Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Stories by American Authors, Volume II by Frank R. Stockton, et al.

Second book even worse than the first
Frank R. Stockton
This is the second book in the ten-volume series Stories by American Authors, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. It contains six short stories by six writers who were perhaps notable in their day but are little-known to today’s readers. While I usually enjoy reading classic literature of this time period, I was not impressed with Volume of this series. Volume II, I’m sorry to say, is even more of a disappointment.

A few of the stories are OK, but nothing that anyone should go out of their way to read. “The Transferred Ghost” by Frank R. Stockton is about a benevolent spirit who helps a wishy-washy young man with his love life. Despite one clever twist to the typical ghost story, it’s basically just another run-of-the-mill “will he propose?” yarn. “Sister Silvia” by Mary Agnes Tincker is set in a mountain village outside of Rome. An Italian girl is raised with the intention that when she reaches womanhood she will become a nun, but at the eleventh hour she falls in love. It starts out well enough but gets more predictable as it goes on, ultimately concluding with an unsatisfying ending. The best story in the book is “Mrs. Knollys” by “J.S. of Dale.” A young couple spends their honeymoon at a glacier in Austria, but the bride becomes a widow when her groom falls into a crevasse. There are some genuinely moving moments in this one, but it’s frustratingly executed. Too many unintelligible passages are clogged up with unnecessary German phrases and dubious glaciology.

And that was the better half. 
“A Martyr to Science” by Mary Putnam Jacobi is about a physiologist, depressed over the death of his wife and kids, who loses himself in his research, much of which is ethically questionable. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the story has a really interesting premise, but it just takes forever to develop, and the result is a major bore. Clearly the worst selection in the book is the story by John Eddy entitled “A Dinner-Party: Was it a Success?” To answer the subtitle: no. This is simply the worst story I’ve read in a long, long time. After an interminably pointless dinner conversation it turns into a convoluted mystery. Half the time it’s an unreadable mess, and the other half just doesn’t make any sense. Not much better is “The Mount of Sorrow” by Harriet Prescott Spofford, which proves yet again that if a character is wearing half a locket around her neck, it’s a pretty safe bet that by the end of the story she’s going to find the other half.

Prior to the invention of movies and television, stories such as these were the primary source of entertainment for our great-grandparents’ generation. The experience of reading this book is likely very similar to picking up the latest issue of a literary review like Harper’s, The Argosy, or Century Magazine at an 1880s newsstand. The problem is, most of the stuff that was published in those scores of pulp magazines was mediocre at best. Somewhere amid all that disposable paper and ink there occasionally lies an exceptional work of literature that deserves to be plucked from obscurity and preserved for posterity. The responsibility for that search and rescue operation lies with the editors of collections such as this. In this case, however, the folks at Scribner’s who assembled this series did not perform their duty conscientiously. It’s hard to believe that anyone would consciously choose to include “A Dinner-Party” or “The Mount of Sorrow.” If this is an accurate representation of the best short stories America had to offer at the time, then our nation should have been collectively ashamed of itself.

Stories in this collection
The Transferred Ghost by Frank R. Stockton 
A Martyr to Science by Mary Putnam Jacobi, M. D. 
Mrs. Knollys by J. S. of Dale 
A Dinner-Party by John Eddy 
The Mount of Sorrow by Harriet Prescott Spofford 
Sister Silvia by Mary Agnes Tincker

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