To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Monday, January 30, 2006

At work the other day we listed stories that we remembered reading in high school. (Yes, we have these brief bursts of random conversation in the midst of our grim travails.) Here are a few I remember, many of which showed up in F's lit books too.

The Interlopers (Saki)
The Lottery (Shirley Jackson)
The Scarlet Ibis (James Hurst)
The Monsters are Due on Maple Street (Rod Serling)
All Summer In a Day (Ray Bradbury)
The Monkey's Paw (W.W. Jacobs)
Life and Death of a Western Gladiator (Charles G. Filley)
The Bargain (A.B. Guthrie) (edited to add: my thoughts here)
The Devil and Daniel Webster (Stephen Vincent Benet)
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
Gift of the Magi (O. Henry)
The Cask of Amontillado (Poe)
To Build a Fire (Jack London)
The Luck of Roaring Camp (Bret Harte)

The texts of a lot of these are available online. I enjoy the blast from the past when I find one and read it. I remember the debate over "The Bargain", whether the storekeeper's actions were murder or not (I said they were); the numbskulls in my class who denied that the snake died at the end of "The Life and Death of a Western Gladiator"; the appalling teacher who argued that the kid in "The Scarlet Ibis" was better off dead; and so on.

I think the story most people remember more than any other is "The Lottery". Here are Jackson's own comments:

I had written the story three weeks before, on a bright June morning when summer seemed to have come at last, with blue skies and warm sun and no heavenly signs to warn me that my morning's work was anything but just another story. The idea had come to me while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller - it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day's groceries - and perhaps the effort of that last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story; at any rate, I had the idea fairly clearly in my mind when I put my daughter in her playpen and the frozen vegetables in the refrigerator, and, writing the story, I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. As a matter of fact, when I read it over later 1 decided that except for one or two minor corrections, it needed no changes, and the story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft. This, as any writer of stories can tell you, is not a usual thing.

It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open; of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: "Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker," she wrote sternly, "it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of Story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don't you write something to cheer people up?"

Curiously, there are three main themes which dominate the letters of that first summer - three themes which might be identified as bewilderment, speculation, and plain old-fashioned abuse. In the years since then, during which the story has been anthologized, dramatized, televised, and even - in one completely mystifying transformation - made into a ballet, the tenor of letters I receive has changed. I am addressed more politely, as a rule, and the letters largely confine themselves to questions like what does this Story mean? The general tone of the early letters, however, was a kind of wide-eyed, shocked innocence. People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch.

So this is the kind of thing we like to traumatize our teenagers with. I gave my daughter and my niece, and my daughter's friend's little sister who was in the hospital, copies of Jackson's We Have Always Lived In the Castle. They all loved it.

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