Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 179

Back in England

So much of the Shelleys’ time in Italy seems, as I read over these pages, so involved with travel, child care, marital strife, dealing with friends, and, of course death. But both Bysshe and Mary, somehow, found time to write—and to write some pretty impressive pieces. In this memoir, I’m not as concerned with Bysshe’s writing, but during his time in Italy he wrote some of his most celebrated works, including Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci, “Ode to the West Wind,” “To a Skylark,” “A Defence of Poetry,” and numerous others. It’s still hard to comprehend that he was only twenty-nine when he drowned off the coast of Viareggio.
In 1819, by the way, he wrote a couple of short pieces to Mary, fragments, really, that reflect the tensions in their marriage at the time. Here’s one …
My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?
Thy form is here indeed,—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down the dreary road,
That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode;
Thou sittest on the heart of pale despair,
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee.

We need to remember, of course, that by the time he’d written these lines, they had buried two of their little children in Italy. And Mary was understandably despondent. Later, when Mary published her late husband’s works, she did not include these lines among them, not in the first edition.

Mary wrote a novella she began in August 1819 and finished in February 1820. She called in Matilda, and she sent it to her father in 1820 to see if he could make arrangements for publication. But Godwin put it in a drawer, where it stayed, and it was not published until 1959, the year I would turn fifteen. And therein lies a tale …

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Jack Schaefer & Harmon School (Back in the Day), 3

Okay, so we're back in the early 1970s. Harmon (Middle) School. Aurora, Ohio. I'm teaching seventh graders at the time. And I've been writing here about teaching about Westerns in my class.

As I've written in my two earlier posts on this subject, I'd loved Westerns since boyhood, and this class at Harmon allowed me to indulge my affections (vices?) like an addict. I showed Shane (kids wrote about it; we discussed it); kids read Western novels (of their choice--some read Shane; others, True Grit or The Cowboys or others); we talked about the whole idea of the Western in American popular culture.

This unit of study also re-ignited my interest in Billy the Kid, an interest that would effloresce so abundantly later on that some Harmon kids and I would write a musical comedy, Billy the Kid, which we twice performed at Harmon School, once in the spring of 1979 (when I was no longer at the school--I had taken a position at Lake Forest College; four years later I would return to Harmon and retire there in January 1997), another time in November 1984. I would go on to collect Billy-abilia, visit the "shrines" in New Mexico, and deliver at Western Reserve Academy a multi-media talk on the Kid in ... 1980? 1981?

At Harmon, my Billy-phase was in the early stages of its resurrection. I had the kids watch Arthur Penn's film about the Kid, The Left Handed Gun (1958), a film that featured the young Paul Newman as the Kid (link to trailer for the film).

this poster adorned my
classroom walls for years
The film was based on an earlier TV play by the young Gore Vidal--The Death of Billy the Kid, a script which I found in a Vidal collection and duplicated to read with my students. It had originally appeared on The Philco Television Playhouse, July 24, 1955, an era when TV regularly offered live dramatic productions. Paul Newman had played the Kid in that production, as well, and some of the other cast members would return for the film, too.

Vidal lost any voice in the film, though, when producer Fred Coe rejected his screenplay and replaced him with Leslie Stevens. (Vidal was not happy: It was he who had brought Newman into the project.) You can get some more details about this in Jay Parini's recent fine biography of Vidal--Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal.

Director Arthur Penn would go on to do Bonnie and Clyde (1967), altering the face of American films (and putting his career into Skyrocket mode). Vidal would go on to write bestsellers. And then in 1989 appeared Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, a TV movie with Val Kilmer in the title role. (Link to trailer.) You can see the entire film on YouTube, by the way.

I should add that the films I showed were films--16mm prints that we ran on those big old reel-to-reel projectors that would occasionally lock up and melt a frame or two (occasioning, always, cheers from the students). No cheap VHS for us! No wimpy video computer files!

Well, my Western phase eventually slowed and died. Times changed. I got interested in The Call of the Wild and The Diary of Anne Frank and Shakespeare, and other writers and texts.

But while I was still lost in the sagebrush, I read another novel by Jack Schaefer (Cleveland-born author of Shane)--Monte Walsh (1963), a novel that begins with this: A boy and his horse. And there was a (not very good) film in 1970 with Lee Marvin ... and (once again!) Jack Palance.

Well, yes ...

my beat-up copy
from the 1970s

Monday, November 23, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 178

Yet another death in the Summer of Death, 1822

I see, going over my notes, that I neglected one key story in this Summer of Death, 1822. I’ve told about Mary’s miscarriage on June 16, about the drownings of Bysshe, Edward Williams, and Charles Vivian early in July. I’ve told a little about the death of Byron in 1824.
But there’s another story, one that takes us back to the Frankenstein summer of 1816, the summer when Mary and Bysshe met Byron in Switzerland, where the turbulent weather (courtesy of the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia a year earlier, an eruption that had global climate consequences) forced the friends indoors for much of the time, where—as we know—Byron proposed the ghost-story competition that gave birth to Frankenstein (and some other tales).
I’ve written, too, how one object of that visit to Geneva was to deal with a problem facing Claire Clairmont, daughter of William Godwin’s second wife. Mary’s stepsister. Only a few months younger than Mary, she had joined Bysshe and Mary when they’d eloped in 1814 and had been living with them, on and off, ever since. And would continue to do so for quite a while.
In the summer of 1816, Claire was pregnant. The father was Lord Byron. And “arrangements” had to be made, arrangements about which I’ve written earlier. On January 12, 1817, Claire delivered the child (Claire named her Alba; Byron insisted she change the name to Allegra; she did).
When the Shelleys and Claire went to Italy in the spring of 1818, they surrendered Allegra to her father (also in Italy), and Byron proceeded to pretty much ignore the little girl. He eventually placed her in a convent/convent school, where he never visited her, entrusting her instead to the care of his banker in Ravenna—a man who was also taking care of his animals.[1]
In mid-April, 1822, Byron got word that Allegra was ill. Doctors bled the five-year-old—several times. By April 19 she was dead. Byron, reportedly, was distraught—but not in public. Byron’s principal biographer, Leslie Marchand, believes there is little doubt that Byron was deeply affected by the event.[2] I don’t doubt that he was—and I’m sure much of it was due to a conscience that must have already been quite overtaxed.
He wrote a note to Bysshe on April 23. The blow was stunning and unexpected, he said. Time will do his usual work—Death has done his.[3]
But now … how to tell Claire that her daughter was gone?
Bysshe and others were discussing that very issue when Claire walked in the room at Casa Magni. On May 3, Bysshe wrote to Byron about that moment—a moment they had put off, as you can tell by the date, for a week and a half. I will not describe her grief to you, he said.[4] He told Byron that Claire had requested to see the coffin, to have a clipping of her hair and a little portrait of her daughter. And Byron complied.
Earlier, I wrote about Byron’s determination to bury the child at a church near Harrow School, his own boyhood school back in London. I described the marker I saw there in 1999.

But as I sit here today, I have difficulty imagining the horrors of Mary Shelley’s experiences in Italy. Yes, they saw Florence and Rome and Venice and Naples. They climbed Vesuvius. Viewed some of the world’s great art.
But Mary had to bury children and a husband. And to prepare to return to England, a country where she knew she would be greeted as a Fallen Woman. An outcast.

[1] Marchand, Biography, 3: 991–92.
[2] Ibid., 993.
[3] Letters, 9: 147–48.
[4] Letters, 2: 415.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 76

1. AOTW: Amazingly, no one really stood out this week. But Christmas is coming, and some people, I know, have very special ... gifts ... they save for the holiday season!

2. This week we finished streaming the 5th season of Portlandia, and the wackiness continued in this unique series featuring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, who play a variety of characters (of varying genders) in each episode. It's fun to see some of Armisen's former SNL colleagues pop in for a cameo now and then (Seth Meyers was in a recent one), and other notables (Jeff Goldblum, Kyle MacLachlan, etc.), too. I can't "binge-watch" these shows--about one a week is all I can take ... I seem to have some sort of Wackometer that will not permit any more than that!

3. This week, I finished Station Eleven (2014), a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel, a novel that tells yet another story about what happens when a virus wipes out most of humanity. A couple of other writers I know about--Mary Shelley and Jack London--also employed this device, Shelley in her novel The Last Man (1826), and London in The Scarlet Plague (1912). And it's a popular plot device these days--screen and page.

What drew me to Mandel's work, I think, was a review that had mentioned a Shakespeare angle to the story, and, indeed, there is a traveling company of survivors that goes around mounting productions of Lear, Midsummer Night's Dream, and some others in the little communities that have gathered since the great destruction. We follow the stories of several characters, and Mandel moves artfully around in time, filling us in on the stories of her principals. There's also a Bad Guy, who calls himself The Prophet and has gathered around him a group of (murderous) True Believers. So there's a little violence here, as well.

What I liked best--the storytelling, the clever use of Shakespeare's plays, and the hope that infuses all. We fall, we start over, we try again ...

4. I also finished Rick Moody's latest, Hotels of North America (2015), which purports to be the
collected online reviews of a guy named Reginald Edward Morse. "Rick Moody" appears at the end in an Afterword, but he has just stepped into his own novel as a character, not as "himself." Most of the reviews are about the reviewer (generally the case in all kinds of reviews, even those written by someone I know about as well as my own image in the mirror), and so we learn all about Morse's failed loves, marriage, his daughter, and, incidentally, some amusing observations about America's motels and hotels.

I was struck because I've stayed in some of the places he mentioned--and others? Well, he has a review of a place in Cannon Beach, Ore., the beautiful little town where my parents first retired; he also has a review of the Tall Corn Motel in Des Moines. Well, there was a Tall Corn in Davenport, Iowa (not in Des Moines, as far as I know), and back before our son was born, Joyce, my brother (Dave), and I were driving out to Des Moines for a family visit, and my 1969 VW Fastback broke down near Davenport, and we spent a night in the Tall Corn. Quite an experience.

Cleveland makes the novel, too.

Anyway, Moody is the master of the l-o-n-g sentence, and the cumulative power of some of them is stunning--as is the final paragraph of this very unique, original novel by one of my favorite contemporary writers.

4. We started streaming yet another British mystery series, Vexed (link to trailer for Season 1), a very odd series about a couple of mismatched homicide detectives: a crude, barely competent, ethically challenged guy and a bright confused woman married to something of a creepo. The very first scene in the very first episode shows the two looking at a flat for her to rent, and it's a little while before we realize that this is a crime scene, and the bloody body is lying on the floor!

Again, I can't binge-watch this. Saving and savoring,

5. Finally--last night we watched (Netflix DVD) the 2009 Steven Soederbergh film (link to trailer), The Informant, which stars Matt Damon as a troubled executive with Archer Daniels Midland (corn products mega-corporation) who, at first, seems to be a stereotypical whistle-blower. But then the film gets interesting as the complexities of Damon's character emerge. Complexities is an understatement. Soederbergh is a masterful storyteller, and so the thing unwinds in surprising ways--and features some very odd characters--Damon's wife, a couple of FBI agents, who are, to see the least, not, uh, typical.

I don't know why we didn't see this when it was in theaters ... ? But loved watching it last night.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Jack Schaefer & Harmon School (Back in the Day), 2

Okay, Memory is not the most reliable friend you have.

Last time I wrote that I'd started doing an elective on Westerns in the mid-1970s at the newly opened Harmon Middle School (1974-75 academic year).

And after I uploaded the post, I went to look for some files. I, as many of you know, am a Pack Rat, and I knew that somewhere in this Mess That Is My Life must be a file (some files?) I used when I was teaching about Shane and his coevals. (I've always liked the sound of that word, by the way; it means just your contemporaries, but I like the evil sound that accompanies it!)

In my file on Shane, located (alphabetically!) under Schaefer, Jack in one of my many drawers devoted to books and writers, And I found a few items, items which told a slightly different story than the one I'd offered before. One was his obituary from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, an obit I'd clipped back in late January 1991, when he'd died. The obit clearly says that he was born in Cleveland and had graduated from Oberlin--both things I'd totally forgotten (as my post from Thursday can confirm).

I also found a New York Times obituary for actor Jack Palance, who first gained notice (in the Times' words) with "his serpentine portrayal of the nasty gunfighter Jack Wilson in the classic film 'Shane.'" Palance died on November 10, 2006, the day before my 62nd birthday. He was 87. (Link to the obit.)

I also found some kind of published handout about Shane from Films Incorporated. It notes that the film won some awards, including an Oscar for Cinematography.

But the best item I found? An old class handout--done on the old ditto machine at the Aurora Middle School (pre-Harmon)--which has at the top two dates: 1972-73; that date is crossed out in pencil, and 1973-74 is used. This shows that I used basically the same handout those two years. (And for those of you not fortunate enough to be alive in the pre-Xerox, pre-computer generation, this meant that I had to completely retype the handout for the second year.)

It's a handout dealing with the film. While they watched, students had to respond to a basic question at the top: From what the characters SAY and DO,what do you think they BELIEVE about the following issues:

And I have a list that includes four basic headings: Using Guns/Force, Using the Land, Bravery/Courage, Law and Order. I also have a couple of other questions at the bottom--

  • What was the role of women in the West (according to this film)?
  • Compare and contrast this film with the folk tales you've read. (How are they similar? Different?)
Apparently, we'd just finished a unit/topic on folk tales--which I also kind of remember.

As you can see from the (partial) image below, I scrawled some replies to those issues on my own copy. Example: Shane says to Marian (the homesteader's wife, who has just discovered he's adept with guns and has been showing them to her little boy): "A gun is a tool, Marian--no better or no worse than any other tool. A gun is as good or bad as the man using it." Sounds like a contemporary Facebook meme, doesn't it?


Friday, November 20, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 177

And then the Italian dream was over. Mary had endured horrible experiences since she’d left England with Bysshe and their children and such grand hopes back in March of 1818. As I’ve noted here before, in Italy she would bury two little children, suffer a miscarriage (not long before Bysshe drowned), watch her husband become enchanted by other women, see him (a non-swimmer) buy a boat and spend much of his time out on it with his buddies.
That fatal summer of 1822, she hated their isolated house near Lerici. She dreaded the thought of Leigh Hunt and his family arriving (there was no room). Claire Clairmont was around from time to time, and their relationship remained fraught with tension and personal history. And now Bysshe was dead, and she was alone with her son, Percy Florence Shelley, not yet three. What now?
Things fell apart.
The Hunts had come to Italy so that Leigh Hunt could edit the journal The Liberal, which Byron and Bysshe had planned. It lasted only four issues. (Mary wrote a couple of pieces for a couple of issues.) But the heart was gone from it; Byron was losing interest. And so it died.
Back in England, Mary knew, there would be no welcome for her and her son. Sir Timothy Shelley, Bysshe’s father, had never forgiven her for what he viewed as the destruction of his son’s reputation. He refused to communicate directly with her, a refusal he steadfastly maintained until his death in April 1844 (at age 90!)—more than twenty years after his son’s drowning. Sir Timothy had insisted that all communications must come via intermediaries. And so it did.
Not long after the drowning, Byron wrote to him, asking for help for Mary (whom Byron himself had been assisting). Sir Timothy wrote back with a condition: If she would surrender his grandson to Sir Timothy himself, then  … maybe …
Byron suggested that Mary accept the offer. But she would have none of it—a decision that she knew would anger Sir Timothy and make her life even more difficult. She hoped it wouldn’t be for long, though. Sir Timothy was, well, old (born in 1753, he was 68 when his son died). Mary knew that her son was the legal heir to the Shelley fortune: He was born after Bysshe and Mary had finally married, so there was no question—despite Sir Timothy’s bitterness.
Meanwhile, as I said, Byron had taken up another cause—the Greek War for Independence. So he and Trelawny got some uniforms designed and set sail for Greece in July 1823, almost exactly a year after the drownings.
By then, Mary had decided to return to England. And a week after Bryon and Trelawny sailed toward Byron’s death, Mary and her son left for England, overland—with borrowed money. A month later they arrived in London—where some big surprises were awaiting her.
She was twenty-five years old.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Jack Schaefer & Harmon School (Back in the Day)

I always loved Westerns as a kid--and why not? I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas in the 1950s, and the nightly TV schedule in those days was chockablock with cowboys. In 1954-55, when I turned ten and eleven years old, the following shows were on every week during prime time: The Lone Ranger, Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Gene Autry, Frontier, Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Brave Eagle, Wanted, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Gunsmoke. There were others during the daytime. And I should add Disneyland, whose most popular segment was Frontierland.

Another factor: My dad's family all lived in Oregon, and every few years we drove out to see them--drove across some of the very terrain I was watching on TV. How could I not become an addict?

I also loved Western movies and saw all that I could at the theaters in Enid (there were four downtown and two drive-ins, as well). Many of the B-Westerns appeared on the weekends, and I watched them with an affection that bordered on the inappropriate.

As I grew older, the Western gradually disappeared from the Tube (as we used to call it in the days of tubes) and from the theaters. But I never forgot.

Let's zip forward to the mid-1970s. Aurora, Ohio. Harmon Middle School, which opened for business during the 1974-75 school year. In those days, the Language Arts Department (I was chair at the time) offered not only a "regular" English class at each grade level but also electives. Teachers were free to create courses (ranging in length from 4 to 12 weeks) they thought would appeal to kids. And for a couple (few?) years I offered an elective on The Western.

Let's zip forward to today. Writer's Almanac noted that today is the birthday of writer Jack Schaefer (1907-91). I don't think I knew until this morning that he was born in Cleveland and went to Oberlin. (See his picture at the top of the page--and here's a link to today's Writer's Almanac.)

Schaefer's most famous novel--all due, of course to the film that would ensue--was Shane (1949). My own copy is a paperback, a 35th printing, and the photo here shows the very copy I used with my students back at Harmon. I didn't write in the book the date when I first read it (grrrr), but there are quite a few underlinings, including this bit of wisdom from the narrator's father:

There are some things you don't ask a man. Not if you respect him (38).

I should stop here to tell you a little about Shane. It's the story of a gunfighter (see title) who's trying to escape his old fiery life. He becomes a hired man out in Wyoming for the family of the narrator, who was but a lad when the events he tells about occurred. But, of course, Shane gets drawn into a range war--cattlemen vs. homesteaders--and the novel culminates with what would become one of the most famous gunfights in cinema history. Oh, and there is more than a suggestion that there's some electricity crackling between Shane and the wife of the homesteader.

Link to trailer for the 1953 film.

I see, by the way, that the entire film is on YouTube, as well.