Monday, July 31, 2017

International Short Stories: American, edited by William Patten



From canon to commonplace
Washington Irving
What the rather confusing title/subtitle combination of International Short Stories: American doesn’t tell you is that this is one book of a trilogy which also includes volumes of French and English stories. This particular volume, a collection of 22 short stories by American authors, was edited by William Patten and published by P. F. Collier & Son in 1910. The selections contained within are an odd mix of the classic and the obscure. Glancing down the table of contents one can see that the book begins with some of the greatest names in American literature, followed by some also-rans, and then, with a few exceptions, concluding with the barely-heard-ofs. The result is that the first half of the book reads like a greatest stories of all-time collection, while the latter half comes across as a promotional showcase for up-and-coming unknowns.

In general, not surprisingly, the better-known authors provide the best stories. The book opens with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who’s not one of my personal favorites, but his story “The Prophetic Pictures” is better than his usual fare. This is followed by a line up of heavy hitters including Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, James Fenimore Cooper and Bret Harte. Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was likely America’s first literary masterpiece, and it still holds up excellently today. In the perfect combination of horror and humor, Irving manages to satirize American folklore while creating his own enduring piece of it. From Poe we get not one of his macabre horror tales but rather the satisfying treasure hunt adventure “The Gold-Bug.” Cooper’s offering, “Corporal Flint’s Murder,” is a solemn tale of White vs. Native American conflict, like a scene lifted straight out of the Leatherstocking Tales. From the mining camp sketches of champion yarn-spinner Harte comes “Uncle Jim and Uncle Billy,” a well crafted and vividly drawn tale of two inseparable claim partners who reach a critical point in their relationship.

So far so good, but overall the collection takes a downward dive from there. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s entry “The Notary of Perigueux” is a bit of a disappointment, given his illustrious name. Still, there are gems here and there. O. Henry delivers an entertaining tale with “The Count and the Wedding Guest.” Of the writers I would consider second-tier authors, Frank Stockton scores with a comedic yarn and Anna Katharine Green provides a tale of suspense reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One of the best stories, “Miss Tooker’s Wedding Gift,” is by an author I’ve never heard of, John Kendrick Bangs. It concerns an idle rich man who goes to great lengths to prove his worth to the woman he loves, with hilarious results. Other pleasant surprises spring from the pens of F. Hopkinson Smith and Charles G. D. Roberts. Too many of the remaining selections are mediocre at best, with the worst being two brief fables by George Ade that amount to little more than dumb punch lines. When taken as a whole, however, the balance sheet is favorable, and the collection hits more than it misses.

You’re not going to find many tales of profound insight or emotional power here. Editor William Patten’s intention seems to have been to pleasantly entertain, so, with few exceptions, what you get are clever, lighthearted tales with surprise endings. This is by no means the best collection of century-old short fiction I’ve ever read, but it’s pretty good overall. Readers who like this sort of thing might also check out the Stories by American Authors series, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884, of which volumes III, VI, and X are the best.

Stories in this collection
The Prophetic Pictures by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving 
The Gold-Bug by Edgar Allen Poe 
Corporal Flint’s Murder by James Fenimore Cooper 
Uncle Jim and Uncle Billy by Bret Harte 
The Notary of Perigueux by H. W. Longfellow 
The Widow’s Cruise by F. R. Stockton 
The Count and the Wedding Guest by O. Henry 
Miss Tooker’s Wedding Gift by John Kendrick Bangs 
The Fable of the Two Mandolin Players and the Willing Performer by George Ade 
The Fable of the Preacher Who Flew His Kite, But Not Because He Wished To Do So by George Ade

The Shadows on the Wall by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman 

Major Perdue’s Bargain by Joel Chandler Harris 

A Kentucky Cinderella by F. Hopkinson Smith 

By the Waters of Paradise by F. Marion Crawford 

A Memorable Night by Anna Katharine Green 

The Man From Red Dog by Alfred Henry Lewis 

Jean Michaud’s Little Ship by Charles G. D. Roberts 

Those Old Lunes! by W. Gilmore Simms 

The Chiropodist by Bayard Taylor

“Mr. Dooley on Corporal Punishment” by F. P. Dunne 

Over a Wood Fire by Donald G. Mitchell 


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