Recent Volumes of Short Stories

AMERICAN current literature is well off in the department of short stories. In England the ablest periodical-writing is exhibited in the handling of more or less serious subjects, political, social, or literary. For lighter entertainment, for pictures of life and character or ingenuities of construction, English writers provide and English readers naturally turn to the novel. The literary possibilities of the short story are hence a little overlooked. The occasional ones put forth by well-known novelists are rather apt to read like condensations or sections of longer works. A larger mass of story literature there is, flimsy in quality, and

obviously designed merely for idle halfhours ; but of good average work ranging between these two classes there is singularly little. The reason for this may lie partly in the lack of demand, novels being made so easily accessible through the circulating libraries as to make the want of lighter magazine writing less felt ; but it must also be explained by the idiosyncrasies of the national genius. English fiction has never sought brevity or compression of form ; it is analytic and thorough, requiring ample room for the adjustment of its mise en scène. American fiction, on the other hand, has cast some of its best treasures in small moulds, from Hawthorne’s classic statuettes to Bret Harte’s dramatic and boldly hewn Western shapes and Mr. James’s exquisitely finished studies and jeux d' esprit. The space devoted annually in our magazines to short stories is a generous one, and the number of writers constantly or occasionally engaged in their production very considerable. Looking, moreover, not only at the large body of workers, but at the actual value of the work itself, we are inclined to think that there is greater literary capacity, keener observation, and a finer sense of form displayed in this than in any other branch of our periodical literature. With us the magazine story has been constrained to fill, in a measure, the part of the novel in holding the mirror up to nature. The mirror is a small one, but, according to Bayard Taylor, our society is too scattered and heterogeneous ever to be reflected as a whole; in which case we have cause to be grateful for the many partial but clear images which are given us ; for the bright little sketches of local life and character jotted down by writers who at least draw from nature, and who sometimes seem to lack only the strength or the technical knowledge for more sustained work. Few of us realize how largely we are indebted to novels for our knowledge of facts, and still less, perhaps, do we recognize how far our ideas in regard to unfamiliar portions of our own country are gleaned from mere occasional sketches and stories, or how complete a picture these would make if pieced together. Bret Harte has been followed westward by other pioneers, of whom two or three have caught something of his fire. Mrs. Stowe set in motion the ball of New England village tales, to which Mrs. Rose Terry Cooke and other bright character writers have given a new impetus. Among the many amateurs thrown into the arms of literature by the South’s misfortunes there have been a few, at least, able to turn the negro into literary capital, and delineate his idiosyncrasies and oddities in a fresh, graphic way. A certain diversity of literary form runs nearly parallel with this variety of scene, so that the writers we have cited may almost be said to have founded different schools. That of the West adopted, under its brilliant leader, a form at once highly artistic and admirably fitted to its class of subjects, while New England has generally had its stories told in a more analytic manner, often preferring to clothe them in the quiet garb of the essay.

Examples both of the Eastern and Western story are now lying before us in Mr. Scudder’s collection of essay-like romances1 and the slender volume of Adirondack tales put forth by Mr. Deming.2 Geographically, the Adirondacks are at no great distance from the Atlantic, but for literary purposes they are very far west indeed, and Mr. Deming’s style and method show him to be distinctly related to that group of writers who have their head-quarters beyond the Rocky Mountains. His subjects, chosen from a common, even rude life, are poetic and pitched in a low key, consisting mostly of some bit of elemental pathos simply and suggestively rendered. The most original and striking feature of Mr. Deming’s work is his adherence to pure narrative, and the strong, often dramatic effects gained by discarding entirely the dramatic form. We recall no other writer who has attempted to express so much in this way. The story is told almost without aid from the characters, who unburden themselves mainly through the medium of the author, in the oratio obliqua. Sometimes they are not allowed to speak at all. Lida Ann, the subject of a very true and tender sketch, does not utter a word while her sad little life history is unfolded. The reader is not called upon to be present at the scene, but merely to listen to a relation of what has taken place; yet such is the truth and vigor of Mr. Deming’s narrative that we are transported thither despite the prohibition, and only afterwards begin to wonder how characters whose speech we have not heard, whose actions are by no means elaborately dwelt upon, have been made so real and vivid to us. Mr. Deming possesses the art of turning at once to the most effective point of his story and setting it in a strong light. He writes in a repressed trenchant style, so weeded of redundancies that the few words which remain seem doubly charged with meaning. This power of suggestion and repression is among the most precious qualities in the construction of petits romans. By the few masters of the art it has been used with instructive, direct force. Mr. Deming shows here and there the effort of study. His workmanship strikes us as too finished for the breadth of his plan ; the words too carefully selected, the simplicity a trifle conscious. Adjective hunting is a diversion of the eabinet; in large out-door subjects, however successfully pursued, it is too apt to imperil the freedom and sincerity of the work.

It is not often that a book made up of fragmentary publications exhibits such unity as we find in these Adirondack stories. Not only is the scene the same throughout, but a certain steadfastness of literary purpose is everywhere apparent. There is no unevenness, or shifting of styles; the aim raised in the beginning is pursued to the end. It is a book which distinctly gains in value by being read as a whole. It is only in that way that its full significance as a picture of an out-of-the-way life can be measured. Each sketch is the story of a single character or incident; the whole book is the history of a community. The entire action takes place within “ the neighborhood,” a term including, appar-

ently, about twenty miles of Adirondack forest, and the individual most carefully studied is the public sentiment of this district. Every event is viewed not alone by itself, but in reference to how the world, that is the knot of men at a country store, regard it; and Mr. Deming has learned the inconsisteneies, the harsh cruelty and warm, capricious kindliness, of this omnipotent jury, as he has noted the shifting aspects of the Adirondack scenery, which forms a variant frame-work for his dramas. His landscape is caught by a few instantaneous strokes, and is set before us full of moisture, atmosphere, and movement.

Mr. Scudder unfolds his treasure in a more leisurely and discursive manner. His romances have a pleasantly individual flavor, ruminant and dryly humorous ; they are written from a sort of informal mental attitude, corresponding in a way to the external one of carrying one’s hands comfortably incased in dressing-gown pockets. Mr. Scudder’s imagination is delicate rather than powerful ; it is full of quaint fancies, but has no impetuosity or glow. His style, while perfectly clear, is nearly colorless, and save for a grotesque image which occasionally juts out into the page is as smooth as glass. In choice of subjects Mr. Scudder is somewhat of an antiquarian, dropping the character, however, before it is carried to its logical sequence, — a bore. His favorite ground is among surviving morsels of old Salem and Cambridge architecture and odd, antiquated personages. There is one type in especial which appears to exercise a strong fascination over his pen. He recurs to it again and again, as if unable to resist its attraction ; viewing it on all sides and under different lights, and devoting to its elucidation his most careful analysis. It is a Hawthornish type, — bloodless and silent and shy; clinging to sables as its natural raiment; with sympathies latent, or balked by an inherent incapacity for human intercourse, —a mind with few inlets and no outlet. The type has not died out in. New England, nor is it rare here ; rather, it is difficult of approach. This aloofness and silence render it more susceptible of romantic than realistic treatment, and may possibly have suggested to Mr. Scudder the idea of a living phantom which he has used in his first story, — to our mind the most happily conceived of the collection. Left Over from the Last Century is the story of a youth who devotes his entire existence to spelling out the nearly obliterated traces of his greatgrandfather, flinging himself into the work with such abandon as half consciously to reproduce in his own person, amid nineteenth-century surroundings, the traits and thought of his ancestor in the eighteenth. The parallel is of course made to extend throughout his career. Antipas Wiggles worth (the name is part of the burden laid on him by descent), confronted by a similar situation, is forced, in spite of himself, to repeat the mistake made by his prototype in the old love story which he already knows through letters, and of which the heroine was the great-grandmother of the girl he loves. To espouse a gentleman mentally a century old would be such a triste fate for a young girl that we cannot regret that Miss Molly Wyeth escapes it. It would be like marrying the demon lover of the old ballads. The ghostly motif of Wigglesworth’s character is so well carried out that we can almost see a blue light following the angularities of his figure, and the blue cloak in which he is wrapped becomes a cloud of blue “ illusion ” such as envelops the stage ghost. Mr. Scudder has brought out the grotesqueness of this situation without entering too far into its dark or pathetic aspect, and the story, which is narrated by one of its characters, a humorous husband and father such as Mr. Black affects, is as pleasant to read as it is ingenious.

Antipas Wigglesworth enters the Shaker community, which is the nearest Yankee equivalent for becoming a Trappist monk, and dies among the brethren. We cannot help fancying that he comes to life again in the hero of the following story, another strange being with Shaker affinities ; and we detect something of his nervous fibre, later in the book, hardened into the substance of a Salem Scrooge. Each of these studies is good in its way. Accidentally Overheard, a more pretentious effort at ingenuity, demonstrates clearly enough that Mr. Aldrich’s patent on the surprise story is in no danger from Mr. Scudder’s work in this genre. It is mechanical without being really ingenious, and lacks the humor of his romances. A couple of sermons in stories are also of inferior execution, and both in title and contents unpleasantly suggestive of the ubiquitous tract. Mr. Scudder redeems himself, however, at the close of the book, in an amusing representation of the trial of a man who wrote one of the No Name novels.

The feat performed by Mr. Scudder’s hero in going back a century is one but rarely accomplished in actual life, the unwritten law which ties minds down to their own time being only less absolute than that which holds bodies to the sphere. The visitation of Centennial stories which we underwent four or five years ago left an impression of ennui and desolation which lingers even yet. Among all the squires and dames of “ye olden time ” with whom we were constrained to feast in those weary days of tea-drinking, how many were aught but powdered barber’s blocks? Magnificently accurate in apparel they were, but the eyes refused to sparkle and the wit was congealed. We find a few remains of those banquets before us today in a story of the Boston siege by Mr. Scudder, and a pretty eighteenthcentury miniature among Miss Perry’s dressy portraits. Dr. Mitchell also beckons us backward, into that superstately, gracious, and exclusive antiquity, — old Philadelphia. Members of the society of Friends in that city are said to have taken grievous exception to the manner in which they — or their predecessors, rather — are represented in Hephzibah Guinness and Thee and You.3 We do not feel competent, despite Centennial training, to enter into the historical merits of the case, but it is evidently not according to receipts furnished by the society that Dr. Mitchell has succeeded in extracting so much grace and color out of such gray material. Hephzibah Guinness is in length and plan a novelette rather than a short story. The grouping of characters is singularly French; hence of course effective. The heroine of thirty and the ingénue act as foils to each other, their beauty, of different types, being relieved against the rigid drab figure of Hephzibah. Three men, an airy French abbé, a stately Quaker of the old school, and a jeune premier, complete the cast of the comedy. The characters are all well drawn: notably those of Hephzibah, a strict, selfsufficing sectarian, who, even when disturbed by remorse for an unworthy act, serenely declares herself to be always right; and her opposite, Elizabeth Howard, the laughing, dégagée woman of the world.

Miss Perry has won an enviable popularity as the poetess of girlhood in its hours of crimping-pins and confidence. Her dainty prose volume 4 has also a good deal to say of these mysteries. Its pages are musical with the frou-frou of pretty gowns and the various ripples, ringings, and cadences of girlish laugh-

ter. The girls of this rosebud garden are all bright, pretty, and withal natural enough; a trifle light-headed, perhaps, but, as novels say, “ not the least little bit fast,” and with large hearts packed away in their slim forms. They are all distinctly and plainly girls. The men, on the other hand, are not men at all, though they do plunge their hands in their pockets and vent a little hard slang now and then, to give force to their boneless conversation. It seems to us that both sexes have reason to complain of this one-sided arrangement. To have Romeo depicted without muscle can be agreeable to neither. In other respects, also, the author presumes a little too much upon the naïveté of her readers. She has the faculty of constructing a story and telling it in a vivacious way, yet she will put us off with worn and flimsy expedients, such as accidental resemblances, coincidences in dreaming, and other make-shifts, which even the eyes of sixteen are sufficiently trained to see through, nowadays. The tragedy which gives its ponderous title to an airy book can hardly be unexpected to the reader, if experience in novelreading have at all sharpened his guessing faculties. We believe we are following the authorities of the cuisine in asserting that the harder the exercise of hand and wrist the lighter the soufflée. The delicacy of Miss Perry’s pen would not have been impaired by a closer attention to points such as we have mentioned, nor would a less slippery grammar than she has chosen to employ have fettered her vivacity. But poets are allowed a long tether in matters grammatical.

  1. Stories and Romances. By H. E. Scudder. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1880.
  2. Adirondack Stories. By P. DEMING. Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co. 1880.
  3. Hephzibah Guinness; Thee and You; and A Draft on the Bank of Spain. By S. WEIR MITCHELL, M. D. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1880.
  4. The Tragedy of the Unexpected, and Other Stories. By NORA PERKY. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1880.