Editor's Study

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 82 Issue 493 (June 1891)

Such is the manner and such the matter of the latest advice to Gentlemen. We had our doubts, in reading it, whether the author was not laughing in the sleeve of that body-coat which nothing could induce him to remove in the presence of ladies; but on the whole we incline to think he is not joking. To turn from this great world of Gentlemen, to the small, lowly sphere where Miss Wilkins's humble folk have their being, is a vast change, but there is a kind of consolation in it. Here at least are real interests, passions, ambitions; and yonder there do not seem to be any. The scenes of A New England Nun and Other Stories are laid in that land of little village houses which the author of A Humble Romance has made her own. The record never strays beyond; there is hardly a person in the dramas who does not work for a living; the tragedies and comedies are those of the simplest and commonest people, who speak a crabbed Yankee through their noses, and whose dress and address would be alike shocking to Gentlemen. Still they may be borne with, at least in the hands of an artist such as Miss Wilkins has shown herself to be. We are not sure that there is anything better in this volume than in her first; we note the same powers, the same weaknesses; the never-erring eye, the sometimes mistaken fancy. The figures are drawn with the same exquisitely satisfying veracity; but about half the time we doubt whether they would do what they are shown doing. We have a lurking fear at moments that Miss Wilkins would like to write entirely romantic stories about these honest people of hers; but her own love of truth and her perfect knowledge of such life as theirs forbid her actually to do this. There is apparently a conflict of purposes in her sketches which gives her art an undecided effect, or a divided effect, as in certain of them where we make the acquaintance of her characters in their village of little houses, and lose it in the No Man's Land of exaggerated action and conventional emotion. In the interest of her art, which is so perfectly satisfying in the service of reality, it could almost be wished that she might once write a thoroughly romantic story, and wreak in it all the impulses she has in that direction. Then perhaps she might return to the right exercise of a gift which is one of the most precious in fiction. But perhaps this could not happen; perhaps the Study is itself romantic in imagining such a thing. It may be that we shall always have to content ourselves with now a story of the real and unreal mixed, and now one of unmixed reality, such as Miss Wilkins alone can give us. At any rate her future is not in the keeping of criticism, to shape or to direct. Who can forecast the course of such a talent? Not even the talent itself; and what we must be grateful for is what it has already given us in the two volumes of tales, which are as good in their way as anything ever done amongst us; that is, among any people. In form they instinctively approach that of the best work everywhere in the fine detail of the handling; but in spirit they are distinctively ours. The humor is American, and they are almost all humorously imagined, with a sort of direct reference to the facts of the usual rustic American experience. The life of the human heart, its affections, its hopes, its fears, however these mask themselves from low to high, or high to low, is always the same, in every time and land; but in each it has a special physiognomy. What our artist has done is to catch the American look of life, so that if her miniatures remain to other ages they shall know just the expression of that vast average of Americans who do the hard work of the country, and live narrowly on their small earnings and savings. If there is no gayety in that look, it is because the face of hard work is always sober, and because the consciousness of merciless fortuities and inexorable responsibilities comes early and stays late with our people.