Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Stories by American Authors, Volume III by Lucretia P. Hale, et al.

The third time’s the charm
Celia Thaxter
In 1884 Charles Scribner’s Sons published a ten-volume series entitled Stories by American Authors. Overall, the series presents a broad overview of the state of American short fiction at the end of the 19th century, for better or for worse. Though I generally like literature of this time period, I found Volumes I and II of the series very disappointing. In accordance with the “three strikes you’re out” rule, I decided that I would give this series one last chance, fully expecting that the third volume would be more of the same, in which case I would say goodbye to this series for good. I’m happy to report, however, that Volume III defied my expectations by offering some really high-quality stories.

Right out of the gate this book delivers three strong entries, beginning with “The Spider’s Eye” by Lucretia P. Hale. Through a freak of acoustics, the narrator discovers a spot in an opera house from which he not only can hear all the sounds in the theatre but also read the minds of the audience and performers. While the premise is unapologetically absurd, it provides the author the opportunity to indulge in some interesting and well-drawn character sketches. Throughout the narrative Hale intersperses some really keen insight into human nature. Next up is “A Story of the Latin Quarter” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. An American painter resides among French artists in Paris. He lives for his art, working himself to death. One day he meets a model, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. He asks her to sit for him, and the portrait he paints forces her to view herself in an entirely new way. Although at times it gets overly romantic in its artist stereotypes, it’s quite good overall and calls to mind the writings of Emile Zola. “Two Purse-Companions” by George Parsons Lathrop tells the tale of an odd couple of college chums who are such good friends that they make a habit of pooling their money into a shared fund. Determined to retain their close friendship for life, they make a legal arrangement that secures their financial interdependence, with surprising ramifications. It’s another well-crafted and engaging tale.

Not every entry is a winner. David D. Lloyd’s “Poor Ogla-Moga” represents the obligatory concession to comic relief. A wealthy busybody looking for a philanthropic cause decides to take in a Native American who has fled his reservation. Slapstick arises from the culture shock. Given the date of publication, its political incorrectness may be excused, but what’s not forgivable is the fact that the story’s just not funny. In “Venetian Glass” by Brander Matthews, two American friends traveling in Venice hear of a fabled glass goblet that will shatter when poison is poured into it. Though skeptical of the story, they set out to see the object for themselves. Matthews is aiming for something like Poe with this tale, but it’s predictable and a bit clumsy, and the result is mediocrity.

The best selection in the book by far is the absolutely riveting “A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter. It’s an In Cold Blood-style account of the killing of two Norwegian immigrant women on an island near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I don’t know if this story is based on a real crime, but it seems to be, judging from its richness of detail and remarkable verisimilitude. Despite being written over a century ago, it’s as brutal and unflinching as a Martin Scorcese film.

Thanks to Thaxter, Hale, Burnett, and Lathrop, my faith has been restored in the Stories by American Authors series. Do yourself a favor: skip the first two volumes and dive right into this one.

Stories in this collection
The Spider’s Eye by Lucretia P. Hale 
A Story of the Latin Quarter by Frances Hodgson Burnett 
Two Purse-Companions by George Parsons Lathrop 
Poor Ogla-Moga by David D. Lloyd 
A Memorable Murder by Celia Thaxter 
Venetian Glass by Brander Matthews

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