THE standing of short stories in the literary market is peculiar. Editors of periodicals clamor for more; publishers of books shrink from accepting any. Editors know that readers enjoy them; publishers proclaim that buyers of books do not. Are they both right ? Is the public indeed so inconsistent as to like a thing, delectable in itself, only when served in a particular way ?
I do not think so, for the truth is that collections of good short stories may have a satisfactory commercial success. Indeed, the whole apparent disagreement between the editor and the publisher is no more than this: the editor can sell poor short stories, and the publisher cannot. Thus, the editor can take B’s thin little tale, clap to it three or four others as varied as possible, flank it with interesting articles, trick it out with illustrations, — make it in short, a part of that agreeable lottery, the popular magazine, — and dispose of it to the public. But when B takes a dozen or so of his harmless fictions to the publisher and gets them (if he can) printed as a book, what happens ? Between the covers, as between two mirrors, his insignificant personality repeats itself in a monotonous and diminishing perspective. His nullity is only too many times exhibited, and the disconcerting truth appears that the magazines in which he figured were bought not because of him, but in spite of him. I spoke of the magazine as a lottery: well, B is one of the blanks. Of course his book will have no sale.
B, and perhaps his publisher, may conclude from this that short stories will not sell in book form; but the inference is rash. For, as a matter of fact, they will and do. Poe, who never wrote a novel, unless the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym may be called one, is, I believe, still read. Kipling, who has failed as a novelist, nevertheless has a certain vogue as a writer of short stories. Miss Wilkins was enjoyed, even in the days of A Humble Romance. Miss Jewett has a modest popularity not based upon her novels. The name of any one of these writers on the cover of a magazine would sell copies. They are not blanks in the lottery. And when their work is collected, it still is saleable. For people like a good story, even when short. Has it not paid to dig Wandering Willie’s Tale out of the novel where it lies hidden, and print it separately ?
But there is another grade of storyteller, not so good as these, but better than the unfortunate B. It is his case which the publisher has in mind when he speaks slightingly of the market for short stories. For he recognizes that, whereas the novel in book form, even when mediocre, has a certain advantage over the novel running as a serial, the volume of short stories must be of superior merit to compete with the stories in the magazines. He knows, too, that whereas a novel may be clumsily constructed and still be popular, and even valuable, the short story cannot live through “popular quality ” alone, but absolutely requires the artist. Often enough he will find it wise to decline a volume of short stories really superior in literary merit to the novel he might accept.
Two pleasing implications which lie in all this are precisely the reason for the foregoing exposition. The first is that the short stories which get into book form have survived an exceptional scrutiny, and are consequently more likely to be of exceptional merit; the second is that their popular success (if they win it) means, as the vogue of a novel does not, that they have solid artistic merit. Clearly, then, the writer whose short stories are widely read is worthy of critical attention. Such a writer is Miss Alice Brown.
Personally I have for the New England dialect tale a partiality which, I think, must be shared by all Yankees whose childhood was spent in the country. There lies my danger. The pleasure which I take really in my own memories I may wrongly attribute to the author who evokes them. For this reason I have a better chance to see a writer, simply a s a writer, clear and whole, when I can turn to specimens of his work less likely to awaken unliterary, if pleasurable, associations. I find Miss Brown divested of this dangerous charm in her latest collection of short stories, High Noon.
The book proves her to be an artist. The term is not absolute (if it were, would we so often qualify it with “ true ” or “accomplished ” ?), and I do not raise the question of degree. I wish to say merely that the stories reveal a person who is guided by definite artistic ideals, and that consequently there is behind the storyteller a critic. Our first business shall be to disengage the critic. Doing so will help us to understand the story-teller.
For this task, the title, High Noon, is helpful. With the legend — “ one instant only is the sun at noon” — which accompanies and explains it, it is not only a comment upon life, but a justification of the short story. For each tale aims to do wha t the short story is fitted to do supremely well, — to show the single moment in a human life for which everything that went before was a preparation and of which everything that comes after is a consequence. If a writer were to choose only such moments as subjects, he would never have one not easily confined within the limits of his chosen form, and he would never write a tale not full of interest and significance. To make such a choice is practically to comply with Poe’s dictum that the short story should aim to convey a single predetermined effect. For singleness of purpose is the one absolute requisite for successful use of the form; it is the one thing which must be demanded of the short story, the only thing without which excellence is impossible. So, in choosing single crucial moments in human lives, Miss Brown shows an orthodox appreciation of the artistic possibilities (and limitations) of the form. So far she is a sound critic.
She is sound, also, when she declares that the short story should be “perfect of form, sonnet-like in finish,” — that is, if her somewhat vague phrase means, as I think it does, “ sonnet-like in definiteness of form, and perfect in finish,” and if, further, I may venture to interpret “perfect in finish”as relating to style, and including mastery of the single word and distinction of imaginative phrase. That such may be her ideal of style is, at any rate, shown by other remarks which are to be culled from the book. As to the word: “Ambrosial,” says one of her characters, “is such a good word, majestic, large, a word dressed in purple!” Here is evidence of that sheer delight in sonorous vocables —O Mesopotamia! — which is the sure sign of the artistic literary temper. As to the phrase: Another character, after saying that “every look ” (of people whom she might meet) “ would glass my shame,”adds, “Is n’t that a good phrase ? Do you know enough about phrases, you child, to see how good that was ? ” The child’s opinion is not given, — tactfully, if it coincides with mine; but the quotation clearly shows the author’s feeling: she would always have her phrases beautiful. If anything more were required to indicate this devotion to word and phrase, there is the only work of literary appreciation which, so far as I know, Miss Brown has ever done — a thin volume written in collaboration with Miss Guiney (herself a devotee of the phrase), on Stevenson, the praise of whom is perfervid.
The story-teller practices, on the whole with much success, what the critic preaches. Miss Brown’s sense of form is keen and true. She attains her effect with excellent economy and adroitness. Clumsiness of construction, extravagance of material, vagueness of point, are sins of which she is rarely guilty. If her sense of propriety in style were as unerring, there would be little of which, from an artistic point of view, there could be just complaint. Here the trouble is that she frequently misses her own ideal.
I believe that among masters of style — different though they may be as Swift from Sir Thomas Browne — there are no bad models; but I am sure that when an author whom nature intended for the school of Swift stubbornly attends the school of Browne, disaster is sure to follow. Such has been the evil of the spell of Stevenson: he has led men out of their natural paths to follow him. Now if, with all his native gifts and all his “sedulous aping” of the masters, he produced not a real, but a stage pageantry of words, what can lesser men be expected to do ? They will write not the beautiful word, but the freakish one; not the illuminating phrase, but the strained conceit; and every sentence will, in Miss Brown’s words, “glass their shame.”
Miss Brown seems to me to have committed such a blunder in the choice of her ideal as I have indicated. She seeks with grim determination the word which is a color, the phrase which is a jewel. But tenacity of purpose (though grim) is not adequate to this especial achievement. One sighs when he reads of “moon-fed” nights, or of words which “index” cruel certainty; one is irritated when he finds that “this was no new pageantry of a mobile brain” means only that a woman is sincere; one regrets the inadequate rewards sometimes falling to strenuous effort when he hears a wife anxious to coax a reluctant husband into society described as “striving to train his natal (sic) honesties for social courts,” or hears a woman answer a lover pleading for frankness, that each must live “in little citadels of rose-colored reserve.” Miss Brown has herself doubtless laughed at the elegant poet who, to avoid the commonplace “gun,” spoke of the “deadly tube;” but are her phrases better? She has a sense of humor, rippling and abundant enough at times; but it is like those disappearing streams which force the traveler across weary stretches of arid sand before they gush again, full and fresh and sweet as ever. Surely it has vanished when she writes such passages as this: —
“Love! He saw in it the roseate apotheosis of youth, announced by chiming bells, crowned with unfading flowers, the minister to bliss. He followed it through stony paths marked by other bloodstained tracks up to the barren peaks of pain. Was it the same creature, after all, rose-lipped or passion-pale, starving with loss or drunken with new wine ? Was it the love of one soul accompanying him through all, or was this his response to the individual need, and only a part of the general faithfulness to what demands our faith ? ”
This looks like Rossetti strained through Wilde and served as prose by some one who does not know what it is; but whatever it may be, it was clearly intended to be lyrical; and quite as clearly it fails. It is of this failure that I complain, and not of the attempt to be poetical; for a writer may adopt whatever style he prefers, if only he can use it so as to charm the reader. But the obligation to please points to this, — that an author should not strive willfully for effects beyond his reach, but, squaring his ambition with his gifts, shoidd write in the style which they best adapt him to employ with ease and grace. As Miss Brown can, and generally does, write simple, flexible English, wearing its modest adornment of apt figure and vivid word, such paragraphs exasperate like finding paper chrysanthemums where one is seeking real violets.
This false lyricism springs partly, as I said, from unwise emulation of admired authors, and partly, as I think, from the somewhat hysterical way in which she feels her favorite subject. This is the woman whom love has in any way disappointed. Miss Brown is notably preoccupied with the jilted. Of the thirtysix short stories in her three collections, ten deal directly, a still larger number indirectly, with some variety of American Dido. But she has sympathy also for the woman whose sorrows, if not so obvious, are quite as real. I mean the femme incomprise. The term denotes to her mind the entire sex. In High Noom, she says implicitly, if not explicitly, that the masculine ideal, the reasonable woman, does not exist. The most humdrum, even the most happily married, have unsatisfied needs, subtle jealousies. All have standards of husband-like or loverly conduct which, hopeless of comprehension, they never make known, but by which it is the law of their nature to judge. It is the tragedy of their lives, their common lot, that men never understand, never divine.
Miss Brown is not content merely to state the problem; she solves it. She has a gospel of love, which she preaches continuously. This consolation, this remedy, is her personal message to her sex, the great message of her books. It is summed up in a speech which I will quote. Rosamund, a love-lorn girl, is talking to a woman “betrayed and lost to herself and to the world, — a poor, besmirched creature like Rossetti’s Jenny” (she is as like her as Hester Prynne!), who wishes a “comforting thought.” “Love,” says Innocence, “is greater than any circumstance or any expression. And love is not taking: it is giving. If he has betrayed you, pray night and day for him that he may learn what love really is. We must give and give. Oh, what difference does it make whether we have or whether we are denied ?” Loving, that is, like virtue, should be its own reward.
Let me amplify a little. Love is independent of the will. Once it descends upon a woman, it holds her for life, —it is her whole existence. Upon man, however, its power is fitful,— it is a thing apart. The woman may have an unfaithful lover; she certainly will have an imperfect one; and she should expect no better. Her reward lies in loving; she is lucky to have so strong and interesting an emotion. If her lover is imperfect, she must pity him for the defect of nature which makes him so; if she finds that he loves not her but another, she must rejoice that the great boon has come to him, even at her cost.
Though I am masculine and unsympathetic, this statement is, I hope, fair. That it is so I cannot, in an article on the short stories, cite the novels to prove; but ponder “ Nancy Boyd’s Last Sermon ” (it is Miss Brown’s, but not, I trust, her last), or the logic of “Natalie lilayne.” This doctrine of total surrender to the man is for our days curiously Eastern and reactionary; but as discussion of its value is outside the plan of my article, I have only to add that her earnestness about it leads to vexatious monotony of subject, to incorrect. character-drawing, and to emotional excrescences which need the knife. This is inevitable. It always occurs to a writer who seeks to impose a moral upon life rather than to extract the moral within it.
Reviewing a volume of short stories is comparable to the circus feat of riding twelve horses at once. To simplify my task, then, let me analyze one typical story, by way of giving concrete illustration to these general remarks. Almost any one of the dozen tales in High Noon might be chosen for this representative purpose. “Rosamund in Heaven,” in which appears the disgraced bluestocking ineptly likened to Rossetti’s Jenny, —
“Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea,” might be taken as presenting the state of mind proper to women whose love is unrequited, as showing Miss Brown’s idea of how to be happy though unmarried. But Rosamund’s consolatory remarks have already been quoted, and the story is otherwise uninteresting. “ A Book of Love ” would serve for the same reason; or, for that and its clever situation, “A Meeting in the Market Place.” In this tale a fatal but not disabling malady permits a woman to step from her “little citadel of rose-colored reserve,” and talk frankly (for once!) with a man who had forsworn her society for fear she was falling in love with him (a variety of masculine chivalry which, I notice, always rouses the wrath of ladies); but Miss Brown uses the piquant occasion merely to give as dialogue what she has often enough given as comment, and misses its dramatic values. Again for the same reason, the choice might fall on “The Map of the Country ” (it is the pays du tendre), but all of these stories are inferior to three others, which also treat the favorite theme. These are “Natalie Blayne,” “A Runaway Match,” and “The Miracle.” This last is tempting. Although the heroine has the annoying habit of speaking of her baby as a “man-child,” and although a sense of humor (obviously absent in the lady) would have saved the situation,— if I may be permitted a bull, —before it arose, the story seems to me (I hope not because the woman is in the wrong; she it was who tried to train her husband’s “natal honesties for social courts”) a strong piece of work, the emotion of which has its warrant in life. The moral, however, seems to be (it is pretty elusive) that if you marry a bear you must live in his den, and fails to illustrate her principal message. Nor is “A Runaway Match,”— a stolen frolic of a pair, once boy and girl lovers, one of whom is and the other is about to be married, — although charming, sufficiently representative. Thus we reach “Natalie Blayne,” which is thoroughly characteristic, and to which, moreover, could I escape incredulity as to the mental state of the heroine, I should accord nearly whole-souled liking.
Old Madam Gilbert is ill of a mysterious disease. The puzzled doctor admits that she is “slipping down hill.” She “lay high upon the pillow’s in the great south room, where the sun slept placidly on the chintz-covered chairs and old-fashioned settings. Her delicate profile looked sharp, and the long black lashes softened her eyes pathetically. Her gray hair went curling in a disordered mass up from the top of her head like a crown. She was a wonderful old creature, with a beauty full of meaning, transcending that of bloom and color.” One hand was lying “in ringed distinction” outside the sheet.
Like the doctor, the distressed husband, old Ralph Gilbert, lacks intuition, and is helpless. Evidently the case requires a woman. Diana is summoned.
“Diana, entering the room, dwarfed them both by her size, her deep-chested, long-limbed majesty, her goddess-walk. She was a redundant creature in all that pertains to the comforts of life. She looked wifehood and motherhood in one. Her shoulder was a happy place for a cheek. Her brown eyes were full of fun and sorrow. Her crisping hair was good for baby hands to pull. She went swiftly up to Madam Gilbert, and touching her very gently, seemed to take her into her heart and arms.
“‘You lamb,’said she.”
These two descriptions show Miss Brown nearly at her best and almost at her worst. That of Madam Gilbert, except in the phrase “ringed distinction,” is simple and unaffected. But that of Diana! When I first read the story I carried the impression through several pages that Diana was a colored person. She is not: she is Madam Gilbert’s niece.
Moreover, she has humor, commonsense, resourcefulness, and the master quality, — intuition. To her Madam Gilbert confides the secret of her illness, — it is Natalie Blayne. That name — the tripping first syllables, the dignified close — is an example of Miss Brown’s artistic adroitness. Nothing could better suggest the romantic charm which the reader must be made to feel in this “other woman.” It is itself nearly the whole story.
When Madam Gilbert was first engaged to Ralph, she unluckily spoke of Natalie Blayne.
‘“Natalie Blayne!’ said your uncle; ‘ Natalie Blayne! ’ Madam Gilbert sat up in bed, and her voice rang out dramatically. Diana saw that she was forgotten, and that the other woman was acting out a scene which had played itself in her memory many a time. ‘Do you know her ? ’ said I. His eyes grew very bright. His face changed, my dear. ‘Natalie Blayne,’said he, ‘I saw her for an hour, a year and a half ago. She came into Judge Blayne’s office, and he sent me out with her to find columbines in the meadow. I liked her better at first sight than any woman I ever saw!’”
This was indiscreet of Mr. Gilbert, for his betrothed had a theory about “true mates.” This theory needs to be brought into relief, for it is not peculiar to Madam Gilbert, but is part of Miss Brown’s philosophy of love, and explains the extent of that “giving” which she says is imperative. As one has only to read this story to see, it means “give the other woman;” true mates must not be kept apart, — no matter what the cost to the conventionalities, or to other human hearts. The teaching reminds one oddly of Goethe’s Elective Affinities. Madam Gilbert acted in strict accord with this doctrine. Inferring from Ralph’s too warm expressions that not she, but Natalie Blayne, was his true mate, she proposed to break the engagement.
Hearing the next day, however, that Natalie had married, she decided that she would try to make up to Ralph the loss of his true mate. But marriage brought her no ease. Between her and her husband stood Natalie Blayne. She knew that when Ralph should meet Natalie in the next world, he’d say, “Why, here you are, my mate!”
Even worse was in store! Natalie becoming a widow, the conscientious wife faced the knowledge that she was in the way, not only in the next world, but in this. The prompt remarriage of her rival seemed, however, to leave her free to claim Ralph, at least for tins life. But no! Madam Gilbert, after forty years of wedded happiness, has heard that this troublesome creature, once more a widow, has returned to the village. Her presence makes the old lady ill. She has n’t, as she says, the spirit to meet the situation now. “I hardly had it years ago; but now I’m an old woman. I realize it, my hair is white. See how big the veins are in my hands.”
If it occurs to her that her husband, older than she, is no Romeo, or that Natalie is now no Juliet, she deems it of no consequence. True mates must wed, and she must abdicate. Ralph, whether he knows it or not,must still love Natalie; Natalie’s two marriages are simply her effort to find the true mate whom accident has prevented her securing in Ralph. Like the girl in Goldsmith’s lyric, the superfluous Madam Gilbert decides that her only art is to die.
Up to this point, — and indeed to the end, — the somewhat complicated plot is presented with a clearness and neatness which do honor to the author’s technique; but to my masculine apprehension the situation as finally presented seems grotesque. Miss Brown, however, although she sees its humor, and indeed freely presents the humorous view, is convinced not merely that her heroine’s monomania is possible, but that it is probable, and finds nothing unsympathetic about it. She clearly intends the story to be like Diana’s brown eyes, — “full of fun and sorrow.”
To me thus far there is not much of either; but in this respect, as in others, the tale now undergoes a marked change. The plot is brought to the necessary impasse when Madam Gilbert swears Diana to secrecy; and it is then worked out in true comedy spirit to a conclusion at once ingenious, unexpected, and natural. If Diana cannot speak, she can act, and she has her humorous plan. “Little darts had awakened in her eyes and played about her mouth,” is Miss Brown’s way of saying that she smiled. She invites Natalie to call. Since Madam Gilbert is ill, Uncle Ralph has, of course, to receive the visitor. The result of the interview is awaited by the despairing invalid and the confident schemer in the upper chamber. After a proper interval, Diana interrupts the tête-à-tête, and Ralph hurries to his wife’s side.
‘“There, there!’ he soothed her. ‘You lie down. Diana ’ll be up in a minute, as soon as that woman knows enough to go-’”
Madame Gilbert , anxious not to separate “true mates,” urges the old man to go downstairs again.
‘“Go down? I won’t. Her tongue is hung in the middle. She talks a blue streak.’
‘“But Ralph, it’s Natalie Blayne!’
“‘I don’t care if it’s old Judge Blayne himself. She’s a bore.’
“ ‘ Dear, how does she look ? ’
‘“Well enough, I guess. Too much rigged out for a widow. Sheep dressed lamb fashion.’
“‘But Ralph, shouldn’t you have known her ? Does she remind you — Oh, you remember Natalie Blayne! ’
‘“Why, yes, of course I do. The old judge sent me to the depot to meet her, or something. How he used to rope me in. . . . But I should have said that girl had brown hair and brown eyes, something like yours, dear, only not so pretty. This one’s hair is copper color. I dare say she does some ungodly thing to it.’”
When Diana returned to the room, Madame Gilbert said crisply: “You lay out my clothes, — I’m going to get up to dinner.”
Observe that with the pungent Yankee talk of Uncle Ralph humor and naturalness begin to blow through the story like salt breezes through a fevered town. Remember that the man and woman in “A Runaway Match,” although the lacquer of the city is upon them, are country folk, and that they become as pleasing as Baldwin apples so soon as they get back to the country village, the red schoolhouse, and the bobsled of their youth. Then say if it is not significant of more than my personal taste that, of the three stories in High Noon which I think the best, two approach the New England dialect tale. At any rate, I must record my impression that when Miss Brown drops her sophisticated people, wholesomeness, simplicity, and truth, like beautiful children, come flocking as if to welcome a traveler home. If my theory of her work is correct, that is what should be expected. For I see in her two persons. First, she is the child of the country. Born in the little village of Northampton in New Hampshire, living as a girl on a farm, she shows in her stories of country life the precision of detail which belongs to childhood memories. Second, she is the thinker. Preoccupied with problems of life and love which she feels (if she does not analyze) strongly, she shows in her tales of city folk a desire rather to express her ideas than to represent life. And if the question is asked why her speculations should dominate one kind of story rather than the other, the answer is at least easy that the countryside is so much more real to her that any false touch there must quarrel with a sensitive a nd well-stored memory. The contrast is, of course, not between black and white, but between black and gray. Although the wholesome reality of country life lays upon her a repressive hand, her peculiarities run through all her work. Why should they not ? Plainly, she thinks her philosophy more important than her faithful report of rustic life: plainly she is still touched with the easily divined mood of the ambitious girl who years ago rebelled against rural narrowness and longed for—Boston!
Yes, easily divined; for rebellion produces disdain of one’s surroundings, and here disdain is visible. Scrutinize her gallery of miniatures of village oddities, — really extensive when one remembers that all her work of this kind is scattered, yet contained in two small volumes. The likenesses are, indeed, admirable. Consider that of Josiah Pease, contemptible old man, master of spiteful innuendo. Consider those of Nance Pete and Simeon, old reprobates whom the minister’s daughter in “Bankrupt” (she is bankrupt of love) has to hire to go to church. Or again, consider, in “A Second Marriage” (a particularly good story), that of Ann Doby’s rebellious son, who, outraged by his mother’s loquacity, refuses himself to talk at all. The few pages animated by these worthies live and breathe. But note: no character of the kind of which these are such excellent examples is ever protagonist; and note, moreover, that, although Miss Brown is too good an artist not to give her oddities logical relation to the plot, they are still slightly extraneous, more real, perhaps, than their surroundings. I suspect, perhaps unjustly, that they are drawn from life. At any rate, I read in the interesting history of Northampton that queer characters once abounded there, — among others one easily mistaken for the original of Nance Pete. Now this extraneousness leads to a suspicion, which reflection upon the whole body of the rural tales strengthens to a semblance of conviction, that her attitude toward her country folk is not wholly sympathetic, that her humor has a point of malice. The people whom I have cited have, in particular, an air of being “trotted out” to entertain the company, of supplying the “comic relief.” She thinks of them as such a rebel as I have indicated would certainly have thought of them. Reference to the points of view of Miss Wilkins and Miss Jewett makes this start out like invisible ink under heat. Miss Wilkins abounds in oddities, but instead of mocking them she makes them tragic exemplars of that strange psychology of the will which used so to dominate her thought. Can any one doubt what she would have done, for example, with Ann Doby’s son ? Miss Jewett, with her tenderness, her predilection for beautiful characters, would not have described these people at all. She has no such portraits in her gallery. To put the difference succinctly: Miss Jewett is an aristocrat; Miss Wilkins is a democrat; Miss Brown cannot take the point of view of Miss Jewett, and she has lost that of Miss Wilkins.
I think that the only rustics for whom her sympathy is complete are those who have sentimental troubles; who embody, that is to say, her pet problem, and can speak her personal philosophy. Of such are the protagonists, — lovelorn maidens and wives with super-subtle requirements in point of emotion and of masculine understanding. And upon their lips is ever the doctrine that love means passive acquiescence in masculine maltreatment.
But if one wishes to see these things in the rural tales, he must be on the alert. The disdain is not obtrusive, and the passionate ladies, subdued to the reality of their surroundings, walk the path of nature, with only an occasional flirt of their skirts beyond its borders.
The reader will like Letty in “ A Stolen Festival; ” for, although a specimen of the femme incomprise, she is charming and — natural. He will recognize Nancy Boyd (she of the “Last Sermon”) as a type of the passionate woman, and regard her philosophy of love as an individual vagary. Finally, he will sincerely feel the pathos of the position, and the beauty of character, of the misprized Dorcas in “ Bankrupt.” For in none of these people is the modesty of nature exceeded. And the skill in story-telling which I hope my abstract of “Natalie Blayne” was good enough to reveal, loses its whilom air of somewhat summoned adroitness. None of these stories seems, like “ Natalie Blayne,” a tour de force.
They appeared in Meadow Grass, the book which made Miss Brown’s reputation; and it contains even better work than they. There are in it three tales so good that I am tempted to rank them with any but the best of Miss Jewett’s work. “ Heman’s Ma” is the familiar comedy of patient man shaking off the yoke of tyrant woman, but. told with sprightly variation of incident, with zest, with humor, with truth. “ Joint Owners in Spain,” more unusual in plot, is the tale of two “contrary” old crones forced to live in a single room in an Old Ladies’ Home. It is diverting to find that the fiery Mrs. Blair is no match for Miss Dyer with her aptitude for tearful concession. “ My land!” she exclaims. “Talk about my tongue! Vinegar is nothing to cold molasses, if you have to wade through it.” “Uncle Eli’s Vacation” is a little masterpiece of which I reserve the pleasure of speaking.
Meadow Grass was published in 1895. Preceded only by Fools of Nature, a first novel of indefinite promise which concerned a group of fantastic Bohemians, this volume of country tales revealed a different and better side of her talent, and seemed to announce a worthy colaborer in the fields tilled by Miss Wilkins and Miss Jewett. It was followed by a thin volume of poems and a book of travel, harmless diversions which did not necessarily mean that she was resolved on seeking other harvests. So when, in 1899, Tiverton Tales was published, one observer at least was pleased to think that the expectations aroused by Meadow Grass were changed for certainties, and that a permanent provider of a kind of fiction which he enjoyed had taken her place in the world. For Tiverton Tales bettered the achievement of the earlier book. To the three stories of uncommon charm in Meadow Grass it added five: “A March Wind,” distinguished by that living portrait of Josiah Pease; “A Stolen Festival,” wherein shines Letty, the charming; “The Way of Peace,” pathetic study of a lonely woman’s pleasure in heightening her resemblance to her dead mother; “ Honey and Myrrh,” tragedy of a starved sense of beauty, and “ A Second Marriage,” the psychology of which is profoundly true. Yet, although the book is more satisfying than its predecessor, it may be searched in vain for a perfect tale like “ Farmer Eli’s Vacation.” As I regard this as Miss Brown’s best achievement, I make an abstract of it to set against that of “Natalie Blayne.”
Although Eli has lived these many years within easy driving distance of the ocean, he has not seen it: he has never carried out his one darling plan, cherished since boyhood, of going to the shore and camping out for a week. Now, on the eve of departure, he hesitates. “ It’s a good deal of an undertaking,” he hints to his wife. “I dunno’s I care about goin’.”
But the morning brings courage. The pleasant picture of the start is drawn with a few deft strokes: —
“At length, the two teams were ready, and Eli mounted to his place, where he looked very slender beside his towering mate. The hired man stood leaning on the pump, chewing a bit of straw, and the cats rubbed against his legs with tails like banners: they were all impressed by a sense of the unusual.
“‘Well, good-by, Luke,’ Mrs. Pike called, over her shoulder; and Eli gave the man a solemn nod, gathered up the reins, and drove out of the yard. Just outside the gate, he pulled up.
Whoa! ’ he called, and Luke lounged forward. ‘Don’t you forgit them cats! Git up, Doll!’ and this time they were off.”
The all-day drive is charmingly described, — the dusty road, the August sunshine, the elderberries and the goldenrod. And there are homely bits of talk, such as make the particular joy of those who know the life and like its savor. One is Eli’s comment on some poor land: “There’s a good deal o’ pastur’ in some places, that ain’t fit for nothin’ but to hold the world together.” Another is the reflection with which Mrs. Pike, conscious of curious glances, justifies her gypsying: “Well, they needn’t trouble themselves. I guess I’ve got as good an extensiontable to home as any on ’em.”
Miss Brown picks her incident to show Eli’s state of mind upon the road with a sure instinct for the typical. The travelers stop for luncheon where there is a well of cool, delicious water, Eli refuses to like it. “Tumble flat water,” he calls it. The others protest. “But Eli shook his head and ejaculated ‘Brackish,brackish!’” Now, loyalty to the water on his own farm is a sure mark of the countryman: at home, he brags of it, abroad, he pines for it.
When they reach the ocean, Eli refuses to look; but his tactful daughter at length persuades him to a headland “where the water thundered below and salt spray dashed up in mist to their feet.” Then he looked upon the sea. “ He faced it as a soul might face Almighty Greatness.” But later, when his wife asks him if the sight meets his expectations, all the phrase he can find is a gently spoken “I guess it does.”
That night he does not sleep. The next morning he is up very early, and finds his daughter watching the sunrise.
“‘Hattie,’ he said in a whisper, ‘don’t you tell. I’m goin’ home, I’m goin’ now.” And he does.
Late in the afternoon he reaches home.
“ ‘ What’s busted ? ’ asked Luke, swinging himself down from his load of foddercorn, and beginning to unharness Doll.
“‘Oh, nothing,’ said Eli, leaping from the wagon as if twenty years had been taken from his bones. ‘I guess I’m too old for such jaunts. I hope you did n’t forgit them cats.’”
This unpretentious story has everything that it should have, — delicate firmness of construction, simple, vivid style, pathos blent with humor, truth. These qualities unite to make of the somewhat comic homesickness of an old farmer a beautiful symbol of the deep human feeling of attachment to the soil, and of Eli a universal type.
My mind lingers sadly over this story, for it may be the last of its kind. The New England dialect tale is passing. There are readers, I suppose, who will not shudder at the news, but its mourners will nevertheless be many. At its best it gave a great deal of pure literary pleasure, — it has examples certain to survive as minor classics, — and to us New Englanders it gave also the pleasure, sweet and keen, which comes when friends exchange intimate talk of the old home. What it has meant to the exiles, — to those New Englanders of the cities who have left country homes, and to those other New Englanders who have gone West and still West, until, as Fiske reminds us, there is a new Salem and a new Portland on the shore of the great western sea, — it is easy, and pathetic, to imagine.
But its disappearance cannot be questioned. In 1890, as every one remembers, not only were Miss Jewett and Miss Wilkins doing their best work, but there was also a host of lesser writers busy at the same general task. What is the case to-day ? Miss Jewett is temporarily silent; Miss Wilkins no longer writes in the vein of A Humble Romance; Miss Brown, their most promising pupil, seems to care not greatly for her country folk. And the crowd of lesser people, where are they ? It happens that I have a wide knowledge of the swarm of writers struggling to the light. In the whole of it, I cannot think of five people who are dealing with New England country life.
Nor is this, as I should like to think, the mere freakish veering of literary fashion. It is rather that the life itself has changed. Can any one born later than the fifties write the New England dialect tale as these authors understand it? Even then the lure of fat farms, of adventure, of gold, was turning the steps of the young men toward the enchanted West. Our exodus had begun, and the new Salem and the new Portland had long been visible to him on Pisgah. The journeying host increased with the years. Then came the war, demanding its thousands of the young and brave. When it was over, the throngs once again crowded the Western trails. While our writers were still young, New England had become the home of spinsters and decrepit men, as the stories, like mirrors, unconsciously reveal. And while the vacant places were filling with French Canadians, Irish, Scotch, Italians, Finns, Portuguese, the railroad was baring the hills and creating the factory town. Thus died that New England of which the Puritan minister said with truth: “God sifted a whole nation that he might send choice grain into the wilderness.”
Of course, the life changed with the new conditions, the foreign population. Ourselves as children could know the whole range of rural society; why not, when all who formed it were our kin; when even the most powerful, the most cultivated of us could find his own name honorably if rudely worn on some rough country side ? Thus intimate, thus sympathetic, we could write the stories, — if we had the gift.
But now, in this day of the hill town, of the still worse railroad town, of the segregation of the more prosperous in cities and in “summer colonies,” how can the young folk know the country Yankee, even if here and there one still survives? No, what seems the passing of a literary fashion is more: it is another sign of the passing of a race from the home which gave it birth. For further stories of that race we must look to the West.