June 27:  Short Story Day

One of the most iconic and most anthologized short stories ever written is set on this day.  The story is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

The date is established in the story’s opening line:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

ShirleyJack.jpgWhile the story’s opening sentence paints a calm, serene picture, the events of the story soon turn dark and even horrifying as the reader discovers why the residents of an unidentified small American village have gathered.  In an annual rite, the villagers draw lots to determine which one of them will be stoned to death.

Soon after the story was published in the June 26, 1948 edition of the New Yorker, a deluge of letters arrived expressing the shock and bewilderment of its readers.  In fact, “The Lottery” sparked more letters to the New Yorker than any work of fiction it ever published.  Some of the readers were critical — including some who cancelled their subscriptions — but most were simply confused by the story, wanting an explanation of its meaning (1).

On July 22, 1948, nearly one month after the story’s publication, Jackson wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle, giving a brief explanation of the story’s meaning:

Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives (2).

The day and month of the story’s setting are noteworthy.  June 27th has significance dating back to the Roman calendar as the first day of summer.  It was known as Initium Aestatis or the Feast of Aestas, the Roman Goddess of summer (3).  

But perhaps more noteworthy in determining the meaning of “The Lottery” is the year of its publication:  1948.  In her take on the meaning of the story, Ruth Franklin, biographer of Shirley Jackson, explains why it makes sense that a story like this would emerge three years after one of history’s darkest and most brutal wars — World War II:

[“The Lottery”] anticipates the way we would come to understand the twentieth century’s unique lessons about the capacity of ordinary citizens to do evil—from the Nazi camp bureaucracy, to the Communist societies that depended on the betrayal of neighbor by neighbor and the experiments by the psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo demonstrating how little is required to induce strangers to turn against each other. In 1948, with the fresh horrors of the Second World War barely receding into memory and the Red Scare just beginning, it is no wonder that the story’s first readers reacted so vehemently to this ugly glimpse of their own faces in the mirror, even if they did not realize exactly what they were looking at (4).

Today’s Challenge:  Short Story Almanac
If you were to write a short story that takes place on a specific day and month, what would it be and why?  Write the opening paragraph of a short story that takes place on a specific day and month.  (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  I frankly confess to being completely baffled by Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’ Will you please send us a brief explanation before my husband and I scratch right through our scalps trying to fathom it?  –Miriam Friend in a letter to the editor of The New Yorker.

 

1- http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-lottery-letters

2-http://northbennington.org/jackson.html

3-http://www.thaliatook.com/OGOD/aestas.html

4-http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-lottery-letters

January 19:  Poe Toaster Day

Today is the birthday of American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).

Edgar Allan Poe daguerreotype crop.pngBorn into a family of traveling actors, Poe was orphaned when he was just three years old.  He was taken in and raised by a Virginia family, the Allans.  

Although Poe was an editor, literary critic, poet, novelist, and writer of short stories, he constantly struggled financially — a struggle that was no doubt fueled by his habits of drinking and gambling.  Not until after his death, at just forty years of age, was his work recognized for its genius.  His short stories “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” have become classics, and his poem “The Raven” is one of the most recognized and recited poems in the English language.  In fact the poem is so well recognized that when the city of Baltimore, the site of Poe’s death in 1849, acquired its NFL franchise in 1996, they chose the Ravens as their name.  (The team’s three costumed raven mascots are named “Edgar,” “Allen,” and “Poe.”).

Known for the tales of macabre and mystery he wrote during his life, one specific mystery  became associated with Poe after his death.

For sixty years, beginning in 1949 (the centennial of his death), an anonymous admirer visited Poe’s cenotaph — a monument erected at the site of Poe’s original grave at Westminster Burial Ground in Baltimore, Maryland.  To commemorate Poe’s birthday each January 19th this mysterious individual — known as the “Poe Toaster” — left three roses, a bottle of French cognac, and occasionally a note.  The clandestine visits ended in 2009, the bicentennial of Poe’s birth (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Gone But “Nevermore” Forgotten

What object would you leave at the grave of an author or other famous person you admire, and what would you write in a note to that person?  Write an explanation of what you would leave at the grave of a person you admire along with an explanation of the object’s significance.  Also include the contents of a note you would leave along with the object. (Common Core 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”— Arthur Conan Doyle, at a Poe Centennial Celebration Dinner in 1909

1-https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/arts-post/post/edgar-allan-poe-toaster-tradition-is-no-more/2012/01/19/gIQAOQUBBQ_blog.html

 

December 18:  Romance at Short Notice Day

Today is the birthday of Scottish writer Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), better known by the pen name Saki.  Munro was born in British Burma, where his father was an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police. Munro later served in the Burma police force himself, but he was forced to resign after he contracted malaria.  Near the end of his life, Munro joined the British Army and served in World War I.  He was killed in 1916, shot by a German sniper in France during the Battle of the Ancre.

Hector Hugh Munro aka Saki, by E O Hoppe, 1913.jpgMunro’s writing career began as a journalist in England, but he is best known for his carefully crafted short stories.  The stories often satirized social conventions and frequently featured surprise endings.  Saki’s stories are often compared to the those of American writer O’Henry (1862-1910), which also feature endings with a surprising twist (1).

One particularly brilliant story by Saki is called “The Open Window.”  The story features a character named Framton Nuttel, who is visiting the country in hopes of finding relief for his nervous condition.  Nuttel, with letters of introduction from his sister in hand, visits the home of Mrs. Sappleton.  While waiting for Mrs. Sappleton to come down, Nuttel talks with Sappleton’s niece, a precocious fifteen-year old named Vera.  In the room where the two characters are sitting, a French window is kept open, despite the fact that it’s October.  Vera explains to Nuttel that the door is left open because Mrs. Sappleton is under the delusion that her husband and her brothers will return from hunting, despite the fact that the three men died three years ago, sinking into “a treacherous piece of bog.”

When Mrs. Sappleton arrives in the room and begins talking about the imminent return of her husband and brothers, Nuttel listens politely, but based on Vera’s explanation, he perceives his hostess as deranged.

When Mrs. Sappleton announces the return of the hunters, Nuttel turns and sees three men approaching the French doors accompanied by their hunting dog.  Thinking he is seeing ghosts, Nuttel leaps up, fleeing the house in horror.   At this point in the story, the reader realizes that Vera made up the story of the hunting tragedy simply to entertain herself.  Next, instead of explaining the trick she played on Nuttel to her aunt, she spins another tale to explain Nuttel’s odd behavior, saying that Nuttel was spooked by the dog:

He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him.  

The final line sums up Vera’s propensity for flash fiction:  “Romance at short notice was her speciality” (2).

The meaning of the word “romance” in the context in which Saki uses it does not mean romantic love.  Instead, in this context, romance relates to the long tradition of Medieval Romances, imaginative and extravagant stories of the adventures of heroic characters.  Therefore, if he were writing today, Saki probably would have written:  “Imagination at short notice was her speciality.”  

Today’s Challenge:  Short Notice, Short Fiction

What is something odd that a character might wear or carry, and why would the character wear or carry it?  Practice using your imagination at short notice.  Pick a number at random, from 1 to 7.  Then write the opening of a short story in which you, the narrator, give the backstory of why the character wears or carries the odd item.  Give the character a name, and also establish the setting of your story.

  1. A character who wears a Santa hat in May
  2. A character who wears a toga in January
  3. A character who wears earmuffs in July
  4. A character who always carries a rubber chicken
  5. A character who always carries a cheese grater
  6. A character who carries a guitar with no strings
  7. A character who carries an open umbrella when there is no chance or sign of rain

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young. –W. Somerset Maugham

1-https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saki-Scottish-writer

2-http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/OpeWin.shtml