Saturday, October 9, 2010

On "The Collected Stories of Ellen Glasgow" by Ellen Glasgow ***

This collection of stories, mostly written right around 1920, constitutes the last of the books in my Gilded Age reading list that had consumed my reading for much of this past year. Modernism dawns, and in Glasgow's very first story here, that essence seems apparent. In "Between Two Shores," the dialogue is snappy and witty, much like any movie's repartee, but much like many a nineteenth-century story (any many a movie for that matter), the story itself seems a bit manufactured. A man on the run finds a woman who is lacking her husband; without her knowledge, he decides to pose as that husband, and somehow things work out in the end, with the woman falling for the man and the two wandering off into the happy beyond.

Quite a few of the stories in the collection have similar kinds of contrived popular plot twists (or--this being nineteenth-century fiction, story-ending didactic morals). And yet, there is an artist at work here, one whom it is fascinating to watch paint her picture. "A Point in Morals" is a frame story that poses the question of whether it is better to assist someone to die or to let that person die in pain. "Thinking Makes It So" is a wish-fulfillment piece in which a writer finds a fan who falls in love with her through words rather than through looks.

"The Difference" is one of the few stories that ends on an almost sad note. In it, a woman convinces herself that it is best to let her husband leave her for another woman out of her great love for him only to discover that the other woman is merely a fling--would that the adulteress truly had been worth such love, the woman wishes, for the fact that she isn't merely cheapens her own love for her husband and his love for her. In "The Artless Age," older women discourse on the dating habits of the younger generation, in what is one of the better set of character depictions in the book.

Glasgow's most interesting stories are the ghost stories, however, which resemble in some ways Ambrose Bierce's. Most of them, however, run along a similar plot line. In each, the narrator goes to some new location and watches another person who he or she discovers by the end of the story is a phantom that only one other person (considered insane by others) can see. What makes the stories interesting, however, is that in each the phantom is a stand-in for some kind of memory that only the one person has access to. In "Dare's Gift" it is the Old South that urges a woman to betray her husband and ruin his career, just as all others who have lived in the same mansion have done. In "The Past," a man lives in the memories of a former wife, who appears as a phantom in the house, much to the man's current wife. In "Whispering Leaves," a child is cared for by his dead Mammy. "The Shadowy Third" serves as almost the opposite of "The Past" and "Whispering Leaves" with a phantom reaping revenge rather than serving as some joyous past memory.

The collection includes editorial notes on the magazine publications and subsequent alterations by Glasgow, which are interesting. The editor, however, also feels the need to pass judgment on each story, spelling out how each falls short of perfection, a practice I found a bit irritating.

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