Category Archives: American Lit

From 1001 Afternoons in Chicago

I’m intrigued by a book I just discovered, Ben Hecht’s 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. It’s available on Project Gutenberg. It’ll have to go on my TBR (to be read) list for a time, but sample this:


Why did Fanny do this? The judge would like to know. The judge would like to help her. The judge says: “Now, Fanny, tell me all about it.”

All about it, all about it! Fanny’s stoical face stares at the floor. If Fanny had words. But Fanny has no words. Something heavy in her heart, something vague and heavy in her thought—these are all that Fanny has.

Let the policewoman’s records show. Three years ago Fanny came to Chicago from a place called Plano. Red-cheeked and black-haired, vivid-eyed and like an ear of ripe corn dropped in the middle of State and Madison streets, Fanny came to the city.

Ah, the lonely city, with its crowds and its lonely lights. The lonely buildings busy with a thousand lonelinesses. People laughing and hurrying along, people eager-eyed for something; summer parks and streets white with snow, the city moon like a distant window, pretty gewgaws in the stores—these are a part of Fanny’s story.

The judge wants to know. Fanny’s eyes look up. A dog takes a kick like this, with eyes like this, large, dumb and brimming with pathos. The dog’s master is a mysterious and inexplicable dispenser of joys and sorrows. His caresses and his beatings are alike mysterious; their reasons seldom to be discerned, never fully understood.

Sometimes in this court where the sinners are haled, where “poised and prim and particular, society stately sits,” his honor has a moment of confusion. Eyes lift themselves to him, eyes dumb and brimming with pathos. Eyes stare out of sordid faces, evil faces, wasted faces and say something not admissible as evidence. Eyes say: “I don’t know, I don’t know. What is it all about?”

These are not to be confused with the eyes that plead shrewdly for mercy, with eyes that feign dramatic naïvetés and offer themselves like primping little penitents to his honor. His honor knows them fairly well. And understands them. They are eyes still bargaining with life.

But Fanny’s eyes. Yes, the judge would like to know. A vagueness comes into his precise mind. He half-hears the familiar accusation that the policeman drones, a terribly matter-of-fact drone.

Another raid on a suspected flat. Routine, routine. Evil has its eternal root in the cities. A tireless Satan, bored with the monotony of his rôle; a tireless Justice, bored with the routine of tears and pleadings, lies and guilt.

There is no story in all this. Once his honor, walking home from a banquet, looked up and noticed the stars. Meaningless, immutable stars. There was nothing to be seen by looking at them. They were mysteries to be dismissed. Like the mystery of Fanny’s eyes. Meaningless, immutable eyes. They do not bargain. Yet the world stares out of them. The face looks dumbly up at a judge.

No defense. The policeman’s drone has ended and Fanny says nothing. This is difficult. Because his honor knows suddenly there is a defense. A monstrous defense. Since there are always two sides to everything. Yes, what is the other side? His honor would like to know. Tell it, Fanny. About the crowds, streets, buildings, lights, about the whirligig of loneliness, about the humpty-dumpty clutter of longings. And then explain about the summer parks and the white snow and the moon window in the sky. Throw in a poignantly ironical dissertation on life, on its uncharted aimlessness, and speak like Sherwood Anderson about the desires that stir in the heart. Speak like Remy de Gourmont and Dostoevsky and Stevie Crane, like Schopenhauer and Dreiser and Isaiah; speak like all the great questioners whose tongues have wagged and whose hearts have burned with questions. His honor will listen bewilderedly and, perhaps, only perhaps, understand for a moment the dumb pathos of your eyes.

As it is, you were found, as the copper who reads the newspapers puts it, in a suspected flat. A violation of section 2012 of the City Code. Thirty days in the Bastile, Fanny. Unless his honor is feeling good.

These eyes lifted to him will ask him questions on his way home from a banquet some night.

“How old are you?”


“Make it twenty-two,” his honor smiles. “And you have nothing to say? About how you happened to get into this sort of thing? You look like a good girl. Although looks are often deceiving.”

“I went there with him,” says Fanny. And she points to a beetle-browed citizen with an unshaven face. A quaint Don Juan, indeed.

“Ever see him before?”

A shake of the head. Plain case. And yet his honor hesitates. His honor feels something expand in his breast. Perhaps he would like to rise and holding forth his hand utter a famous plagiarism—”Go and sin no more.” He chews a pen and sighs, instead.

“I’ll give you another chance,” he says. “The next time it’ll be jail. Keep this in mind. If you’re brought in again, no excuses will go. Call the next case.”

Now one can follow Fanny. She walks out of the courtroom. The street swallows her. Nobody in the crowds knows what has happened. Fanny is anybody now. Still, one may follow. Perhaps something will reveal itself, something will add an illuminating touch to the incident of the courtroom.

There is only this. Fanny pauses in front of a drug-store window. The crowds clutter by. Fanny stands looking, without interest, into the window. There is a little mirror inside. The city tumbles by. The city is interested in something vastly complicated.

Staring into the little mirror, Fanny sighs and—powders her nose.


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Posted by on January 3, 2018 in American Lit, fiction, postaweek


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The Education of Henry Adams


Today our Great Books club discussed The Education of Henry Adams written by John Quincy Adams’ grandson (John Adams’ great grandson). It’s a memoire of Henry Adam’s youth with tales of a boy, who like many, didn’t see a lot of benefit to schooling.

Throughout Adams’ includes reflections on how he first thought everyone had presidents in their family, that that was no big deal. He spoke of how around his home his father Charles Adams, a diplomat, would discuss high-minded ideas with virtuous men. As you’d imagine his family socialized with the best and the brightest.

One story I liked was how one day while visiting his grandparents, little Henry refused to go to school. His mother was having no luck with the feisty Henry. Suddenly, the door to his grandfather’s office opened. John Quincy Adams put on his hat, took the boy by the hand and without a word delivered the boy to school. After that, Henry went to school though he didn’t feel it improved him much.

At one point his family moved from Massachusetts to Washington, DC. He was shocked an appalled by the state of things in this slave state. The streets were dirty, the place smelled and the poverty was shocking. He was overwhelmed by the injustice of slavery all around him.

When he was 16 he went to Harvard, of which he thought little. There were no admission standards at the time and the school was something of a club for the elite. He wrote of himself in the third person:

Adams debated whether in fact it had not ruined him and most of his companions, but, disappointment apart Harvard College was probably less hurtful than any other University then in existence. It taught little, and that little ill, but it left the mind open, free from bias ignorant of facts, but docile. The graduate had few strong prejudices. He knew little, but his mind remained supple . . . what caused the boy the most disappointment was the little he got from his mates. Speaking exactly, he got less than nothing, a result common enough in education.

According to Adams, and I generally agree, is that the more people you pack into a class, the less you’ll learn. I’m no fan of the lecture courses with 100 or more students, which is what Adams had at Harvard. I do think one on one or small group interaction. Adams was lucky to be born into a family and circle that had so many great thinkers I wasn’t surprised that Adams learned more at the dinner table than in a classroom.

The book was lively and a wonderful glimpse into an important era in U.S. history. Adams’ style was brisk and engaging.

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Posted by on December 18, 2017 in 19th Century, American Lit, non-fiction, Pulitzer Prize


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The Magnificent Ambersons

Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons witty observations on the Gilded Age. The first passages grabbed me.

Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.

In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and when there was a new purchase of sealskin, sick people were got to windows to see it go by. Trotters were out, in the winter afternoons, racing light sleighs on National Avenue and Tennessee Street; everybody recognized both the trotters and the drivers; and again knew them as well on summer evenings, when slim buggies whizzed by in renewals of the snow-time rivalry. For that matter, everybody knew everybody else’s family horse-and-carriage, could identify such a silhouette half a mile down the street, and thereby was sure who was going to market, or to a reception, or coming home from office or store to noon dinner or evening supper.

The story’s hero is George Amberson Minafer, the most egotistical fool I’ve ever read about. When George is a boy in the small Middle American town his grandfather developed from what seems to have been prairie, he fights with every boy who looks at him the wrong way. He’ll pound the pastor’s son to a pulp and curse at the pastor when he pulls the boys apart. George defines entitlement. From his childhood, he was well aware that as his family is the “First Family” of Midland, that everyone else was riffraff and should kowtow to him.

As a boy terrorized the town with his carelessness and the good citizens could do nothing but raise their fists in anger and shout that one day that so and so would get his comeuppance.

What made George such a public nuisance? His mother. Isabela Amberson Minafer doted on George as no woman ever doted on her child. This was her Achilles’ heel, which like in any Greek tragedy is guaranteed to lead to a character’s downfall. Isabela prized dignity. As a young woman, the most wealthy woman in town, she was humiliated when Eugene Morgan came to serenade her and since he’d been drinking fell flat on his face, a spectacle that Isabela assumed the whole world witnessed. That was enough for her to banish Eugene from her heart and to marry a safe, drab accountant, Wilbur Minafer. As the gossip in town predicted, Isabela would lavish her affection on her child, George as Wilbur wasn’t the sort of man to stir up much passion in a wife.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on November 26, 2017 in 19th Century, American Lit, book review, fiction


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Horizontal Man

In 1947 Helen Eustis won the Edgar Award for best mystery for Horizontal Man. Set at a small New England women’s college where a young Irish English professor, Kevin Boyle is murdered; someone took a fireplace poker and bashed him over the head with it. Soon Molly Morrison, an introverted freshman with a huge crush on Prof. Boyle has a breakdown and while in the school infirmary confesses to the murder.

No one buys that and she’s eventually cleared, but the question remains: Who killed Boyle? As the novel progresses Eustis provides an up close look into the psychology of the students and professors. Surprisingly, police and detectives play a small role in the novel, a technique I can’t remember seeing in other mysteries.

I liked her precise style, which transported me to the late 1940s.

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Posted by on February 7, 2016 in American Lit, book review, fiction


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Sister Carrie

sister carrie

A friend suggested I read Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie as I’m working on a historical fiction project. I finally found the time and I really enjoyed it, though it’s not because it’s filled with characters I was drawn to — at all. I wanted to find out what would happen and I found Dreiser’s style pleasant if not outstanding.

The title character, Carrie comes to Chicago from a small town hoping to find her fortune. She moves in with the sister and brother-in-law, who live in a tenement and grind their way through each day. They encourage Carrie to get a job and she pounds the pavement and finds a job in a factory. She hates the course language and rough behaviour of her coworkers. The work itself is dull. She soon loses her job and begins her rise. What’s unusual about Carrie is she does so little and is swept up by luck higher and higher up the social and financial with extremely little effort. She’s not witty or smart or hard working. She’s lucky. She met Drouet, a snappy salesman on the train to Chicago and is impressed with his suave style. She meets him again and he persuades her to move in with him. She’s just lost her job and her brother-in-law’s getting on her nerves so what the heck, she leaves her sister’s home.

She lives with Drouet and is rather isolated. She’s a kept woman and when she does make friends pretends to be married. She has no consequences to leading this wild life (for 1900). She never gets pregnant, never is judged or pinned with a scarlet A.

While with Drouet, she meets his even more prosperous and suave friend Hardwood, a manager of a high-ish class bar. Hardwood falls for her and winds ups leaving his wife and stealing $10,000 from his employer and running away with Carrie.

Carrie doesn’t even make any big decisions. She is tricked into going with Hardwood and lacks the chutzpah or direction to leave him. They move to New York and Hardwood tries to live off what remains of his post-divorce money. He slowly slides down to the gutter as Carrie ascends by dabbling in musical comedy.

I normally like books with characters I either identify with or admire. No one in <em>Sister Carrie </em>is anyone I’d want to spend time with, but they’re sympathetic enough and I didn’t know where the story would go.

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Posted by on October 23, 2015 in 19th Century, American Lit, fiction


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After Ashley

I just read Gina Gianfriddo’s play After Ashley. It’s a witty play with some strong content. It shares the story of Ashley Hammond a very unhappy woman who’s stuck in her marriage and discusses her troubles with Justin her 14 year old son. She doesn’t have a good sense of boundaries and goes to town on her husband to her son, who continually begs her to stop complaining about his dad.

When Aaron Hammond, Ashley’s husband, appears he announces that he’s hired a homeless man to work around the house and Ashley challenges him on this choice. Like Rapture, Blister, Burn, the lead female character is lost, strong and sexually experimental (you don’t see that side, you hear about it) and the male lead is more passive and seeks out a troubled person to come into his home to work against his wife’s wishes.

The play jumps ahead three years and Ashley’s had been raped and murdered by the homeless guy. Of course, that’s hard to take, but Gianfriddo does a better job than most writers with the topic. Readers or audiences see Justin and Aaron struggling to over how to cope with their loss. Justin is certainly critical of Aaron’s decision to cash in and gain fame by hosting a tasteless reality show about victimhood.

The play sounds like it’s so violent and bleak. I can’t recommend it because, while I liked the writing and the playwright presents us with her ideas from a comfortable distance while still making her point, I can see it’s not for everyone. Still, the play is smart and well paced. If you’re not sensitive to the subject matter, I think you’d enjoy After Ashley.

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Posted by on August 21, 2015 in After Ashley, American Lit, book review


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His Second Wife

Ernest Poole’s His Second Wife follows Ethel as she leaves small town Ohio after her father’s death. She goes to New York to live with her sister, Amy, a socialite and shopper, and Amy’s husband Joe and daughter. Ethel tries to fit in to the shallow scene Amy relishes, but just can’t. The superficial and materialism don’t appeal at all.

She’s after the new and exciting ideals, art and politics New York is supposed to offer. After Amy’s sudden death, Ethel stays to help Joe, but struggles to avoid getting trapped living her sister’s life.

Poole creates an original dilemma that rings true. Ethel isn’t the polar opposite of Amy as a lesser writer would have made her. She doesn’t hate shopping or all of bourgeois life, she just wants more. The novel recounts her struggle to find friends and to find her own identity, while evading Amy’s more manipulative friends who want to control Joe after he’s married Ethel. An original, compelling story, worth getting from Amazon, which offers it for free on Kindle.

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Posted by on November 27, 2014 in American Lit, classic


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