A hardwired fear of snakes reported–in 1896. Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware

The Los Angeles Times and other news outlets report that the brains of Japanese macaques (and possibly human beings) may be hard-wired to fear snakes

The results, published online Monday in the journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, appear to support a theory that early primates developed advanced perception as an evolutionary response to being prey, not as an adaptation that may have made foraging or hunting easier.

Though fear of snakes may not be innate, noticing them more than other phenomena may be hard-wired by evolution, said Lynne Isbell, an evolutionary biologist fromUC Davis and one of the authors of the paper. That heightened attention, research has shown, can lead to early and resilient learned behavior, such as fear-mediated avoidance. In other words, getting out of the way of snakes. [. . . ]

The researchers used two monkeys raised in captivity that had no opportunity to encounter a snake. Probes measured responses to snakes, faces and hands of monkeys, and geometric shapes. More neurons responded to the snakes, and did so with greater strength and speed, the data showed.

This passage from Harold Frederic’s 1896 novel The Damnation of Theron Ware anticipates these results.  In the following passage, Dr. Ledsmar, an evolutionary scientist, is leading the naive minister Theron Ware around various scientific exhibits in his house.

They moved out of the room, and through a passage, Ledsmar talking as he led the way. “I took up that subject, when I was at college, by a curious chance. I kept a young monkey in my rooms, which had been born in captivity. I brought home from a beer hall—it was in Germany—some pretzels one night, and tossed one toward the monkey. He jumped toward it, then screamed and ran back shuddering with fright. I couldn’t understand it at first. Then I saw that the curled pretzel, lying there on the floor, was very like a little coiled-up snake. The monkey had never seen a snake, but it was in his blood to be afraid of one. That incident changed my whole life for me. Up to that evening, I had intended to be a lawyer.”

Earle Labor’s new Jack London biography

Cross-posted from the Jack London Society site at http://jacklondonsociety.org

Edited to add: This clip also has a 10-second excerpt (at 2:00)  from the only known recording of Jack London’s voice, which isn’t otherwise available online.

I’ve been hearing portions of this biography for years at Jack London symposia, and it should be a terrific book.  Labor began working on Jack London in the 1960s; a prominent scholar, he knows as much about London’s life as it’s possible to know after a lifetime of study.

From http://www.npr.org/2013/10/17/230497660/jack-london-believed-function-of-man-is-to-live-not-to-exist

A literary critic once remarked, “The greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived.” In his brief life, London sought adventure in the far corners of the world, from the frozen Yukon to the South Pacific, writing gripping tales of survival based on his experiences — including The Call of the WildWhite Fang and The Sea Wolf.

His story is the subject of a new biography,Jack London: An American Life, by Earle Labor, curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, La. Labor wrote his first book about London in 1974, but the 85-year-old scholar says with London, there’s always more to write.

Image[read or listen to the rest at the link]

Mary Austin’s Devotion to Writing

A recollection from Elsie Martinez, wife of Marty Martinez, an artist of the San Francisco (and Taos) group who knew Jack London, from Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson’s Mary Austin and the American West: 

[Lincoln Steffens had] asked [Mary Austin] to marry him. . . . He told us that he was certain Mary was cautious.  Mary would say, “I can’t see you until four o’clock this afternoon. My work’s going well.” Or, “I can see you at all until this evening because my work’s going very well.” 

Goodman and Dawson continue: 

So at Austin’s suggestion, they lived separately.  When she felt ready and decided to surprise him with an apartment that suited both, she found him there with another woman, his old sweetheart, Gussie.  That, according to Elsie, “finished up the romance with Mary.”

Upcoming conference: Western Literature Association, October 9-12, 2013

This week the Western Literature Association holds its annual conference in Berkeley, California.  Among the highlights of the program are readings by Gerald Vizenor and Ishmael Reed, past president Sara Spurgeon’s address “Incidentally Western,” plenary sessions on science fiction with Kim Stanley Robinson and Molly Gloss, on California Okie writers, and on the Free Speech movement (“West Coast / Left Coast: The Legacy of Berkeley”), with a keynote address by Robert Hass.

There are lots of great panels on Western literature, regionalism, visual cultures, “Native Lessons,” the Mexican-American experience, postwestern cultures, and so on. I’ll be presenting on Thursday in session 3A on Mary Austin, Jack London, and the “woman of genius” question in Little Lady of the Big House. 

Edith Wharton’s Berkshires Home, The Mount

DSCN0535Cross-posted from the new Edith Wharton Society (http://www.edithwhartonsociety.org) site except for this photo of The Mount, which I took a year ago:

From NPR:

Gilding the Ages: Edith Wharton’s Berkshire Sanctuary

JARED BOWEN: Even today, Edith Wharton occupies a place as one of America’s leading literary ladies.  She was born into the upper crust of old New York in the mid-1800s—a member of high society who also exposed it through the prism of her pen. Wharton wrote more than 40 books in 40 years including “Ethan Frome” and “The Age of Innocence” for which she became the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Today she is also remembered for her home, The Mount.  And if ever a house could serve as an autobiography, The Mount is it. Situated on a hill overlooking a lake in Lenox, Massachusetts, it was conceived by Wharton from the ground up.  She dreamed its location, guided its aesthetic principles and designed her elaborate gardens. It was in a sense, her own “House of Mirth”—which she wrote while living here.

Continue reading: Video and transcript at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec13/wharton_09-14.html

Mark Twain Gives Advice on Conference Presentations

These excerpts from the new Autobiography of Mark Twain address “a new and devilish invention–the thing called an Authors’ Reading”  rather than a conference presentation, but Twain has some great advice about what not to do. These are from pages 383-384 in the print version, but you can read it online as well.

Twain had been asked to speak and foresaw disaster: “The introducer would be ignorant, windy, eloquent, and willing to hear himself talk.  With nine introductions to make, added to his own opening speech–well, I could not go on with these harrowing calculations.”

1. It takes a long time to create a readable short paper.

“My reading was ten minutes long.  When I had selected it originally, it was twelve minutes long, and it had taken me a good hour to find ways of reducing it by two minutes without damaging it.”

2. Time your presentation. Even Howells didn’t know this.

“Howells was always a member of these traveling afflictions, and I was never able to teach him to rehearse his proposed reading by the help of a watch and cut it down to a proper length. He [page 384] couldn’t seem to learn it. He was a bright man in all other ways, but whenever he came to select a reading for one of these carousals his intellect decayed and fell to ruin. I arrived at his house in Cambridge the night before the Longfellow Memorial occasion, and I probably asked [him] to show me his selection. At any rate, he showed it to me—and I wish I may never attempt the truth again if it wasn’t seven thousand words. I made him set his eye on his watch and keep game while I should read a paragraph of it. This experiment proved that it would take me an hour and ten minutes to read the whole of it, and I said ‘And mind you, this is not allowing anything for such[interruptions] as applause—for the reason that after the first twelve minutes there wouldn’t be any.’”

3. Keep it short.

“He [Howells] had a time of it to find something short enough, and he kept saying that he never would find a short enough selection that would be good enough—that is to say, he never would be able to find one that would stand exposure before an audience.

I said ‘It’s no matter. Better that than a long one—because the audience could stand a bad short one, but couldn’t stand a good long one.'”

4. Conference rooms can be stuffy.

“It was in the afternoon, in the Globe Theatre and the place was packed, and the air would have been very bad only there wasn’t any. I can see that mass of people yet, opening and closing their mouths like fishes gasping for breath. It was intolerable.”

5. Don’t belabor the obvious.

“That graceful and competent speaker, Professor Norton, opened the game with a very handsome speech, but it was a good twenty minutes long. And a good ten minutes of it, I think, were devoted to the introduction of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who hadn’t any more need of an introduction than the Milky Way.”