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26 Complete Works of E. NesbitAtlantic NarrativesBeautiful Stories from ShakespeareFive Children and ItGrim TalesHarding's luckIn HomespunMan and MaidMany VoicesNew Treasure SeekersOswald Bastable and OthersPussy and Doggy TalesRoyal Children of English HistoryThe Book of DragonsThe Enchanted CastleThe Incomplete AmoristThe Incredible HoneymoonThe Literary SenseThe Magic CityThe Magic WorldThe Phoenix and the CarpetThe Railway ChildrenThe Rainbow and the RoseThe Story of the AmuletThe Story of the Treasure SeekersThe WouldbegoodsWings and the Child
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The Complete Collection of E. Nesbit
Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare
Five Children and It
Man and Maid
New Treasure Seekers
Pussy and Doggy Tales
Royal Children of English History
The Book of Dragons
The Enchanted Castle
The Incomplete Amorist
The Incredible Honeymoon
The Literary Sense
The Magic City
The Magic World
The Phoenix and the Carpet
The Railway Children
The Rainbow and the Rose
The Story of the Amulet
The Story of the Treasure Seekers
Wings and the Child
Modern Short Stories
EDITED WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY CHARLES SWAIN THOMAS, A. M.Head of Department of English, Newton (Mass.) High School Lecturer in the Harvard Summer SchoolThe Atlantic Monthly Press BOSTON
Copyright, 1918, by THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY PRESS, INC.CONTENTSPAGEINTRODUCTIONviiTHEPRELIMINARIESCornelia A. P. Comer1BUTTERCUP-NIGHTJohn Galsworthy22HEPATICASAnne Douglas Sedgwick30POSSESSINGPRUDENCEAmy Wentworth Stone56THEGLORY-BOXElizabeth Ashe68THESPIRIT OF THEHERDDallas Lore Sharp89IN THEPASHA'SGARDENH. G. Dwight98LITTLESELVESMary Lerner121THEFAILURECharles Caldwell Dobie136BUSINESS ISBUSINESSHenry Seidel Canby152NOTHINGZephine Humphrey167AMOTH OFPEACEKatharine Fullerton Gerould180INNOSTRANGELANDKatharine Butler201LITTLEBROTHERMadeleine Z. Doty208WHATROADGOETHHE?F. J. Louriet217THECLEARERSIGHTErnest Starr227THEGARDEN OFMEMORIESC. A. Mercer252THECLEARESTVOICEMargaret Sherwood259THEMARBLECHILDE. Nesbit270THEONELEFTE. V. Lucas283THELEGACY OFRICHARDHUGHESMargaret Lynn290OFWATER AND THESPIRITMargaret Prescott Montague310MR.SQUEMArthur Russell Taylor326BIOGRAPHICAL ANDINTERPRETATIVENOTES337
INTRODUCTIONTHE SHORT STORY
THERE is a story current among companionable golfers of a countryman who reluctantly accepted an invitation from a group of friendly associates to try his unpracticed hand at golf. When they all arrived at the links, his friends carefully placed the little carbonadoed sphere upon the tee, and told their aged neophyte that he must try to send this little painted ball to the first hole—plainly marked by the distant waving red flag toward which they pointed. The stalwart old man swung his club valiantly, hit the golf-ball a square, ringing blow, and watched it eagerly as it made its long, swift flight toward the far-off putting-green. His three friends, all loudly congratulating him upon his stroke, went with him in his silent search for the ball. Finally they found it lying just three or four inches from the edge of the first hole. A look of exultant astonishment was upon their faces; a look of keen disappointment upon the face of the old man. "Gee, I missed it," he muttered in disgust. His stroke had been the traditional stroke of the ignorant lucky beginner; he had unwittingly accomplished a feat beyond the dream of the trained expert.
Something similar to this triumphant accomplishment of the golf links has occasionally happened in the realm of story-telling. An untrained narrator, with a good tale to tell and with a natural instinct to select the dramatic incidents and arrange them luckily in effective sequence, has held his hearers in continuously rapt attention, and won from them, at the close of his story, round upon round of spontaneous applause. But as the literary world has grown older and more mature in its æsthetic judgments, it has naturally grown more exacting. As narrator after narrator has told his stories, the critical public and the academic critics have come to impose certain definite technical demands—demands not so definite or so exacting, however, that the splendor of success in certain ways has not pardoned even rather glaring neglects and defects along certain other concurrent ways.
Now it has been my pleasant task during the recent months to read or to reread scores upon scores of short stories that have been published in the Atlantic Monthly. My object has been to select from the Atlantic files some of the best and most representative of these narratives for publication in book form, and thus make these significant stories more readily available for the college, school, and the reading public. Out of this study, as it has combined and recombined with all my impressions of past readings, have come certain convictions that have grown more persistent as the reading and the selecting have progressed.
The net result of this thinking, I may at the beginning assert, has been to expand and liberalize my convictions concerning the art and technique of short-story writing. The choice of theme is multitudinous, the methods of allowable treatment generously variable, the emphasis upon character, plot, and setting easily shiftable, and the ultimate effects as diversified as our human moods and interests. Contrary to a currently repeated assertion, there is, I am convinced, no strict Atlantic type of story—at least none so rigorously conceived as not to allow unquestioned commendation of the narrative art of such varied personalities as Bret Harte, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Sarah Orne Jewett, John Galsworthy, Mrs. Comer, Mrs. Gerould, E. Nesbit, Jack London, or indeed that whole luminous galaxy of skilled story writers—many of them without fame—who for the past sixty years have been contributing the best of their literary selves to the Atlantic. Yet a study of these contributions of such varied types convinces one of certain large demands which each successive editor has, with somewhat latitudinarian rigor, pretty positively held in mind while he was determining the worth of the given product. What, we may be interested in asking, are these larger and more persistent demands?
The unified impression
Perhaps the most obvious requirement is that one upon which Edgar Allan Poe, in his brilliant critical essays on the art of the short story, laid the strongest stress—the demand that the narrator produce an unquestioned unified effect or impression. An examination of the narrative method of the old Metrical Romances and of many of the Arabian Nights Tales will by contrast illustrate Poe's comment. In those writings there was often no apparent plan. The hero started out and had an adventure. This the story-teller narrated as Episode No. 1. The hero continued and had another adventure, similar or dissimilar to the first. This we recognize as Episode No. 2. And thus the story continued until the narrator's powers of invention or endurance were exhausted. We close the reading with no sense of satisfied unity—no oneness of impression. At the beginning of the story, the writer of these Romances and Tales apparently had no definitely preconceived plan, he allowed no foreshadowing of catastrophe, he was careless alike of both beginning and end, he made no conscious use of suspense, setting, character-contrast, reverting narrative, climax, or any of the numerous devices that make up the technique of modern short-story writing. More particularly did he ignore the principle of unified impression.
Unified impression secured by character domination
While unity of impression is the sovereign demand in the modern short story, the ways in which this impression may be secured possess interesting variety. One of the most important of these ways is evident in the pervading or directing influence of some strongly dominant character. Events move in accordance with the will of some one person—or, it may be some group of persons with closely related powers and aims.
An interesting example of single character domination is seen in Miss Sherwood's story, The Clearest Voice. Alice, the wife, has been dead five years, yet it is her personality that still pervades and governs the home. Her spirit of kindly interest, her instinct for the æsthetic, her household control—all these have persisted through the long months that have intervened since her death. But it is when the husband is faced by the temptation to accept an inheritance which legally, though not justly, belongs to him—it is then that the influence of the wife's assertive character silently and determinedly dictates the correct decision. The husband's pressing financial difficulties, the urgings of the relatives, the unquestioned legality of the bequest—these are all finally swept aside by the subtle workings of a quietly persisting ethical force.
Sometimes an author reveals the strength and wisdom of one of his characters by allowing this character to yield to the wisdom and domination of another. I am thinking of Mrs. Comer's story, The Wealth of Timmy Zimmerman. As we read the first part of this narrative, we are interested only in Timmy Zimmerman and the personal character problems which the huge profits of the tobacco trust suddenly thrust upon this uncultured but good-souled parvenu. We watch him in his early struggles so full of energy and bold emprise; we rejoice with him in his significant financial triumphs, and later we watch him as he tries, by an expensive building enterprise, by tours through Europe, by the rapid and careless driving of his ten-thousand dollar red automobile, to win back the nervous contentment that was the happy companion of those early years of adventurous poverty. He dominates each separate situation, but he does not solve his problem. It is only when he meets Molly Betterton and sees himself as analyzed by her candid native acumen, that he learns his own weakness and the true potentialities of his wealth. Her character is strong enough to win dominion over him; it is not strong enough to dominate the story and lure the reader away from the controlling interest in the personality whose career the reader has so intently watched. The unity of impression is firmly and continuously centered in the portrayal of Timmy Zimmerman's character, and it is that which tautly holds the reader's attention in leash.
A more recent story that secures its chief interest from character portrayal is Mr. Arthur Russell Taylor's Mr. Squem. Mr. Squem is a traveling man who sells Mercury rubber tires. He wears clothes that arrest attention—broad striped affairs that seemed stripes before they were clothes; his talk is profusely interlarded with vulgar but picturesque slang; he is far removed from the academy. Brought into direct contrast with the Reverend Allan Dare and Professor William Emory Browne, his crudity is the more grossly apparent. It is later enhanced by the glimpse we get of his room—'extremely dennish, smitingly red as to walls, oppressive with plush upholstery. A huge deerhead, jutting from over the mantel, divided honors with a highly-colored September Morn, affrontingly framed. On a shelf stood a small bottle. It contained a finger of Mr. Squem, amputated years before, in alcohol.'
But in the midst of a railroad wreck, we lose all thought of these banalities and crudities; we take Mr. Squem for what he really is—a genuine, large-hearted, efficient minister unto his fellow men. The impression he creates dominates the entire situation.
Of the classic stories which admirably illustrate this method of securing a unity of impression through concentrated character interest, we like to revert to Bret Harte's Tennessee's Partner. It is of small moment that we do not know this man's name—of small moment indeed that he seems, throughout his mining career at Sandy Bar, to have been content to have his personality dimmed by the somewhat more luminous aura of Tennessee. But when Tennessee's repeated offences bring him to trial before Judge Lynch, and finally to his doom on the ominous tree at the top of Morley's Hill, Tennessee's partner comes suddenly upon the scene and overpoweringly dominates the situation. We close our reading of the story completely impressed by the devoted loyalty of Tennessee's partner—the loyalty that creates the unified impression.
And this same unity of impression thus secured in The Clearest Voice, The Wealth of Timmy Zimmerman, Mr. Squem, and Tennessee's Partner by concentrated interest in character, is easily discernible, in scores of other stories. The method is artistically employed by Hawthorne in The Great Stone Face, in Maxim Gorky's Tchelkache, Turgenef's A Lear of the Steppes, J. M. Barrie's Cree Queery and Myra Drolby, Thomas Nelson Page's Marse Chan, Henry James's The Real Thing, Joseph Conrad's The Informer, and such well-known Atlantic stories as Anna Fuller's The Boy, Esther Tiffany's Anna Mareea, Florence Gilmore's Little Brother, Ellen Mackubin's Rosita, Charles Dobie's The Failure, Clarkson Crane's Snipe, and Christina Krysto's Babanchik. Indeed the list is well-nigh inexhaustible, and is constantly being increased by the many gifted writers who, enriching our current literature, see in personal character the germ of story-interest.
Unified impression secured by plot
Just as in looking at a finished piece of artistic tapestry we get a sense of harmonious design, so in contemplating the events of a well-told story, our sense of artistic completeness is satisfied by the skill displayed in the weaving and interweaving of incident—such weaving and interweaving as bring the significant events into the immediate foreground, and group the items of lesser moment in such an unobtrusive manner as to merge them into harmony with the main design.
Preceding the beginning of any story, we assume the existence of a state of repose. Either there is nothing happening, or, if events are happening, they are simply happening in the atmosphere of dull and inconsequential routine, and are accordingly without the pale of narratable notice. Then, suddenly, or gradually, something happens to disturb this repose; and to this initial exciting force are traceable the succeeding events, with such varied culminations as prosperity, or poverty, or dejection, tragedy or joy, or restored calm, or any one of the multitudinous finalities that life brings with her in her equipage.
The whole principle of plot, as here briefly analyzed, is simply and artistically revealed in Mr. Ernest Starr's The Clearer Sight—an admirable example of a story whose unity is secured largely by the effective handling of situation and incident. To Noakes, the young scientist who is the central character in the story, the master chemist, Henry Maxineff, has given certain general suggestions for a formula which will give an explosive of great value and of high potential power. The young man, following these general lines, discovers that, by slight additions and alterations, he can successfully work out the formula and immediately sell his secret to a foreign government. The sum he would thus secure would amply justify him in proposing marriage to Becky Hallam, the girl of his choice. We watch him in his brisk experiments and in his conclusive yielding to the temptation. We see him betraying his employer and at the same time failing to meet the standard of confidence which is demanded by the girl he loves. Right in the midst of these scientific successes and these ethical failures comes the terrible explosion in the laboratory where Noakes was working in secret. He is blinded by the accident—permanently, he thinks. Harassed by his sufferings—more particularly by his spiritual sufferings—he makes his confessions to Mr. Maxineff and Miss Hallam, and looks despairingly toward the empty future. The story closes with the physician's hope that the loss of his sight is after all but temporary. As we end our reading and view the events in retrospect, we are conscious of having seen the various threads of interest woven into a complete and unified design.
Again, the principles of plot structure are clearly seen quietly creating their unified impression in A Sea Change, one of Alice Brown's homely stories. Cynthia Miller, a New England housewife, had lived for years her life of dull routine in an isolated mountain farm eight miles from the nearest village. Her husband, Timothy, 'was a son of the soil, made out of the earth, and not many generations removed from that maternity.' Cynthia gradually comes to despise her life and her husband's crude carelessness—exemplified by his habitual animal aura and his newly-greased boots by the open oven door. With little ado, but with grim determination, she leaves him and goes to the sea-side home of her sister Frances. Cynthia is taken ill, but is at length cured by the kindly village doctor and the silent ministrations of the neighboring sea. Timothy, changed by the sudden departure of his wife and the opportunity for introspection that his lonely life now brings him, shakes off a bit of his earthiness and goes, after several weeks, to find his wife. We listen to the brief reconciliation and see Timothy begin to breathe in new life of aroused love and appreciation. The author's skillful manipulation of the action makes us live in the glow of a clearly perceived oneness of impression.
There are, of course, thousands of stories which secure this singleness of effect by a similar skill in the handling of situations and incidents. Among these many we need mention only a few whose unity is largely secured by plot-interest—Thomas Bailey Aldrich's Marjorie Daw, Maupassant's The Necklace, Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue, Stockton's A Tale of Negative Gravity and The Lady or the Tiger, Kipling's Without Benefit of Clergy, Pushkin's The Shot, A. Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Jack London's A Day's Lodging.
Unified impression secured by setting
Perhaps the most significant critical comment on setting—the third important element in the story-weaving process that secures oneness of impression—is that frequently quoted conversation of Stevenson with Graham Balfour: 'You may,' said Stevenson, 'take a certain atmosphere and get action and persons to express it. I'll give you an example—The Merry Men. There I began with the feeling of one of those islands on the west coast of Scotland, and I gradually developed the story to express the sentiment with which the coast affected me.'
There is no sensitive reader who will not sympathize with this feeling and immediately understand how the atmosphere of a particular place will act upon inventive genius and become the exciting force for the production of a story. The squalid surroundings in the city slums, the gay glamour of a garishly-lighted casino, the unending stretch of desert waste, the dim twilight or the shrouded darkness of the pine forest, the bleakness of the beaches in midwinter, the sounding cataracts, haunting one like a passion—how rich in storied suggestiveness may be each of these to him who already has within him the instinct of story or romance.
How the mood of place may effect its influence is well expressed in the opening passages of John Galsworthy's Buttercup-Night, which sensitively analyzes the feelings for an unnamed bit of land in the 'West country' as the author experienced them one Sunday night of a by-gone early June.
'Why is it that in some places there is such a feeling of life being all one; not merely a long picture-show for human eyes, but a single breathing, glowing, growing thing, of which we are no more important a part than the swallows and magpies, the foals and sheep in the meadows, the sycamores and ash trees and flowers in the fields, the rocks and little bright streams, or even the long fleecy clouds and their soft-shouting drivers, the winds?
'True, we register these parts of being, and they—so far as we know—do not register us; yet it is impossible to feel, in such places as I speak of, the busy, dry, complacent sense of being all that matters, which in general we humans have so strongly.
'In these rare spots, that are always in the remote country, untouched by the advantages of civilization, one is conscious of an enwrapping web or mist of spirit, the glamorous and wistful wraith of all the vanished shapes that once dwelt there in such close comradeship.'
We can readily see, as we read Buttercup-Night, that it is the atmosphere of the place that subtly dictates the telling of the story, and at the end leaves the reader breathing this delicious June air and living within the charmed romance of this accumulated mass of magical yellow. What happens is interesting, but it is interesting largely because the incidents are fused and integrated with the hovering spirit of place and time—here as dominating in their charm as is the weird, mysterious Usher homestead in its gloom.
While such stories as Stevenson's Merry Men and Galsworthy's Buttercup-Night and Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher illustrate in a particularly striking way the dominant influence of setting, we recall scores upon scores of stories that have an added power because their authors have shown skill in the creation of a permeating and directing environment. Among the more famous of these stories are Sarah Orne Jewett's The Queen's Twin, Israel Zangwill's They that Walk in Darkness, Prosper Mérimée's Mateo Falcone, Hardy's Wessex Tales, Lafcadio Hearn's Youma, Jack London's Children of the Frost, John Fox's Christmas Eve on Lonesome, Edith Wyatt's In November, and Mrs. Gerould's The Moth of Peace.
Unified impression secured by theme
Another element of the story which we find interesting to discover and analyze is the author's dominant theme—what in the older days we might have unapologetically called the moral of the story. But along with the development of the technique of the short story, there came a school of critics and writers that shied terribly at this mention of the word moral; and such writers as Stevenson often seemed over-conscious of its lurking danger. In such consciousness, Stevenson wrote wonderful stories of adventure and mystery, such as Treasure Island and The Sire de Maletroit's Door. Yet the native instinct toward emphasis upon theme allowed him to write such powerful ethical stories as Markheim and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But in these, as in most of the modern thematic stories, the ethical truth pervades rather than intrudes. It is so firmly woven into incident and character and surroundings and natural dramaturgy that its identity is not exposed to naked bareness, but combines with other elements to produce a perfect unity through harmony of tone and effect.
Among the recent Atlantic story-writers this harmonious linking is seen happily existent in the deft workmanship of Mrs. C. A. P. Comer and Anne Douglas Sedgwick. In each number of three notable trilogies which these gifted writers have contributed, there is an artistic treatment of three notable themes. In Mrs. Comer's Preliminaries, The Kinzer Portraits, and The Long Inheritance we find the author's implied comments on Engagement, Marriage, and Divorce. In Anne Douglas Sedgwick's unconnected floral trilogy—Hepaticas, Carnations, and Pansies—there is in turn reflected Miss Sedgwick's attitude toward three themes which are less concrete and which demand a longer phrasing. In the first there is the world-old story of a noble spirited woman's love and sacrifice and ardent wishings for her self-victimized son. In Carnations we have the story of a husband, Rupert Wilson, released from the bondage of an unfortunate infatuation and restored to the sanity of love. In Pansies we have a generous tribute to quiet sentiment, developed by a study in character contrasts—the simple-hearted woman, loving a simple garden, contrasted with the kindly disposed but worldly-environed Mrs. Lennard, fond of display and Dorothy Perkins effects, and laying a disproportioned stress upon the expensive and the modern.
In none of these six stories is there the slightest suggestion that the narrative has been conceived in the spirit of propaganda. It would be impossible to say even that it was the underlying theme which gave the initial conception to the narrative and directed its progress. Any one of these six stories I can fancy beginning in plot, or in character, or in setting. Plot, character, setting, and theme—all are here, but all are so happily combined that I feel no disproportionate emphasis, and hence no forcing of a technical element. I only know that, personally, when I think over these stories, I find the theme of each leaving its strong and lingering impression.
What is true regarding this effective combination of elements in these stories of Mrs. Comer's and Miss Sedgwick's is of course true of many of the Atlantic stories which I have been reading. Perhaps in the majority of the best there is such a thorough merging of all the elements that the final impression falls upon neither character nor plot nor setting nor theme. The author has had something worth while to relate, and he has related it in a simple and natural way,—all unconscious of, or happily triumphant over, any studied technique in the art of narration. It has indeed been a conviction in the minds of some of the Atlantic editors that most persons, even though untrained in manipulating the story-maker's gear, have at least one experience—real or imagined—that is abundantly worth telling and worth writing. Unconsciously of course this artless narrator might throw into bold relief theme, character, setting, or plot. Or he might unconsciously merge these separate interests.
The woman writers
Aside from the mere contemplation of story-element technique, there are many other interesting observations which naturally come to one who reads critically the currently published fiction. He who examines the recent Atlantic files will be immediately impressed by the dominant place held by women writers of the short story—Mrs. Wharton, Mrs. Comer, Mrs. Gerould, Sarah Orne Jewett, Alice Brown, Mary Antin, Zephine Humphrey, Edith Ronald Merrielees, Margaret Prescott Montague, Kathleen Norris, E. Nesbit, Laura Spencer Portor, Anna Fuller, Edith Wyatt, Margaret Lynn, Elizabeth Ashe, Anne Douglas Sedgwick, Elsie Singmaster, Margaret Sherwood. Among the Atlantic contributors we should find it difficult indeed to match this list with an equal number of men equally gifted in story-telling power. But even if we should succeed in such a fatuous pairing of talent, we should still be impressed with the high place attained by the women writers—high in contrast with the place which they have attained in painting, sculpture, architecture, drama, and music.
And why this high attainment in the realm of the short story? Perhaps it is partially due to a lighter-winged fancy native in the feminine mind—a fancy that roves with more natural ease and grace among the animals and flowers of earth, among the clouds and stars and spirits of the sky, among the demon-haunted grottoes of the underworld. From all these easily-directed journeys perhaps it turns more naturally to the penetrable secrets of human motive—penetrable, however, only to those hearts which yield quickly, spontaneously—even wantonly—to the springs of love, hate, beauty, justice, jealousy, fear, vengeance, and the silent routine of daily duty. Doing all this of its natural self, the heart can more readily guide the mind in the deft record of vicarious action. Leastwise, to make a simple record of a real or an imagined experience is a task which can be more easily done by girls than by boys.
As boys and girls grow into maturity and the desire for contact with life increases, the masculine mind finds its natural outlet in business, in wrestlings with the soil, in contests of law and—at the present moment, alas!—in the chaos of relentless war. Woman's sphere, though continually enlarging, is still relatively narrowed, and she seeks her freedom in the realm of imagination, thus identifying herself oftentimes in the work-a-day contests of men. This mental exercise within the wide gamut of imagined emotions naturally helps her to enter sympathetically into varied contests. And it is perhaps because of her broadened understanding that she is fuller and truer in her written record.
The feminine mind, moreover, is more observant of detail and more ready to perceive a lack of harmony in arrangement; and while mere fullness of observation might in isolated cases lead to incontinent garrulousness, the generous flow is usually held in sufficient check by that nicer feminine perception of an æsthetic effect that dictates shearing and compression.
Perhaps the widening of the educational field, the world's fuller acknowledgment of woman's varied ability, her easier mastery of delicate technique, a more habitual access to a writing-pad—perhaps all these combine with other facts and circumstances to encourage her in this prolific output of marketable fiction. At any rate, the fact is easily apparent.
The stamp of authenticity
A further interesting fact revealed in an examination of Atlantic narratives is the encouragement of that type of story which carries with it the stamp of an authentic atmosphere. More than a generation ago this magazine was printing the stories of Bret Harte—stories that revealed with great accuracy and skill and sympathy the spirit of the California mining camp. Bret Harte had lived and breathed the grim and romantic spirit of this environment. Fusing this experience with an imagination that emotionalized a native instinct for story-telling, Bret Harte was able to lend to his writing a verisimilitude that easily won the reader's interest in the charm and novelty of that strenuous and elemental western life.
While the work of Bret Harte perhaps most strikingly illustrates this power of authentic portrayal of experience and place, there are scores of Atlantic stories that employ the same general method. Sarah Orne Jewett, in such stories as The Queen's Twin, The Life of Nancy, and A Dummet Shepherd, has admirably re-created the simple life of rural New England. Lafcadio Hearn has realistically brought to us the spirit of Japan, Jacob Riis has portrayed for us many pictures of New York tenement life, Joseph Husband has brought us into the atmosphere of industrialism, H. G. Dwight and Charles Johnson have allowed us to breathe the spirit of Orientalism. And scores of other writers, such as Dallas Lore Sharp, E. Morlae, Margaret Prescott Montague, Abraham Rihbany, Mary Antin, Mildred Aldrich, Simeon Strunsky, after they have lived their separate experiences, have shared with us the intimate memories which those personal experiences have bequeathed.
The Atlantic traditions, for the most part, have rejected the harrowing and the sordid and the meretricious. Contrasted with the tone of tragic realism so often dominant in Gorky, Dostoevsky, Turgenef, Maupassant, and Zola, we usually find in the pages of the Atlantic an emphasis upon themes which suggest a gentler and more humane spirit. The winds of heaven do, of course, sometimes blow over places that are bleak, barren, and desolate. They shriek and moan through winter wilds, and sometimes the human mood that corresponds to this despair has found its reflection in stories which the Atlantic has printed. But the mission of the magazine has in general been in the sunlit fields or near the hearthfire's glow. If it sometimes has witnessed tragedy, it has never found delight in the disclosure of grimness for grimness' sake. It has been more watchful of scenes within the commonplaces of human action; here the writers have found themes of quiet pathos, of homely humor, and of rich romance. Small wonder, indeed, if since August, 1914, grimmer scenes than usual should not sometimes shadow the pages! But even so; the writers have not yet lost their sanity, their hopefulness, or their quiet sense of humor.
Possibilities within the future
After these comments on the more dominant characteristics of the short story it is natural to inquire into the possible future of the art. It is apparent that writers are paying careful attention to technique, and there is real danger to the art if technique is to be too narrowly interpreted and too slavishly followed. A credulous acceptance of a guide has always worked havoc in the field of creative literature. Aristotle, and Horace, and Longinus—to revert to a literary period now far distant—showed admirable critical acumen, but it may be sincerely questioned whether they enhanced the worth of Grecian and Roman literature. We may be quite sure that the critical writings of neither Boileau nor Pope deepened or improved French or English poetry. Will our short stories be any better here in America because Brander Matthews, Bliss Perry, Clayton Hamilton, Henry S. Canby, W. B. Pitkin, Miss Albright, Miss Ashmun, and a score of others have written so entertainingly about them? As I have read these criticisms and as I have seen new writers apparently influenced by these criticisms and by the methods obvious in Poe, Bret Harte, Kipling, and O. Henry, I have been reluctantly made to feel that we were perhaps on the verge of yielding to the technique of the telling rather than to the substance of the experience.
Where art becomes too self-conscious and too critical, it sacrifices spontaneity and elemental power, and smothers itself in the wrappings of its self-woven web. Reliance upon technique and long practice in its use will help crudeness to rise to mediocrity, but the process will never lift the mediocre writer to the plane of the supremely excellent or the austerely great.
Perhaps the present danger lies partly in the attitude of the magazine editor whose sceptre is his checkbook. Let us not deceive ourselves. Literature is now a business—or if not wholly commercialized, it is acutely sensitive to the laws of the trade. The purely commercial editors, with their eyes riveted to the main chance, have come to recognize the power of technique, and to it they have been paying bountiful tribute. The public has in turn learned to expect the sudden start, the swift pace, the placarded climax, the clever paradox, the crisp repartee, the pinchbeck style, the bared realism, the concluding click. It is all very perfect and very regular, and the editor in accepting the manuscript that adheres to each conventional requirement encloses his check for two hundred dollars in a letter that contains an order for a half dozen more of the identical type. One of the deplorable adjuncts of this procedure is that the editor often realizes the emptiness of this technically correct story, and his own best literary judgment spurns it. But trying to objectify what his clientele would applaud, he pays the price and orders more.
Conversely, a story with genuine substance and sincere feeling comes to his desk. He reads it and approves. Then he asks that fateful question—What will my reading public say? He concludes that they will note the utter lack of climax, of cleverness, of ingenuity, of realistic contact with unadorned everydayness. He closes the incident by a return of the manuscript with a printed rejection slip enclosed.
But this procedure is sometimes happily reversed: an editor has had the fortitude to ignore the fancied judgment of his readers and has relied upon his own impressions of what constitutes literary worth. He is conscious that the story he has accepted is written in utter ignorance or in total disregard of traditional propriety and the laws of modern technique; yet it carries a message, it reveals character, it shows real thinking powers. Accepted and published, as was Arthur Russell Taylor's Mr. Squem, it has been enthusiastically received by its readers.
There is one final conviction that emerges from the varied and the multitudinous impressions that come from the reading of all these stories. Every individual has an experience worth narrating; and most individuals have scores upon scores of experiences—real or imagined—that are worth narrating. To succeed in the attempt one does not necessarily need to be a conscious master of technique. He must, of course, have a reasonably firm command of his vernacular—indeed, to succeed in any large degree, he must attain unquestioned mastery and fittingly fashion his style to the theme immediately at hand. He should have a sense of organization that deftly orders the proper sequence of events and skillfully adjusts both minor and major incidents to secure a unified impression. There is, I am convinced, no single minor rule that critics may formulate which will stand a rigid acid test. Genius abrogates every law; talent may abrogate most laws. A great experience, a great situation, a great theme, a great character, a great scene, a great emotion—any one of these may direct even an ordinary writer to successful narration. The skilled story-teller will win success from even scanty material—but the scanty material will be enriched by a sense of humor, an ingenious fancy, a felicitous style, a controlling imagination, a deft craftsmanship, or a keen perception of the value and regulation of detail.
THE PRELIMINARIESBY CORNELIA A. P. COMER
Young Oliver Pickersgill was in love with Peter Lannithorne's daughter. Peter Lannithorne was serving a six-year term in the penitentiary for embezzlement.
It seemed to Ollie that there was only one right-minded way of looking at these basal facts of his situation. But this simple view of the matter was destined to receive several shocks in the course of his negotiations for Ruth Lannithorne's hand. I say negotiations advisedly. Most young men in love have only to secure the consent of the girl and find enough money to go to housekeeping. It is quite otherwise when you wish to marry into a royal family, or to ally yourself with a criminal's daughter. The preliminaries are more complicated.
Ollie thought a man ought to marry the girl he loves, and prejudices be hanged! In the deeps of his soul, he probably knew this to be the magnanimous, manly attitude, but certainly there was no condescension in his outward bearing when he asked Ruth Lannithorne to be his wife. Yet she turned on him fiercely, bristling with pride and tense with over-wrought nerves.
'I will never marry any one,' she declared, 'who doesn't respect my father as I do!'
If Oliver's jaw fell, it is hardly surprising. He had expected her to say she would never many into a family where she was not welcome. He had planned to get around the natural objections of his parents somehow—the details of this were vague in his mind—and then he meant to reassure her warmly, and tell her that personal merit was the only thing that counted with him or his. He may have visualized himself as wiping away her tears and gently raising her to share the safe social pedestal whereon the Pickersgills were firmly planted. The young do have these visions not infrequently. But to be asked to respect Peter Lannithorne, about whom he knew practically nothing save his present address!
'I don't remember that I ever saw your father, Ruth,' he faltered.
'He was the best man,' said the girl excitedly, 'the kindest, the most indulgent.—That's another thing, Ollie. I will never marry an indulgent man, nor one who will let his wife manage him. If it hadn't been for mother—' She broke off abruptly.
Ollie tried to look sympathetic and not too intelligent. He had heard that Mrs. Lannithorne was considered difficult.
'I oughtn't to say it, but can't explain father unless I do. Mother nagged; she wanted more money than there was; she made him feel her illnesses, and our failings, and the overdone beefsteak, and the under-done bread,—everything that went wrong, always, was his fault. His fault—because he didn't make more money. We were on the edge of things, and she wanted to be in the middle, as she was used to being. Of course, she really hasn't been well, but I think it's mostly nerves,' said Ruth, with the terrible hardness of the young. 'Anyhow, she might just as well have stuck knives into him as to say the things she did. It hurt him—like knives, I could see him wince—and try harder—and get discouraged—and then, at last—' The girl burst into a passion of tears.
Oliver tried to soothe her. Secretly he was appalled at these squalid revelations of discordant family life. The domestic affairs of the Pickersgills ran smoothly, in affluence and peace. Oliver had never listened to a nagging woman in his life. He had an idea that such phenomena were confined to the lower classes.
'Don't you care for me at all, Ruth?'
The girl crumpled her wet handkerchief. 'Ollie, you're the most beautiful thing that ever happened—except my father. He was beautiful, too; indeed, indeed, he was. I'll never think differently. I can't. He tried so hard.'
All the latent manliness in the boy came to the surface and showed itself.
'Ruth, darling, I don't want you to think differently. It's right for you to be loyal and feel as you do. You see, you know, and the world doesn't. I'll take what you say and do as you wish. You mustn't think I'm on the other side. I'm not. I'm on your side, wherever that is. When the time comes I'll show you. You may trust me, Ruth.'
He was eager, pleading, earnest. He looked at the moment so good, so loving and sincere, that the girl, out of her darker experience of life, wondered wistfully if it were really true that Providence ever let people just live their lives out like that—being good, and prosperous, and generous, advancing from happiness to happiness, instead of stubbing along painfully as she felt she had done, from one bitter experience to another, learning to live by failures.
It must be beautiful to learn from successes instead, as it seemed to her Oliver had done. How could any one refuse to share such a radiant life when it was offered? As for loving Oliver, that was a foregone conclusion. Still, she hesitated.
'You're awfully dear and good to me, Ollie,' she said. 'But I want you to see father. I want you to go and talk to him about this, and know him for yourself. I know I'm asking a hard thing of you, but, truly, I believe it's best. If he says it's all right for me to marry you, I will—if your family want me, of course,' she added as an afterthought.
'Oughtn't I to speak to your mother?' hesitated Oliver.
'Oh,—mother? Yes, I suppose she'd like it,' said Ruth, absent-mindedly. 'Mother has views about getting married, Ollie. I dare say she'll want to tell you what they are. You mustn't think they're my views, though.'
'I'd rather hear yours, Ruth.'
She flashed a look at him that opened for him the heavenly deeps that lie before the young and the loving, and he had a sudden vision of their life as a long sunlit road, winding uphill, winding down, but sunlit always—because looks like that illumine any dusk.
'I'll tell you my views—some day,' Ruth said softly. 'But first—'
'First I must talk to my father, your mother, your father.' Oliver checked them off on his fingers. 'Three of them. Seems to me that's a lot of folks to consult about a thing that doesn't really concern anybody but you and me!'
After the fashion of self-absorbed youth, Oliver had never noticed Mrs. Lannithorne especially. She had been to him simply a sallow little figure in the background of Ruth's vivid young life; someone to be spoken to very politely, but otherwise of no particular moment.
If his marital negotiations did nothing else for him, they were at least opening his eyes to the significance of the personalities of older people.
The things Ruth said about her mother had prepared him to find that lady querulous and difficult, but essentially negligible. Face to face with Mrs. Lannithorne, he had a very different impression. She received him in the upstairs sitting-room to which her semi-invalid habits usually confined her. Wrapped in a white wool shawl and lying in a long Canton lounging-chair by a sunshiny window, she put out a chilly hand in greeting, and asked the young man to be seated.
Oliver, scanning her countenance, received an unexpected impression of dignity. She was thin and nervous, with big dark eyes peering out of a pale, narrow face; she might be a woman with a grievance, but he apprehended something beyond mere fretfulness in the discontent of her expression. There was suffering and thought in her face, and even when the former is exaggerated and the latter erroneous, these are impressive things.
'Mrs. Lannithorne, have you any objection to letting Ruth marry me?'
'Mr. Pickersgill, what are your qualifications for the care of a wife and family?'
Oliver hesitated. 'Why, about what anybody's are, I think,' he said, and was immediately conscious of the feebleness of this response. 'I mean,' he added, flushing to the roots of his blond hair, 'that my prospects in life are fair. I am in my father's office, you know. I am to have a small share in the business next year. I needn't tell you that the firm is a good one. If you want to know about my qualifications as a lawyer—why, I can refer you to people who can tell you if they think I am promising.'
'Do your family approve of this marriage?'
'I haven't talked to them about it yet.'
'Have you ever saved any money of your own earning, or have you any property in your own name?'
Oliver thought guiltily of his bank account, which had a surprising way of proving, when balanced, to be less than he expected.
'In other words, then, Mr. Pickersgill, you are a young and absolutely untried man; you are in your father's employ and practically at his mercy; you propose a great change in your life of which you do not know that he approves; you have no resources of your own, and you are not even sure of your earning capacity if your father's backing were withdrawn. In these circumstances you plan to double your expenses and assume the whole responsibility of another person's life, comfort, and happiness. Do you think that you have shown me that your qualifications are adequate?'
All this was more than a little disconcerting. Oliver was used to being accepted as old Pickersgill's only son—which meant a cheerfully accorded background of eminence, ability, and comfortable wealth. It had not occurred to him to detach himself from that background and see how he looked when separated from it. He felt a little angry, and also a little ashamed of the fact that he did not bulk larger as a personage, apart from his environment. Nevertheless, he answered her question honestly.
'No, Mrs. Lannithorne, I don't think that I have.'
She did not appear to rejoice in his discomfiture. She even seemed a little sorry for it, but she went on quietly:—
'Don't think I am trying to prove that you are the most ineligible young man in the city. But it is absolutely necessary that a man should stand on his own feet, and firmly, before he undertakes to look after other lives than his own. Otherwise there is nothing but misery for the woman and children who depend upon him. It is a serious business, getting married.'
'I begin to think it is,' muttered Oliver blankly.
'I don't want my daughters to marry,' said Mrs. Lannithorne. 'The life is a thousand times harder than that of the self-supporting woman—harder work, fewer rewards, less enjoyment, less security. That is true even of an ordinarily happy marriage. And if they are not happy—Oh, the bitterness of them!'
She was speaking rapidly now, with energy, almost with anguish. Oliver, red in the face, subdued, but eager to refute her out of the depths and heights of his inexperience, held himself rigidly still and listened.
'Did you ever hear that epigram of Disraeli—that all men should marry, but no women? That is what I believe! At least, if women must marry, let others do it, not my children, not my little girls!—It is curious, but that is how we always think of them. When they are grown they are often uncongenial. My daughter Ruth does not love me deeply, nor am I greatly drawn to her now, as an individual, a personality,—but Ruth was such a dear baby! I can't bear to have her suffer.'
Oliver started to protest, hesitated, bit his lip, and subsided. After all, did he dare say that his wife would never suffer? The woman opposite looked at him with hostile, accusing eyes, as if he incarnated in his youthful person all the futile masculinity in the world.
'Do you think a woman who has suffered willingly gives her children over to the same fate?' she demanded passionately. 'I wish I could make you see it for five minutes as I see it, you, young, careless, foolish! Why, you know nothing—nothing! Listen to me. The woman who marries gives up everything, or at least jeopardizes everything: her youth, her health, her life perhaps, certainly her individuality. She acquires the permanent possibility of self-sacrifice. She does it gladly, but she does not know what she is doing. In return, is it too much to ask that she be assured a roof over her head, food to her mouth, clothes to her body? How many men marry without being sure that they have even so much to offer? You yourself, of what are you sure? Is your arm strong? Is your heart loyal? Can you shelter her soul as well as her body? I know your father has money. Perhaps you can care for her creature needs, but that isn't all. For some women life is one long affront, one slow humiliation. How do I know you are not like that?'
'Because I'm not, that's all!' said Oliver Pickersgill abruptly, getting to his feet.
He felt badgered, baited, indignant, yet he could not tell this frail, excited woman what he thought. There were things one didn't say, although Mrs. Lannithorne seemed to ignore the fact. She went on ignoring it.
'I know what you are thinking,' she said, 'that I would regard these matters differently if I had married another man. That is not wholly true. It is because Peter Lannithorne was a good man at heart, and tried to play the man's part as well as he knew how, and because it was partly my own fault that he failed so miserably, that I have thought of it all so much. And the end of all my thinking is that I don't want my daughters to marry.'
Oliver was white now, and a little unsteady. He was also confused. There was the note of truth in what she said, but he felt that she said it with too much excitement, with too great facility. He had the justified masculine distrust of feminine fluency as hysterical. Nothing so presented could carry full conviction. And he felt physically bruised and battered, as if he had been beaten with actual rods instead of stinging words; but he was not yet defeated.
'Mrs. Lannithorne, what do you wish me to understand from all this. Do you forbid Ruth and me to marry—is that it?'
She looked at him dubiously. She felt so fiercely the things she had been saying that she could not feel them continuously. She, too, was exhausted.
Oliver Pickersgill had a fine head, candid eyes, a firm chin, strong capable hands. He was young, and the young know nothing, but it might be that there was the making of a man in him. If Ruth must marry, perhaps him as well as another. But she did not trust her own judgment, even of such hands, such eyes, and such a chin. Oh, if the girls would only believe her, if they would only be content to trust the wisdom she had distilled from the bitterness of life! But the young know nothing, and believe only the lying voices in their own hearts!
'I wish you would see Ruth's father,' she said suddenly. 'I am prejudiced. I ought not to have to deal with these questions. I tell you, I pray Heaven none of them may marry—ever; but, just the same, they will! Go ask Peter Lannithorne if he thinks his daughter Ruth has a fighting chance for happiness as your wife. Let him settle it. I have told you what I think. I am done.'
'I shall be very glad to talk with Ruth's father about the matter,' said Oliver with a certain emphasis on father. 'Perhaps he and I shall be able to understand each other better. Good-morning, Mrs. Lannithorne!'
Oliver Pickersgill Senior turned his swivel-chair about, bit hard on the end of his cigar, and stared at his only son.
'What's that?' he said abruptly. 'Say that again.'
Oliver Junior winced, not so much at the words as at his father's face.
'I want to marry Ruth Lannithorne,' he repeated steadily.
There was a silence. The elder Pickersgill looked at his son long and hard from under lowered brows. Oliver had never seen his father look at him like that before: as if he were a rank outsider, some detached person whose doings were to be scrutinized coldly and critically, and judged on their merits. It is a hard hour for a beloved child when he first sees that look in heretofore indulgent parental eyes. Young Oliver felt a weight at his heart, but he sat the straighter, and did not flinch before the appraising glance.
'So you want to marry Peter Lannithorne's daughter, do you? Well, now what is there in the idea of marrying a jail-bird's child that you find especially attractive?'
'Of course I might say that I've seen something of business men in this town, Ross, say, and Worcester, and Jim Stone, and that if it came to a choice between their methods and Lannithorne's, his were the squarer, for he settled up, and is paying the price besides. But I don't know that there's any use saying that. I don't want to marry any of their daughters—and you wouldn't want me to. You know what Ruth Lannithorne is as well as I do. If there's a girl in town that's finer-grained, or smarter, or prettier, I'd like to have you point her out! And she has a sense of honor like a man's. I don't know another girl like her in that. She knows what's fair,' said the young man.
Mr. Pickersgill's face relaxed a little. Oliver was making a good argument with no mushiness about it, and he had a long-settled habit of appreciating Ollie's arguments.
'She knows what's fair, does she? Then what does she say about marrying you?'
'She says she won't marry anybody who doesn't respect her father as she does!'
At this the parent grinned a little, grimly it is true, but appreciatively. He looked past Oliver's handsome, boyish head, out of the window, and was silent for a time. When he spoke, it was gravely, not angrily.
'Oliver, you're young. The things I'm as sure of as two and two, you don't yet believe at all. Probably you won't believe 'em if I put them to you, but it's up to me to do it. Understand, I'm not getting angry and doing the heavy father over this. I'm just telling you how some things are in this world,—facts, like gravitation and atmospheric pressure. Ruth Lannithorne is a good girl, I don't doubt. This world is chuck full of good girls. It makes some difference which one of 'em you marry, but not nearly so much difference as you think it does. What matters, from forty on, for the rest of your life, is the kind of inheritance you've given your children. You don't know it yet, but the thing that's laid on men and women to do is to give their children as good an inheritance as they can. Take it from me that this is Gospel truth, can't you? Your mother and I have done the best we can for you and your sisters. You come from good stock, and by that I mean honest blood. You've got to pass it on untainted. Now—hold on!' he held up a warning hand as Oliver was about to interrupt hotly. 'Wait till I'm through—and then think it over. I'm not saying that Peter Lannithorne's blood isn't as good as much that passes for untainted, or that Ruth isn't a fine girl. I'm only telling you this: when first you look into your son's face, every failing of your own will rise up to haunt you because you will wish for nothing on God's earth so much as that that boy shall have a fair show in life and be a better man than you. You will thank Heaven for every good thing you know of in your blood and in your wife's, and you will regret every meanness, every weakness, that he may inherit, more than you knew it was in you to regret anything. Do you suppose when that hour comes to you that you'll want to remember his grandfather was a convict? How will you face that down?'
Young Oliver's face was pale. He had never thought of things like this. He made no response for a while. At last he asked,—
'What kind of a man is Peter Lannithorne?'
'Eh? What kind of—? Oh, well, as men go, there have been worse ones. You know how he came to get sent up. He speculated, and he borrowed some of another man's money without asking, for twenty-four hours, to protect his speculation. He didn't lose it, either! There's a point where his case differs from most. He pulled the thing off and made enough to keep his family going in decent comfort, and he paid the other money back; but they concluded to make an example of him, so they sent him up. It was just, yes, and he said so himself. At the same time there are a great many more dishonest men out of prison than Peter Lannithorne, though he is in it. I meet 'em every day, and I ought to know. But that's not the point. As you said yourself, you don't want to marry their daughters. Heaven forbid that you should! You want to marry his daughter. And he was weak. He was tempted and fell—and got found out. He is a convict, and the taint sticks. The Lord knows why the stain of unsuccessful dishonesty should stick longer than the stain of successful dishonesty. I don't. But we know it does. That is the way things are. Why not marry where there is no taint?'
'Father, see here. He was weak and gave way—once! Are there any men in the world who haven't given way at least once about something or other?—are there, father?'
There was a note of anguish in the boy's voice. Perhaps he was being pushed too far. Oliver Pickersgill Senior cleared his throat, paused, and at last answered sombrely,—
'God knows, Ollie. I don't. I won't say there are.'
'See here!' his father interrupted sharply. 'Of course I see your argument. I won't meet it. I shan't try. It doesn't change my mind even if it is a good argument. We'll never get anywhere, arguing along those lines. I'll propose something else. Suppose you go ask Peter Lannithorne whether you shall marry his daughter or not. Yes, ask him. He knows what's what as well as the next man. Ask Peter Lannithorne what a man wants in the family of the woman he marries.'
There was a note of finality in the older man's voice. Ollie recognized it drearily. All roads led to Lannithorne, it seemed. He rose, oppressed with the sense that henceforward life was going to be full of unforeseen problems; that things which, from afar, looked simple, and easy, and happy, were going to prove quite otherwise. Mrs. Lannithorne had angered rather than frightened him, and he had held his own with her; but this was his very own father who was piling the load on his shoulders and filling his heart with terror of the future. What was it, after all, this adventure of the married life whereof these seasoned travelers spoke so dubiously? Could it really be that it was not the divine thing it seemed when he and Ruth looked into each other's eyes?
He crossed the floor dejectedly, with the step of an older man, but at the door he shook himself and looked back.
'Everybody is so terribly depressing about this thing, it almost scares me. Aren't there really any happy times for married people, ever? You and Mrs. Lannithorne make me feel there aren't; but somehow I have a hunch that Ruth and I know best! Own up now! Are you and mother miserable? You never looked it!'
His father surveyed him with an expression too wistful to be complacent. Ah, those broad young shoulders that must be fitted to the yoke! Yet for what other end was their strength given them? Each man must take his turn.
'It's not a soft snap. I don't know anything worth while that is. But there are compensations. You'll see what some of them are when your boys begin to grow up.'
Across Oliver's young joy fell the shadow of fear. If, as his heart told him, there was nothing to be afraid of, why were his elders thus cautious and terrified? He felt himself affected by their alarms all the more potently because his understanding of them was vague. He groped his way in fog. How much ought he to be influenced by Mrs. Lannithorne's passionate protests and his father's stern warnings? He realized all at once that the admonitory attitude of age to youth is rooted deep in immortal necessity. Like most lads, he had never thought of it before save as an unpleasant parental habit. But fear changes the point of view, and Oliver had begun to be afraid.
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