Friday, February 12, 2016

Stories by American Authors

A series overview
The ten-volume Stories by American Authors series was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons from 1884 to 1885. Each volume contains five or six short stories or novellas by 19th-century American authors. Most of the selections are reprinted from literary magazines of the day, like Scribner’s Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Century Magazine, and Overland Monthly. It’s probably safe to say that all these stories were written between the end of the Civil War and the series publication date. There might be one or two from earlier decades.

Here at Old Books by Dead Guys I have previously reviewed the Stories by Foreign Authors series, which Scribner’s Sons published in 1898. I have yet to tackle the Stories by English Authors series of 1896. These two later series make a definite attempt to include the work of some of the best or at least most renowned authors of their day. The Stories by American Authors series, on the other hand, seems to have been published with a different rationale in mind. If I had to guess, I would say the series served as a sort of dumping ground for short fiction by authors that Scribner’s didn’t feel merited their own solo collections. As a result, the quality of the selections is disappointing when compared to the Foreign series. Still, every now and then one stumbles upon a buried treasure. All ten volumes have been reviewed individually here at Old Books by Dead Guys. Click on the links below to read the complete reviews.

1. Stories by American Authors, Volume I
2. Stories by American Authors, Volume II
3. Stories by American Authors, Volume III
4. Stories by American Authors, Volume IV
5. Stories by American Authors, Volume V
6. Stories by American Authors, Volume VI
7. Stories by American Authors, Volume VII
8. Stories by American Authors, Volume VIII
9. Stories by American Authors, Volume IX
10. Stories by American Authors, Volume X

Altogether the ten volumes contain 57 stories by 53 authors. The vast majority of their names will be unrecognizable to today’s readers. The few exceptions are Henry James, Edward Bellamy, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. There’s no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of the volumes; each one is just a grab bag. It would have been interesting if they had pitted the various American literary scenes against one another—New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, etc.—but no such luck.

These books are in the public domain and can be read online and downloaded for free at various sources, including Amazon and Project Gutenberg. After my less-than-glowing review, perhaps you’re not exactly fired up about reading through these ten volumes? Relax, you don’t have to, because Old Books by Dead Guys has already done it for you! Below is a list of the eight best stories in the series. Why only eight? Because, unlike the Foreign Authors series, I really had to stretch to find selections worthy of notice.

“Lost in the Fog” by Noah Brooks
from Stories by American Authors, Volume IV
A routine boat trip on the California coast turns into a two-day ordeal when the vessel drifts into a thick fog bank. When it finally emerges from the haze, the crew makes a startling discovery on shore. This story starts out slow, but the latter half is fascinating.

“A Memorable Murder” by Celia Thaxter
from Stories by American Authors, Volume III
I’m not sure if this is fiction or true crime, but it sure reads like the latter. Thaxter gives an In Cold Blood-style account of the killing of two Norwegian immigrant women on an island near Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

“The Heartbreak Cameo” by Lizzie W. Champney
from Stories by American Authors, Volume VI
An expert jeweler discovers a beautiful gemstone carved into an exquisite cameo. The back story of this gem involves a 17th-century missionary stationed in a Native American village in Illinois. A great piece of historical fiction.

“Split Zephyr” by Henry A. Beers
from Stories by American Authors, Volume VIII
On commencement night, five Yale graduates discuss their future plans. A look at their lives 15 years later reveals the difference between aspirations and reality. A thought-provoking piece on the elusive nature of happiness.

“Brother Sebastian’s Friendship” by Harold Frederic
from Stories by American Authors, Volume VI
This story, set in the 1870s, is narrated by a French monk. Brother Sebastian, a misanthropic sort who has always avoided human contact, relates the story of the one meaningful friendship in his life. Culminates in a surprise ending that’s truly surprising.

“The Ablest Man in the World” by E. P. Mitchell
from Stories by American Authors, Volume X
An American traveler in Switzerland, mistaken for a doctor, is forced to attend to an ailing Russian baron. While examining his “patient,” he makes a startling discovery. A visionary work of sci-fi that’s decades ahead of its time.

“Lost” by Edward Bellamy
from Stories by American Authors, Volume VII
An American student in Germany falls in love with a local girl, only to forget her upon returning to the states. Seven years later he wakes up and realizes she was the love of his life, so he returns to Europe to track her down. An engaging tale from Bellamy, author of Looking Backward.

“Yatil” by F. D. Millet
An artist strikes up an unlikely friendship with a circus performer, and the two cross paths repeatedly in different parts of the globe. The performer struggles through a hard life with plucky perseverance, even though he considers himself cursed with an ill omen.

Check in a year from now, and I’ll likely have a recap of the Stories by English Authors series.

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