(Roughly) Daily

“We look at this as the best of all possible worlds; but the French know it isn’t, because most people speak English.”*…

 

“I was wrassling some general. Some general with a beard.” James Thurber’s drawing for “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.”

At the end of 1930 Scribner’s Magazine began publishing what would prove to be a short-lived series of “alternative history” pieces. The first installment, in the November issue, was “If Booth Had Missed Lincoln.” This was followed by a contribution from none other than Winston Churchill, who turned the concept on its head. It was bafflingly titled “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”—but, as we all know, Lee didn’t win the Battle of Gettysburg. Instead, Churchill’s essay purported to be written by a historian in a world in which Lee had won not only the battle but also the entire war. This fictional historian, in turn, speculates what might have happened if Lee had not won the battle. This type of dizzying zaniness brought out the parodist in Thurber, who published “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” in The New Yorker in December. The next month Scribner’s published a third essay (“If Napoleon Had Escaped to America”) before bring the series to an end. All three pieces were soon forgotten, but Thurber’s parody became one of his most famous and beloved works…

Enjoy it (online or in PDF or Google Doc form) at “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.” Find more of the Library of America’s “Story of the Week” offerings here (where you can also sign up for their nifty weekly email drop of stories from their archive).

* Mark Olson at the “Histories: The Way We Weren’t” panel at Boskone 28.

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As we retreat to the High Castle, we might spare a thought for Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr.); he died on this date in 1894.   A physician, poet, and polymath based in Boston, he was a member of the Fireside Poets, acclaimed by his peers (his friends included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell) as one of the best writers of the day.  His most famous prose works are the humorous “Breakfast-Table” series, which began with The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858).  Many of his works were published in The Atlantic Monthly, a magazine that he named; he popularized several terms, including “Boston Brahmin” and “anesthesia.”

Holmes was also an important medical reformer.  In addition to his work as an author and poet, Holmes also served as a physician, professor, lecturer, and inventor, and although he never practiced it, he received formal training in law… an enthusiasm he passed on to his eldest son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932, and as Acting Chief Justice of the United States from January–February 1930.

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