Monday, December 8, 2014

Stories by American Authors, Volume I by Bayard Taylor, et al.

A lackluster showcase of late 19th-century short fiction
Rebecca Harding Davis
This collection of short stories, originally published in 1884, is the first book in a ten-volume series from the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons entitled Stories by American Authors. This volume contains five short stories. Even to someone who reads a fair amount of literature from this time period, none of the names on the table of contents are familiar, except Rebecca Harding Davis, who was the mother of the more recognizable Richard Harding Davis. I read collections like this with the hope of discovering new authors that might be of interest to me, but alas, none of the five writers included here offer any evidence that their obscurity is undeserved.

The book opens with “Who Was She?” by Bayard Taylor. A man hiking at a resort finds a notebook dropped by a woman. After reading the contents he falls in love with her, sight unseen, and strives to ascertain her identity. It’s about as silly as it sounds, and is only notable for its precocious inkling of feminism.

In “The Documents in the Case,” by Brander Matthews and H.C. Bunner, an English baron dies, and a search commences for his long-lost eldest son, a ne’er-do-well who fled to America decades ago. The story is told entirely through a series of documents and letters—a clever idea in theory, but in practice the result is tedious, confusing, and often redundant.

The next selection shows more promise. “One of the Thirty Pieces” by William Henry Bishop is built upon the fascinating premise that the thirty pieces of silver that Judas received for betraying Christ are still in circulation. These ancient coins are cursed money that has wreaked havoc through the ages. This very intriguing concept is squandered, however, on a lame story about a shy clerk trying to win the heart of a vivacious beauty.

The aforementioned Mrs. Davis’s offering, “The Balacchi Brothers,” is a run-of-the-mill tale about a duo of circus acrobats. It’s not badly written, and the characters are likable and engaging, but the plot is utterly predictable.

Finally, there’s “An Operation in Money” by Albert Webster. This unrealistic caper tale concerns a bank teller who takes revenge upon the board of directors who refuse to grant him a raise. It tries to be funny while simultaneously making a preachy statement about workers’ rights. These two aims counteract one another so that neither is successful.

After publishing the Stories by American Authors series, Scribner’s put out two more ten-volume series, Stories by English Authors and Stories by Foreign Authors, the latter of which I have read. With the Foreign Authors series, the editors really made an attempt to choose the best writers from each nation of Europe. The purpose of this American Authors series, however, seems to be simply to serve as a dumping ground for stories by writers who don’t merit a collection of their own. At least that’s the impression one gets from reading the lackluster material contained in this debut volume. I have enough faith in Scribner’s to move onto Volume II, but if the selections don’t improve it’s unlikely I’ll put up with all ten books.

Stories in this collection
Who Was She? by Bayard Taylor 
The Documents in the Case by Brander Matthews and H.C. Bunner 
One of Thirty Pieces by William Henry Bishop 
The Balacchi Brothers by Rebecca Harding Davis 
An Operation in Money by Albert Webster 

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