Monday, January 25, 2016

Stories by American Authors, Volume X by T. A. Janvier, et al.

Series ends on a high note
E. P. Mitchell
This is the tenth and final volume in the Stories by American Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons from 1884 to 1885. The series showcases a grab bag of short fiction from a variety of American writers, the vast majority of whom have since been forgotten. Overall, I’ve been disappointed with the quality of the selections. Even those who ordinarily enjoy 19th-century fiction may find many of the stories to be dull and uninspired. However, the series does have its treasures buried here and there, Volume X more than most.

The first story, “Pancha” by T. A. Janvier, is set in Monterey, Mexico. The title character is a poor young woman who falls in love with the dashing leader of a gang of smugglers. The narrative combines the quaint familiarity of a folk tale with the exaggerated romantic melodrama of an opera. Janvier depicts working-class Mexican life in a realistic manner that’s free of first-world condescension. The biggest surprise in the book is “The Ablest Man in the World” by E. P. Mitchell. An American traveler in Baden, Switzerland is mistaken for a doctor and forced to attend to an ailing Russian baron. From there the story moves into science fiction territory best left unrevealed. “Young Moll’s Peevy” by C. A. Stephens is a Jack Londonesque tale about an enormous log jam on a Canadian river. When conventional methods to free the jam prove unsuccessful, the lumbermen must resort to drastic measures. Charles de Kay’s “Manmat’ha” is a delightfully bizarre yarn in which the narrator, out for a hike along the New Jersey coast, comes into contact with an invisible being. Like Mitchell’s story, this one takes you in directions you’d never expect for 19th century literature. Yet another strong entry is “The Story of Two Lives” by Julia Schayer. In a small western town, a young girl notifies her parents of a brief conversation she had with a tramp who has wandered into the neighborhood. The married couple are obviously disturbed, as if they fear this stranger may be a visitor from their distant past. This story resembles one of the intricate, moving backstories one finds in a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle murder mystery, only without the murder. Each of these five selections is founded on an interesting premise, and all exhibit fine storytelling, yet each is kept from perfection by too much flowery, poetic prose—so appreciated by the readers of a bygone era—that only serves to hinder clarity and deaden excitement.

The one weak entry in the collection is H. H. Boyesen’s “A Daring Fiction.” An American student in Leipzig is hosted by a German family with three marriageable daughters, who all compete for his attention. To cool their ardor, he invents a fictional fiancée named Miss Jones. Imagine his surprise when, the next time he shows up at their door, they have discovered a Miss Jones whom they presume to be his betrothed. This is the one comic effort in the book, and, as is too often the case in this series, the humor has not survived the intervening century intact.

There are no masterpieces here, but some good solid storytelling. A few of the authors included, like Janvier, Mitchell, and Stephens, prove themselves worthy of further investigation. Volume X is one of the best volumes in the Stories by American Authors series, along with Volumes III and VI. If you think you might be interested in this series, but not sure you want to commit to ten books, start with one of these three and see how you like it.

Stories in this collection
Pancha by T. A. Janvier 
The Ablest Man in the World by E. P. Mitchell 
Young Moll’s Peevy by C. A. Stephens 
Manmat’ha by Charles de Kay 
A Daring Fiction by H. H. Boyesen 
The Story of Two Lives by Julia Schayer

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