Monday, September 14, 2015

Stories by American Authors, Volume VIII by J. W. DeForest, et al.

The goods outweigh the bads, just barely
Henry A. Beers
This is the eighth installment in the ten-volume series Stories by American Authors, published by Charles Scribner’s sons in 1884. It consists of five short stories that were originally published in magazines like Century, Putnam’s, and Harper’s. The vast majority of authors featured in the Stories by American Authors series are unknown to today’s readers, and you won’t find any household names in Volume VIII. The quality of the overall series has been spotty at best, and this collection continues the trend. Of the five stories included here, one is excellent, two are pretty good, and the remaining two you could do without.

Despite its pretentious title, “Split Zephyr: An Attenuated Yarn Spun by the Fates” by Henry A. Beers is the best story in the book, and one of the best so far in the series. On commencement night, five Yale graduates discuss their future plans. Four classmates, conveniently initialed A, B, C, and D, spell out their intentions to the narrator, Frank Polisson. Fifteen years later he checks up on them to see what they’ve made of their lives. It’s a thought-provoking piece on the elusive nature of happiness. The message is a simple one, but meaningful even for today’s reader. The characters are admirably well-sketched, and their engaging life stories offer an intriguing glimpse into the options available to a gentleman of the 19th century.

Another promising selection in the book is “Zerviah Hope” by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, about a mysterious New Yorker who volunteers to nurse the sick in a remote South Carolina town stricken by an epidemic of fever. The story is quite riveting until the end, when it turns into a religious tract. “The Life-Magnet” by Alvey A. Adee fares better. An American student, spending a hiatus in Freiberg, Saxony, meets a scientist who claims to have discovered a means to chemically isolate the human life force. It’s a crafty bit of old-school science fiction, though unfortunately marred by a confusing ending and a rather dim-witted hero.

Two pieces remain at the bottom of the barrel. J. W. DeForest’s “The Brigade Commander” takes place during the Civil War. It opens with some interesting human drama, but that storyline is soon abandoned in favor of a tedious military history narrative replete with artillery movements and flanking maneuvers. Wargame enthusiasts might enjoy it, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea. The book closes with its worst selection, “Osgood’s Predicament” by Elizabeth D. B. Stoddard. This meandering melodrama concerns a man of limited means who is supported by his wealthy aunt and uncle. After becoming engaged to a high-class woman he’ll never be able to comfortably support, he regrets his decision and runs away to Cape Cod. None of the characters are particularly appealing, so the reader couldn’t care less.

As a whole, the Stories by American Authors series has failed to impress. Nevertheless, this is one of the better books in the series so far, placing third behind volumes III and VI. At the very least, those interested in 19th-century literature will likely find the Beers and Adee selections to be worthwhile reading.

Stories in this collection
The Brigade Commander by J. W. DeForest 

Split Zephyr by Henry A. Beers 

Zerviah Hope by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps 

The Life-Magnet by Alvey A. Adee 

Osgood’s Predicament by Elizabeth D. B. Stoddard

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