Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Stories by American Authors, Volume VII by Octave Thanet, et al.

Bellamy & Co.
Edward Bellamy
This is the seventh book in the ten-volume series Stories by American Authors, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons from 1884 to 1885. Unlike Scribner’s other two series, Stories by Foreign Authors and Stories by English Authors, which were sort of “greatest hits” collections of 19th-century authors, the American series mostly consists of upcoming authors of the period who have long since faded into obscurity. This particular collection contains one notable exception: Edward Bellamy, the author of Looking Backward, one of the three bestselling American novels of its century. I’m not a great fan of that novel, but Bellamy’s entry here, entitled “Lost,” is clearly the best selection in Volume VII. An American, studying in Germany, falls in love with a local girl. When he departs for the U.S., he promises he will return someday to make her his bride. Seven years later, after having forgotten her, he wakes up and realizes that she was the love of his life. He heads back to Germany, finds her whereabouts are unknown, and begins an arduous hunt to track her down. Though the story contains its fair share of 19th-century chauvinism, the chase is exciting and it inspires readers to consider their own lost loves and missed opportunities.

One thing that’s surprising about the Stories by American Authors series as a whole is the attention that it pays to women authors. In Volume VII, four out of the six authors included are women. For its time, that’s admirably progressive on the part of the publisher, but unfortunately none of the four included here really offer up anything memorable. Octave Thanet’s entry, “The Bishop’s Vagabond” is an example of a genre which often shows up in this series, in which an erudite writer condescendingly examines a member of the lower classes as if they were a guinea pig in a sociological experiment. In this case the protagonist is a poor white man from South Carolina referred to as a “cracker.” “Kirby’s Coals of Fire” by Louise Stockton is similar fare, in which a theology student takes a ride on a riverboat in order to learn about the human nature of the unwashed masses. In the process, he’s treated to a humorous folk tale. Margaret Floyd’s “Passages from the Journal of a Social Wreck” is an interesting piece that provides some insight into the social conventions of the period. An educated gentleman is driven by financial desperation to take a job as a professional party guest. It starts out pretty entertaining, but becomes utterly predictable by its conclusion. Rounding out the roll call of female writers is Virginia W. Johnson, whose “The Image of San Donato” is a rather dreary and unpleasant soap opera concerning a young girl who has a religious vision which inspires her to prevent her mother from having an affair with an Italian count.

Speaking of soap operas, James T. McKay, the remaining dude in the mix, gives us a doozy with “Stella Grayland.” A doctor has maintained a longtime friendship with an attractive woman whom he knows to be shallow, manipulative, and perhaps even of loose morals. Yet when her father dies, leaving her without support, he marries her out of a sense of obligation. Trapped in a hellish marriage, he can’t help falling in love with another woman. The result is just depressing all the way through.

Overall, the Stories by American Authors series has been a disappointment, with the exception of a couple good volumes (numbers III and VI). I was hoping to be impressed by a few unfamiliar authors, but the relatively well-known Bellamy is the only one who stands out in this book.

Stories in this collection
The Bishop’s Vagabond by Octave Thanet 

Lost by Edward Bellamy 

Kirby’s Coals of Fire by Louise Stockton 

Passages from the Journal of a Social Wreck by Margaret Floyd 

Stella Grayland by James T. McKay 

The Image of San Donato by Virginia W. Johnson

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