Thursday, June 11, 2015

Stories by American Authors, Volume V by Henry James, et al.

Four out of five fail to impress
F.D. Millet
This is the fifth book in the ten-volume Stories by American Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. It opens with a selection by Henry James, who is easily the most famous author included in the series. Somehow I’ve managed to get this far in life without reading any Henry James, so I don’t have any basis for comparison, but based on his reputation alone I’m guessing his story “A Light Man” is not one of his better works. The narrator of the piece reunites with a former classmate who is serving as a secretary to an aged man of wealth. After moving in with the rich geezer, both old friends begin to compete for his affection and imminent bequest. There are some opportunities for suspense here, but James mostly squanders them in favor of pretentious verbosity. The result is too much description and not enough plot.

The second entry fares much better. In “Yatil” by F.D. Millet, an artist makes the acquaintance of a circus performer whose nickname serves as the story’s title. Their paths coincidentally cross in Turin, Paris, and New York. While the artist/narrator leads a relatively secure and comfortable existence, the performer lives a pathetic life of hardship. Nevertheless, his optimistic perseverance is quite touching. There’s some unnecessary digression into Yatil’s personal superstitions, but as a whole you really feel for the guy and become personally invested in his struggles.

“The End of New York” by Park Benjamin could best be described as a “What if?” story. Written in 1881, it foreshadows the Spanish-American War of 1898. A diplomatic incident ignites conflict between Spain and the U.S. which leads to a Spanish naval attack on American shores. New York City is bombarded by the heavy guns of the Spaniards, while the outclassed American military is powerless to stop it. Benjamin, a former Navy man, intended this story to serve as a warning of the inadequacy of the U.S. fleet. The story is an interesting historical artifact of its time, but Benjamin’s preoccupation with the details of armaments and munitions deadens the plot. This novella-length work is by far the longest piece in this collection, and it feels totally out of place in a literary anthology.

Usually the weakest links in these collections are the humorous stories, and this volume is no exception. Nineteenth-century humor just hasn’t held up well over the years. George Arnold’s “Why Thomas Was Discharged” is a formulaic romantic romp in which two foppish idlers attempt to woo a pair of beauties at a beachside resort. It’s pleasant enough, but too long and drawn out for such frivolous subject matter. In “The Tachypomp: A Mathematical Demonstration” by E.P. Mitchell, an underachieving student tries to win the hand of his mathematics professor’s daughter. In order to do so, his prospective father-in-law requires him to solve a seemingly impossible math problem. There’s some fun bits along the way, but Mitchell tries too hard to be clever and ultimately the story gets bogged down in mathematical jargon.

This fifth installment of Stories by American Authors is indicative of the series as whole so far, which consistently fails to impress—except for Volume III, which was pretty good. This overview of late nineteenth-century American fiction is particularly disappointing when you compare it to Scribner’s 1898 series Stories by Foreign Authors, which is far better overall. I’m only halfway through the American series, however, so it still has five volumes left to prove to me it hasn’t been a waste of time. Hopefully, it will redeem itself in its latter half.

Stories in this collection
A Light Man by Henry James
Yatil by F.D. Millet 
The End of New York by Park Benjamin 
Why Thomas Was Discharged by George Arnold 
The Tachypomp by E.P. Mitchell

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