Kristen Martin on sources for Oates' Wild Nights:
In Wild Nights! Joyce Carol Oates reveres some of her influences—namely Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway—in a disturbing way. Though unsettling, Oates’ evocation of these writers’ voices and retelling of their last days doesn’t appear to be a departure from her other works. The element of morbid fascination is prominent in these stories—despite the heavy ick factor, I couldn’t help but read on and wonder what was real. For my project, I referred to the sources that Oates used in constructing Wild Nights! and found out (to my horror) that much of the background is true.
Edgar Allen Poe
Oates reimagines Edgar Allen Poe’s single-page manuscript “The Light-House” as “Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House.” Poe began “The Light-House” shortly before his death on October 7, 1849; he never finished it. George E. Woodberry, who also assigned the tale its title, first published it in 1909 in The Life of Edgar Allen Poe.
Poe’s “The Light-House” is set somewhere near Scandinavia, in stark contrast with Oates’ choice of Viña de Mar. Both pieces take the form of diary entries, but Poe’s begin on New Year’s Day 1796 and continue only through January 3rd, whereas Oates begins on October 7, 1849—the date of Poe’s death. Oates borrows (and mutates) other details directly from Poe’s manuscript. The narrator’s companion, Neptune, becomes Poe’s Mercury, and in both tales, the lighthouse has the exact same dimensions.
More crucial, however, is that Oates’ tale displays the same key sentiment as Poe’s—loneliness. Some of the most resounding lines of “Poe Posthumous” are actually just paraphrased from Poe’s manuscript. For example, Oates’ “For in the night…there came hauntingly to me, as it were mockingly, an echo of alone: strange how I never observed till now how ominous a sound that word possesses: alone” (7-9) is a rephrasing of Poe’s “Besides, I wish to be alone……It is strange that I never observed, until this moment, how dreary a sound that word has – ‘alone’!”
Also of note is a passage in “Poe Posthumous” which alludes to the mysterious circumstances of Poe’s death: “…on a rain-lashed street in a city not familiar to me, I slipped, fell, cracked my head upon sharp paving stones, and died” (5). In fact, the 40-year-old Poe was found delirious and disheveled on the streets of Baltimore; he died shortly after.
Oates’ source material for “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” is Dickinson’s poetry and letters (http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/poetry/emilyd/edletter.htm), as well as photographs from Jerome Leibling’s book The Dickinsons of Amherst. Though it is the most clearly fictional of all the Wild Nights! stories, “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” still does have ties to Dickinson’s biography.
Dickinson’s correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson provides background for Oates’ story. Oates gets the details right, down to her characterization of Dickinson’s handwriting as a “small neat schoolgirl hand that was perfectly legible, if you peered closely” (55). Higginson similarly described her penmanship as “cultivated, quaint, and wholly unique.” She borrows the physical details of EDickinsonRepliLuxe from Dickinson’s own description of herself to Higginson in July of 1862: “I am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves.” Even the bit that EDickinsonRepliLuxe enjoys baking is factual. When Higginson first met Dickinson on August 16, 1870, she spoke to him of her household chores, including baking bread and making puddings.
Oates’ characterization of Dickinson in her thirties in “EDickinsonRepliLuxe”—as “always nursing sick relatives. She was an angel of mercy in her household, dressed in spotless white!”—is also accurate (Wild Nights!, 42). Indeed Dickinson was known for only wearing white during this period of her life. The white dress that EDickinsonRepliLuxe wears toward the end of the story is accurately described—Jerome Liebling photographed the famed garment at the Dickinson Homestead (http://www3.amherst.edu/magazine/issues/02fall/authors/dickinsons.html).
Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain
“Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906” draws from three sources: Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angelfish Correspondence 1905-1910, edited by John Cooley; The Singular Mark Twain by Fred Kaplan; and Papa: An Intimate Biography of Mark Twain by His Thirteen-Year-Old Daughter Suzy.
Mark Twain’s Aquarium is the key text here—the volume collects letters between Clemens and various schoolgirls during the last five years of his life. Clemens began accumulating surrogate granddaughters in 1907; in 1908 he started calling them “angelfish” and inducting them into the formalized Aquarium Club (Cooley, xvii). From December 1905 to his death in 1910, Clemens wrote to or received from the angelfish some 300 letters—at times the correspondence was as frequent as sending/receiving several letters a week. Clemens even referred to the Aquarium as his “chief occupation and delight” (Cooley, xi.).
So, Oates’ story, though a work of fiction, is not at all farfetched. In fact, the introduction of “Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906” is a reinterpretation of remarks Clemens made in his autobiographical dictations on February 12, 1908: “I suppose we are all collectors, and I suppose each of us thinks that his fad is a more rational one than any of the others…As for me, I collect pets: young girls—girls from ten to sixteen years old; girls who are pretty and sweet and naïve and innocent—dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears. My collection consists of gems of the first water,” (Cooley, xvii).
The Aquarium Club period of Clemens’ life is little noted and indeed in stark contrast with how the writers’ final years were originally portrayed. His daughter, Clara, and his official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, originally preserved Clemens’ devoted family man image, but in reality the Clemens family crumbled after Olivia Clemens’ death in 1904 (Cooley, xviii). Clemens’ angelfish correspondence served as a refuge of happiness in his otherwise painful existence. Oates’ story picks up on these biographical details, highlighting Clemens’ loneliness and despondency.
Save for a name change and some other reworking, the correspondence between Clemens and Madelyn Avery in Oates’ tale is based on Clemens’ relationship with his first surrogate granddaughter, Gertrude Natkin. Clemens met the then fifteen-year-old Natkin in December 1905, while leaving Carnegie Hall (Cooley, 1). Nicknamed “Marjorie” after the writer Marjorie Fleming, Natkin was a pre-Aquarium Club conquest (differing with Oates’ Madelyn, who proudly wears her angelfish pin) (Cooley, 1). The tone of Clemens’ letters to Natkin is void of affection after her sixteenth birthday; the exact same shift takes place in “Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish.”
Oates mimics Clemens’ epistolary style in her version of the letters—disappointingly, Clemens’ phrasing in the original letters repetitive and canned. She borrows some phrases directly from the Clemens-Natkin correspondence: “This from your oldest & latest conquest—“ (Cooley, 9; and Wild Nights!, 86). The repeated closing, “I am the little girl that loves you,” and the sending of “blots” also come from Natkin, (Cooley, 9).
Suzy Clemens’ biography of her father, mentioned in “Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish,” does exist and was abandoned mid-sentence, as Oates states (Wild Nights!, 107).
Oates based “The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1914-1916” off The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, edited by Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers; and Henry James: A Life, by Leon Edel.
Oates takes the crux of “The Master of St. Bartholomew’s”—James’ attitude toward World War I and his volunteering at the hospital—from James’ biography. Oates portrays James’ view of humanity in the last months of 1914 as fatalistic: “He did not wish to think that, from this new wartime perspective, all of the Master’s efforts might be seen as but the elegant flowering of a civilization that had, all along, been rotting from within, and was now in danger of extinction” (Wild Nights!, 144). Indeed, in August 1914 James wrote to his friend Edith Wharton of the “crash of civilization. The only gleam in the blackness, to me, is the action and the absolute unanimity of this country” (Edel, 694).
Horrified and paralyzed by the war, James found it necessary to create his own “counter-reality” and immediately became involved in Belgian relief, eagerly accepting an invitation to volunteer with the wounded soldiers at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (Edel, 695). He visited at St. Bart’s almost daily through 1915, when his health declined. His pocket diaries from the end of 1914 through 1915 read like a military roster—he records the names of his soldier acquaintances and his visits with them. James took extreme interest in these soldiers’ well-being, going so far as to pay for the dental care of two men (Edel and Powers, 412).
Oates takes these details to the extreme in her story, but yet again, her retelling is not without biographical basis. Though it is doubtful that James sexually obsessed over the soldiers, his behavior toward the armed forces was extremely (and oddly) reverential: “[James] stopped soldiers on the street and astonished them by emptying his pockets of small change for them. He couldn’t keep away from the windows of his flat if he heard the sound of a bugle…”(Edel, 696). These details, coupled with the fact that many thought James to be homosexual, provide background for Oates’ reimagination.
Other details from Oates’ story are also borrowed: James really did rely on nitroglycerine tablets for his heart, he had most of his teeth extracted in early 1914, and he was indeed living at Lamb House in Rye during this time, and (Edel 693-694). James also did become a British citizen in 1915, stating “Hadn’t it been for the war I should certainly have gone on as I was” (Edel and Powers, 413).
For “Papa at Ketchum, 1961,” Oates bounces off of Hemingway by Kenneth S. Lynn. The bulk of Oates’ story is corroborated by this biography.
For example, Oates’ meticulous description of how Papa planned to commit suicide comes directly from biographical details. During Hemingway’s last years at Finca Vigia, his home in Cuba, he talked often about committing suicide and would even act out his planned method. Hemingway would “sit in his chair, barefoot, and place the butt of his Mannlicher .256 on the fiber rug of the living room between is legs. Then, leaning forward, he would rest the mouth of the gun barrel against the roof of his mouth. He would press the trigger with his big toe…” (Lynn, 583).
Much else of what Oates chronicles in “Papa at Ketchum” is based on fact. In late 1960 at Ketchum, Hemingway’s mental state was deteriorating quickly. He frequently voiced fears that the FBI was after him and that the Castro government would not allow him to live in Cuba (Lynn, 583). In November 1960, Hemingway was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he underwent electroshock treatments. He returned to Ketchum in January of 1961 and continued to work on A Moveable Feast, waking early each morning to write and taking a break in the mid-afternoon to walk along Route 93 (Lynn, 584-585). Soon after, though, Hemingway lapsed into a deeper depression. After an incident in April 1961, when his (fourth) wife Mary found him holding one of his shotguns, ready to load it, he was hospitalized again, placed on suicide watch, and given more electroshock treatments (Lynn, 589-590). In late June, Hemingway was released from the Mayo Clinic yet again, having deceived his doctors into believing that he was well. On July 1, Hemingway and Mary dined with friends at a local restaurant; during the dinner he was paranoid and convinced that fellow patrons were members of the FBI. Late that night, he retrieved the key from his gun cabinet from the kitchen windowsill, pulled out a twelve-gauge, double-barreled shotgun, loaded it, and shot himself (Lynn, 591-592).