ON March 4, 1885, the Boston Evening Transcript printed the following paragraph : “Last evening Dr. Holmes and Mr. Howells received a genuine surprise at the hands of the editor of the Atlantic. Mr. Aldrich invited these gentlemen to dine with him, to meet Charles Egbert Craddock, the author of ‘In the Tennessee Mountains,’ Where the Battle was Fought,’ and the remarkable novel now publishing in the Atlantic (” The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains “). The surprise lay in the fact that Charles Egbert Craddock is a pseudonym which for the past six years has veiled the identity of a very brilliant woman Miss Mary N. Murfree of St. Louis.”
Thus the curtain was rung down on one of the neatest comedies ever presented to the American reading public. And what a distinguished cast the comedy had !
It was in May, 1878, during the administration of Mr. Howells, that the readers of the Atlantic were treated to a most delightful, a most refreshing surprise, a story of the Tennessee Mountains, called ” The Dancin’ Party at Harrison’s Cove,” by a new author, Charles Egbert Craddock.
The quaint and unprecedented strain was noticeable in the first colloquial sentence:
“‘ Fur ye see, Mis’ Darley, them Harrison folks over yander ter the cove hev’ de-terminated on a dancin’ party.’ ”
Mr. Howells was pleased with his discovery ; the Atlantic readers then the most critical literary company in America hailed the coming of a promising author; the professional critics hesitated at first and then echoed the popular applause.
Time passed, and Mr. Aldrich took Mr. Howells’s chair in the Atlantic office, and one of the first official acts of the new editor was to write to Charles Egbert Craddock inviting more contributions. Then, pending an answer, he ordered in two Craddock stories that had been left over by reason of a superabundance of some-what more important material.
The response to his invitation came in the shape of a series of as excellent American stories as ever was published ” The Star in the Valley,” ” The Romance of Sunrise Rock,” ” Over on the T’other Mounting,” ” The Harnt that Walks Chilhowee,” ” Electioneering on Big Injun Mounting,” A-Playin’ of Old Sledge at Settlemint,” and the exceptionally long and powerful ” Drifting Down Lost Creek,” which ran through three numbers of the Atlantic. Later there appeared a novel, Where the Battle was Fought,” a work hardly worthy of its predecessors. In time the name of Charles Egbert Craddock was signed to three books : the novel just mentioned, a collection of short stories (” In the Tennessee Mountains”), and to ” Down the Ravine,” a tale for the young folks, in whom the author then took a lively interest. All in all, they were profoundly interesting stories, revealing a deep insight into the manners of the pent-up, ignorant, law-flaunting, hard headed, and pure-hearted mountaineers. Palacio Valdes calls attention to that ” beautiful spectacle ” a virginal man of eighty. John Fox, Jr., who has been walking in the footsteps of the author of ” In the Tennessee Mountains,” once said to us that he had met Southern mountaineers who, at thirty, were as chaste as angels.
But aside from the virility of the Craddock sketches, there were more substantial marks of the author’s masculine sex. There was legal acumen, for instance, which led to the assumption that Craddock was a lawyer who turned to literature for recreation. And there was the bold, manly handwriting inky handwriting a bottle of ink to a page. So inky, indeed, that when Mr. Aldrich thought of asking the Southerner for a serial (” The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains “) he remarked, ” I wonder if Craddock has laid in his winter’s ink yet; perhaps I can get a serial out of him.”
It was already known on Park street, where the old-fashioned headquarters of the Atlantic Monthly are to be seen today, that Charles Egbert Craddock was the psuedonym of M. N. Murfree. ” Ah 1 so his name is Murfree! ” they were exclaiming.
Monday, March 2, 1885, brought three guests from St. Louis to Hotel Vendome, in Boston ; and there they were registered as “W. L. Murfree, Sr.” and ” The Misses Murfree.” But the literary world was still in a state of blissful ignorance.
” Last Monday morning (we quote from a contemporaneous account of the incident), as Mr. Aldrich was in the editorial room of the Atlantic Monthly, word was brought to him that a lady below wished to see him. He went down and met a pleasant young lady, who remarked that she was Charles Egbert Craddock. Mr. Aldrich could hardly have been more astounded had the roof fallen in, and he turned and ran several steps under the pressure of the shock, be-fore he recovered his usually imperturbable presence of mind. He would have been better prepared to find under that name a strapping six-foot Tennesseean than the delicate looking lady before him. He now says he is inclined to doubt the sex of all the other Atlantic’s contributors whom he has not met. There are certain things in George Eliot’s writings which, now that one knows, one can clearly see could have been written only by a woman ; but in the writings of Charles Egbert Craddock there is not the slightest trace of feminine influence. Dr. Holmes and Mr. Howells were equally astonished at meeting Mr. Craddock in Miss Murf ree. Mr. Howells had written that he could not come, owing to another engagement, though he wished very much to ‘ meet Craddock,’ but he was persuaded to come by Mr. Aldrich. On his way he called at a prominent publisher’s, who said : ‘ Tell Craddock to drop around and see us.’ It will hardly be a violation of privacy to say that the evening was a delightful one to all ; that the chief guest was addressed as ‘ they’ by the host in recognition of the quality of Miss Murfree and Charles Egbert Craddock, while the hostess could not lose the latter name from mind, and compromised with ‘ Miss Craddock.’ ”
It is reasonable to inquire why the innocent deception was practiced for so long a time. The author’s brother, William L. Murfree, Jr., once partly illuminated the matter. He said : ” Mr. Aldrich and her publishers knew that Craddock was an assumed name, but never doubted that M. N. Murfree was a man. The nom de plume, her style of writing, and chirography, all contributed to this impression. The name was assumed as well for a cloak in case of failure as to secure the advantage that a man has in literature over a woman. He obtains a quicker reading by the publishers, is better received by the public in the be-ginning, and altogether has an easier time of it. Accident led to the choice of the name, which had been much discussed in the family before being finally determined upon by her in the form used. Those portions of her writings which are called peculiarly masculine are not in any sense affectations. It was never doubted she was a man, and hence there was no reason for the adoption of disguise in writing. Each portion of her work was read to the family before being sent away, and, it may be, sometimes criticized as to some detail ; she is too positive and painstaking to need or allow much interference in the plan or arrangement of her material.”
Inexperience is the only excuse for the idea that prejudice against women exists among either the publishers or the people who read and love books. The proofs in opposition to this idea, especially in these days, are too numerous to present.
The pseudonym came to be chosen in this way : Egbert Craddock was the name of the hero of Miss Murfree’s second story, which was only partly written when the time came to send the manuscript of the first story to the publishers. In doubt regarding what pen-name to adopt, Miss Murfree took the name of her new hero and prefixed Charles to it, just to give it the appearance of verisimilitude. All in all, it was a very happy choice an in-spired choice.
Mary Noailles Murfree was born at ” Grantlands,” near Murfreesboro, Tenn., in 1850. ” Grantlands ” was the family home, inherited from her great-grandfather, Col. Hardy Murfree, a gallant soldier of the Revolution, who, in 1807, moved from his native State of North Carolina to the new State of Tennessee, where he settled near the town that later was given his name. Miss Murfree’s father, William Law Murfree, was a lawyer by profession ; her mother, was Priscilla, the daughter of Judge Dickinson. The names of both her father and her brother have a place in American literature. Mary exhibited “literary aspirations ” even when, as a little girl, she went to school in Nashville ; later she and her sister, Fannie, went to school in Philadelphia.
The Murfrees were hard hit by the War of the Rebellion ; and their distress was emphasized by Mary’s poor health. But the young woman showed a dauntless spirit. Quietly observant, keenly imaginative, and strongly inclined to write, she began to set down her impressions of the life about her, notably the life in the Tennessee mountains, where the family usually spent the summer. With what successful, admirable results, the lovers of American literature know full well. In 1881 the family moved to St. Louis ; but Miss Murfree’s present address is her native town in Tennessee.
She could not fairly be characterized as a dialect writer; her narration is generally excellent; and her power of description is especially praiseworthy. Note, for ex-ample, the life and the grace in the first lines of ” The ‘ Harnt’ that Walks Chilhowee”:
” The breeze freshened, after the sun went down, and the hop and gourd vines were all astir as they clung about the little porch where Clarsie was sitting now, idle at last. The rain-clouds had disappeared, and there bent over the dark, heavily wooded ridges a pale blue sky, with here and there the crystalline sparkle of a star. A halo was shimmering in the east, where the mists had gathered about the great white moon, hanging high above the mountains. Noiseless wings flitted through the dusk ; now and then the bats swept by so close as to move Clarsie’s hair with the wind of their flight. What an airy, glittering, magical thing was that gigantic spider-web suspended between the silver moon and her shining eyes ! Ever and anon there came from the woods a strange, weird, long-drawn sigh, unlike the stir of the wind in the trees, unlike the fret of the water on the rocks. Was it the voice-less sorrow of the sad earth ? There were stars in the night besides those known to astronomers : the stellular fireflies gemmed the black shadows with a fluctuating brilliancy ; they circled in and out of the porch, and touched the leaves above Clarsie’s head with quivering points of light. A steadier and an intenser gleam was advancing along the road, and the sound of languid footsteps came with it; the aroma of tobacco graced the atmosphere, and a tall figure walked up to the gate.”
Note — above the engaging swing of the words the masculine touch, ” the aroma of tobacco graced the atmosphere.” Surely Mr. Aldrich and his associates, not to mention the readers of the Atlantic, were justified in thinking of “Mr. Craddock.” And in the same story you will find another remarkably vivid picture, not large and overwhelming that is not the author’s style ; but small and delicate, with all the scenery of a photograph but even a more impressive appearance of reality the picture of Clarsie sitting at the window in the moonlight.
Miss Murfree’s brother is our authority for the statement that ” Her pictures of people are of types, not individuals ; and where it is thought an individual has been drawn, it is because that person possesses, in a large degree ; the peculiarities of his class.” The vital fact, however, is the author’s success in portraiture ; her skill in infusing vitality into her picturesque characters ; her artistic employment of a cultivated imaginative temperament. Her natural gifts quite suit her choice of subjects, it might be said, superficially ; but beneath the surface of her success is to be seen the artistry that adorns all subjects. She is an artist, as we would say of Miss Jewett or Miss Wilkins. Like them, she would successfully hold the mirror up to nature, anywhere.
Personally, she is of medium height and slight form. Her features are prominent in a square and projecting forehead, large gray eyes, a deep-set Grecian nose, large mouth, and a chin that may be described as accounting for her positiveness. On the whole, a pleasant, magnetic, impressive face. She converses vivaciously, and her friends say she is a captivating story-teller.
Her work is a valuable as well as entertaining contribution to American literature. Indeed, she has covered her field so well that any hope of improving upon her standard, or even of emulating it as laudably, is almost futile.