O. Henry Memorial Award: Prize Stories, 1919
Chosen by the Society of Arts and Sciences. With an Introduction by Blanche Colton Williams. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company. 1920. 8vo, xvii+298 pp. $1.90.
THE fifteen tales reprinted in this volume, and the final list of thirty-two from which they were selected, locate and implicitly define the centre of gravity of the whole short-story industry in America. That centre of gravity is a fashionable and standardized technique. The Substantive effects produced in this tale and that range far to either side of this ground-floor of technique. Going down, we drop into basements and subbasements filled with bargains in ready-to-wear emotion, sentiment, pathos, prejudice. Going up, we pause at slightly less crowded floors dedicated to notions and novelties in situation, in humor, in point of view. At the very top, where there is always room, we are privileged to linger gloatingly over some rare curios of actual literature. They have the air, these last, of being there on exhibition only: they wear no price-tags, and the management implies no guaranty that an unlimited quantity of each can be produced at short notice if public demand should warrant it.
There is something a trifle exotic and disconcerting about the hush of this place: and the few queer intent folk whom we see there do not exactly inspire us with confidence. Most of us, being typical American shoppers, ring for the elevator after a casual look round, and shoot back with some relief to altitudes at which the articles of merchandise are more familiar and the volume of Sales assures us that there can be nothing eccentric about our own taste. Having set out to inspect some examples of the orthodox short-story technique, which has become almost synonymous with the art of salesmanship, we find it mildly annoying to encounter examples which insist on distracting attention from the technique by an intrusive display of the creative imagination, which has nothing whatever to do with salesmanship.
To one who is condemned, by some incorrigible perversity, to inveterate preoccupation with the achievements of imaginative literature, two stories placed in this volume, by the happiest stroke of editorship, side by side, make a peculiar appeal. Mr. James Branch Cabell’s ‘Porcelain Cups’ is to be likened to nothing of any other writer; its natural place is with its equals in The Line of Love. ‘The High Cost of Conscience,’ by Beatrice Ravenel, a performance no less fine though utterly different in texture, recalls the best of The finer drain and Tales of Men and Ghouls. Mr. Cabell, who has the habit of needlessly distressing his admirers by insisting that ‘first-class art in any of the varied forms of fictitious narrative has never been a truthful reproduction of the artist’s era,’ will find his pet aversion challenged by this interesting juxtaposition; for. quite as deftly as his own tale of Elizabeth’s England and of a poet-wastrel’s death, ‘The High Cost of Conscience,’ a wholly ‘realistic’ treatment of modern personæ in a contemporary idiom, disentangles its one authentic strand of that truth which is undying beauty.
It cannot fail to gratify the Atlantic that the first prize in the competition which this volume represents was awarded to Miss Margaret Prescott Montague’s story, ‘England to America,’ a moving plea for a better understanding between the two countries, which had its original appearance in these pages and is vividly remembered by many readers. F. W.