Editor's Study

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 75 Issue 448 (September 1887)

Take, for instance, a number of studies like A Humble Romance, and Other Stories, by Miss Mary E. Wilkins, and you have the air of simple village life as liberally imparted as if all the separate little dramas were set in a single frame and related to one another. The old maids and widows aging and ailing and dying in their minute wooden houses; the forlorn elderly lovers; the simple girls and youths making and marring love; the husbands and wives growing apart and coming together; the quarrels and reconciliations; the eccentricities and the heroisms; the tender passions and true friendships; the funerals and weddings; the hates and spites; the injuries; the sacrifices; the crazy consciences; the sound common-sense — are all suggested and expressed in a measure which, we insist, does not lack breadth, though each sketch is like the sentences of Emerson, “an infinitely repellent particle,” and will have nothing to do with any other, so far as community of action is concerned. Community of character abounds: the people are of one New England blood, and speak one racy tongue. It might all have been done otherwise; the lives and fortunes of these villagers might have been interwoven in one texture of narrative; but the work would not necessarily have gained breadth in gaining bulk. Breadth is in the treatment of material, not in the amount of it. The great picture is from the great painter, not from the extensive canvas. Miss Wilkins's work could hardly have given a wider sense of life in a Yankee village and the outlying farms if it had greater structural unity. It has unity of spirit, of point of view, of sympathy; and being what the author intended, we ask no other unity of it; many “broader” views lack this unity which is so valuable. Besides, it has humor of a quaint, flavorous sort, it has genuine pathos, and a just and true respect for the virtues of the life with which it deals. We are tempted to give some passages illustrative of a very remarkable freshness in its description; they are abundant, but perhaps we had better content ourselves by referring the reader to the opening of the touching sketch, “A Far-away Melody.” What is notable in all the descriptions is the absence of literosity; they are as unrhetorical as so many pictures of Tourguénief's, or Björnson's, or Verga's, and are interesting proofs of the fact that the present way of working is instinctive; one writer does not learn it from another; it is in the time, in the air, and no critic can change it. When you come to the motives of these little tales, the simplicity and originality are not always kept; sometimes they ring false, sentimental, romantic; but even then they are true in the working out of character, though this does not redeem them from the original error. For the most part, however, they are good through and through, and whoever loves the face of common humanity will find pleasure in them. They are peculiarly American, and they are peculiarly “narrow” in a certain way, and yet they are like the best modern work everywhere in their directness and simplicity. They are somewhat in the direction of Miss Jewett's more delicate work, but the fun is opener and less demure, the literature is less refined, the poetry is a little cruder; but there is the same affectionate feeling for the material, a great apparent intimacy with the facts, and a like skill in rendering the Yankee parlance. We have our misgivings, however, about “thar” and “whar” on New England tongues, though we are not ready to deny that Miss Wilkins heard them in the locality she evidently knows so well.