From The Atlantic Monthly Vol. LXVII No. 404 (June, 1891)
There are two periods in the life of a country when the short story is peculiarly adapted to display the characteristics of the people: the first is when the country is virgin soil for the novelist; the second is when the soil, in agricultural phrase, is worn out. At the present time, the South, and more particularly the Southwest, illustrates the former of the two periods, New England the latter. By means of the rapid sketches and brief stories of Miss Murfree, Mr. Cable, Mr. Harris, Mr. Page, Miss French, and others, we have been introduced to a society and a condition of life so novel, so full of contrasts to the familiar, that we welcome each new contribution as a distinct addition to the bundle of particulars from which by and by we shall begin to generalize; for we have caught the scientific spirit in literature, and ask a knowledge of details before making our inductions. Under these conditions, the short stories easily take the character of studies for larger pictures.
On the other hand, when a country has been appraised by the historian, the political economist, the sociologist, the philosopher, the novelist, there comes to be a certain common significance attached to it, so that as soon as it is named the mind responds with a tolerably definite concept of the character embodied in the country and people. This is the case with New England. It bears a stamp, and, however much a company of intelligent Americans may differ in their estimate of the worth of New England, they are not likely to be very far apart in their understanding of its characteristics. Now is the opportunity for the short-story writer. He — or more likely she — may with entire confidence assume this general knowledge, and proceed at once to expend art upon the nice details, to individualize, to discriminate, to disclose distinctions which the casual observer may overlook. There is a strong inclination, under these conditions, to use a small canvas and take great pains with minute touches.
This disposition is confirmed by two influences. The whole strain of New England life, through the loneliness of social relations in the country and the extreme individualism inculcated by religion and politics, has tended to develop what are specifically known as “characters,” highly intensified and noticeable persons, though the exaggeration may be of unimportant qualities. Again, the prevailing temper of the realistic school, which is in literature what specialization is in science, calls for microscopic study of human life, and it is easier to secure this, without loss of regard for the main theme, in the short story than in the novel.
How completely one may cultivate a single phase of local life is illustrated by Mrs. Slosson in her Seven Dreamers.1 Her introductory note cleverly strikes the keynote to her group of stories. A New England woman recites in rich dialect a number of instances of eccentric neighbors, who are plain, intelligible persons in the main, but are each “off” on some one point, the point being expressive of some form of idealism. Cap'n Burdick remembers the millennium; Uncle Enoch Stark beguiles himself with the fancy that his sister Lucilla, who died a baby before he was born, still lives somewhere in the vague West; Wrestling Billy was so called because he could give account of an experience similar to that of the patriarch Jacob; Jerry Whaples found a world of comfort in the Biblical passage, apparently so inapplicable to every-day haps, “At Michmash he hath laid up his carriages.”
“They have different names for sech folks,” continues Aunt Charry. “They say they're ‘cracked,’ they've ‘got a screw loose,’ they're ‘a little off,’ they ‘ain't all there,’ and so on. But nothin' accounts for their notions so well, to my mind, as to say they're all jest dreamin'. … And what's more, I believe, when they look back on those soothin', sleepy, comfortin' idees o' theirn, that somehow helped 'em along through all the pesterin' worry and frettin' trouble o' this world, — I believe, I say, that they're glad too.”
Thereupon, having given a hint of what the reader is to expect, Mrs. Slosson narrates at length the cases of a half dozen New England idealists, each with some whimsical yet always lovable fancy. Her first tale, How Faith Came and Went, scarcely comes under the category of her title, and is somewhat out of harmony with the rest of the book; for in it she avails herself of a physiological fact, perhaps as familiar in fiction as in real life, — the obscuration of memory for a time, and the consequent unhinged life led by the person thus affected. But the rest of the stories are the expansion of the idiosyncrasies which, let the doctors discuss as they may, derive their main interest from the contribution they make to the history of the human soul.
Although Mrs. Slosson deals thus with idealists, her mode of treatment is quite closely naturalistic. Her oddest people and incidents are reported with a sympathetic but candid spirit. Her characters for the most part tell their own stories, but whenever she appears in person, it is always with the affectionate, considerate manner of one who respects the fancies of these humble people, not with the professional air of the alienist; and this fine spirit of reverence, so apparent throughout the book, guards her from the exaggeration into which her sense of humor might betray her, and makes good taste prevail. Once only do we think her liveliness carries her a step too far. In the amusing, bewildering story of Butterneggs, where the fun is stretched almost to the snapping-point, her lively spirits have provoked her into a sly insertion of local historical names, a little to the detriment of good literary manners.
A very charming element in the book is the homely and familiar acquaintance shown with wild flowers. Some of the stories turn on this loving regard for flowers, and it is plain to see that the author herself is drawing upon a store of full, simple experience. There is an artistic fitness in this close association of nature with the finer, even if fantastic side of human life, which steals upon the reader imperceptibly; so that for a while he is aware, as it were, only of a delicate fragrance somewhere, until, by inspection, he perceives that this fragrance is from the book he is reading.
There is a slight bond between Mrs. Slosson's work and that of Miss Wilkins in the disposition of Miss Wilkins to single out for her subjects highly accented phases of New England life, but the manner of the two writers is quite distinct. They are alike in this, that they leave the reader to his own conclusions, and rarely impose their reflections upon his attention. In her latest collection2 Miss Wilkins has included twenty-four stories. The book is charged with tender sentiment, yet once only, so far as we remember, at the close of the moving story of Christmas Jenny, does the author introduce anything which may be likened to an artistic use of sentiment. In this story the figures of the girl and her lover make the kind of foil which we are used to in German sentimental literature. The touch here, however, is so slight as almost to escape notice. It serves chiefly to remind one how entirely Miss Wilkins depends for her effects upon the simple pathos or humor which resides in the persons and situations that are made known through a few strong, direct disclosures. The style is here the writer. The short, economical sentences, with no waste and no niggardliness, make up the stories which are singularly pointed, because the writer spends her entire strength upon the production of a single impression. The compression of these stories is remarkable, and almost unique in our literature, and it is gained without any sacrifice of essentials and by no mere narrowness of aim, but by holding steadily before the mind the central, vital idea, to the exclusion of all by-thoughts, however interesting they may be. Hence it happens frequently that the reader, though left satisfied on the main issue, is piqued by the refusal of the story-teller to meet his natural curiosity on other points. Thus in A Discovered Pearl the affairs of Lucy and Marlow are settled, but one is left to his surmises as to what the actual history of Marlow has been; and in A Pot of Gold, though Joseph Tenney is rehabilitated, the reader is as consumed with curiosity as Jane to know just what the box contained; then he is ashamed of himself, and confesses that the story-teller is above the weakness of satisfying merely idle curiosity.
Mrs. Slosson depends upon the interlocutors for the most telling effects in her stories; Miss Wilkins, with her passion for brevity, her power of packing a whole story in a phrase, a word, although she gives her characters full rein sometimes, naturally relies chiefly upon her own condensed report of persons, incidents, and things. Sententious talk, though not unknown in New England, runs the risk of being unnaturally expressive, and Miss Wilkins shows her fine artistic sense by not trusting to it for the expression of her characters. As a rule, the speech of the New England men and women in her stories is very simple and natural; her art lies in the selection she makes of what they shall say, the choice of a passage which helps on the story. Thus the brevity of speech which is in itself a characteristic of New England people is not made to carry subtleties or to have a very full intrinsic value, nor is it a mere colloquialism, designed to give color and naturalness, but it is the fit expression which conveys a great deal to the reader, because, like the entire story, it is a condensation, an epitome.
Of the genuine originality of these stories it is hard to speak too strongly. There is, indeed, a common character to the whole series, an undertone of hardship, of loss, of repressed life, of sacrifice, of the idolatry of duty, but we suspect this is due more to the prevailing spirit of New England life than to any determining force of Miss Wilkins's genius. For the most part, she brings to light some pathetic passage in a strongly marked individuality, and the variety of her characterizations is noticeable. Now and then she touches a very deep nature, and opens to view a secret of the human heart which makes us cry out that here is a poet, a seer. Such an effect is produced by the most powerful story in the book, Life Everlastin'. More frequently she makes us exclaim with admiration over the novelty, yet truthfulness, of her portraitures, as in the Revolt of “Mother” and the story which gives the title to her book. Always there is a freedom from the commonplace, and a power to hold the interest to the close which is owing, not to a trivial ingenuity, but to the spell which her personages cast over the reader's mind as soon as they come within his ken. He wonders what they will do; and if he is surprised at any conclusion, the surprise is due, not to any trick in the author, but to the unexpected issue of an original conception, which reflection always shows to be logical and reasonable.
The humor which is a marked feature of Miss Wilkins's stories is of a pungent sort. Every story has it, and it is a savor which prevents some, that otherwise would be rather painful, from oppressing the reader unduly. Of another sort, more pervasive, more genial, more kindly and winning, is that which we are accustomed to associate with Miss Jewett's work, and is agreeably manifest in her latest collection of tales.3 The readers of The Atlantic are well acquainted with this writer, and the volume before us contains several sketches and stories which had their first publication in these pages. We have but to name such as The Town Poor, The Quest of Mr. Teaby, By the Morning Boat, Going to Shrewsbury, to recall at once stories which are fresh in our minds to-day, no matter when we may have read them. Of one in particular, The Town Poor, it is easy to say that it stands very near the head of Miss Jewett's work for the exquisiteness of its touch in portraying the dignity of one side of New England life. The tenderness with which these ancient townswomen, admirably distinguished, are set before the reader is beyond the power of art to affect but the delicacy with which every stroke is drawn is the result of very careful study and clear perception of artistic values.
We own, however, to have been especially interested in Miss Jewett's story of The Luck of the Bogans. In The Mistress of Sydenham Plantation she essays to draw from observation of South Carolina scenes; and though there is a subtle beauty in the picture, it has a faintness, as if the artist were not wholly at home in her subject. The figure is that of a New England gentlewoman, such as Miss Jewett knows well how to paint, transferred to another clime, and given a South Carolinian name. But in The Luck of the Bogans an attempt has been made to stay at home and paint, not natives, but intruders. It is noticeable, when one comes to think of it, how little really has been done in the way of setting forth artistically the Irish New Englander. Perhaps this is due to the half-instinctive jealousy which the native New Englander feels toward this new-comer. He has been here, it is true, for more than a generation, and his face is not unfamiliar; but the assimilation has been slow, after all, and it is hard for the New Englander to admit to himself that the Irish stock is taking root in the soil, and is to be counted as native. The Irish are as native here as the descendants of the English Puritans; the only difference is in time: they came a couple of centuries later, but they were driven here by misrule at home, just as the early Puritans were. If they take a lively interest in Irish politics, it is no more than the first New Englanders did in the politics of England. This is by the bye, however. The point we make is that New England authors have held somewhat aloof from the material to be found in this large component of the present New England. It is true that their mind has been somewhat retrospective, and in stories has dwelt chiefly upon the rural New England of two generations back; but even where, as in the case of Miss Jewett's stories, the material is contemporaneous New England, it is only now and then that careful studies are made of this element.
We are glad, therefore, that Miss Jewett has tried her hand at a picture of New England Irish life, as she has done in this story of The Luck of the Bogans; and singularly enough, as soon as she steps out of her familiar field she acquires an access of dramatic power, as if the exercise had stimulated her and given a new freedom to her imagination. The same charity which lights all her stories illumines this, but beyond there is a recognition of sharp passages in the drama of life, as if the author needed to go away from familiar scenes to discover what others have found in her own domain. But this as it may, she shows an insight, an appreciation, of the Irishman's nature which intimates a possible new vein in the quartz which she has worked so industriously hitherto.
These three writers all make use of the New England dialect, and with equal precision, though with varying fullness. One observes how fixed and well formulated this dialect is, and how even the highly elaborated form which Mrs. Slosson affects scarcely adds any new feature to what has become familiar. In her desire to give richness of color to the speech, Mrs. Slosson falls upon some very ingenious combinations, as “'tennerate,” and puts in more individual expressions, but the total effect is merely a little more embarrassing. Both Miss Wilkins and Miss Jewett recognize the very subordinate value of dialect. They give just enough to flavor the conversation, but rely more on the homely phraseology of the ordinary New England speech than on very sharp accentuation.
It may be said of all three of the books considered that they appeal to the artistic sense, and do not merely entertain one with bits of life. Mrs. Slosson shows her art mainly in the skill with which she seizes upon a very illusory yet perfectly recognizable element of the New England character, and models out of it consistent figures, firm in outline, palpable, tangible, but all the while compacted of so strange a substance that in the hands of a less subtle artist they would be either grotesque impossibilities or unreal phantasms. She appears to require but a suggestion in real life to quicken her fancy. Miss Wilkins impresses us as one who, by a swift power of appropriation, has under her control the life of New England men and women as a plastic material, and works in it, re-creating shapes which are the eidola of her imagination, yet instinct with the virtue of the material in which she has wrought. It is as if New England, in its more solitary manifestations of human life, had been revealed to her in a moment of time, and she was now, thoroughly conversant with types, busily engaged in making New England men and women, not after individual models, but in perfect conformity with the fundamental nature of these models. Miss Jewett, for her part, though her characters have a more social turn, and are not so highly individualized as those of the other two writers, neither takes refuge in types nor follows too closely specific examples, but deals rather with human figures of the New England variety. She knows this variety from close and familiar acquaintance; but it is, after all, the common humanity which touches her, and thus her stories are interpretations of life, not mere recitals of incidents in life. It is the art in the writers whom we have been considering which separates their work from much similar literature that has an external fidelity to nature, but since it springs from no anterior vision, so appeals but little to the mind behind the eye. True artistic creation wakens the creative reception, and for the time being makes the reader also an artist. When that is done, the work of art stands complete.
1 Seven Dreamers. By Annie Trumbull Slosson. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1891.
2 A New England Nun, and Other Stories. By Mary E Wilkins. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1891.
3 Strangers and Wayfarers. By Sarah Orne Jewett. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1890.