August 26, 2014

Death of Tucker: not the worst

Nathaniel Beverley Tucker lived a varied life before his death on August 26, 1851, just shy of his 67th birthday. Born in Chesterfield County, Virginia, and several men in his family rose to prominence in politics, education, and the law. He served during the War of 1812 before moving to the Missouri Territory and earning the rank of judge. He outlived two of his three wives by the time he began working at his alma mater, the College of William and Mary. By the 1830s and 1840s, he was already espousing a form of secession that allowed state sovereignty.

Tucker was also a published author who published three novels and contributed to periodicals, particularly several essays in the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger. One of his works, The Partisan Leader: A Tale of the Future, was set in the "future" of 1849 when it was published in 1836 and, according to some, correctly predicted the birth of the Confederacy. Certainly, Tucker had been advocating for secession for years: "Disunion is not the worst of possible evils," he once claimed, and suggested breaking up the states be an open discussion.

From the dialogue of a character in his novel George Balcombe (1836):

"...It is only by blunders that we learn wisdom. You are too young to have made many as yet. God forbid, that when you shall have made as many as I have, you should have profited as little by them. But it will not be so. You take the right plan to get the full benefit of all you make. I am not sure," continued he, " that we do not purchase all our good qualities by the exercise of their opposites. How else does experience of danger make men brave? If they were not scared at first, then they were brave at first. If they were scared, then the effect of fear upon the mind has been to engender courage. Virtue, indeed, may be formed by habit. But who has a habit of virtue 1 very few. The rest have to arrive at virtue by the roundabout road of crime and repentance; as if a man should follow the sun around the earth to reach a point but a few degrees east of that from which he started. But it is God's plan of accomplishing his greatest end, and must be the best plan."

August 22, 2014

Birth of Paulding: homebred feeling

James Kirke Paulding's main goal in literature was to promote the United States, its history, its people, and its ideals. "Mr. Paulding's writings are distinguished for a decided nationality," summed up one contemporary editor, who noted all his characters were distinctly American.

Born in Dutchess County in New York on August 22, 1778, he was the son of William Paulding, who had assisted financially with the American Revolution. Another family member was involved with the capture of John André. His first literary effort, however, was less lofty: "in a frolicsome mood" he joined with his friend Washington Irving to produce the satirical Salmagundi (beginning in 1807). That humorous periodical, however, laid the groundwork for his more purposeful satire, The Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan during a period in which English critics were particularly harsh in commenting on American culture (Paulding's personification of Great Britain had "a devilish, quarrelsome, overbearing disposition, which was always getting him into some scrape or other").

In fact, Paulding began experimenting with a variety of literary forms: satire, poetry, novels, drama, and biography. Perhaps because he was writing so early in American literary history, at a time without significant competition, he became fairly well known as a man of letters. He was also named Secretary of the Navy in 1838.

Nineteenth century critics seemed truly to admire Paulding, in part because of his connection to Irving. One contemporary noted "his affection for the democratical institutions of his country" was easily seen in his work and, further, his writing style was not "polished" but expressed "boldly and carelessly, without paying too nice a regard to the decrees of taste, and the canons of criticism." Some accounts suggest he never modified his rough drafts or preplanned his plots, preferring spontaneity in his work.

Perhaps that lack of polish explains the excessive length of his ambitious poem The Backwoodsman (1818), an early rallying cry for Americanism in literature. As he says in his preface, his hope was to invite young authors to focus their attentions to home and the United States. He cast away the legendary writers of the past like Homer, who represented an uncivilized age. Following this "humble theme" of nationalism, the poem evokes the landscape, history, and character of the United States as a source of literary inspiration. Further, though Paulding admits that art and poetry have not been the focus in this new country, he looks forward to the day when American culture overtakes European culture as superior:

Neglected Muse! of this our western clime,
How long in servile, imitative rhyme,
Wilt thou thy stifled energies impart,
And miss the path that leads to every heart?
How long repress the brave decisive flight,
Warm'd by thy native fires, led by thy native light?
Thrice happy he who first shall strike the lyre,
With homebred feeling, and with homebred fire;
He need not envy any favour'd bard,
Who Fame's bright meed, and Fortune's smiles reward;
Secure, that wheresoe'er this empire rolls,
Or east, or west, or tow'rd the firm fixed poles,
While Europe's ancient honours fade away,
And sink the glories of her better day,

August 19, 2014

Birth of Goodrich: instead of wickedness

In the western part of the State of Connecticut, is a small town by the name of Ridgefield. This title is descriptive, and indicates the general form and position of the place. It is, in fact, a collection of hills, rolled into one general and commanding elevation. On the west is a ridge of mountains, forming the boundary between the States of Connecticut and New York; to the south the land spreads out in wooded undulations to Long Island Sound; east and north, a succession of hills, some rising up against the sky, and others fading away in the distance, bound the horizon. In this town, in an antiquated and rather dilapidated house of shingles and clapboards, I was born on the 19th of August, 1793.

Thus Samuel Griswold Goodrich explains his own birth on August 19, 1793, in his Recollections of a Lifetime (1857). He was one of ten children (only eight of whom survived past infancy) and was raised in near poverty. His father, a minister, made only $400 a year. As such, young Goodrich was mostly self-educated. He later became a bookseller and publisher.

In the literary world, Goodrich is perhaps most well-known for founding and editing the annual gift book The Token — which published the writings of Nathaniel Parker Willis, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others — as well as the Peter Parley series of educational anecdotes for children. Peter Parley's book featured an elderly gentleman telling stories about history, geography, biography, science, and other miscellaneous topics. The series proved both popular and lucrative; he later recalled his optimism: "Well, thought I, if this goes on I may yet rival Mother Goose!"

Goodrich's self-education proved his greatest inspiration for the future. As a boy, he read Robinson Crusoe, the Bible, natural history, and biographies. Looking back as an adult, he believed it was all a positive influence on him. It was through this background, he writes,

...that I first formed the conception of the Parley Tales— the general idea of which was to make nursery books reasonable and truthful, and thus to feed the young mind upon things wholesome and pure, instead of things monstrous, false, and pestilent: that we should use the same prudence in giving aliment to the mind and soul, as to the body; and as we would not give blood and poison as food for the latter, we should not administer cruelty and violence, terror and impurity, to the other. In short, that the elements of nursery books should consist of beauty instead of deformity, goodness instead of wickedness, decency instead of vulgarity.

August 13, 2014

Bunner's Nine Cent-Girls: Catch the difference?

New York author Henry Cuyler Bunner certainly had a good sense of humor, becoming assistant editor then full editor of the comic weekly magazine Puck. It was in that magazine, in its August 13, 1890 issue, that he published his short story "The Nine Cent-Girls." "The Nine-cent Girls?" asked the character Jack Winfield. "No," responded his friend Richard Cutter, "the Nine Cent-Girls. Catch the difference?"

The two men are jilted, or at least unsuccessful, lovers. Winfield vows to get a wife soon, despite being stuck in the "girlless wilderness" of a ranch in Montana. His friend tells him about the town of Tusculum, New York, which is nearly overrun with women (as all the men move to New York City to make their mark). The Nine Cent-Girls are sisters who each look like the face of the Indian lady on the little red cent, "the neatest and most artistic coin that the United States government has ever struck."

Despite being resigned never to marry, Cutter is deputed to visit the girls on behalf of the ranchers. But, when he calls at their home in Tusculum, he learns that the patriarch had died and no male relative had assumed a similar head of household role for them. "The whole scheme [is] busted," Cutter thinks. Still, somehow, he convinces the eldest of the women, Euphrosyne, to bring the whole group to the ranch in Montana. Euphrosyne, apparently in her 30s, is too old to get married herself, but she thinks it would be good for her sisters. Accordingly, she sells the house and prepares to go West.

Illustration by S. B. Griffin, 1891
On the train ride, he is self-conscious that he might be doing something wrong. Fellow passengers wonder about the man leading the nine similar-looking women (all wearing the same outfit): one thinks they are a baseball team, another a minstrel group. When those assumptions are proven wrong, other gossip spreads, and Euphrosyne changes her mind: "Nine young unmarried women can not go West with a young man — if you had heard what people were saying all around us in the cars — you don't know." Cutter sheepishly notes that if only a married woman were leading the group, it might be different. She agrees, and he admits he has taken a fancy to one of the girls.

"Why, Mr. Cutter!" Miss Euphrosyne cried, "I had no idea that you — you — ever — though of — is it Clytie?
"No," said Mr. Cutter, "it isn't Clytie."
"Is it — is it — " Miss Euphrosyne's eyes lit up with hope long since extinguished, "is it Aurora?"
"No!" Dick Cutter could have been heard three rooms off. "No!" he said, with all his lungs... "It's YOU — Y-O-U! I want to marry you, and what's more, I'm going to!"

Sure enough, they are married an hour later (though it's not stated if the wedding took place on the train or at one of the stops). Despite the odd circumstances behind their marriage, it seems Mr. and Mrs. Cutter are quite happy — and, what's more, the other eight Cent-Girls are soon married too. The author, Henry Cuyler Bunner, was himself married, though Alice Learned Bunner was from neither New York nor Montana; she was from Connecticut (and a published author herself).

August 9, 2014

Meek and Americanism: brilliant with the stars

Alexander Beaufort Meek was 15 years old when he enrolled at the University of Georgia, though he transferred to the new University of Alabama in 1831. He had just turned 30 when he returned to the University of Georgia to give an address to the Phi Betta Kappa and Demosthenian Societies. By then, he was fairly accomplished in the legal world, having been named a probate judge in Alabama. "You have called me back," Meek said in his speech on August 8, 1844, "from a distant home, over a wide interval of years, to the scene of my earliest collegiate life."

Meek took the opportunity to consider the reactions to revisiting a once familiar place: lament for things now gone, excitement over positive change. For Meek, who worked by then both in literature and government, change was important in his native South. Literature and government could be improved and, in turn, could improve the character of the region, as well as the nation as a whole. Writing and the law are not the end goal for mankind, they are the path to follow "to accomplish the great design for which man was created". To grow as a people is to improve constantly over time, always spiraling upward with great deeds and accomplishments, but never satisfied at attaining an end result:

Mankind have learned that governments are somewhat more than games or machines kept in curious motion for the amusement and edification of rulers; and literatures are beginning to be regarded, not as the phantasmagoria of poets and dreamers, the sunset scaffoldings of fancy, but as something very far beyond that. The old secret has come out, that man's immortality has already begun, and, by these things, you are moulding and fashioning him in his destinies forever.

In literature, Meek says, the goal is to focus on "Americanism" (the speech was named "Americanism in Literature"). We must grow in our letters just as we have been experiencing massive population growth. Among his suggestions to improve American writing, he emphasizes it must have national purpose and, more than that, that writing must be as representative as the diversity of the landscape of the entire nation:

Our country has extended her jurisdiction over the fairest and most fertile regions. The rich bounty is poured into her lap, and breathes its influence upon her population. Their capacities are not pent and thwarted by the narrow limits which restrict the citizens of other countries... Such are some of the physical aspects of our country, and such the influence they are destined to have upon our national mind. Very evidently they constitute noble sources of inspiration, illustration and description.

Not just the diversity of the landscape, Meek emphasizes, but the country also has a diversity of people, with ancestry all over the world. Further, the unique version of democracy practiced in the United States offers opportunities of inspiration. Though we have already succeeded with a few great writers, particularly Washington Irving and historian George Bancroft, we continue to look to the future, Meek says, and strive to grow. Meek, of course, will contribute to that Americanism as a poet, historian, and essayist. He concludes:

Let us then abide in the faith that this country of ours, as she is destined to present to the world, the proudest spectacle of political greatness ever beheld, will not be neglectful of the other, the highest interest of humanity, its intellectual ascension ; but that both shall flourish here, in unexampled splendor, with reciprocal benefit, beneath the ample folds of that banner, which shall then float out, in its blue beauty, like a tropical night, brilliant with the stars of a whole hemisphere!

July 31, 2014

Death of Murfree: the sun had gone down

When Mary Noailles Murfree died on July 31, 1922, the author Charles Egbert Craddock died with her. Born and raised in Tennessee, she moved to St. Louis with her family after the Civil War. Some sort of childhood illness (usually reported as "lameness") inspired her interest in reading and literature. Nostalgia for her home state likely inspired her to begin writing "local color" stories about Tennessee. These tales and sketches portrayed a frontier, rural south, a mountainous and wild region made up of tough and rugged characters. Murfree made a good marketing decision, then, to write under the pseudonym Charles Egbert Craddock. She maintained her ruse for several years before surprising, if not shocking, New England's literary elite when her true identity was revealed.

In reality, Murfree/Craddock had little contact with the Appalachian mountain men and women that she featured in her work. She came from a well-known and aristocratic family (her home town of Murfreesboro was name after her ancestor, a veteran of the American Revolution) in central Tennessee. She spent her summers with her family in the mountainous regions in the eastern part of the state, among the Appalachian folks. Her family rank, however, as well as her "lameness" prevented her from much direct interaction with those people. She instead relied on those who made their way to do business to the resort hotel where she stayed.

In other words, though Murfree/Craddock presented herself as someone who knew the ins and outs of this cultural group, she was really an outsider. She certainly was sympathetic to that group of people, though her stories are more sentimental than reality. A sample from her chapter "Drifting Down Lost Creek" from In the Tennessee Mountains shows both her commitment to showing the "color" of Tennessee, her romanticism of the mountains, and her use of local dialect:

The sun had gone down, but the light yet lingered. The evening star trembled above Pine Mountain. Massive and darkling it stood against the red west. How far, ah, how far, stretched that mellow crimson glow, all adown Lost Creek Valley, and over the vast mountain solitudes on either hand! Even the eastern ranges were rich with this legacy of the dead and gone day, and purple and splendid they lay beneath the rising moon. She looked at it with full and shining eyes.
 "I dunno how he kin make out ter furgit the mountings," she said; and then she went on, hearing the crisp leaves rustling beneath her tread, and the sharp bark of a fox in the silence of the night-shadowed valley.

*I am indebted for information in this post to Wingless Flights: Appalachian Women in Fiction (1996) by Danny L. Miller

July 29, 2014

Birth of Tarkington: content with their own

Although he was given the name "Newton" (after an uncle, who was governor of California) when he was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on July 29, 1869, he became better known by his middle name as Booth Tarkington. By the end of his life, Tarkington was a prolific novelist, short story writer, playwright, and even an illustrator, with two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction under his belt as well as a handful of honorary degrees.

An early biography of Tarkington noted that his early years and young adulthood were unlike many other writers: He was not born into poverty, nor did he struggle to make a living before being forced to use his pen to earn his bread. His father was a judge and, as a boy, young "Tark" was sent to a boarding school in New Hampshire. After two years at Purdue University, he graduated from Princeton University. A few years later, in 1899, Tarkington published his first book, A Gentleman from Indiana. It was printed as a serial in McClure's Magazine. It proved successful and was soon staged as a play.

This success was despite Willa Cather's opinion of it as "so amateurish that it will scarcely be seriously considered among literary people — outside of Indiana — and his view of life is so shallow and puerile and sophomorically sugary that grown-ups will have little patience with it." In defense of Tarkington, the book was serialized at a time when local color writing was extremely popular. Further, the founder of McClure's Magazine was Samuel S. McClure, who had been raised partly in Indiana. Tarkington's description of a slow-paced Midwestern town was likely part of the appeal. The book opens:

There is a fertile stretch of flat lands in Indiana where unagrarian Eastern travellers, glancing from car-windows, shudder and return their eyes to interior upholstery, preferring even the swaying caparisons of a Pullman to the monotony without. The landscape lies interminably level: bleak in winter, a desolate plain of mud and snow; hot and dusty in summer, in its flat lonesomeness, miles on miles with not one cool hill slope away from the sun. The persistent tourist who seeks for signs of man in this sad expanse perceives a reckless amount of rail fence; at intervals a large barn; and, here and there, man himself, incurious, patient, slow, looking up from the fields apathetically as the Limited flies by. Widely separated from each other are small frame railway stations—sometimes with no other building in sight, which indicates that somewhere behind the adjacent woods a few shanties and thin cottages are grouped about a couple of brick stores...

Only one street attained to the dignity of a name—Main Street, which formed the north side of the Square... In winter, Main Street was a series of frozen gorges and hummocks; in fall and spring, a river of mud; in summer, a continuing dust heap; it was the best street in Plattville.

The people lived happily; and, while the world whirled on outside, they were content with their own.