As an end of year project happening during AP exams week(s), I assigned my American lit students to do some groupwork on short stories of the 19th century. Part of the assignment was to link the stories to one of the dominant American themes we’ve been using this quarter. The themes are not meant to be exhaustive, don’t apply to every piece of American literature, and you can still read something that none of the themes easily applies to. We also used the themes are a way in mostly, looking for other ways of looking at other times. I also taught the themes in terms of differing views or against the grain reading, so to look for ways that the themes work and inverse ways that the themes work. For example, is a piece of literature supportive of the idea of American Exceptionalism like John Winthrop or is counter to theme of American Exceptionalism like Native American poetry. The themes were: “What is an American?”, “The American Dream”, “American Exceptionalism”, “The Frontier/Manifest Destiny”, “The Past”, “The Civil War/The American Revolution”, “The Great American Novel” (the answer is Moby Dick), “Slavery/Peculiar Institution”, “The Land”, and “Rugged Individualism”.
The Yellow Wall Paper
“It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.
A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity—but that would be asking too much of fate!
Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.”
If you haven’t read this story, I would recommend finding it online or listening to the free Audible version read by Cynthia Erivo. In the story, our narrator is a woman suffering from what we would likely call post-partum depression, and is staying in a rich rental house for the summer. Because her condition is distressing her and having her act not like her “normal” self, her husband recommends she stay confined indoors with a rest cure. The room chosen for this is adorned with an elaborate yellow wall paper. As her condition worsens, especially because of the added stress of her husband’s refusing to listen to her, she begins seeing shapes and patterns in the wall paper, eventually people, and believes there’s a woman confined in the walls.
This story doesn’t quite fit perfectly with any of the above themes, but I think “What is American?” best addresses a way to look at this, because the question itself is taken from a letter in the collection Letters from an American Farmer, where the answer is pretty much what you would guess — white, land-owning, English origin, male. And well, our narrator is the victim of such a narrow definition.
The Oval Portrait
“THE CHATEAU into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. ”
In this short story by Poe, the narrator, while exploring an apparently abandoned chateau finds of a collection of paintings, and is drawn in by one particular one. In trying to avoid dwelling on it, and trying to continue the exploration, he inadvertently discovers its gruesome truth.
Students decided that the American literature theme of “The Past” plays a significant role in this story, especially in the ways in which the past intrudes upon and shapes the present in a lot of literature. American Literature often has figures who wish to reinvent themselves or start over, only to find their past coming back to haunt them, or having elements of the past come back to haunt the present.
The Cask of Amontillado
“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled — but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.”
Again the past plays an interesting and even subtle role in this story. While the action all takes place as we watch it unfold, with the “thousand injuries” Fortunado had committed against our narrator’s family name, the more subtle use here is in the narrative frame. We leave the scene of the entombing with the same kind of tension and anticipation that Fortunado himself might, waiting to be rescued. In “The Pit and the Pendulum” such a thing happens. But in Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” it’s an illusion that the main character experiences in the final throes of death. Here, the trick is played on us as the last moments tell us that decades have past since the action of the story and no one heard from Fortunado since.
The Gift of the Magi
“One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.”
Here the story is more famous by reputation than by story I feel. And well the story is charming and tender (if sentimental) and the writing relatively bad, but what stands out here is a few things. One, the narrator is not only omniscient in its approach, but downright 18th century in its framing and moralizing. What always strikes me as hilarious here is that when it really comes down to it, only our boy Jim has sacrificed anything. Sure Della cuts her hair, but as she herself tells us, no worries, it will grow back. Jim’s watch is long gone. It’s also a good reason to skip giving gifts. One time my brother and I each bought the other the exact same gift, and one that we were each glad to get but otherwise unenthused by.
Twenty Years After
“THE COP MOVED ALONG THE STREET, LOOKING strong and important. This was the way he always moved. He was not thinking of how he looked. There were few people on the street to see him. It was only about ten at night, but it was cold. And there was a wind with a little rain in it.”
This story feels like the embodiment of liberal guilt. Two old friends are meeting up after twenty years. When one returns to the meeting place, he sees that there’s a police officer in the spot the friends were supposed to meet up. He thinks, well it’s possible that it’s his friend, so he approaches, only to realize that it’s not his friend at all, but he’s arrested any way. It turns out that his friend IS a police office, but couldn’t stand to arrest his friend (on an old warrant) and sent someone else in the force to take his place. Heartwarming!
“[Note – This is not a fancy sketch. I got it from a clergyman who was an instructor at Woolwich forty years ago, and who vouched for its truth.]
It was at a banquet in London in honour of one of the two or three conspicuously illustrious English military names of this generation.”
Often Mark Twain is a literary coward. He wrote several good books, but only one really good novel, Huck Finn, and in later stories about Tom and Huck he completely cheapens them and plays around with in genre, to the point that he feels like he had to sully them, rather than try to take them seriously. Here, we have a similar thing Mark Twain does, sometimes supremely and other times needlessly, put a story in the mouth of not only a narrator, but a narrator who heard it from someone else. Henry James does this with The Turning of the Screw, and he wrote one of the best horror stories of all time. Mark Twain does it here, and it’s completely forgettable. What’s not forgettable is the funny idea of someone who is terrible at making decisions, but whose decisions end up being fortuitous in spite of their disastrousness.
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavares County
“In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me from the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend’s friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and I hereunto append the result. I have a lurking suspicion that Leonidas W. Smiley is a myth; that my friend never knew such a personage; and that he only conjectured that, if I asked old Wheeler about him, it would remind him of his infamous Jim Smiley, and he would go to work and bore me nearly to death with some infernal reminiscence of him as long and tedious as it should be useless to me. If that was the design, it certainly succeeded.”
Here the frame works because it’s hilarious. The story we get is not only not the one the narrator asks for, but is also not even about the person he’s trying to locate and the result is a funny story told in a funny way, but with an hilarious frame creating even further comedic tension throughout. Twain does have a way of creating a flim flam con in such an appealing way that I think Faulkner even stole the idea in part for the opening story in Go Down Moses.
The Story of an Hour
“Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.”
One of my favorite stories is by Edith Wharton and was published around the same time, which involves an older lady who likes to sit in her front parlor and look out the window. When she finds out her landlord is adding on to the house in such a way that it will destroy her view, she’s so upset that she tries to stop the construction, and when that fails, she sets fire to the house, dying in the smoke even though the house doesn’t burn down.
Here, Mallard learns that her husband has died in a railway accident and is immediately stricken, only to lighten her mood when she really begins to consider how freer she will be with him dead. When he returns home not even knowing that he’s supposed to be dead, she drops dead from the shock of seeing him. The story seems to indicate from joy — but it’s not clear to me the joy at his death or the joy of his return.
A Pair of Silk Stockings
“Little Mrs. Sommers one day found herself the unexpected possessor of fifteen
dollars. It seemed to her a very large amount of money, and the way in which it stuffed
and bulged her worn old porte-monnaie gave her a feeling of importance such as she had
not enjoyed for years.”
If you treat yourself a pair of silk stockings, then you’ll want some accessories. If you treat yourself some accessories, then you’ll want to eat a nice lunch….
The story is about a woman who goes against her character normally and buys herself a pair of stockings instead of the clothes she was meant to buy her children, and the ball keeps rolling. It’s the sowing before the later reaping.