:  Nina Martyris so moving!

Rick Williams: Question for Nina Martyris: I read these two articles plus her article on Gandhi being “the most punctual man in India” as well as “Auden’s 1939 Elegy for Yeats.” These articles appear to have required a lot of research and then reduced to a super ef ficient short article. I’m curious about Nina’s research and writing habits. Would Nina share some of her research and writings habits?

 

(side point: Is she like Gandhi checking her watch all the time or more like Auden when he writes “Stop all the clocks.”)

Nina Martyris:  Oh Rick! That question is like balm for my tired eyes. You’re so right. For each article, I have to read (or dip into) at least three or four books, apart from googling away like a worker bee to get all that information for those stories. Apart of course from cross-checking facts all the time. I always have reams of leftover research.

 

The clock is draconian — though unlike Gandhi (and Auden — he was fanatically punctual), I’m less conscientious and am always racing till the very last minute to meet a deadline. As a freelancer, I have to come up with unusual ideas — that’s the challenge. So I try to approach old stories from a fresh angle — for instance, everyone knew of Auden’s Yeats elegy, but the conversation and spinoffs it generated was something I worked out and connected.

Celeste Helene Schantz: Speaking of the clock, we’ve a few moments to go. Any last questions for Nina?

Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina, can we expect a book from you at some point?

Shabnam Mirchandani: Plan to write a book any time soon?

Nina Martyris: Have to think of a theme — non-fiction if at all.

Nina Martyris: After we finish this chat, I have to go back to researching a piece on — well, I can’t disclose it right now, but please read it if you can. It has to do with the Nazis. Nazis and food!

Shabnam Mirchandani: “Mein Food!” . . .

Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina Martyris, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. The time has gone much too quickly! Friends, feel free to carry on this fascinating conversation, and look for the recap in our Sunday Gazette. Nina, we’ll be looking for more of your wonderful rich prose and excellent articles! Thanks for joining us today.

Anna Schantz: Thank you, Nina!

Shabnam Mirchandani: THANK YOU Nina dearest!

Rick Williams: Unbelievably fantastic!

Nina Martyris: Thanks, Wonderlings! You’ll were great. Such good questions. Made me think, read and argue with myself. Bye for now.

 

Thanks to the wonderful members of The Wonderlings group who took time and consideration to participate in our discussion with Nina.

As usual, you rock!

For further reading:

Here is an excellent blog, Afro-Culinaria, a food blog authored by Michael W. Twitty, (Twitter: @Koshersoul /Instagram:@thecookinggene/Michael W. Twitty on Facebook), a food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian , and historical interpreter personally charged with preparing, preserving and promoting African American foodways and its parent traditions in Africa and her Diaspora and its legacy in the food culture of the American South.

Read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas for free, online!

 

¹Very minor edits made in transcribing our interview from Facebook for the purpose of clarity.

Week Eighteen: “When it Changed by Joanna Russ and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

The author Joanna Russ once said “There are plenty of images of women in science fiction. There are hardly any women.”

Certainly in Russ’s time, pulp books and movies relegated women  as symbols of mere male fantasy: whether as crew members with breasts protruding from their uniforms or scantily-dressed whores from Venus or morally pristine queens, female readers were often discouraged that, for a genre in which any future at all can supposedly be imagined, an intelligent future for women seldom was.

This week’s picks, one from the turn of the 20th century and one from 1972, both depict intelligent women forced to conform to the notions of femininity and accepting a docile role in a cage, established by the male characters.

First up, we’ll meet Janet Evason, an inhabitant in a colony on another planet, called Whileaway . . .

 

“When it Changed” by Joanna Russ

On Whileaway, 30 generations ago, a plague killed off all of the men, and the population now consists only of women, who have learned how to combine eggs to produce offspring.
Today, Whileaway is largely an agricultural society. When a crew of astronauts from earth arrives, they are bemused by the all-female society, find it quaint, and are sure that the women must be missing men.
What will happen now?
The winner of the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1972, nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story 1973, and included in Harlan Ellison’s anthology Again, Dangerous Visions . . .

Here is “When It Changed,” a short story by Joanna Russ.

 

 

Study Question:

What does the title of this short story (“When it Changed”) mean? What do you think changed? And exactly when did “it” change? Was it for the better?

 

Note: The story was anthologized in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions.

 

 

In Russ’s story, the male astronauts attempt to assign gender roles to the characters of  Katy and Janet when they interact with the women. They seem to decide that Katy is the “woman” in the relationship because they find her attractive. They suggest that her life will improve when men come to the planet because she will be able to find a satisfactory (male) mate.

While hyperbolic and, in an ironic twist, presenting a “turnabout is fair play” bland stereotype of the male characters, Russ  drives home the point that although the women do not live in a utopia, it is much closer to one than with these males there, whose violence and need for domination are obvious. She forces the reader to imagine a world in which the women are free to do as they want and it’s the men relegated to stock character roles.

 

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 Cardino illustrated this 1975 Pulp Fiction Cover for DELL Books. The illustration is typical of the depiction of women in the genre

Russ, in fact, was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and often examined both how women were depicted as characters in science fiction and also how women authors were discounted because they did not subscribe to the male fantasy-oriented pulp.

 

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The story is certainly not perfect. The character of Janet is not well-explored and in some ways Russ hoists with her own petard by creating a character without substantial dimension.

Additionally, Russ creates a world which imbues some of the issues of prejudice of her time: the fact that the male astronauts are Russian, and “ugly,” for example, is a clear allusion to the political zeitgeist of the later 20th century.

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Queen of Outer Space, Zsa Zsa Gabor 1958

However, fear of “the other” has been explored in Sci Fi since its earliest days, such as in the work of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds until today’s news headlines regarding immigration and terrorism.

Russ’s work is important because it boldly confronts gender stereotypes in a literary genre long dominated by men, presenting territory for women in charge while raising issues of violence, aggression and where those impulses come from.

 

 

 

. . .A bit about Joanna Russ

 

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Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ (February 22, 1937 – April 29, 2011) was an American writer, academic and radical feminist. She is the author of a number of works of science fiction, fantasy and feminist literary criticism such as How to Suppress Women’s Writing, as well as a contemporary novel, On Strike Against God, and one children’s book, Kittatinny. She is best known for The Female Man, a novel combining utopian fiction and satire, and the story “When It Changed.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

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Source: Twitter

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a classic horror story, often compared to Poe, which has been anthologized in countless collections.

After the birth of her one daughter, Gilman experienced depression. The “rest cure” her doctor prescribed became the basis for this story.
Although “The Yellow Wallpaper” may seem hyperbolic, it speaks to the cavalier cures in existence at the time.


The author herself talks about why she wrote the story:

“For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia–and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as I lived. This was in 1887.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.

Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad.
He never acknowledged it.”

 

Here is “The Yellow Wallpaper” (with great book illustrations!) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Enjoy!

 

 Study Question:
 

What does Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wall-paper” suggest about middle-class women’s place and role(s) in this society?

 

“Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wall-paper” was written during a time of great change. In the early- to mid-nineteenth century, “domestic ideology” positioned American middle class women as the spiritual and moral leaders of their home. Such “separate spheres” ideals suggested that a woman’s place was in the private domain of the home, where she should carry out her prescribed roles of wife and mother. Men, on the other hand, would rule the public domain through work, politics, and economics. By the middle of the century, this way of thinking began to change as the seeds of early women’s rights were planted. By the end of the 1800s, feminists were gaining momentum in favor of change. The concept of “The New Woman,” for example, began to circulate in the 1890s–1910s as women pushed for broader roles outside their home-roles that could draw on women’s intelligence and non-domestic skills and talents.

 

Gilman advocated revised roles for women, whom, Gilman believed, should be on much more equal economic, social, and political footing with men. In her famous work of nonfiction Women and Economics (1898), Gilman argued that women should strive-and be able-to work outside the home. Gilman also believed that women should be financially independent from men, and she promoted the then-radical idea that men and women even should share domestic work.

 

First appearing in the New England Magazine in January 1892, “The Yellow Wall-paper,” according to many literary critics, is a narrative study of Gilman’s own depression and “nervousness.” Gilman, like the narrator of her story, sought medical help from the famous neurologist S. Weir Mitchell. Mitchell prescribed his famous “rest cure,” which restricted women from anything that labored and taxed their minds (e.g., thinking, reading, writing) and bodies. More than just a psychological study of postpartum depression, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper” offers a compelling study of Gilman’s own feminism and of roles for women in the 1890s and 1910s.”¹

 

The “Rest Cure” and Theodate Pope

 

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Theodate Pope (left)

“Theodate Pope Riddle (February 2, 1867 – August 30, 1946) was an American architect. She was one of the first American women architects as well as a survivor of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.
Here’s an interesting excerpt about Pope’s subjugation to “The Rest Cure” when she was a young woman:
“The next year, in March 1888, her parents sent her to Philadelphia, to be examined and cared for by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a physician famous for treating patients, mainly women, suffering from neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion. Mitchell’s solution for Theodate was his then-famous “Rest Cure,” a period of forced inactivity lasting up to two months.

“At first, and in some cases for four or five weeks, I do not permit the patient to sit up or to sew or write or read,” Mitchell wrote, in his book Fat and Blood. “The only action allowed is that needed to clean the teeth.” He forbade some patients from rolling over on their own, insisting they do so only with the help of a nurse. “In such cases I arrange to have the bowels and water passed while lying down, and the patient is lifted on to a lounge at bedtime and sponged, and then lifted back again into the newly-made bed.” For stubborn cases, he reserved mild electrical shock, delivered while the patient was in a filled bathtub. His method reflected his own dim view of women. In his book Wear and Tear; or, Hints for the Overworked, he wrote that women “would do far better if the brain were very lightly tasked.”

― Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (Crown Publishers 2015)

 

 

 

The publication of Herland

 

Herland

Pantheon Books 1979

Herland is a utopian novel from 1915, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The book describes an isolated society composed entirely of women, who reproduce via parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). The result is an ideal social order: free of war, conflict, and domination. It first appeared as a serial in The Forerunner, a magazine edited and written by Gilman between 1909 and 1916. The book is the middle volume in her utopian trilogy; it was preceded by Moving the Mountain (1911), and followed with a sequel, With Her in Ourland (1916). It was not published in book form until 1979.

The story is told from the perspective of Vandyck “Van” Jennings, a student of sociology who, along with two friends (Terry O. Nicholson and Jeff Margrave), forms an expedition party to explore an area of uncharted land where it is rumored lives a society consisting entirely of women. The three friends do not entirely believe the rumors because they are unable to think of how human reproduction could occur without males. The men speculate about what a society of women would be like, each guessing differently based on the stereotype of women which he holds most dear: Jeff regarding women as things to be served and protected; Terry viewing them as things to be conquered and won.

 

On feminist utopias

 

Both Gilman’s and Russ’s work explore the idea of a feminist utopia as well as fluid concepts of gender (Gilman’s is an important feminist work, although in her own life she was accused of racism and xenophobia.)

On Whileaway, Russ makes it clear that women too have their faults and that the society they’ve developed, while admirable, is also not perfect. They have their own aggression. As readers we must ask what lies in between our polarizing traditional stereotypes. “Masculine” and “feminine” are perhaps aspects of the same organism as opposed to two clear-cut, distinct creatures; and “Male” and “Female” are not the same as “Man” and “Woman.”

Russ later went on to write her novel The Female Man, which is considered a classic of Sci Fi. It explores gender and challenges the rigid sexist male dominance of Science Fiction until that time, asking readers to consider a fluid of view of gender not strong-armed by body building astronauts saving evil or helpless beautiful pin up Martian models in distress. Both authors set their stories against the fictional backdrops of other worlds, to provide a safe fantasy space for us to consider the “outlandish” notion.

For further reading . . .highly recommended:

The Screwfly Solution” – a 1977 science fiction short story by Raccoona Sheldon, a pen name for psychologist Alice Sheldon, who was better known by her other nom de plume, James Tiptree, Jr. It received the Nebula Award for Best Novelette, and has been adapted into a television film.

What happens when a disease causes male sexual impulses to instead become violent impulses?

A disturbing, powerful, and necessary story.

 

Also see this interview by Celeste Schantz with Marge Piercy, author of Woman on the Edge of Time, an iconic work of science fiction, and He, She and It, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

 

A bit about Charlotte Perkins Gilman . . .

 

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Gilman addresses a crowd

Charlotte Perkins Gilman/Charlotte Perkins Stetson (July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935), was a prominent American feminist, sociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform. She was a utopian feminist and served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle. Her best remembered work today is her semi-autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” which she wrote after experiencing postpartum depression.  She would later go on to write Herland,” a classic of feminist science fiction.

Gilman, like so many other feminist authors who succeeded her, would be subjected to ridicule, censor and criticism.

 

Nevertheless, she persisted.

 

 

 

 

For additional study, see Billy Collins’ poem, “Man in Space”

Also see the work of Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, James Tiptree Jr. and others.

¹ The National Endowment for the Humanities “Ed-sitement!” website

Week Seventeen: Keeping up Appearances- “The Diamond Necklace” by Guy De Maupassant and “The Far and the Near” by Thomas Wolfe

The Diamond Necklace” by Guy De Maupassant

This time around we’ll examine classic short stories about appearances, reality VS illusion, and perception.

A poet once said that ”beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
But consider, if you will, one young woman, Madame Loisel; a lady who is beautiful, but not content with her social station in life. She has the appearance of beauty . . . will she ever possess the reality?

Here is Guy De Maupassant’s ironic short story, “The Diamond Necklace.” Enjoy!

Charles-Frederick-Worth-Evening-Gown-of-Pale-Blue-Silk-Taffeta.-Paris-1860s

Charles-Frederick-Worth-Evening-Gown-of-Pale-Blue-Silk-Taffeta.-Paris-1860s

According to a study of Maupassant’s story from the Hatsboro-Horsham school district (which provides many great reader resources for students);

“Guy de Maupassant’s  short  story “The Necklace” (“La parure”) was  first published in  the Paris newspaper Le Gaulois on February 17, 1884, and was subsequently included in his 1885 collection of short stories Tales of Day and  Night (Contes de jour et de  la nuit).

In addition to its well-rounded  characters,  tight  plotting, wealth of  detail, and keen social commentary, “The Necklace” is conspicuous for  its  use  of  the “whip-crack” or “O. Henry” ending,in which a plot twist at the end of the story completely changes the story’s meaning. Although Maupassant rarely made use of this device, its presence in the work has tied him to it irrevocably.

Connections may  be made  between “The Necklace” and  the novel Madame Bovary written by Maupassant’s mentor and friend, Gustave Flaubert.

Both stories feature a young, beautiful woman  in a social situation that she finds distasteful.  Like Madame Bovary, Mathilde Loisel attempts to escape her social  station in  life, but her scheming  actions ultimately doom her.”

(Read the full study HERE.)

paris-1860

Paris, 1860 vintage photo

The study of Maupassant brings up some interesting issues about translation. The two written versions and the audio version presented in our group  are each slightly different in their word choices. The work of the translator doing faithful justice to the author might be one topic to discuss. Even the title of the story appears as “The Necklace” in some versions and “The Diamond Necklace” in others.
Our Wonderlings member Jeri Harbers Thomson noted that even just the first sentence in two of the versions are very different.
In one version: “The girl was one of those pretty and charming young creatures who sometimes are born, as if by a slip of fate, into a family of clerks.”
In another version:  “She was one of those pretty and charming girls who are sometimes, as if by a mistake of destiny, born in a family of clerks.”
Wonderlings member Mark Ordon, a translator, noticed, for example that the Soundcloud rendition uses different wording as well. Says Ordon;
“One very important difference between the audio and written versions was in the scene with the invitation. The written versions claim that tears went down Mathilde’s cheeks, while in the audio version they’re going down the husband’s cheeks! Also, the husband exclaims ‘how stupid you are’ in the written translation, but in the audio it’s ‘how stupid we are’. It seems the translator of the audio gave the husband more compassion!”

A bit about Guy De Maupassant . . .

Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant (5 August 1850 – 6 July 1893) was a French writer, remembered as a master of the short story form, and as a representative of the naturalist school of writers, who depicted human lives and destinies and social forces in disillusioned and often pessimistic terms.

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Guy De Maupassant

Maupassant was a protégé of Flaubert and his stories are characterized by economy of style and efficient, effortless dénouements (outcomes). Many are set during the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s, describing the futility of war and the innocent civilians who, caught up in events beyond their control, are permanently changed by their experiences. He wrote some 300 short stories, six novels, three travel books, and one volume of verse. His first published story, “Boule de Suif” (“Ball of Fat”, 1880), is often considered his masterpiece.

“The Far and the Near” by Thomas Wolfe

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Wolfe’s collection of stories published by Scribner in 1935

Let’s continue our examination of reality versus perception, appearance, and perspective with a very short story.
This one’s just three pages in length.

It’s time to meet the engineer of the Limited Express.

Has he ever passed by your town?

Here is “The Far and the Near” by the author Thomas Wolfe.

Background Information

Thomas Wolfe’s short story “The Far and the Near” was first published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1935 and was reprinted later that year in Wolfe’s first short—story collection, From Death to Morning.

For a writer known by his long, sprawling novels such as Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life and Of Time and the River, this ultrashort short story is a rare occurrence. While Wolfe’s novels have often fallen under criticism for their excessive autobiographical sources, the influence of their editors, and Wolfe’s wordy style, many critics in the last half of the twentieth century began to praise Wolfe for his short fiction.

“The Far and the Near” details the story of a railroad engineer in the 1930s who passes a certain cottage every day for more than twenty years, waving to the women who live there but never actually meeting them or seeing them up close. Upon his retirement, he goes to see the women, but they treat him badly and destroy the idyllic vision that he has built up around them.

Within its few pages, Wolfe’s short story emphasizes the potentially devastating effects on a person who is forced to confront the reality behind a vision. Since the work was written during the Great Depression, the loss of hope that takes place in the story would have been extremely familiar to Wolfe’s audience. The story can be found in the paperback edition of The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, which was published by Collier Books in 1989.¹

Wolfe inspired the works of many other authors, including Betty Smith with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek, and Prince of Tides author Pat Conroy, who has said, “My writing career began the instant I finished Look Homeward, Angel.”Jack Kerouac idolized Wolfe. Ray Bradbury was influenced by Wolfe, and included him as a character in his books. Earl Hamner, Jr., who went on to create the popular television series The Waltons, idolized Wolfe in his youth.

Hunter S. Thompson credits Wolfe for his famous phrase “Fear and Loathing” (on page 62 of Wolfe’s The Web and the Rock).

For more information, check out this exploration of Thomas Wolfe’s Work, from SCRBD.

(SCRBD is a digital library which also amasses a huge variety of documents including literary criticism and essays.)

 

Thomas Wolfe and the art of Edward Hopper
For a cross-disciplinary study it’s interesting to examine the work of one of Wolfe’s contemporary mid-century artists: Edward Hopper.
“Moments of the real world, the one we all experience, seem mysteriously taken out of time. The way the world glimpsed in passing from a train, say, or a car, will reveal a piece of a narrative whose completion we may or may not attempt, but whose suggestiveness will move us, making us conscious of the fragmentary, even fugitive nature of our own lives.”   -Mark Strand
edward-hopper-house-by-the-railroad-1925

Edward Hopper, House By The Railroad (1925)

Similarly, The American Experience (Prentice Hall Publishers 2005,) we find;
“Wolfe’s works reflected the country’s loss of stability and control (after World War One.) Modern storytelling was open-ended, fragmented, and narrated from a limited point of view-often leaving the reader frustrated, but challenged. Themes were no longer explained; they were implied. The Modernist audience must interpret this new literature, as well as a new era, for themselves.
Realist painter Edward Hopper also captured this fragmented, isolated American scene during the Depression Era. He and fellow American artists Robert Henri and John Sloan painted city scenes of everyday working class people, although he disassociated himself with the Ash Can School. The urban landscape lured a potential work force to the big cities, where people only met anonymity and isolation. He was fascinated by the lonely-solitary people, dark streets, vacant windows, and empty theater seats. Even his small groups of human subjects were indifferent and disconnected. His simplified shapes suggest
abstraction, but represent a realist vision.”
 There is much to excavate in both Maupassant’s and Wolfe’s stories of appearance, reality, and the irony of unfolding tragedy that dwells within the lives of their characters.

A bit about Thomas Wolfe . . .

ThomasWolfejpg

Thomas Wolfe Courtesy of the Thomas Wolfe Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library,  Asheville, NC.

Thomas Clayton Wolfe (October 3, 1900 – September 15, 1938) was an American novelist of the early twentieth century.

Wolfe wrote four lengthy novels, plus many short stories, dramatic works, and novellas. He is known for mixing highly original, poetic, rhapsodic, and impressionistic prose with autobiographical writing. His books, written and published from the 1920s to the 1940s, vividly reflect on American culture and the mores of that period, filtered through Wolfe’s sensitive, sophisticated, and hyper-analytical perspective.

You can purchase his collected short stories here.

For more information . . .

Be sure to check out The Thomas Wolfe Society’s great website.

¹Bookrags.com

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Week Sixteen: “East Side, North Africa” by Jane Bowles and “A Matter of Optics” by Warren Breckman

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“East Side, North Africa” by Jane Bowles

This week, we’ll traverse the streets of “the city.”

“1950’s Tangier was a seedy port city where artists, pirates, picaros, philistines, lapsed aristocrats, real aristocrats, and paupers posing as kings had found refuge for centuries.

The writer Jane Bowles and her husband Paul Bowles presided over an enviable literary and artistic milieu that included William S. Burroughs, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and others. Djuna Barnes typed up “Nightwood” there. Jane made a reputation out of being a sort of resident literary muse, and a sort of avante-garde literary salon was established.”
Yet not everything in Tangier becomes a glamorous and social occasion, as we learn in Jane Bowles’ account, “East Side, North Africa”
“East Side: North Africa” describes a day in Tangier during which Jane (“Jeanie”) is invited to visit with Moroccan women who know her housekeeper and companion Cherifa.

For in real life, it wasn’t the glamorous jet set but rather Cherifa, who some say inspired Bowles the most.

Here is “East Side: North Africa” by Jane Bowles.

A bit about Jane Bowles . . .

bowles

Jane and Paul Bowles in Tangiers with Truman Capote and Friends

From The Library of America website:

“Jane Bowles, whose limited oeuvre—one novel, one play, half a dozen short stories—belies a stellar reputation among critics and writers.

In 1948, when Jane arrived in Tangier, Morocco, to meet up with her husband, the novelist and composer Paul Bowles, she greeted their new home with enthusiastic admiration. “I love Tangier—the market and the Arab language, the Casbah, etc. And I long to go now to Marrakech and Taroudant.” As it turned out, the language was to prove a source of frustration, but Jane and Paul remained in Tangier for much of the rest of their lives.

Very little of Jane Bowles’s published writing concerns her adopted homeland, however. The notable exception is the essay “East Side: North Africa,” which Paul fictionalized (over her initial objections) into a short story, “Everything Is Nice.” In both its forms, the piece concerns the awkwardness of a young New Yorker’s attempt to fit into the urban society of Moroccan women.”

cherifa

Author Jane Bowles and her friend Cherifa (wearing chador) walking the streets of Tangier. (Tanger). (Photo by Terence/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

“I consider her the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters. Her work, her life: deep truth, observed without pretension, with humor and humanity. An artist and person, an angel.”—Tennessee Williams

Jane Bowles (Jane Sydney Auer) ( February 22, 1917 – May 4, 1973) was an American writer and playwright.

Here’s a fabulous article on Jane Bowles, the author of “East Side, North Africa.” ” Capote, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers and John Ashbery all professing their admiration” . . .and yet she was hardly known in literary canon. Succumbing to the devastation of strokes and alcoholism, she passed away at the age of 56.

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-madness-of-queen-jane

A documentary remembrance of Jane Bowles in several languages

“A Matter of Optics” by Warren Breckman (Lapham’s Quarterly)

InvisibleCities_day

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is referenced in Breckman’s article

From Kublai Khan to Jane Jacobs, for centuries people have been designing and writing about the layout of cities.

What would yours look like? And what would you call it? Would you prefer to dwell amidst the bustle at street level, or do you prefer a “gods-eye” perspective?

“People,” says Breckman,  love vantage points from which they can take in the city. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary does not observe Rouen from the street, but from a hilltop, where seen from above, “the whole landscape had the static quality of a painting.” William Wordsworth paused on Westminster Bridge in 1802 to observe London laid out before him . . .”

Breckman provides us with a good “survey 101” of his theories of city planning, and vantage point as large in scope as the many rich literary and historic references.

What a fascinating subject!

Here’s his gorgeous read from Lapham’s Quarterly. Enjoy!

http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/city/matter-optics

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a rare photo of the Eiffel Tower under construction in July 1888.

A bit about Jane Jacobs . . .

janejacobs

Jane Jacobs is mentioned in Breckman’s article: of course no study of city planning would be complete without mention of Jacobs and her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which  argued that urban renewal did not respect the needs of most city-dwellers. The book also introduced sociological concepts such as “eyes on the street”. Here for comparison (by those who prefer the street view!) is her classic essay from 1958, “Downtown is for People.”http://fortune.com/…/downtown-is-for-people-fortune…/

 

See also Jacob Riis, who Breckman discusses as well. Riis photographed slums, brothels, tenements and other parts of poverty-stricken urban landscape to spark public reform: Jacob Riis: The Photographer Who Showed “How the Other Half Lives” in 1890s NYC

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Riis’s portrait of Hester Street, New York City. His photographs helped to spark civic social reform

Bonus Material: Three Poems by C.P. Cavafy: “Waiting for the Barbarians,” “Ithaka” and “The City”

Constantine Petrou Photiades Cavafy was born in Alexandria on 29 April 1863. Both his parents were natives of Constantinople. Cavafy was a cosmopolitan by birth, his family roots extending from Constantinople to London (via Alexandria, Trebizond, Chios, Trieste, Venice and Vienna.

His first work was as a journalist; then he took a position with the British-run Egyptian Ministry of Public Works for thirty years. (Egypt was a British protectorate until 1926.

One of Cavafy’s most important works is his 1904 poem Waiting for the Barbarians.The poem begins by describing a city-state in decline, whose population and legislators are waiting for the arrival of the barbarians. When night falls, the barbarians have not arrived. The poem ends: “What is to become of us without barbarians? Those people were a solution of a sort.”

In 1911, Cavafy wrote “Ithaka”, inspired by the Homeric return journey of Odysseus to his home island, as depicted in the Odyssey.

“The City” is another poem by Cavafy which readers may enjoy if studying a unit on the idea of the city, civil planning and the concept of the city as a phenomenon in literature.

The City

C. P. Cavafy, 18631933

You said: “I’ll go to another country. go to another shore,
find another city better than this one. 
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong 
and my heart lies buried like something dead. 
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look, 
I see the black ruins of my life, here, 
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
 
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore. 
This city will always pursue you. 
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old 
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses. 
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere: 
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

From C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Published by Princeton University Press. Copyright © 1972 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

 

Week Fifteen: The Lost City of Z by David Grann and “The Man Who Liked Dickens” by Evelyn Waugh

 

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

 

6145-770x433Percy Fawcett

Percy Fawcett was certainly one model for the character of Indiana Jones

 

By the time he disappeared, in 1925, Percy Fawcett was likly the best-known explorer on the planet – and his name’s been kept alive by authors such as David Grann, whose new book –The Lost City of Z  has been a surprise bestseller in America –and a movie in theaters. Grann’s book tackles not only the British artillery colonel’s final journey, but also his obsession with finding traces of civilization deep in the Brazilian interior: El Dorado; a settlement Fawcett named, for obscure reasons, The Lost City of Z.

Reader, don’t grow faint or fear we’ve lost our way. Stay with our party, and you’ll find some surprise twists this week, including some authors and characters from our past.

Let’s go along with reporter David Grann as he enters the Amazon and tries to solve the mystery of what happened to the lost explorer, Percy Fawcett.

Here is an introductory text and promotional website for Grann’s book.

Lieutenant Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett DSO (18 August 1867 – 1925?) was a British geographer, artillery officer, cartographer, archaeologist and explorer of South America. Along with his eldest son, Fawcett disappeared in 1925 during an expedition to find “Z” – Fawcett’s name for an ancient lost city, which he and others believed to exist and to be the remains of El Dorado, in the jungles of Brazil.

Here is an except from Grann’s book, Chapter One, “We Shall Return”:

 

WE SHALL RETURN

On a cold January day in 1925, a tall, distinguished gentleman hurried across the docks in Hoboken, New Jersey, toward the S.S. Vauban, a five-hundred-and-eleven-foot ocean liner bound for Rio de Janeiro. He was fifty-seven years old, and stood over six feet, his long arms corded with muscles.

Although his hair was thinning and his mustache was flecked with white, he was so fit that he could walk for days with little, if any, rest or nourishment. His nose was crooked like a boxer’s, and there was something ferocious about his appearance, especially his eyes. They were set close together and peered out from under thick tufts of hair. No one, not even his family, seemed to agree on their color-some thought they were blue, others gray. Yet virtually everyone who encountered him was struck by their intensity: some called them “the eyes of a visionary.” He had frequently been photographed in riding boots and wearing a Stetson, with a rifle slung over his shoulder, but even in a suit and a tie, and without his customary wild beard, he could be recognized by the crowds on the pier. He was Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, and his name was known throughout the world.PercyFawcett.1911jpg

He was the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose. For nearly two decades, stories of his adventures had captivated the public’s imagination: how he had survived in the South American wilderness without contact with the outside world; how he was ambushed by hostile tribesmen, many of whom had never before seen a white man; how he battled piranha, electric eels, jaguars, crocodiles, vampire bats, and anacondas, including one that almost crushed him; and how he emerged with maps of regions from which no previous expedition had returned. He was renowned as the “David Livingstone of the Amazon,” and was believed to have such unrivaled powers of endurance that a few colleagues even claimed he was immune to death. An American explorer described him as “a man of indomitable will, infinite resource, fearless”; another said that he could “outwalk and outhike and outexplore anybody else.” The London Geographical Journal, the pre-eminent publication in its field, observed in 1953 that “Fawcett marked the end of an age. One might almost call him the last of the individualist explorers. The day of the aeroplane, the radio, the organized and heavily financed modern expedition had not arrived. With him, it was the heroic story of a man against the forest.”

In 1916, the Royal Geographical Society had awarded him, with the blessing of King George V, a gold medal “for his contributions to the mapping of South America.” And every few years, when he emerged from the jungle, spidery thin and bedraggled, dozens of scientists and luminaries would pack into the Society’s hall to hear him speak. Among them was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was said to have drawn on Fawcett’s experiences for his 1912 book The Lost World, in which explorers “disappear into the unknown” of South America and find, on a remote plateau, a land where dinosaurs have escaped extinction.

As Fawcett made his way to the gangplank that day in January, he eerily resembled one of the book’s protagonists, Lord John Roxton:
Something there was of Napoleon III, something of Don Quixote, and yet again something which was the essence of the English country gentleman._._._._He has a gentle voice and a quiet manner, but behind his twinkling blue eyes there lurks a capacity for furious wrath and implacable resolution, the more dangerous because they are held in leash.

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Map of Mato Grosso from Expedition Fawcett

None of Fawcett’s previous expeditions compared with what he was about to do, and he could barely conceal his impatience, as he fell into line with the other passengers boarding the S.S. Vauban. The ship, advertised as “the finest in the world,” was part of the Lamport & Holt elite “V” class. The Germans had sunk several of the company’s ocean liners during the First World War, but this one had survived, with its black, salt-streaked hull and elegant white decks and striped funnel billowing smoke into the sky. Model T Fords shepherded passengers to the dock, where longshoremen helped cart luggage into the ship’s hold. Many of the male passengers wore silk ties and bowler hats; women had on fur coats and feathered caps, as if they were attending a society event, which, in some ways, they were-the passenger lists of luxury ocean liners were chronicled in gossip columns and scoured by young girls searching for eligible bachelors.

Fawcett pushed forward with his gear. His trunks were loaded with guns, canned food, powdered milk, flares, and handcrafted machetes. He also carried a kit of surveying instruments: a sextant and a chronometer for determining latitude and longitude, an aneroid for measuring atmospheric pressure, and a glycerin compass that could fit in his pocket. Fawcett had chosen each item based on years of experience; even the clothes he had packed were made of lightweight, tear-proof gabardine. He had seen men die from the most innocuous seeming oversight-a torn net, a boot that was too tight.

Fawcett was setting out into the Amazon, a wilderness nearly the size of the continental United States, to make what he called “the great discovery of the century”-a lost civilization. By then, most of the world had been explored, its veil of enchantment lifted, but the Amazon remained as mysterious as the dark side of the moon. As Sir John Scott Keltie, the former secretary of the Royal Geographical Society and one of the world’s most acclaimed geographers at the time, noted, “What is there no one knows.”

 

Ever since Francisco de Orellana and his army of Spanish conquistadores descended the Amazon River, in 1542, perhaps no place on the planet had so ignited the imagination-or lured men to their death. Gaspar de Carvajal, a Dominican friar who accompanied Orellana, described woman warriors in the jungle who resembled the mythical Greek Amazons. Half a century later, Sir Walter Raleigh spoke of Indians with “their eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts”-a legend that Shakespeare wove into Othello:
Of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.

What was true about the region-serpents as long as trees, rodents the size of pigs-was sufficiently beyond belief that no embellishment seemed too fanciful. And the most entrancing vision of all was of El Dorado. Raleigh claimed that the kingdom, which the conquistadores had heard about from Indians, was so plentiful in gold that its inhabitants ground the metal into powder and blew it “thorow hollow canes upon their naked bodies untill they be al shining from the foote to the head.”¹

Fawcett’s fate may never be discovered, but in recent years, evidence has shown that his theory about a sophisticated jungle city was not invented. As Grann points out in his book “The Lost City of Z,” many archeologists now believe the Amazon was home to sophisticated settlements in the centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Excavations have revealed the ruins of garden cities with earthen defensive walls, complex road networks and space for thousands of inhabitants. Some of these sites are deep in the modern day state of Mato Grosso—the very region where Percy Fawcett hoped to find his mythical city of Z.

 

Fawcett’s Last Letter (primary source):

 

Colonel Fawcett’s final written words, dated 29th May 1925, were to his wife Nina Fawcett:

 

 

    “My dear Nina,

    The attempt to write is fraught with much difficulty, thanks to the legions of flies that pester one from dawn till dusk – and sometimes all through the night! The worst are the tiny ones that are smaller than a pinhead, almost invisible, but sting like a mosquito. Clouds of them are always present. Millions of bees add to the plague, and other bugs galore, stinging horrors that get all over ones hands. Even the head nets won’t keep them out, and as for mosquito nets, the pests fly through them! It is quite maddening.

    We hope to get through this region in a few days, and are camped here for a while to arrange for the return of the peons, who are anxious to get back, having had enough of it – and I don’t blame them. We go on with eight animals – three saddle mules, four cargo mules, and a madrinha, a leading animal which keeps the others together. Jack is well and fit and getting stronger every day, even though he suffers a bit from insects.

    I myself am bitten or stung by ticks, and these piums, as they call the tiny ones, all over the body. It is Raleigh I am anxious about. He still has one leg in a bandage but won’t go back. So far we have plenty of food and no need to walk, but I am not sure how long this will last. There may be little for the animals to eat as we head further in. I cannot hope to stand up on this journey better than Jack or Raleigh – my extra years tell, though I do my best to make up for it with enthusiasm – but I had to do this.

 

    I calculate that I shall contact the Indians in about a week, perhaps ten days, when we should be able to reach the much talked-about waterfall.

 

    Here we are at Dead Horse Camp, Lat. 110 43’ S and 540 35’ W, the spot where my horse died in 1920. Only his white bones remain. We can bathe ourselves here, but the insects make it a matter of great haste. Nevertheless, the season is good. It is very cold at night and fresh in the morning, but the insects and heat are out in full force come mid-day, and from then until evening it is sheer misery in camp.

 

    You need have no fear of any failure ….”

 

 

Did you know . . .Literary Connections and Legacy

professorchallenger book

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories

 

Fawcett was friend to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as well as H. Rider Haggard.

‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his Professor Challenger character partly on Percy Fawcett, and stories of the “Lost City of Z” became material for his novel The Lost World?

Just as Sherlock Holmes was loosely based on Dr. Bell, one of his professors at the Medical School of the University of Edinburgh, Professor Challenger was inspired by real individuals. One of them was a professor of physiology named William Rutherford, who had lectured at the University of Edinburgh while Conan Doyle studied medicine there. The other, was the explorer Percy Fawcett.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Percy Fawcett were good friends and Fawcett told stories about his incredible exploits in the Amazon Jungle. Conan Doyle used lots of them in his novels. The most significant of is the description of the famous “Table Top Mountain” in The Lost World.’

 

Lost Cities as Genre

“The Lost City” and “The Lost World” are sub-genre categories of science fiction and fantasy literature?

From the tombs of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings and the semi-mythical stronghold of Troy to the jungle-shrouded pyramids of the Maya, “Lost Cities” have captured the imaginations of the Victorian and Edwardian ethos and continue to capture our imaginations today. Check out this Wiki piece which discusses Doyle, H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines) and many others. Clearly, Steven Spielberg and other creators owe a great debt to actual explorers such as Fawcett.

 

Want more? Here’s an entire PBS episode about the Fawcett expedition!

 

An episode from PBS’s “Secrets of the Dead” about Fawcett

 

 

A bit about David Grann . . .

David Grann is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. david-grann

Grann’s other book, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, contains many of his New Yorker stories, and was named by Men’s Journal one of the best true crime books ever written. The stories in the collection focus on everything from the mysterious death of the world’s greatest Sherlock Holmes expert to a Polish writer who might have left clues to a real murder in his postmodern novel. Another piece, “Trial by Fire,” exposed how junk science led to the execution of a likely innocent man in Texas.

His latest book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, will be released in April. Based on years of research, it explores one of the most sinister crimes and racial injustices in American history.

 

About El Dorado: “The Gilded Man”

 

El Dorado, The Golden Man

El Dorado refers not only to the great lost city but also to the “Golden Man”

Based on documentary research, Fawcett had by 1914 formulated ideas about a “lost city” he named “Z” somewhere in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. He theorized that a complex civilization once existed in the Amazon region and that isolated ruins may have survived. Did he believe that this was El Dorado? Or that El Dorado was nearby?

The conquistadores were convinced that El Dorado, which they had heard about from the Indians, was so plentiful in gold that the inhabitants ground the metal into dust and blew it through hollow canes about their bodies. “El Dorado” means “The Gilded Man.”

Yet El Dorado, at least in the Western imagination, has always seemed to represent something more than a golden kingdom—it is a lost world, even a paradise. Many have died seeking such a place, but that, at least in its more mystical incarnation, such a place will always lie beyond the horizon.

 

KnightAtTheCrossroads-vasnetsov.1

Knight at The Crossroads-Vasnetsov

 

 

Eldorado (1849)

 

By Edgar Allan Poe

 

Gaily bedight,

A gallant knight,

In sunshine and in shadow,

Had journeyed long,

Singing a song,

In search of Eldorado.

 

 

But he grew old—

This knight so bold—

And o’er his heart a shadow—

Fell as he found

No spot of ground

That looked like Eldorado.

 

 

And, as his strength

Failed him at length,

He met a pilgrim shadow—

‘Shadow,’ said he,

‘Where can it be—

This land of Eldorado?’

 

 

‘Over the Mountains

Of the Moon,

Down the Valley of the Shadow,

Ride, boldly ride,’

The shade replied,—

‘If you seek for Eldorado!’

 

 

Vocabulary:

  1. bedight: arrayed; dressed
  1. spot: perhaps a gold nugget, gem, or another sign of Eldorado
  1. pilgrim shadow: shadow of a traveler. Thus, the pilgrim shadow may be the knight’s own inner self (ambition, motivation) in the form of an apparition driving him on in spite of his weariness. One may also interpret it as death overtaking the knight.
  1. Valley . . . Shadow: These words echo the phrase valley of the shadow of death in Chapter 23:1 of the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament of the Bible.
  1. shade: reference to the pilgrim shadow. Shade is another word for apparition or ghost. But unlike ghost, wraith, phantom, spirit, or another word for apparition, shade maintains the ‘sh’ sound of shadow, thus keeping up the rhythm and musicality of the poem.

 

 

“The Man Who Liked Dickens” by Evelyn Waugh

 

themanwholikeddickens

From the movie A Handful of Dust, starring Alec Guinness and James Wilby.

 

“The Man Who Liked Dickens” by Evelyn Waugh is a fascinating piece which eventually became a chapter in Waugh’s novel, A Handful of Dust.
The protagonist, Mr. Henty, is a contented but shallow English country squire.
Yet the Camelot of old British landed aristocracy has faded away from society. Country estates are now something which must be kept up or rented to vacationers to produce income. Mr. Henty, who has seen his illusions of genteel country manor life shattered one by one, joins an expedition to the Brazilian jungle.

Unfortunately, sometimes there is no city of gold in the jungle, dear Wonderlings. Sometimes what we find is far stranger . . .

Here is “The Man Who Liked Dickens” the short story which Waugh eventually included as a chapter in his novel. Enjoy!

 

 

A bit about Evelyn Waugh . . .

Waugh incorporated several autobiographical elements into the plot, including his own recent desertion by his wife. In 1933–34 he travelled into the South American interior, and a number of incidents from the voyage are incorporated into the novel.

Evelynwaugh.jpeg

the author Evelyn Waugh

 

For more on lost worlds and cities . . .

 

Jimmy Nelson is a photographer who’s trying to photograph indigenous peoples around the world.

Several of these lost cities/ruins  have been virtually destroyed in recent years due to war, bombings and terrorism . . .Petra, Palmyra; the list goes on. But the fragments are beautiful:

http://www.touropia.com/lost-cities/

 

 

 

 

¹ The Lost City of Z-A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, By David Grann, Penguin Random House, 2010. From the Penguin Random House website “free” excerpt.

Week Fourteen: “The Company of Wolves” and “The Werewolf” by Angela Carter

thebloodychamberclassic

Harper and Row 1980 edition. Carter balked at the description “adult tales”

 

 

This week it’s into the woods with icon of feminist fairy tale telling, the author Angela Carter.

 

“The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter

In Week Fourteen we’ll be studying two of Carter’s Red Riding Hood tales. First up is “The Company of Wolves.”

It’s time to go into the woods, Wonderlings. Perhaps Mr. Wolf will be waiting for you. But be warned: sometimes, the antagonist is a wolf, but sometimes a ‘bzou’ (werewolf). Are you truly ready for him?

 

“The Werewolf”

In turning the classic gender power struggle on its head, Carter presents a tale in which Little Red Riding Hood is not the innocent little girl she appears to be.

For an excellent unpacking of this and Carter’s other wolf tales, see this piece from The British Library. The author does an excellent job of pointing out why readers might sympathize with Mr. Wolf in this Red Riding Hood variant.

 

Here is “The Werewolf” by Angela Carter.

 

A short video on Angela Carter and her oeuvre

 

 

A bit about The Bloody Chamber . . .

 

A darkly erotic reworking of Bluebeard’s Castle, a bawdy Puss in Boots and a sado-masochistic version of Little Red Riding Hood – Angela Carter’s subversive take on traditional fairy stories in The Bloody Chamber is as shocking today as when the collection first appeared in 1979, writes The Guardian’s Helen Simpson.

First published in the United Kingdom in 1979 by Gollancz, The Bloody Chamber won the Cheltenham Festival Literary Prize. With clear homage to (and feminist excavation from) the works of fairy tale giant Charles Perrault, the tales include:

 

The Bloody Chamber (based on Bluebeard)

A teenage girl marries an older, wealthy French Marquis, whom she does not love. When he takes her to his castle, she learns that he enjoys sadistic pornography and takes pleasure in her embarrassment. She is a talented pianist, and a young man, a blind piano tuner, hears her music and falls in love with her.

The Courtship of Mr Lyon (based on Beauty and the Beast — the concept of the Beast as a lion-like figure is a popular one, most notably in the French film version of 1946)

Beauty’s father, after experiencing car trouble, takes advantage of a stranger’s hospitality. However, his benefactor – the Beast – takes umbrage when he steals a miraculous white rose for his beloved daughter. Beauty becomes the guest of the leonine Beast.

The Tiger’s Bride (also based on Beauty and the Beast)

A woman moves in with a mysterious, masked “Milord,” the Beast, after her father loses her to him in a game of cards. Milord is eventually revealed to be a tiger.

Puss-in-Boots (based on Puss in Boots and similar to The Barber of Seville)

Figaro, a cat, moves in with a rakish young man who lives a happily debauched life. They live a carefree existence, with the cat helping him to make money by cheating at cards, until the young man actually falls in love (to the cat’s disgust) with a young woman kept in a tower by a miserly, older husband who treats her only as property.

Angela Carter had described Puss in Boots as “the Cat as Con Man… a masterpiece of cynicism… a Figaroesque valet – a servant so much the master already”.

The Erl-King (an adaptation of the Erlking in folklore; a sort of goblin or spirit of the woodlands)

A maiden wanders into the woods and is seduced by the sinister Erl-King, a seeming personification of the forest itself.

The Snow Child (has roots in various folktales)

A Count and Countess go riding in midwinter. The Count sees snow on the ground and wishes for a child “as white as snow”. Similar wishes are made when the Count sees a hole in the snow containing a pool of blood, and a raven. As soon as he made his final wish a young woman of the exact description appears at the side of the road. The Count pays immediate attention to her, much to the chagrin of the Countess.

The Lady of the House of Love(based loosely on Sleeping Beauty and more directly on a radio play called “Vampirella”)

A virginal English soldier, traveling through Romania by bicycle, finds himself in a deserted village. He comes across a mansion inhabited by a vampire who survives by enticing young men into her bedroom and feeding on them.

The Werewolf (based on Little Red Riding Hood)

A girl goes to visit her grandmother, but encounters a werewolf on the way, whose paw she cuts off with a knife. When she reaches her grandmother’s house, the paw has turned into a hand with the grandmother’s ring on it, and the grandmother is both delirious and missing her hand. This reveals the girl’s grandmother as the werewolf, and she is stoned to death. The girl then inherits all of her grandmother’s possessions.

The Company of Wolves

(closer adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood)

“Those are the voices of my brothers, darling; I love the company of wolves.”

 

cover-illustrationDanielMackie

illustration for The Bloody Chamber by Daniel Mackie

 

We meet a girl walking in the woods. She was loved by everyone and feared nothing. She meets a handsome hunter who makes a deal with her; whoever can get to the grandmother’s house first wins, and if the hunter wins she owes him a kiss. She lets the hunter win because she wants to kiss him. The hunter arrives at the grandmother’s house tricking her. She is frail and sick. She holds a Bible in her hand for protection. He eats the grandmother, then waits for the girl. When she arrives, she notices her grandmother’s hair in the fire and knows the wolf has killed her. He threatens to kill and eat her too, but she laughs in his face and proceeds to seduce him, stripping off their clothes and throwing them into the fire.

Wolf-Alice

(based on an obscure variant of Little Red Riding Hood and with reference to Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, this tale explores the journey towards subjectivity and self-awareness from the perspective of a feral child.

 

Folk Tales, Fairy Tales . . .What’s the Difference?

 

Conte de Perrault-Le petit chaperon rougead064084

Perrault’s Contes de Fees

 

Vocabulary:

Folk Literature: Folk literature includes fairy tales, folk tales, songs, ballads, riddles, jokes, proverbs, sayings and incantations, many of which began in oral tradition. The early 20th Century compilations of Zora Neale Hurston are an example of scholarship to document folk traditions in the United States.

Folk Tale: A story that deals with popular subject matter and is part of the oral tradition of a particular country, region or language. The term refers collectively to anonymous narratives that may exist in many variants over time and place such as legends, fables, ghost stories and tall tales. Regional variations and changes in the story over time may occur as a result of the oral mode of transmission.

Fable: A short allegorical tale in which animals, plants, and things speak and behave like humans , told to illustrate a moral or lesson which is typically verbalized at the conclusion.

Fairy Tale: Fanciful story where magic is the norm; often involving fantastic creatures. For centuries, folklorists and writers have compiled collections of oral fairy traditions, such as the French Contes de Ma mere l’oye (Tales of Mother Goose); the German Kinderund Haausmarchen (Grimm’s Fairy Tales) and the Russian Narodnye Skazki (Russian Fairy Tales). Fairy Tales typically developed from an oral storytelling tradition but through time the literary fairy tale developed. Hans Christian Anderson, Oscar Wilde and John Ruskin are examples of authors of literary fairy tales. Fairy Tales are often retold or recast, emphasizing/excavating new innate material or regarding the tale from a new perspective. In popular English Literature, Philip Pullman, Angela Carter and Neil Gaiman have worked with tales in this sense.³

 

For more on classic fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and its worldwide variants, see the work of Charles Perrault and  The Brothers Grimm.

For a great website on fairy tales from around the world, check out Sur La Lune

 

A bit about Angela Carter . . .

 

AngelaCarter

Angela Carter

Angela Olive Carter-Pearce (née Stalker; 7 May 1940 – 16 February 1992) who published as Angela Carter, was an English novelist, short story writer and journalist, known for her feminist, magical realism, and picaresque works. In 2008, The Times ranked Carter tenth in their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”. In 2012, Nights at the Circus was selected as the best ever winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

In 1979, both The Bloody Chamber, and her influential essay, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, appeared. In the essay, according to the writer Marina Warner, Carter “deconstructs the arguments that underlie The Bloody Chamber. It’s about desire and its destruction, the self-immolation of women, how women collude and connive with their condition of enslavement. She was much more independent-minded than the traditional feminist of her time.”

A prolific writer, editor and journalist, at the time of her death, Carter had started work on a sequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre based on the later life of Jane’s stepdaughter, Adèle Varens; only a synopsis survives.

 

Angela Carter died aged 51 in 1992 at her home in London after developing lung cancer.

For more of Carter’s stories click here for an article from Ploughshares

For a webchat with Carter’s biographer Edmund Gordon, click here.

 

 

Here is a wonderful audio version of the story “The Company of Wolves”  introduced by Neil Gaiman (cue at 3:40) and read by actress Rita Wolf, in case you’d like to listen while you read.

The better to hear you with, my dear!

http://www.stitcher.com/podcast/public-radio-international/selected-shorts/e/episode-18-angela-carter-the-company-of-wolves-49904942?autoplay=true

Did you know some fairy tales are over 6000 years old? Check it out here, in the journal Science.

Extra enrichment: Read Transformations, poetic fairy tale reworkings by Anne Sexton. Or this poem:

 

The Wolf’s Postscript to ‘Little Red Riding Hood’
Agha Shahid Ali, 1949 – 2001

First, grant me my sense of history:
I did it for posterity,
for kindergarten teachers
and a clear moral:
Little girls shouldn’t wander off
in search of strange flowers,
and they mustn’t speak to strangers.

And then grant me my generous sense of plot:
Couldn’t I have gobbled her up
right there in the jungle?
Why did I ask her where her grandma lived?
As if I, a forest-dweller,
didn’t know of the cottage
under the three oak trees
and the old woman lived there
all alone?
As if I couldn’t have swallowed her years before?

And you may call me the Big Bad Wolf,
now my only reputation.
But I was no child-molester
though you’ll agree she was pretty.

And the huntsman:
Was I sleeping while he snipped
my thick black fur
and filled me with garbage and stones?
I ran with that weight and fell down,
simply so children could laugh
at the noise of the stones
cutting through my belly,
at the garbage spilling out
with a perfect sense of timing,
just when the tale
should have come to an end.

From A Walk Through the Yellow Pages by Agha Shahid Ali, published by SUN-Gemini Press. © 1987 by Agha Shahid Ali.

 

 

 

 

 

 

¹Helen Simpson, Femme fatale: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, The Guardian, June 2006

²Source: Creative Commons

Week Thirteen: Mothers Writing Letters: “Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin and “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton

the-awakeningloawharton

 

In honor of Mothers Day, here are rich stories about mothers and the theme of letters sent. In both “Désirée’s Baby” and “Roman Fever,” a mother (or soon-to-be mother) sends an epistle which will change the course of events of the characters’ lives.

 

“Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin

 

The author Kate Chopin, often compared to Guy De Maupassant,
set her short stories in in the bayous and backwaters of New Orleans—a lush Creole world surrounded by Louisiana plantations prior to the American Civil War when slavery was still “lawful,”

covers_desirees-baby

image:enotes.com artist unknown

Chopin boldly and intentionally inventories the differences among the mixed inhabitants:
negro, dark, yellow, quadroon, fair, La Blanche, white . . .

. . .what effect does color have when a mother gives birth in old NOLA?

Here is “Désirée’s Baby,” a slight and deceptively simple story by Kate Chopin, published in 1893. Let us know your thoughts.

You can read it here.

 

Vocabulary Terms:

La Blanche –“the white one”

quadroon –a person of ¼ African-American descent

creole –a descendent of original French settlers in Louisiana; the term comes from the Spanish word criollo, meaning “a child of the colony

high yellow– a term for very light-skinned persons of African-American descent. It is a reference to the golden yellow skin tone of some mixed-race people. The term was in common use in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century.

miscegenation: Interbreeding between members of different races; marriage or cohabitation between members of different races, especially in the U.S., between a black person and a white person.

 

A bit about Kate Chopin . . .

 

Kate Chopin’s biography:
Chopin was born Katherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis into a prosperous Irish-American family and her upbringing, with its convent schools and debutante balls, was conventional for a young woman growing up in the post-civil war period. At nineteen she married Oscar Chopin, a cotton broker from New Orleans. After her husband experienced setbacks in business, she lived with him on a plantation near Natchitoches (pronounced “Nackatish”) , an area that provides the setting of the stories later collected in Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). From her experiences there she absorbed a rich mixture of stories and dialects from the intermingled French and black cultures.katechopin
After her husband’s death in 1883, Chopin returned to St. Louis with her six children and began her literary career, soon placing stories and regional sketches in popular magazines such as Vogue. Much of her later work is remarkable for its frank depiction of woman’s sexuality, a subject rarely broached in the literature of the era, and Chopin became the subject of controversy after the appearance of The Awakening. The negative reception of that work caused Chopin to suffer both professional and social ostracism; her work was removed from libraries and Chopin was obliged to drop her membership in several St. Louis clubs. The scandal surrounding The Awakening effectively ended her active career as a writer, and she published little until her death five years later.

 

For more on Racial Distinctions:

The Strange History of the American Quadroon by Emily Clark pertains more to the Revolutionary War era but the information on Quadroon culture is worthwhile.

An article in the Huffington Post explores it

For more on Kate Chopin:

The International Kate Chopin Society

 

Works Available Online

“The Story of an Hour” (1894)
“A Pair of Silk Stockings “
Desiree’s Baby (in collection with other stories)
Desiree’s Baby (this story only)
“Regret,Century 50 (n.s. 28) (May 1895): 147-49.  (Page images at MOA)
“Ozeme’s Holiday,”  Century 52 (n.s.30) (Aug. 1896): 629-31 (Page images at MOA)
“I Opened All the Portals Wide” (poem; Century 58 (July 1899): 361-362 (Page images at MOA)
“Tante Cat’rinette” Atlantic 74 (September 1894): 368-373. (Page images at MOA)

The Awakening 

Bayou Folk (1894) at the University of North Carolina includes the following stories:

A Night in Acadie (1897) at the University of North Carolina contains the following stories:

 

“Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton

 

The author Edith Wharton adeptly depicts the seething emotions under the starched and corseted members of her society which inevitably surface.
Wharton portrays families such as the Astors and the Vanderbilts at the height of the social ladder; there are also the ‘arrivistes’ who come from old names and old money, earning their fortunes more recently; often richer than the aristocrats.
They entertained themselves by going to the theater and opera, by attending lunches and house parties, and by traveling abroad . . .
Sometimes it’s when travelling abroad that the true passions of the aristocracy are finally exposed.
And it’s while traveling abroad that we are first introduced to two mothers: Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley:
The two women simply dine together on the terrace of a restaurant in Rome. What could possibly be revealed on such a lovely day?


Here is “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton.

 

A bit about Edith Wharton . . .

EdithWharton

Edith Wharton moved to Paris in the early 1900s. Not long after, in 1913, after her affair with Morton Fullerton had ended, she divorced her husband of more than 20 years. (source: North Country Public Radio)

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born into a tightly controlled society at a time when women were discouraged from achieving anything beyond a proper marriage. Wharton broke through these strictures to become one of America’s greatest writers. Author of The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, she wrote over 40 books in 40 years, including authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design, and travel. She was the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University, and a full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.¹

 

For information on The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home:

http://www.edithwharton.org/discover/edith-wharton/

Additional Reading:

Edith Wharton at Home: Life at The Mount by Richard Guy Wilson (2012)

My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann edited by Irene Goldman-Price (2012)

 

Novels

Novellas and novelette

 

Short Stories

Non-fiction

As editor

 

 

Bonus material: A letter from Bette Davis to her daughter:

 

bettedavisandchildren

 

To round out our week on the theme of mothers, letters written, and regrets, here’s one from Hollywood icon Bette Davis to her daughter.

The actress Bette Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983. After surgery she experienced a number of strokes which left her partially paralyzed. Then, in 1985, her daughter, Barbara, published a controversial book, titled My Mother’s Keeper, that exposed their rumored troubled relationship and painted Davis in a terrible light. Two years later, Bette Davis published her own memoirs—at the very end was this letter to her daughter:

Dear Hyman,

You ended your book with a letter to me. I have decided to do the same.

There is no doubt you have a great potential as a writer of fiction. You have always been a great storyteller. I have often, lo these many years, said to you, “B.D., that is not the way it was. You are imagining things.”

Many of the scenes in your book I have played on the screen. It could be you have confused the “me” on the screen with “me” who is your mother.

I have violent objections to your quotes of mine regarding actors I have worked with. For the most part, you have cruelly misquoted me. Ustinov I was thrilled to work with and I have great admiration of him as a person and as an actor. You have stated correctly my reactions to working with Faye Dunaway. She was a most exasperating co-star. But to quote me as having said Sir Laurence Olivier was not a good actor is most certainly one of the figments of your imagination. Few actors have ever reached the towering heights of his performances.

You constantly inform people that you wrote this book to help me understand you and your way of life better. Your goal was not reached. I am now utterly confused as to who you are or what your way of life is.

The sum total of your having written this book is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given.

In one of your many interviews while publicizing your book, you said if you sell your book to TV you feel Glenda Jackson should play me. I would hope you would be courteous enough to ask me to play myself.

I have much to quarrel about in your book. I choose to ignore most of it. But not the pathetic creature you claim I have been because of the fact that I did not play Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind.” I could have, but turned it down. Mr. Selznick attempted to get permission from my boss, Jack Warner, to borrow Errol Flynn and Bette Davis to play Rhett Butler and Scarlett. I refused because I felt Errol was not good casting for Rhett. At that time only Clark Gable was right. Therefore, dear Hyman, send me not back to Tara, rather send me back to Witch Way, our home on the beautiful coast of Maine where once lived a beautiful human being by the name of B.D., not Hyman.

As you ended your letter in “My Mother’s Keeper” — it’s up to you now, Ruth Elizabeth — I am ending my letter to you the same way: It’s up to you now, Hyman.

Ruth Elizabeth

P.S. I hope someday I will understand the title “My Mother’s Keeper.” If it refers to money, if my memory serves me right, I’ve been your keeper all these many years. I am continuing to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success.²

 

¹Information from the official website for The Mount, Wharton’s home.

²Letter seen in Letters of Note by Shawn Usher (Public Library)Chronicle Books (May 6, 2014).