Stockton's Stories

MR. STOCKTON’S readers have a right to look a little askance at the title and general air of the two volumes, recently published, bearing his name.1 Is it intimated that this story-teller, having developed into a novelist, finds it a convenient time to bring together in a complete form all his short stories, and thus to take leave of the company ? It is quite true that the short story is for most writers a desirable trial flight before they essay the bolder excursion of the novel, and that many short stories are only imperfectly developed novels. It is also true that a prudent intellectual workman may well consider if he be studying a proper economy of his resources, when he uses a dozen different motifs in as many stories, instead of making one serve for a single story in a dozen chapters. But, after all, the short story par excellence has its own virtue, and is not itself an expanded anecdote any more than it is an arrested novel; and where a writer like Mr. Stockton has shown that his genius has its capital exhibition in the short story, his readers justly take alarm when he makes sign of abandoning it for a form of literature which, though possessed of more circumstance and traditional dignity, is not intrinsically more honorable. Or, rather, if we are comparing two cognate forms, it is correcter to say that while larger powers may go into one than into the other, a unique excellence in the minor form justifies a claim to be a genuine artist, and comparisons in that respect are futile; the sphericity of a bubble does not quarrel with the sphericity of a dewdrop.

Mr. Stockton, more, perhaps, than any recent writer, has helped to define the peculiar virtues of the short story. He has shown how possible it is to use surprise as an effective element, and to make the turn of a story rather than the crisis of a plot account for everything. In a well-constructed novel characters move forward to determination, and, whatever intricacy of movement there may be, it is the conclusion which justifies the elaboration. We are constantly criticising, either openly or unconsciously, a theory of novel-writing which makes any section of human life to constitute a proper field for a finished work ; however many sequels may be linked on, we instinctively demand that a novel shall contain within itself a definite conclusion of the matter presented to view. But we do not exact this in a short story , we concede that space for development of character is wanting ; we accept characters made to hand, and ask only that the occasion of the story shall be adequate. Take, for example, one of Mr. Stockton’s cleverest stories, The Remarkable Wreck of the Thomas Hyke. The actual release of the imprisoned passengers is not the point toward which the story moves, and the righting of that singular vessel is only one of a number of happy turns, all starting from the one original conception of a vessel with water-tight compartments, sinking bows foremost, and held in perpendicular suspense. On the other hand, the story of The Christmas Wreck disappoints one, for the reason that the occasion of the story is inadequate, and has neither the wit of an amusing situation nor the surprise of an unexpected one. It may be said in general that Mr. Stockton does not often rely upon a sudden reversal at the end of a story, to capture the reader, although he has done this very happily in Our Story, but gives him a whimsy or caprice to enjoy, while he works out the details in a succession of amusing turns. Thus the story of Mr. Tolman, which comes nearer than his other stories to being an undeveloped novel, rests upon the delightful fiction of a man, tired of commonplace success, creating for himself an entirely new situation in life, and watching therein a bright little love-comedy.

Indeed, this figure of Mr. Tolman might almost be taken as an idol of the author himself. Like that respectable man of business, Mr. Stockton turns his back on the world in which he finds himself going a dull round, and takes a journey to another country, where he finds the same world, indeed, but stands personally in no sort of relation to it. He is relieved of all responsibility, and sets about enjoying the lives of the men and women whom he observes. There is thus in his stories a delicious mockery of current realistic fiction. He has an immense advantage over his brother realists. They are obliged to conform themselves to the reality which other people think they sec, and they are constantly in danger of making some fatal blunder; making the sun, we will say, strike a looking-glass hung upon a wall in a house so topographically indicated as to be easily identified by the neighbors, who concur in testifying that the sun by no possibility could touch the glass, day or night. Mr. Stockton, we repeat, has an immense advantage over other realists. His people are just as much alive as theirs, and they are all just as commonplace ; they talk just as slouchy English, and they are equally free from any romantic nonsense; but they are living in a world of Mr. Stockton’s invention, which is provided with a few slight improvements, and they avail themselves of these with an unconcern which must fill with anguish those realistic novelists who permit their characters to break all the ten commandments in turn, but use their most strenuous endeavors to keep them from breaking the one imperious commandment, Thou shalt not transgress the law of average experience. Mr. Stockton’s characters, on their part, never trouble themselves about the ten commandments, — morality is a sort of matter of course with them, — but they break the realist’s great commandment in the most innocent and unconscious manner. There is not the first sign of conscious departure from rectitude in the character who, by his ingenious invention, demonstrates the law of negative gravity, and the husband and wife who bury deep in the water the key which turns the lock upon the fatal manuscript, in the story of His Wife’s Deceased Sister, are as natural and healthy in action as their friend Barbel with his superpointed pins.

To return for a moment to that quality in a short story which Mr. Stockton has so admirably illustrated, of immediate wit independent of definite conclusion, a capital example exists of combined success and failure in his recent fantasy of The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine.2 The first part of that story is inimitable, and if it had been left unfinished it would, if we may be pardoned the bull, have been complete. We suspect that the people who have worn away their nights guessing the riddle of The Lady or the Tiger ? would have wasted their days in trying to account for the barred entrance to the enchanted island in the Pacific. As it turns out, Mr. Stockton himself had no intention of accounting for the island. He invented it, — he would have invented a continent if his story had required it, — and he leaves it and the Dusantes equally unexplained ; but he seems to have felt a certain compulsion to develop his characters, and to carry forward the energetic lives of those two illustrious women who are henceforth immortal. To be sure, we can forgive the platitude of the two succeeding parts of the story for the sake of a longer companionship of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, and the incident of the ginger jar was worth embalming, yet in our stern capacity of literary judges we are compelled to repeat the well - known decision : Not guilty, but don’t do so again.

We may observe here that Mr. Stockton falls easily into the autobiographic form, and that his peculiar gift gains by this device. In actual life we listen to a man who can tell a wonderful story of his own experience, and our incredulity vanishes before the spectacle of his honest, transparent face and the sound of his tranquil, unaffected voice. Thus Mr. Stockton, in his ingenious assumptions, brings to bear upon the reader the weight of a peculiarly innocent, ingenuous nature, for the figures that relate the several stories carry conviction by the very frankness of their narratives. They come forward with so guileless a bearing that the reader would be ashamed of himself if he began by doubting, and the entire absence of extravagance in the manner of the story continues to keep his doubts out of the way.

This low key in which Mr. Stockton pitches his stories, this eminently reasonable and simple tone which he adopts, is the secret of much of his success. One discovers this especially by reading A Piece of Red Calico, and then fancying how Mark Twain would have treated the same subject. Both writers take on an air of sincerity, but one retains it throughout, and never seems to be assuming it; the other allows his drollery to sharp, and before he is done his voice is at a very high pitch indeed.

As we had occasion to point out when considering The Late Mrs. Null, Mr. Stockton finds a congenial field in the delineation of negro character. We are sometimes tempted to think that his finest success lies in such inimitable sketches as The Cloverfields Carriage and An Unhistoric Page. When he enters the world of negro life, he finds already existing just that independent logic of fact and irresponsibility which he enjoys creating, He has only to help himself to what he sees, and it would be a hard question to answer whether he made up An Unhistoric Page or overheard it.

We began with the expression of a fear lest these two volumes were an informal announcement that their author had abandoned short stories for novels. A re-reading of the books and an inquiry into the secret of Mr. Stockton’s wellwon and honorable success reassure us. Whatever ventures he may make in the field of novel-writing, and however liberal may be his interpretation of the function of the novel, we cannot believe that he can escape the demands of his genius. The short story, either by itself or as an episode in a novel, so completely expresses his peculiar power, it makes such satisfactory use of his intellectual caprice, and it avoids so easily the perils which beset one who builds a novel upon a whim that, for his own pleasure, we are sure that Mr. Stockton will go on entertaining the public in a style where he is his only rival.

  1. Stockton’s Stories. First Series: The Lady, or the Tiger ? and Other Stories; The Christmas Wreck, and Other Stories. By FRANK R. STOCKTON. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1886.
  2. The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine. By FRANK R. STOCKTON. New York: The Century Company. 1886.