Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Atlantic Narratives: Modern Short Stories, edited by Charles Swain Thomas

Rather tame and genteel for 1918
Margaret Prescott Montague
Atlantic Narratives: Modern Short Stories, published in 1918, is an anthology of fiction originally published in the pages of Atlantic Monthly magazine. Of the 23 authors selected by editor Charles Swain Thomas for this volume, the majority are women, which is a pleasant surprise for a collection published over a century ago. The only readily recognizable name in the contents, however, is Englishman John Galsworthy, winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The volume opens with a lengthy introduction by Thomas on the art form of the short story. This is best read last, however, because he spoils the plots of some of the stories included in the book. One could also skip it entirely because Thomas doesn’t say anything of much importance. What makes a good story, in his view? Characters, plot, setting, theme—hardly an earth-shattering manifesto of literary criticism. The best one might get from this essay is a long list of stories and authors that Thomas recommends.

When looking for common themes among the stories in this collection, two are immediately apparent: children and widows. Writers of this era loved to prove their literary ability by writing stories from the perspective of precocious children, and we have at least four examples here. I’m not sure why the adult readers of the Atlantic would want to read such tales, which usually devolve into hokey slapstick (Amy Wentworth Stone’s “Possessing Prudence”) or unrealistic nostalgic fantasies about what childhood should have been like (“Garden of Memories” by C. A. Mercer, “The Marble Child” by E. Nesbit). As for the widows, this collection includes no less than six stories with a widow protagonist and one with a widower, not to mention a few spinsters! Some wallow too much in chicken-soup-for-the-soul melodrama, but a few are actually quite good, particularly the ones set in World War I.

In fact, three of the four stories that deal with the First World War are among the best entries in the book. “Hepaticas” by Anne Douglas Sedgwick is a touching tale of loss on the home front, and “Little Brother” by Madeleine Z. Doty is a realistic wartime adventure story set in Belgium. The one that really sticks out like a refreshing sore thumb, however, is Margaret Prescott Montague’s “Of Water and the Spirit,” a brutally frank depiction of battlefields so littered with blood and gore it would make Hemingway blush. Other than the war stories, the most modern entries in the book feature businessmen, such as the Theodore Dreiser-esque “The Failure” by Charles Caldwell Dobie, the Frank Norris-esque “Business is Business” by Henry Seidel Canby, and the Sinclair Lewis-esque “Mr. Squem” by Arthur Russell Taylor.

The feeling one gets from these Atlantic Monthly selections is that literary taste in Boston was rather tame and genteel compared to the naturalist literature that was coming out of San Francisco and the Midwest at this time. Most of the authors contained herein seem content to emulate Nathaniel Hawthorne rather than break any “Modern” ground. In his introduction, Thomas admits that the editorial staff of the Atlantic purposely avoids “bleak” authors in the vein of Emile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, or Guy de Maupassant because “the mission of the magazine has in general been in the sunlit fields or near the hearthfire’s glow.” With the exception of a few selections discussed above, this book delivers an assortment of pleasant stories that somewhat prudishly harken back to literature of the Victorian era. Even with that in mind, this is a good collection but by no means a great one.

Stories in this collection

Introduction by Charles Swain Thomas

The Preliminaries by Cornelia A. P. Comer 

Buttercup Night by John Galsworthy

Hepaticas by Anne Douglas Sedgwick 

Possessing Prudence by Amy Wentworth Stone 

The Glory-Box by Elizabeth Ashe 

The Spirit of the Herd by Dallas Lore Sharp 

In the Pasha’s Garden by H. G. Dwight 

Little Selves by Mary Lerner 

The Failure by Charles Caldwell Dobie 

Business is Business by Henry Seidel Canby 

Nothing by Zephine Humphrey 

A Moth of Peace by Katharine Fullerton Gerould 

In No Strange Land by Katharine Butler 

Little Brother by Madeleine Z. Doty 

What Road Goeth He? by F. J. Louriet 

The Clearer Sight by Ernest Starr 

The Garden of Memories by C. A. Mercer

The Clearest Voice by Margaret Sherwood 

The Marble Child by E. Nesbit

The One Left by E. V. Lucas 

The Legacy of Richard Hughes by Margaret Lynn

Of Water and the Spirit by Margaret Prescott Montague 

Mr. Squem by Arthur Russell Taylor

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment