Friday, June 26, 2015

Stephen Crane squeezed lots of living into a short life: died of tuberculosis at 28

Stephen Crane was the kid your parents warned you not to play with. A Methodist minister’s son, born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1871, he was experimenting with smoking and drinking by the time he was six. He was sent to a Methodist boarding school, but dropped out when a teacher accused him of lying. Next it was military school and then Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania, where he failed five of the seven courses he took—including writing. He switched to Syracuse University, but failed to graduate there as well. 

Crane managed to squeeze a lot of experiences into his brief life of less than three decades. When he was sixteen, he wrote and privately printed for limited circulation a novel about a prostitute, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. After that he worked at various newspaper jobs in New York City, until one day in 1983 at the studio of an artist friend, he mentioned he had been reading a war story in a magazine and told his friend he could write a better one himself. 

“Why not do it?” said his friend. 

Crane, who had never done military service and knew nothing about the American Civil War, spent three days reading every book about the war he could find in the public library. Then he wrote The Red Badge of Courage, which was rejected by every book publisher he sent it to and finally was serialized in a magazine, in condensed form, for which Crane was paid ninety dollars. Critics later hailed the book as a masterpiece, speculating that its author must be a veteran soldier.

Crane went to Cuba to cover the uprising against the Spanish in 1897, but was shipwrecked. He was originally reported dead, but survived by swimming to shore. The experience resulted in his most famous short story, “The Open Boat.”

Back in New York, he became a devotee of bohemian circles, and he was hired by the New York World to write a series of articles about the seamy side of city life in the area known as the Tenderloin. He became involved with a prostitute on whose behalf he testified in court, resulting in a search of his apartment, in which opium was found. In court he was asked, “Do you smoke opium?” “I deny that,” he answered.  “On the grounds that your answer would incriminate you?” continued the prosecutor. “Well…yes,” Crane admitted. His career as an investigative reporter was over, and he fled to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American war.

Stopping off in Jacksonville, Florida, he met Cora Taylor, proprietress of the Hotel de Dreme, an upscale brothel. He moved in with her, and then the pair went to England, where they lived as man and wife, although Cora was slightly encumbered by a previous husband. Crane and Cora lived the high life on an estate in Essex, and lavishly entertained such literary lights as Henry James, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, and Ford Madox Ford. In England Crane wrote several stories, including “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” In all, Crane’s literary output includes five novels, two books of poetry, and many short stories.

Crane and his lady went to Greece, where he covered the Greco-Turkish war for various newspapers, and then they landed back in Cuba, where Crane collapsed during a party with a pulmonary hemorrhage. He was diagnosed with yellow fever, but he suspected it was really tuberculosis and went to a spa in the Adirondacks, where that diagnosis was confirmed. Cora then took him to the same spa in Badenweiler, in the Black Forest of Germany, where Anton Chekhov was to die four years later of the same disease. Crane died there on June 5, 1900, at the age of twenty-eight. 

Cora returned to Jacksonville and opened a new bordello.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Was Ambrose Bierce, 71, killed by Pancho Villa’s men for drinking their tequila?

“Death is not the end,” Ambrose Bierce wrote. “There remains the litigation over the estate.” The cynical Bierce, satirist, short-story writer, and columnist for William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire, met a mysterious death in Mexico at the age of seventy-one—or did he?  His actual fate has never been known, though many stories abound.
Bierce was born June 24, 1842, in a log cabin in Meigs County, Ohio, to a poor but literary family that saw to it that he had a proper high school education.  He was the youngest of ten children—all of whom were given first names starting with “A.” The family moved to Indiana, where Ambrose took a series of jobs, as a printer’s devil, a brickyard laborer, and a retail clerk. 

In 1861 he enlisted as a private in the Indiana Volunteers and served with distinction as part of the Union army in the Civil War. At war’s end, he was discharged as a brevet major. He then found work as a Treasury agent, as an engineering attaché for an expedition through Indian territory, and finally as a watchman for the U. S. Mint in San Francisco. He also began to write and saw the publication of poems, articles, and short stories before becoming a full-time journalist.

Bierce married Mollie Day in 1871 and resigned his newspaper job, taking his new wife to England, where they remained for four years, as Bierce continued to flourish in the literary world. They had two sons in England, and upon their return to San Francisco in 1875, a daughter was born. 

During the next several years Bierce held several jobs with the Assay Office, a mining company, and two newspapers.  In 1887, he joined Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner as a columnist. In 1888 he separated from Mollie, after discovering some compromising letters she had exchanged with a male admirer. He continued his newspaper work and also published the satire for which he is most famous, The Devil’s Dictionary, which is filled with cynical definitions such as:
            Grave, n. A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student.
            Funeral, n. A pageant whereby we attest our respect for the dead by enriching the undertaker, and strengthen our grief by an expenditure that deepens our groans and doubles our tears.
            Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
            Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
            Marriage, n. A household consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.

From the cynical tone of his definitions, one may correctly conclude that Bierce remained an agnostic in matters of religion. He once said, “Camels and Christians accept their burden kneeling.”

Bierce later wrote for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine, from which he finally resigned in 1908, saying of his employer, “Nobody but God loved him.”

In 1913, when he was seventy-one, Bierce decided to go to back to England, by way of Mexico and South America. By this time his divorce from Mollie was final, and his two sons had both died, one by suicide in a lovers’ triangle and one from alcoholism. Bierce intended to write about the legendary Mexican bandit and revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. He wrote to his niece on October 2, ““If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, and falling down the cellar stairs.  To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!” 

On November 6, he wrote to his niece, from Laredo, Texas, "...don't know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn't matter much. Adios.” 

Bierce crossed the international bridge from El Paso to Juarez on November 26 and then signed on as an observer in Villa’s army. On December 26 he mailed a letter from Chihuahua to his secretary/companion, Carrie Christiansen, saying he expected to go the next day to Ojinaga, where Pancho Villa's revolutionaries were poised to attack federal troops—and that was the last anyone ever heard from him.

Many stories arose to explain his whereabouts: he had been shot in battle, he had committed suicide, he was confined in an insane asylum, he had made his way to Europe and was living there incognito. Most likely, he was shot by soldiers, possibly by Villa’s men—because, according to one account, he drank too much of their tequila.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Émile Zola dead at 62 from toxic fumes; murder by chimney-sweeper is suspected

Émile Zola, France’s great novelist of naturalism, was apparently murdered by an anti-Semitic chimney-sweeper who blocked his chimney, allowing carbon monoxide to accumulate in the bedroom where the author and his wife lay sleeping. 

This horrific event was the sad climax to Zola’s championing of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Army officer who was unjustly convicted of treason in 1894 and served several years on Devil’s Island.  Zola’s J’accuse, an open letter to the president of France about the Dreyfus affair, created an international sensation, and resulted in Zola’s conviction for libel and sentencing to a year in prison. He fled France and went to England to avoid imprisonment, returning a year later when the libel charges were dismissed. For the rest of his life Zola remained a lightning rod for anti-Dreyfusards, many of whom were anti-Semitics as well.

Zola’s other notable works are novels that are credited with introducing naturalism into Western literature. They include Thérèse Raquin, about a torrid extramarital affair; L’Assommoir, dealing with poverty and alcoholism; Nana, about prostitution; Germinal, which depicts mining industry conditions; and Les Trois Villes, a trilogy with strong anti-clerical sentiments, which drew the wrath of the Catholic Church. 

Zola was born in Paris on April 2, 1840, to an Italian engineer. He grew up in Aix-en-Provence, and after his father’s death when Zola was seven, he and his mother moved back to Paris. He attended Collège Mignet and the Lycée Saint Louis, after which he began to work as a journalist and in various office jobs to scrape up a living. Often money was so scarce that Zola ate sparrows that he killed on his window sill.

In 1870 he married Alexandrine Meley, a seamstress and occasional prostitute.  They were childless, but Zola later fathered two children by Jeanne Rozereau, a seamstress whom his wife had hired. By now, in his late thirties, Zola had achieved success with best-selling novels, and was recognized as France’s leading writer. He led an artist’s bohemian life, and his pals included the poet Mallarmé and the painters Manet, Renoir, Sisley, and his childhood chum, Paul Cézanne. Zola’s fame was matched by the wealth that his novels brought him. He bought a country house in Medan, near Versailles, and the Zolas divided their time between there and Paris.

Although baptized a Catholic, Zola was highly critical of the established church in his writings, and he remained agnostic in most of his religious attitudes. As one critic has remarked, “…it is impossible to find in Zola's writing any coherent collection of philosophical or religious ideas. Zola vainly sought all his life for a universal truth that could satisfy him.”

The circumstances of Zola’s death are controversial, but what seems to have happened is that he and his wife returned to their Paris home on the rue de Bruxelles on September 28, 1902, and retired to their bedroom. The night was cold and rainy, so Zola closed the windows and lit a smokeless coal fire in the bedroom fireplace. He also locked the bedroom door, as he usually did since death threats over the Dreyfus affair were not uncommon. At three o’clock in the morning they both awoke, feeling ill, but Zola decided it was indigestion and returned to bed. 

At nine the next morning, servants thought something must be wrong and they forced the door, finding Alexandrine unconscious in bed and Zola close to death on the floor, apparently having tried to reach a window to open it. Doctors were summoned, and Alexandrine was taken to a clinic, where she recovered. Zola was given artificial respiration for twenty minutes, but to no avail, and he was pronounced dead. He was sixty-two.

Zola’s body lay in state at the house until October 5, when his funeral was held at Montmartre Cemetery, attended by a crowd of 50,000. 

Rumors began to fly that Zola had been murdered, and authorities investigated. They lit fires in the fireplace and placed guinea pigs in the room overnight. Chemists tested the air. The flue of the chimney was dismantled and examined.  Nothing, however, was found amiss, and the coroner ruled Zola’s death was due to natural causes. 

In 1953 an account was published that a pharmacist in Normandy, Pierre Hacquin, claimed that a chimney-sweeper named Henry Buronfosse had confessed to him on his deathbed years earlier that he had intentionally blocked the chimney above Zola’s apartment while repairs were being made to the roof and then returned early the next day to unblock it, leaving no trace. He said it was for political reasons.

In 1908 Zola’s body was moved to the Panthéon and interred in a crypt that also contained the bodies of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. This ceremony was attended by the still controversial Captain Dreyfus—who had been finally exonerated through Zola’s efforts and restored to full military honors. Two shots were fired at him by an anti-Dreyfusard journalist named Louis Grégori. Dreyfus was wounded slightly in the arm. Grégori was acquitted on the grounds that shooting Dreyfus was a “natural act” for a loyal French nationalist.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Novelist Trollope felled by stroke while laughing merrily at dinner party

Until he was in his mid-thirties, Anthony Trollope was a loser in life.  He was born in London April 24, 1815, to an impecunious, ill-tempered lawyer, who barely scraped together enough to send him (as a reduced-fee day student) to two classy schools, Winchester and Harrow. At both of them Anthony found himself friendless and without spending money, and he was bullied so savagely that he considered suicide.

When Anthony was twelve, his mother and siblings left him and his father in England and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Mrs. Trollope opened an unsuccessful emporium before giving up and returning to England four years later. Trollope’s father, meanwhile, had abandoned his law practice and failed as a farmer, and the whole family fled to Belgium to avoid prosecution by creditors.  Mrs. Trollope—Frances—had begun to write novels and earned enough from them to provide a modest living for the family.

Through the influence of a family friend, Anthony wangled a job as clerk in the postal service, and he returned to England when he was nineteen. He earned a reputation for lateness, incompetence, insubordination, and constant financial indebtedness. To get rid of him, the postal service exiled him to a low-level job in a remote part of Ireland. He met a Yorkshire girl named Rose Heseltine, who was vacationing in Ireland, and after a ten-year courtship, they were married in 1844.

During these years Trollope got his act together, won promotion in the postal service, and began writing novels in his spare time.  His work regimen was precise: he arose each morning at 5:o0 and wrote for three hours before going to the post office. “Three hours a day,” he declared, “will produce as much as a man ought to write. But he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours - so have tutored his mind that it, shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas.'” 

Trollope was transferred back to England in 1851, and he began to travel a great deal on postal business, from Egypt to the West Indies.  At last in 1855 he had his first great literary success with The Warden, the first of his novels set in the fictional county of Barsetshire.  This was followed by several more Barchester novels over the next decade, including his most famous work, Barchester Towers. In all, Trollope wrote more than three dozen novels, including the Palliser series of six novels about a hero named Plantagenet Palliser.  

By 1867 he was successful enough to resign from the post office and devote himself fulltime to the literary life. He became a close friend of fellow novelist William Makepeace Thackeray and of artist John Everett Millais. He was a prominent member of the Athenaeum and Garrick Clubs, and he purchased a posh estate in Hertfordshire, where he lived with his wife and two sons.

As expressed in his works, as well as in his life, Trollope’s known religious views were conventional for the Victorian period, best characterized as moderate Broad Church Anglicanism. One of his biographers described it as: "Tolerance within a broad spectrum of belief and interpretation; a high regard for the individual conscience; moderation in face of extremism; [and] a recognition that truth may sometimes lie in both extremes rather than somewhere in between."

His pleasant life came to a sudden end in 1882. On November 3, he was enjoying a lively dinner party with friends, and after a sumptuous meal, they settled with their brandy and cigars to read aloud some excerpts from Trollope’s latest best-seller.  Trollope was known for his hearty laugh, which punctuated the reading. After one especially merry passage was read, it was noticed that he was not laughing. On close inspection, his friends found him immobilized in his chair, the victim of a massive stroke. He lingered for another month and died, at the age of sixty-seven, on December 6, 1882. He was buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery.