On visiting the Scribner Archives and being locked in a graveyard with Aaron Burr

houseofmirthThe Charles Scribner Archives at the Princeton University Library are a rich source for anyone doing research on Edith Wharton. They’re a rich source for research on other authors, too, for that matter, but I was there for Wharton and the edition of The House of Mirth I’m preparing for the Complete Works of Edith Wharton (CWEWh).

Charles Scribner’s Sons was Edith Wharton’s publisher at the start of her career, and she remained with the publishing house for many years until she moved to Appleton with The Reef, a break that was more like a breakup. As Hermione Lee describes it:

Charles Scribner never quite got over the divorce, and in 1921, still hoping to capture future novels,” he wrote sadly: “The loss of your books was the greatest blow ever given to my pride as publisher.”

Scribner’s published The Valley of Decision and The Joy of Living (1902),Wharton’s translation of Hermann Sudermann’s Es Lebe Das Leben, a 5-act drama.joyofliving, which sports a grayish-green cover unlike the familiar red binding used for most of her books.  Wharton supervised every aspect of the publishing process with great attention, and, when she finally moved to Appleton and they mimicked the familiar red Scribner’s binding for The Reef and Summer. 

 

Back to the archive: The correspondence between Wharton and various people at Scribner’s is voluminous, charming, witty, and businesslike. There are restrictions on photography in terms of number (no more than 10% of any folder, box, or collection) and use, however, and every image must be approved by a librarian before you take the picture, so I can’t reproduce anything here. Here’s a link to the finding aid, and you are sure to find something you need to see: https://rbsc.princeton.edu/collections/archives-charles-scribner%E2%80%99s-sons2018-07-27 18.37.48-1

How does Aaron Burr enter into this narrative? Well, Burr went to Princeton, which his father, Aaron Burr, Senior, had founded (as The College of New Jersey) and of which his maternal grandfather, the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards, had assumed the presidency when the senior Burr died when Aaron Burr was two years old.  I figured that Burr was probably buried in the Princeton cemetery, a short walk from the campus.

When my CWEWh colleague Carol Singley and I walked all around the cemetery after a day in the archives, however, we couldn’t find a way in. The graveyard is surrounded by a fence of iron spikes, and all the gates we saw were locked. We figured out which was Burr’s grave and left it at that.

2018-07-27 16.44.06-1The next day, I returned,  found an open gate, and went to the grave. It’s the white stone in front of the graves of his father (right) and grandfather (left).

A light rain had started to fall, along with some rumblings of distant thunder. I had stood there for a while, trying (with my rusty Latin) to read the lengthy inscription on his father’s grave.

When I went back to the open gate, it was locked, chained shut with a padlock. I wandered the perimeter a while longer, but all the gates were locked.

It would be a better story to imagine staying there as night fell and the thunder and rain intensified, and for a minute I imagined that was what was going to happen. Instead, I looked up the cemetery’s web site on my phone, called the emergency number, and was directed to an open gate that I hadn’t seen on either of the two trips. A prosaic rescue beats an exciting story any day, though, especially when the rain is really coming down.

I wondered after that why no one had put up a sign for clueless tourists like myself indicating either (1) that the gates were locked at a certain hour or (2) that there was an open gate to be found elsewhere. But Aaron Burr didn’t suffer fools gladly, and after teaching his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and other writings for so many years, I’m morally certain Jonathan Edwards didn’t, either.

 

 

Biography corner: What did a murder case that dominated the tabloids look like 112 years ago? Evelyn Nesbit and Grace Brown

What did a murder case that dominated the tabloids look like 112 years ago? Here’s a brief look at two such cases from the opening of Chapter 4 of Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women’s Writing. 

Evelyn Nesbit and Grace Brown: Visibility and Sexuality in the City, 1906

220px-Evelyn_Nesbit_12056uOn the evening of June 25, 1906, the play Mam’zelle Champagne opened at the Roof Garden Theater atop what was still the new Madison Square Garden. On this particular evening, its architect, Stanford White, sat in the audience enjoying the musical comedy, seemingly unaware of the intense stares of a young man who, unusually for the warm evening, was wearing an overcoat. As the tenor swung into “I Could Love a Million Girls,” the young man left his seat and walked directly in front of White. “You have ruined my life!” the young man shouted, pulling a revolver from his coat and shooting White three times in the head and chest.287px-Stanford_White_33_crop

White slumped to the floor, already dead and disfigured with powder burns, and the young man walked in a leisurely fashion toward the exit where, stopped by a uniformed fireman, he handed over his gun. The beautiful young woman who had accompanied him to the theater cried out, “Oh, Harry, what have you done? You’re in a terrible fix now.”  “It’s all right, dear,” the young man replied calmly. “I have probably saved your life.” He kept moving toward the elevators, later surrendering himself to police at the nearest precinct house and posing with supreme confidence for the waiting crowd of photographers.[i]

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 12.43.46 PMThe young man was Harry K. Thaw, a millionaire from Pittsburgh, and the beautiful young woman with him was his unhappy wife, Evelyn Nesbit, who even before the murder was as famous in her own sphere as White was in his. Supporting her mother and brother through her work as a child model, Nesbit had moved to New York as a teenager and became a well-known artists’ model widely sought out for her soulful looks and masses of dark hair. Nesbit posed for such noted figures as Charles Dana Gibson, who used her as the model for his iconic “Gibson Girl” portrait “The Eternal Question,” and by her late teens, she had appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies before marrying millionaire Harry Thaw.

What her testimony at Thaw’s trial revealed was another life lived between the stage and her marriage: her years as White’s teenage protégée and mistress. When she told the story to Thaw before their marriage in 1905, he became obsessed with the idea of innocence destroyed by White’s debauchery and forced her to recite the story repeatedly, brooding about it until he murdered White. On April 11, 1907, Thaw’s first trial ended in a hung jury; the second concluded in February 1908 with a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 12.45.43 PMIn a pattern that would become familiar in years to come, Nesbit’s story, first reproduced in the newspapers and later appearing in her two autobiographies, was reenacted by Nesbit herself in a series of a dozen movies beginning with The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Case (1907) and The Great Thaw Trial (1907) and concluding with a Hollywood version on which Nesbit served as technical advisor, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955).[ii]

gilletteThe Thaw case vied for attention with a later 1906 trial that dominated the New York press when Chester Gillette declared his innocence in the murder of Grace (Billy) Brown in upstate New York. The Thaw and Gillette trials contained the same irresistible elements, a combination of sex and violence in the unspooling narrative, breathlessly reported, of a young woman ruined by a man of higher social class. Chester Gillette’s victim, Grace Brown, had moved a few years earlier from her family’s small farm in upstate New York to the nearby city of Cortland. She found work in the Gillette Skirt Factory and later began a relationship with the owner’s nephew, Chester Gillette.

23-chester-gillette-ny-world-11-30-1906When Grace discovered that she was pregnant in the spring of 1906, Chester urged her to return to her family’s farm, promising to rescue her at a later date. By early July, when he had not done so, Grace threatened to return to Cortland and hold him accountable. Chester then took her on a trip to the nearby Adirondack Mountains from which she never returned.

 

americantragedyA few years later, Theodore Dreiser used the Gillette case as the basis for An American Tragedy (1925), and it had a second life as media fodder in its two film adaptations, Josef von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy (1931), a production that caused both Dreiser and Grace Brown’s family to sue Paramount Pictures; and George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), which starred Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters in a contemporary adaptation of the story.

[i] The account of the killing appears in Mosette Glaser Broderick, Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal and Class in America’s Gilded Age, 495; and Paula M. Uruburu, American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century.

[ii] Thaw, too, would go on to have Hollywood connections after his release from Mattewan; he sponsored Anita Page, a popular film star of the 1920s, during her first trip to Hollywood.

____

Comments:

  1. Fun fact: Chester Gillette spent many of his formative years in Spokane, Washington, the subject of a future post.
  2. You can still see the rooming house where Grace Brown lived from the windows of the former Gillette Skirt Factory in Cortland, New York, where she and Chester worked.
  3. In addition to Nesbit’s accounts of the White murder, I read the actual Gillette trial transcripts in preparing this and the rest (which is in the book). They used to be online in the New York State archives but aren’t any more.
  4. The “Mead” of the famous architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White was the brother of Elinor Mead Howells, the wife of W. D. Howells. I’m still looking for Howells’s comments (if any) on the trial because of this connection.
  5. The “Biography Corner” label is expanding to include little pieces like this in addition to reviews.

Biography Corner: Here come the Brits (Jane Dunn, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters; Selena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham; Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley)

Short takes on three more biographies, this time on British writers.

du_maurier_cover_2495239aJane Dunn, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters 

The daughters of the theatrical manager and actor Gerald du Maurier (and granddaughters of George du Maurier, author of Trilby), Angela, Daphne, and Jeanne grew up in the shadow of his histrionic personality and a “thundering homophob[ia],” as Nicholas Shakespeare puts it in The Telegraph, which did not deter the sisters from preferring lesbian relationships.  Daphne, author of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and other novels, is the subject of the most compelling sections; it was difficult to keep track of the other sisters’ lives and pursuits (painting, travel) when the most interesting parts were about Daphne’s writing.

Back when I first read Rebecca, the most memorable scene was the one where the narrator, “I,” goes into the morning room and lists every kind of stationery possible all ready for writing. Rebecca is a story of love (for a house), of desire (for Rebecca, on the part of “I” and Mrs. Danvers), and of loss; Du Maurier beautifully captures all three.  Based on this biography, you might not want Du Maurier for a friend or family member, but you’re glad she wrote engaging fiction.

Who would be in your “Glad They Wrote but Happy Not to Have Met Them” Hall of Fame?

Here’s a dismissive review from The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/03/daphne-du-maurier-sisters-jane-dunn-review and a more positive one from The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/9899554/Review-Daphne-du-Maurier-and-Her-Sisters-by-Jane-Dunn.html

maughamSelena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham

Full disclosure: I went through a serious Somerset Maugham period around my senior year in high school and read everything I could find: Of Human Bondage (read several times), Cakes and Ale (ditto, and I didn’t even know that Hardy was supposed to be the basis), The Moon and Sixpence (I did know about Paul Gauguin), The Painted Veil, The Razor’s Edge; much later, I read Liza of Lambeth. I didn’t know until later that Maugham is supposed to be “at the very front row of the second rate,” as he put it.

The “secret lives” part sounds like something the publisher put in to boost sales, but this is a deeply researched biography and an engaging one to read. Maugham’s bisexuality is apparently the “secret” but doesn’t seem to have been terribly secret back in the day, and it seems even less so now. What I hadn’t known about was his successful career as a playwright, his espionage activities, since I’d never read the Ashenden stories, his later travels in the South Seas, and his later life more generally. Along the way Hastings uncovers blackmail payments, possible sexual abuse, and some very frank letters. Maugham seems to have kept a compartmentalized and well-ordered life but then chosen partners that would blow it up with lots of drama–his wife, Syrie, the decorator; and his partner, Gerald Haxton. Here’s David Leavitt’s NYTimes review: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/books/review/Leavitt-t.html

To put it in Hollywood terms: if you’re picturing the urbane but kindly Maugham figure portrayed by Herbert Marshall in a couple of movies, you’d be disappointed. Clifton Webb in Laura and just about everything else is much nearer the mark.

outlawsCharlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

I had the good fortune to hear Charlotte Gordon’s presentation about this book at The Mount in August 2016. A dual biography would seem to be a natural fit for Wollstonecraft and Shelley, yet no one had done it, and the result is a much more satisfying reading of both their lives. Wherever there was trouble, Wollstonecraft traveled into the midst of it (Paris in the 1790s), wrote about it, and made her own way; her daughter, after a daring elopement with Shelley, seems instead to have been dragged all over Europe by him. Despite their (intermittent?) love for one another and her writing of Frankenstein and other novels, one senses her exhaustion by incessant childbearing and child deaths as well as by trying to get Shelley to focus on their family for more than a few minutes at a time.

Gordon’s method is to switch between the Marys in alternating chapters. While generally engaging, it has an effect something like this: “Oh, look at how happy Fanny Imlay seems to be as a child.” Next chapter: “Oh, no.” Do read it, though.

Here’s Christina Nehring’s NYTimes review (click on picture).

Biography Corner: Short Takes on Clancy Sigal’s Black Sunset and Jean Stein’s West of Eden

Now that I’ve consolidated all the CV material here https://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/news.htm, it’s time to post some updates on recent biographies. A lot of academics read mystery novels for fun, but biographies and history are my idea of a good escape read, so here are two that I read  last summer.

Clancy Sigal, Black Sunset 

sigalIt’s a commonplace (and a cliché) to say that Hollywood–and Los Angeles, for that matter–is not what it seems; isn’t that what Joan Didion’s writing has taught us? In Black Sunset, Clancy Sigal gives us a good idea of what it was really like to be an agent back in the 1950s. I was going to say “a brash agent,” but that’s an unnecessary adjective.  Sigal plays the Hollywood game well by day, with lots of lies and what might politely be called testicular fortitude, but he’s also an idealist, a radical, in a blacklist culture. He’s not afraid to tell stories on himself as well as about others, as when his considerable cadre of lady friends find out about one another and stage an ego-withering intervention.  Really, though, he’s a writer and not an agent, and that’s where this book leaves him: ready to write. Sigal died this past summer, but his voice is a living thing. Here’s a sample at LitHub: http://lithub.com/black-sunset-hollywood-sex-lies-glamour-betrayal-and-raging-egos/

westofeden

Jean Stein, West of Eden: An American Place

Jean Stein comes at the myth from a different position; she’s Hollywood royalty, the daughter of Jules Stein of MCA.  Like her book on Warhol muse and protégée Edie Sedgwick, Edie: American Girl (1982), of which I remember only its sense of hovering tragedy, West of Eden is an oral history, this time of places rather than persons. The book is divided into the addresses of five families: the Dohenys, the Warners, Jane Garland, Jennifer Jones, and the Steins. The first section, on the Dohenys, is the most sensational and will seem familiar to anyone who’s read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep or The High Window, seen There Will Be Blood, or read about the Greystone mansion.  A mysterious shooting (murder or suicide?), a police coverup, a corruption trial–you’ll have to read it for yourself. One fun fact: did you know that the well-known and highly regarded science fiction writer Larry Niven was Doheny’s great-grandson? I didn’t. The other stories range from strange (the Warners) to profoundly disturbing (Jane Garland and mental illness) to deeply sad  (Jennifer Jones and her family). Stein’s chapter is more about the house itself –the parties there, its secret barroom, its ruined pavilion–but also has excerpts from Jules Stein’s unpublished memoir.

Next up: here come the Brits (Jane Dunn, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters; Selena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham; Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley)

Elaine Showalter, The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Biography corner: Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader and the New Yorker revolt of 1987

gottlieb [Note: like all the “biography corners,” these are informal impressions, not real reviews, so caveat emptor.]

For lunch and breakfast reading this week, I’ve been reading Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader: A Life .   I’d been curious about Gottlieb ever since reading Michael Korda’s Another Life: A Memoir of Other People (2000) years ago, a book with great stories about publishing for those who enjoy relaxing by reading that sort of thing (that would be me) and who enjoy Korda’s stories about his life (also me).

anotherlifeIn Another Life, if I remember correctly, Gottlieb bursts on the scene at Simon & Schuster with immense talent, direction, and a love of books, and he (along with Korda) revitalizes the place. He’s a life force or maybe a publishing force, a Superman of books, until he leaves for Knopf in a whirlwind of energy some years later and The New Yorker in the distant future and I don’t know what after that because I haven’t finished Avid Reader yet.

In Avid Reader Gottlieb is much more modest and charming about his accomplishments than he has reason to be, and this is a generous memoir. Gottlieb doesn’t do the name-check-and-thank thing that a lot of memoirists do; he tells the stories of collaborations, things that worked, and a few things that didn’t. (Here’s Paris Review interview.)

Right now I’m in the section where he’s editing The New Yorker, which was a famous contretemps 30 years ago.

abouttown

Ben Yagoda’s About Town, New Yorker book that looks promising.

Editorial aside: There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to memorializing The New Yorker, which you could spend your life reading if you had endless time, which I don’t, so I haven’t. Some are devoted to an ubi sunt lamenting the demise of its excellence, which is sort of like the perennial clickbait about whether SNL is still funny or not, so if you’re interested, those books are out there for you.

Back to 1987. With apologies to Mr. Gottlieb, I’m going to retell this in a nutshell, so put on your padded shoulders sweater, pouf up your hair ’80s style, and follow along.

In 1987, William Shawn, at nearly 80, had been the legendary editor of The New Yorker for a looooong time, with both the magazine and his magic ways (and neuroses) having survived Thomas Wolfe’s infamous attack “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!”  in April 1965.  This was the piece that drew the famously reclusive J. D. Salinger out of hiding to attack the attackers, but that’s another story.

The 1987 story, as reported in an innocent time and place apparently so bereft of news that an editorial shakeup could inspire multiple stories, was that the new owner, S. I. Newhouse, had rudely booted Shawn from his perch and installed a young upstart.

Gottlieb’s version makes more sense and has a more humorous aftermath. This is my version of his version, so any mistakes are mine. The link above gives a different version.

  1. Newhouse meets with Shawn over lunch. Shawn says, “You’d probably prefer that I leave sooner rather than later.” Newhouse, not knowing this is his cue to say, “Of course not! You’re irreplaceable!” gives a quiet fist pump and says “Yes.”
  2. Shawn leaves thinking this is the first step in a process that will leave him in place. Newhouse leaves thinking “we’re done here” and installs Gottlieb.
  3. All or most of the New Yorker writers sign a letter saying that Gottlieb is a cad and a bounder, and that he should not take the job. They send it to him.  Oops, they sent the wrong letter. Would he mind not reading that one but read this one instead? Gottlieb, don’t take the job, and also, you’re a cad and a bounder (paraphrasing).
  4. Gottlieb gets to work.
  5. Lillian Ross, famous New Yorker writer and skewer-er of Hemingway and others, who was also Shawn’s lover and the author of an unpleasant memoir about their affair, Here but Not Here, demands that Gottlieb re-install Shawn at The New Yorker in some capacity, and, when he doesn’t, quits.
  6. Gottlieb hires people like Adam Gopnik, which some old-liners think is a mistake but which I am here to tell you, as a New Yorker reader, was a great decision.
  7. According to Gottlieb:

    “To end the Lillian saga: Some time later someone passed along to me a movie script she had written about a great and noble magazine editor ousted by a coarse mogul and replaced by a clever but brash young book-publishing executive (not an editor, however; a public relations/marketing man.) The heroine–an intrepid young girl reporter–came to the rescue when this poor specimen failed at the job, by convincing the mogul to bring back the great man. And then–this was the beauty part–she married the young publishing guy, who had gone back to where he belonged: marketing.”

The moral of this post, and maybe of this book, could be that we all do this because we believe that reading and writing are at the center of who we are, and maybe a little bit that writing well is the best revenge.

What made Aaron Burr AARON BURR? Edmund Wilson and Harriet Beecher Stowe have some answers.

burrWhat made Aaron Burr become Aaron Burr?  Not just in 1804, but before and after?  I can think of no historical figure for whom Milton’s phrase “sense of injur’d merit” applies more strongly–and yet Milton, in Paradise Lost, was talking about the motivation of Satan.

The Burr that emerges in Gore Vidal’s novel (Burr, 1973) is supremely cynical, which sounds close to the mark, as does the outraged, haughty, secretive, and slippery Burr that Ron Chernow describes in Alexander Hamilton. I haven’t come to sections dealing with Burr in Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor  yet, or finished Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder.  Since I’m not a historian, Burr remains for me a fascinating literary character, and a tragic one.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-8-15-19-am

A. Burr and his Memoirs.

Matthew Davis’s  Memoirs of Aaron Burr (1836, 1855) (free at Archive.org) includes a raft of letters portraying Burr as the brave young officer, something of a martinet but a rational one. Among the interesting pieces there is a letter from Gen. Charles Lee, who confirms a Hamilton lyric by writing to Burr in October 1778, after he had been sentenced at his court-martial:

“As I have no idea that a proper reparation will be made to my injured reputation, it is my intent, whether the sentence is reversed or not reversed, to resign my commission, retire to Virginia, and learn to hoe tobacco, which I find is the best school to form a consummate general” (135).

As Thomas A. Foster writes in Common-Place, however, Davis was not a sympathetic biographer, at least where Burr’s relationships with women were concerned; that would wait for the later biographer James Parton, perhaps better known to most 19th-century Americanists as the husband of Sara Willis Parton (Fanny Fern).

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-9-00-46-am

Burr as an older man, behind a tissue mask in the frontispiece of The Private Journal of Aaron Burr.

But The Private Journal of Aaron Burr (1903; free at HathiTrust) already gives a less elevated picture of Burr, and in his own words. It’s a book that could be subtitled Down and Out in Paris, London, New York, &c.  It’s difficult to reconcile the man of such intellectual gifts and bravery during the siege of Quebec and the Revolution, who (maybe, kind of, sort of–but acquitted!) thought about establishing a Western empire, with the man we see in his daily life drinking a little too much and seeking out some cream of tartar punch for the hangover, visiting his tailor, ordering a chess set, and so on. The reader can only think about the waste of talents that this represents.

Which brings me back to the original question: why did you do these things, Burr? Chernow makes a good case about why the duel with Hamilton occurred, but so much of the rest seems inexplicable.

hbstowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe explains it all, but she had a soft spot for bad boys like Burr, according to Wilson.

Fearless as always, Harriet Beecher Stowe enters the fray in The Minister’s Wooing  (1859) and Oldtown Folks, by presenting two fictional versions of Aaron Burr. In The Minister’s Wooing, Senator Burr is brought up short by the memory of his mother as his better nature struggles with his darker side:

Burr was practised in every act of gallantry; he had made womankind a study: he never saw a beautiful face and form without a sort of restless desire to experiment upon it, and try his power over the interior inhabitant. But just at this moment something streamed into his soul from those blue, earnest eyes, which brought back to his mind what pious people had so often told him of his mother—the beautiful and early-sainted Esther Burr.

In Oldtown Folks, Burr is “Ellery Davenport,” grandson, as Burr was, of Jonathan Edwards. Davenport challenges his grandfather’s doctrine of predestination and points to the sorry state of Christianity as it is practiced to support his point:

Taking the mass of human beings in the world at this hour, they are in such circumstances, that, so far from it ‘s being reasonable to expect the morals of Christianity of them, they are not within sight of ordinary human decencies. . . . That ‘s what I call visible election and reprobation, get rid of it as we may or can.”

220px-edmund_wilson

Edmund Wilson, who in person could be as terrifying as this picture.

As the critic Edmund Wilson sums up Stowe’s argument:

Her point is that Jonathan Edwards, in his overweening spiritual pride, had put the Calvinistic qualifications for Election and Salvation so high, at a level so unattainable by the ordinary man–this matter had been much on Harriet’s mind ever since her brother Charles had been driven to despair by reading the treatise by Jonathan Edwards–that Aaron Burr, also the son of a clergyman and brought up in his grandfather’s shadow, had from the start been discouraged with religion and led by a powerful intellect completely to discard morality in furthering his own career.  This picture of Aaron Burr is thus a part of Mrs. Stowe’s expose of the pernicious effects of Calvinism (Patriotic Gore 49).

Wilson adds, “The truth is that this sort of character–sophisticated, clever and fearless–rather piques and excites Mrs. Stowe” (49), as she was later to show in The True Story of Lady Byron (1869), where she shows sympathy for Lord Byron despite his misdeeds.

The complexities of human nature are such that no one thing can explain Burr. But Stowe’s (and Wilson’s explication of Stowe’s answer) give the reason for Burr’s behavior in logic that my students often point out when we study Edwards: if you’re already predestined not to be saved, why be good?

 

Did Jack London set fire to Wolf House?

Jack London Ranch 2010 033In this month’s Valley of the Moon Magazine, Jonah Raskin says, well, maybe he did.

http://www.vommag.com/january-2016/

Background for this excerpt: Wolf House, the ruins of which still stand in Jack London State Park, was London’s dream home, designed with his input and built from California materials. After citing a 1995 forensic investigation that found oily rags and spontaneous combustion to be the cause, Raskin continues:

Still, not everyone was convinced, including Greg Hayes [Jack London State Park Ranger and London expert]. Even Robert Anderson [forensic investigator] wasn’t entirely convinced of his own argument, especially when I pointed out to him that Jack had written in an essay published before the fire, “It will be a happy house–or else I’ll burn it down.” Just what did Jack mean when he made that provocative remark? Just how unhappy was he in 1913 when his doctors told him that if he didn’t stop drinking, alcohol would kill him.

There was no investigation of the fire that year, not by London’s insurance company, not by law enforcement and not by the fire department, since there was no fire department in Sonoma County in 1913. . . .

Whatever the cause, one thing seems clear. It wasn’t one big happy family on Beauty Ranch. Jack’s second wife, Charmian Kittridge, whom he had married in 1905, typed his manuscripts, followed him most everywhere he went and put up with his philandering. Often depressed, he drove her crazy, and she continued to love him.
According to a witness who overheard an argument in Wolf House shortly before it burned, Charmian told Jack, “You’ll never live here.”

Raskin goes on to discuss other suspects, including jealous neighbors.

What to make of this evidence? A few thoughts:

  1. London’s “or else I’ll burn it down” sounds a lot like London being London to me. That melodramatic note is a fairly characteristic pattern in some of his writing, and holding him to it as a threat, which may work in a police procedural drama, probably means less than you’d think.
  2. “How unhappy was he in 1913”–London’s legion of biographers can sort that one out. He was devastated when Wolf House burned down, as numerous witnesses attest. A brutal letter to his daughter Joan upbraids her for not writing to him to sympathize with its loss.
  3. “You’ll never live here”–Again, in the heat of an argument, the participants say things for effect rather than as actual threats. 1913 was a fraught year for the Londons (see The Little Lady of the Big House), but the two months spent in New York City in 1912 rather than the events of 1913 were a low point in their relationship. If Charmian had to “put up with” a lot from London and his depressions, would she be inclined to burn down a house, knowing that it would send him into a further depth of despair and that, since she’d be there, she’d have to bear the brunt of it?

You can read the article on pp. 46-47 of the issue, which is online at the link above.