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This collection arranges Chekhov's letters into three periods, each introduced by a short biographical essay: 1885-1890, the years during which Chekhov established himself as a writer; 1890-1897, which begins with his trip to Sakhalin Island and includes the years he spent living at Melikhovo; and 1897-1904, the final years during which his health declined, he rose to prominence as a playwright, and he married Olga Knipper.
In her general introduction, Lillian Hellman writes, "Chekhov was a pleasant man, witty and wise and tolerant and kind, with nothing wishywashy in his kindness, nor self-righteous in his tolerance, and his wit was not ill-humored. He would have seen right through you, of course, as he did through everybody, but being seen through doesn't hurt too much if it's done with affection." This image of Chekhov radiates from the letters collected in this volume.
Most of the letters are written to family members and a few close friends and associates, especially Alexei Suvorin, the editor of "New Times," a leading St. Petersburg newspaper; Maxim Gorki, the famous writer; and, later, the actress, Olga Knipper. The topics include family matters and business affairs; comments on his own writing and that of others; and his travels, especially the adventurous trip across Siberia to the penal colonies on Sakhalin Island in 1890.
Summary:A widower, Perley, marries Maureen, a woman four years younger than his daughter. Not long after they are married, Maureen, in cahoots with her brother, begins to emotionally and physically abuse her husband, taking over his land and farm. Perley feels he "deserved what was happening" and cannot fight back. Finally, he does strike out at Maureen’s brother, leaves him unconscious in the kitchen and goes to spend the night in the hayloft. There, he thinks back to his first encounters with Maureen and her brother when they were children, reflecting on the abuse and poverty that dominated their lives and that led, ultimately, to the present crisis.
Summary:A very short poem, describing the increasingly circumscribed life of a dying woman in a nursing home, a woman who "is like a horse grazing / a hill pasture that someone makes / smaller by coming every night / to pull the fences in and in." The final lines are a moving plea for God to bring the woman to a gentle death.
Summary:The speaker describes cleaning out the house of a friend/relative who has recently died. She rewards each small accomplishment in her sorting through of the dead woman's possessions by eating one cookie from a tin of homemade cookies that was sent by the woman's cousin before she died. As she reaches the end of her cleaning, the speaker takes the last cookie from the tin: "I took it up / and sniffed it, and before eating it, / pressed it against my forehead, because / it seemed like the next thing to do."
Summary:A very short poem, in which the speaker, sorting through old china, finds a dead friend/relative's gravy boat "with a hard, brown / drop of gravy still / on the porcelain lip." This discovery leads the speaker to truly grieve the loss of this person in a way she hadn't before.
White-jacket is a sailor on the U.S. frigate Neversink. His nickname derives from a jacket stitched together from leftover scraps of rags. This jacket makes the other sailors superstitious and as the ship heads towards Antarctica his mess group kicks him out and he joins another group, serving under the much-liked petty officer, Jack Chase.
The journey is a dangerous one. A man falls overboard. There are constant floggings for the merest inkling of insurrection. All the crew members are forced to watch each flogging. A doctor stands by to stop the flogging if the victim's life is endangered, but he is so callous he doesn't stop a single one. The doctor also prescribes medications, but never attempts to change the conditions that cause the sailors' illnesses, like malnutrition and exposure.
When the ship lands in Rio de Janeiro, Dr. Cadwaller Cuticle boards. In order to show off to the ship's doctors, he amputates the healthy leg of a sailor, who is terribly frightened as the doctors discuss his impending fate in front of him. The man dies of shock. When the boat continues on its journey, White-jacket accidentally falls from the riggings. He barely escapes being speared when a ship-mate mistakes his jacket for a whale. He is fished out and sent up again to complete his task.
Summary:Old Koskoosh was the chief of an Eskimo tribe. Now he is blind and lame, and his tribe is preparing to leave him alone in the snow to face his death as they travel on without him. His son leaves him a pile of sticks to feed the fire beside him. When the fire dies, so will he. As he waits alone for death, he thinks of the time he left his own father in the snow. He also remembers having seen a sick, old moose killed by wolves when it straggled behind the rest of the herd. "It was the law of all life," he decides. When he feels the cold nose of a wolf on him and hears the pack's footsteps surround him, he first fights them off, then gives in.
It is the year 2073. A boy and his grandfather, clad in animal skins, are walking through deep woods. Having fought off a bear, they come to a fire on the beach, where several other boys sit watching their sheep. Their grandfather asks for a crab and they tease him with empty shells until he cries. Finally, they relent and ask him to tell his story about the past and the scarlet plague.
The grandfather had been a literature professor at The University of California-San Francisco. In the summer of 2013, rumors began that a new plague was killing people in New York. Those infected developed a scarlet rash, had a few convulsions, then settled into a sleep-like state in which they became numb and died, their bodies decomposing almost immediately. The entire process took at most an hour, but sometimes as little as ten minutes. Bacteriologists died even as they tried to find a vaccine. People began dying by the millions. The plague finally reached San Francisco and mayhem broke out. The wealthy tried to flee the city and the poor murdered them and looted in revenge for their long oppression.
The professor survived. He lived alone in the Grand Canyon for three years, then set out to see if anyone else was alive, finding a workingman and his woman slave. He met others and began a family which included the boys to whom he is telling his story. There is no means of communicating across the country or to other nations, since the fires set by looters consumed nearly every structure. Society has been set back to a nomad existence. The boys do not believe most of their grandfather’s story. They fight amongst one another and with him in a language that is only partly English. Finally, they rise, leaving the grandfather to straggle along behind into the wilderness.