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An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

Mr. Stockton

Title:     Mr. Stockton
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

Sept. 21, 1895. Stevenson's Testimony.

In his chapter of "Personal Memories," printed in the _Century Magazine_ of July last, Mr. Gosse speaks of the peculiar esteem in which Mr. Frank R. Stockton's stories were held by Robert Louis Stevenson. "When I was going to America to lecture, he was particularly anxious that I should lay at the feet of Mr. Frank R. Stockton his homage, couched in the following lines:--

My Stockton if I failed to like,
It were a sheer depravity;
For I went down with the 'Thomas Hyke,'
And up with the 'Negative Gravity.'

He adored these tales of Mr. Stockton's, a taste which must be shared by all good men."

It is shared at any rate by some thousands of people on this side of the Atlantic. Only, one is not quite sure how far their admiration extends. As far as can be guessed--for I have never come across any British attempt at a serious appreciation of Mr. Stockton--the general disposition is to regard him as an amusing kind of "cuss" with a queer kink in his fancy, who writes puzzling little stories that make you smile. As for taking him seriously, "why he doesn't even profess to write seriously"--an absurd objection, of course; but good enough for the present-day reviewer, who sits up all night in order that the public may have his earliest possible opinion on the Reminiscences of Bishop A, or the Personal Recollections of Field-Marshal B, or a Tour taken in Ireland by the Honorable Mrs. C. For criticism just now, as a mere matter of business convenience, provides a relative importance for books before they appear; and in this classification the space allotted to fiction and labelled "important" is crowded for the moment with works dealing with religious or sexual difficulties. Everyone has read _Rudder Grange_, _The Lady or the Tiger?_ and _A Borrowed Month_; but somehow few people seem to think of them as subjects for serious criticism.

"Classical" qualities.

And yet these stories are almost classics. That is to say, they have the classical qualities, and only need time to ripen them into classics: for nothing but age divides a story of the quality of _The Lady or the Tiger?_ (for instance) from a story of the quality of _Rip Van Winkle_. They are full of wit; but the wit never chokes the style, which is simple and pellucid. Their fanciful postulates being granted, they are absolutely rational. And they are in a high degree original. Originality, good temper, good sense, moderation, wit--these are classical qualities: and he is a rare benefactor who employs them all for the amusement of the world.

A Comparison.

At first sight it may seem absurd to compare Mr. Stockton with Defoe. You can scarcely imagine two men with more dissimilar notions of the value of gracefulness and humor, or with more divergent aims in writing. Mr. Stockton is nothing if not fanciful, and Defoe is hardly fanciful at all. Nevertheless in reading one I am constantly reminded of the other. You must remember Mr. Stockton's habit is to confine his eccentricities of fancy to the postulates of a tale. He starts with some wildly unusual--but, as a rule, not impossible--conjuncture of circumstances. This being granted, however, he deduces his story logically and precisely, appealing never to our passions and almost constantly to our common sense. His people are as full of common-sense as Defoe's. They may have more pluck than the average man or woman, and they usually have more adaptability; but they apply to extraordinary circumstances the good unsentimental reasoning of ordinary life, and usually with the happiest results. The shipwreck of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine was extraordinary enough, but their subsequent conduct was rational almost to precision: and in story-telling rationality does for fancy what economy of emotional utterances does for emotion. We may apply to Mr. Stockton's tales a remark which Mr. Saintsbury let fall some years ago upon dream-literature. He was speaking particularly of Flaubert's _Tentation de Saint Antoine_:--

"The capacities of dreams and hallucinations for literary treatment are undoubted. But most writers, including even De Quincey, who have tried this style, have erred, inasmuch as they have endeavoured to throw a portion of the mystery with which the waking mind invests dreams over the dream itself. Anyone's experience is sufficient to show that this is wrong. The events of dreams as they happen are quite plain and matter-of-fact, and it is only in the intervals, and, so to speak, the scene-shifting of dreaming, that any suspicion of strangeness occurs to the dreamer."

A dream, however wild, is quite plain and matter-of-fact to the dreamer; therefore, for verisimilitude, the narrative of a dream should be quite plain and matter-of-fact. In the same way the narrator of an extremely fanciful tale should--since verisimilitude is the first aim of story-telling--attempt to exclude all suspicion of the unnatural from his reader's mind. And this is only done by persuading him that no suspicion of the unnatural occurred to the actors in the story. And this again is best managed by making his characters persons of sound every-day common sense. "If _these_ are not upset by what befalls them, why"--is the unconscious inference--"why in the world should _I_ be upset?"

So, in spite of the enormous difference between the two writers, there has been no one since Defoe who so carefully as Mr. Stockton regulates the actions of his characters by strict common sense. Nor do I at the moment remember any writer who comes closer to Defoe in mathematical care for detail. In the case of the True-born Englishman this carefulness was sometimes overdone--as when he makes Colonel Jack remember with exactness the lists of articles he stole as a boy, and their value. In the _Adventures of Captain Horn_ the machinery which conceals and guards the Peruvian treasure is so elaborately described that one is tempted to believe Mr. Stockton must have constructed a working model of it with his own hands before he sat down to write the book. In a way, this accuracy of detail is part of the common-sense character of the narrative, and undoubtedly helps the verisimilitude enormously.

A Genuine American.

But to my mind Mr. Stockton's characters are even more original than the machinery of his stories. And in their originality they reflect not only Mr. Stockton himself, but the race from which they and their author spring. In fact, they seem to me about the most genuinely American things in American fiction. After all, when one comes to think of it, Mrs. Lecks and Captain Horn merely illustrate that ready adaptation of Anglo-Saxon pluck and businesslike common sense to savage and unusual circumstances which has been the real secret of the colonization of the North American Continent. Captain Horn's discovery and winning of the treasure may differ accidentally, but do not differ in essence, from a thousand true tales of commercial triumph in the great Central Plain or on the Pacific Slope. And in the heroine of the book we recognize those very qualities and aptitudes for which we have all learnt to admire and esteem the American girl. They are hero and heroine, and so of course we are presented with the better side of a national character; but then it has been the better side which has done the business. The bitterest critic of things American will not deny that Mr. Stockton's characters are typical Americans, and could not belong to any other nation in the world. Nor can he deny that they combine sobriety with pluck, and businesslike behavior with good feeling; that they are as full of honor as of resource, and as sportsmanlike as sagacious. That people with such characteristics should be recognizable by us as typical Americans is a sufficient answer to half the nonsense which is being talked just now _à propos_ of a recent silly contest for the America Cup.

Nationality apart, if anyone wants a good stirring story, _Captain Horn_ is the story for his money. It has loose ends, and the concluding chapter ties up an end that might well have been left loose; but if a better story of adventure has been written of late I wish somebody would tell me its name.

[The end]
Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: Mr. Stockton