Monday, March 30, 2015

Stories by American Authors, Volume IV by Constance Fenimore Woolson, et al.

Mostly mediocre, with one standout
Noah Brooks
This collection of six short stories is the fourth volume in the Stories by American Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. The series as a whole provides an overview of American fiction in the late 19th century and includes many authors that today’s readers are unlikely to have heard of. In this fourth volume, the only name recognizable to me is Constance Fenimore Woolson, the grandniece of author James Fenimore Cooper. The first and second books in this series were terrible, while the third volume was surprisingly very good. Volume IV is a return towards mediocrity, with the exception of one excellent entry.

The book opens with Woolson’s selection, entitled “Miss Grief.” A successful young writer receives frequent visits from a mysterious woman who exhibits signs of poverty. Fearing she’s seeking charity, he avoids her calls, but eventually she catches up with him. When he finally makes her acquaintance, he discovers that she’s an aspiring author who wants him to read her writings. The story is engaging enough to keep you wondering what happens next, but when it’s over you simply wonder what’s the point. “Love in Old Cloathes” by H. C. Bunner is a predictable tale of a man of limited promise attempting to woo a beautiful woman who is promised to another man. What sets it apart from typical fare is that it’s written in the first person in a heavy dialect complete with grammar and spelling errors. This gets annoying at times, but also has its charms. “Two Buckets in a Well” by N. P. Willis is about a promising young painter who, at the urging of his beloved, gives up his artistic aspirations and devotes his energies to the family business. It has a pretentious verbosity to it that values unnecessary ornateness of language over clear and compelling storytelling, exemplifying what’s wrong with much of American fiction written during this time period. J. W. DeForest’s “An Inspired Lobbyist” is the obligatory comic relief of the volume. As with the previous volumes, the laughs have not held up well over the intervening century. It’s a political satire about a state with two alternating capital cities, though it’s unclear why anyone would take the time to satirize a political situation that doesn’t exist.

Half of the book is taken up by its longest selection, “Friend Barton’s Concern” by Mary Hallock Foote. A Quaker farmer goes off on a preaching tour, leaving his wife and daughter to run the farm. In her father’s absence, the daughter experiences her first love. This piece is long, boring, and predictable, with lots of “thees” and “thys” in the dialogue. It’s unfortunate that so many pages are devoted to it.

Thankfully, the volume ends on a high note with an excellent story, “Lost in the Fog” by Noah Brooks. Two inexperienced seamen accompany the captain of a boat full of butter and eggs on a routine six hour trip from Bolinas to San Francisco. The wind dies, however, and the boat drifts for two days in a thick fog. When they finally emerge from the clouds and reach land, the crew makes an unexpected discovery. Brooks’s approach to storytelling is primarily naturalistic, marking this tale as a precursor to the San Francisco stories of Jack London and Frank Norris. While admittedly the fog bank gets a little boring, the second half of the story is fascinating. The whole point of reading this sort of grab-bag series is in the hope of finding a buried treasure like this one. In fact, Brooks’s well-told tale is the only one here that’s truly worth reading. I would suggest you just skip the other five and enjoy it.

Stories in this collection

Miss Grief by Constance Fenimore Woolson 

Love in Old Cloathes by H. C. Bunner 

Two Buckets in a Well by N. P. Willis 

Friend Barton’s Concern by Mary Hallock Foote 

An Inspired Lobbyist by J. W. DeForest 

Lost in the Fog by Noah Brooks

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