Concerning the Good Story


I HAVE always found it a rather tantalizing thing that nothing ever happens to me, just as it ought to happen, for the demands of anecdote; nothing is quite as amusing as it might be made by a slight addition or alteration, a trifling turn or twist; nothing is dramatically complete. The children that I pet and play with come near saying deliciously quotable things, but they never exactly say them ; though sometimes they come so very near that one can hardly resist the temptation of editing their remarks a little, and giving them to the world as authentic specimens of infantile brilliancy. Only last week I honestly believed that a little three year old nephew of mine had said something so amusing, so characteristically childlike, that it was worthy of print: and I forthwith sat down and wrote it off for a certain magazine; sealed, stamped, and mailed my letter. Then I mentioned to his mother what I had done, and found, of course, that I had simply misunderstood.

I thought this past summer that I should surely come into a fortune of racy stories. I have laughed so often at the experiences of a relative of mine off upon fishing excursions in remote mountain regions that this year I embraced an opportunity of going upon just such a trip, he being a member of the party. We took up our quarters in a fascinatingly unconventional hotel of virgin pine, adorned inside and out with a liberal sprinkling of brown knots ; and so arranged that, roughly speaking, everybody had to go through everybody else’s room, without regard to age, sex, or previous condition. The cuisine and table service had about them some eccentric features ; the company was interestingly typical, and yet contained some strikingly individual figures; and the humbler mountaineers, who gave “ human interest ” to the glorious landscape, — especially the men, dust-colored of clothes and skin and hair, who stared at one artlessly out of beautiful, childlike, turquoise eyes, — were perfectly satisfactory — spectacularly. But nothing in particular happened ; nobody summed himself up in any one characteristic act, and the natives obstinately refused to talk dialect, except in the most commonplace and unlocalized form. In a word, the spirit of the situation took no concrete shape in utterance or episode; and I came away without a single real windfall of incident.

The born story - teller, however, of whom I spoke brought back a wealth of good things, much funnier than reality, and at the same time more characteristic perhaps of the place than wholly unidealized fact. In his own mind I have no doubt the truth of fact and the truth of tendency and potentiality remain perfectly distinct. One, I fancy, may find in what he tells an indefinable note of caricature, of hyperbole, which forbids too literal credence. Yet, more and more convinced that fact is not malleable into anecdote without more or less alloy of fiction, I mean henceforth to eschew good stories, or borrow them, merely, ready-made, from my neighbors. My kinsman’s stories no doubt may be said to be true, as an impressionist landscape is true, even though the real cows are not purple, and the real trees are not pink. But I am in bondage to the actual. I have not the idealism which makes his course possible. The only way that I might obtain freedom from the shackles of reality would be by cultivating, or allowing myself to fall into, the not uncommon habit of mind which may be called Anecdotage ; a condition resembling hypnotism, in which the subjective triumphs over the objective ; and whatever is right (anecdotally) — is. “ Which from myself far be it ! ” as honest Joe Gargery says. And so, on the whole, I repeat, I abandon anecdote. I have labored painfully to reconcile hard fact and dramatic fitness, and in so doing have never wholly escaped twinges of conscience, nor artistic regret. I will struggle no longer with the uncompromising Constitution of Things, which distinctly abhors the Good Story.