R.H. STODDARD once said that Octave Thanet was the best writer of short stories in America. In fact, he went further, we believe, and said that he enjoyed her work more than that of any other writer of the day. That was in 1888. Without discussing the value of the opinion, we may say that the fair Westerner is writing as vigorously and as picturesquely as ever ; and right here we shall take the liberty of anticipating a very natural question by reprinting some remarks she made a few years ago :
“How did I come to take the nom de plume of Octave Thanet? Well, really, that was an accident. I was a little wary of having my identity known in the first place, and made up my mind to write under a fictitious name. Octave was the name of a school friend of mine. It is both French and Scotch. I thought if I could find another name to go with it that was both Scotch and French I would adopt that. I was riding on a train one time when we stopped at a way station, and on a siding near where I sat was a freight car painted red. On the side was chalked the word ” Thanet.” What it meant or how it got there I have not the slightest idea, but I decided then and there to adopt it. Lots of people still think that Octave Thanet is a man, and I frequently get letters like this : ‘ My dear Mr. Thanet : I have read your works and I am sure you are a manly man.’ They usually contain a request for a small loan, to be repaid in the near future.”
There is an unmistakable masculine tinge in her style sometimes, and her interests are half masculine. Her interest in the subject of the relations between capital and labor, for instance, is deeper than that of probably any other woman in the land, just as her knowledge of the subject is more extensive. Six years ago, besides she took an active interest in the Flagler case in Washington, and this year she displayed similar activity at Pittsfield, Mass., in connection with the Fosburgh case. It was she, indeed, who advanced the interesting theory that it may not have been thieves that entered the Fosburgh house. ” Has it occurred to any-one,” she asked, “that at the very time the Fosburgh firm were in the midst of a very serious difficulty with a labor union ? ” And then she added what, coming from not merely a student of industrial matters but from an outspoken friend of the American workingman, seems startling : ” It is a characteristic of labor unions to regard a strike as war, and, you know, all is fair in war. Such men are as honest in their conception of right as we are, but they would think it as much a plan of campaign to ‘ do up’ the chief enemy as General Funston did in the capture of Aguinaldo. Men in such a cause would be just the kind to scorn to lay hands on valuables. They are not thieves. But they are as clannish as were the Irish at the time of the Phoenix Park murders, and would never betray their own.”
But more of her sociology, later. Let us turn to her life.
Her name is Alice French, and she was born in Andover, Mass., on March 19, 1850. Her father, George Henry French, was at one time in the bank business with Austin Corbin, and thirty years ago he was the president of the Davenport and St. Paul Railroad. That was some ten years after his change of residence from Andover to Davenport, Iowa. At Davenport he established an iron factory, which business, we understand, is still conducted by his sons. The Frenches, by the way, are of Irish descent. The American branch of the stock was founded by Sir William French, who emigrated to Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. One of his descendants took a prominent part in the Revolutionary War, “The Fighting Parson of Andover ” they called him. Governor Marcus Morton was the father of Miss French’s mother, and Chief Justice Morton was Mrs. French’s brother. On this side the author is descended from the Mayflower immigrants. One of these pioneers married Governor Bradford’s sister.
Miss French was educated at Abbot Academy and at Vassar. Her taste for the pen came as early as that of most other girls for the needle. “I began writing, like many another, at an early age,” she informed an interviewer in Washington six years ago, “and when I was at boarding-school I surreptitiously sent off a number of literary efforts to the magazines, all of which were returned with thanks. No, not all of them, for, through some accident, one was printed in Godey’s Magazine, and I was given a six months’ subscription in payment. I have never in after years received a check which gave me as much pleasure. My earlier efforts were devoted for the most part to very heavy essays on questions of sociology. I was a great student of history and political economy, but for three years I made no addition to my literary work. I read everything that I thought would improve my style, saw every-thing I could that I thought would increase my powers of observation, and literally worked hard at my preparation for a literary career. I wrote two very heavy essays on the subject of pauperism, and ifIhad my own way to-day I would rather write history than fiction. Yet I suppose that fiction is the history of every-day life, and may be made just as true a picture of our day and generation as a more laborious and ambitious effort.
” I sent one story at a time to the Century, and the editor suggested that I would be wise to confine myself to short stories. I cannot say that I wanted to altogether, but I realized that I might make from one hundred dollars to three hundred dollars a year writing on social and economic questions, and as I enjoy spending rather more money than I receive as dividends from an iron mill, I decided to take his ad-vice. Since then I have met with some degree of favor and success. All my stories that I have written since that three years of rest have been printed somewhere,
though not always where they were first sent. I have had stories that I sent to the leading magazines end up in a western weekly paper, and received three dollars and a half, when I had counted on fifty dollars.”
Doubtless the foregoing account may be regarded as reliable. But we have met other conflicting statements. A member of Miss French’s family has been referred to as the author of the statement that her first story was sent to Harper’S Monthly, “and, after a long and weary waiting, it was published in their Bazar, as being not up to the mark of the monthly magazine.” According to Mrs. Lillie B. Chace Wyman, “her sketch called ‘ A Communist’s Wife’ was published by Lippincott’s Magazine in 1878, under the title of ‘ Communists and Capitalists.’ The young author received forty dollars for it.” This may have been one of the two “very heavy essays” to which the author has referred.
However, it was ” The Bishop’s Vagabond,” published in The Atlantic Monthly in January, 1884, which forms the cornerstone of Octave Thanet’s fame. It is a memorable story in many respects. It signalized the author’s first display of her gift of narrative power, and also her first attempt to portray southern character. Mrs. Louise Chandler Moulton used to maintain that the story ” shows Octave Thanet at her best.” It is certainly a remarkable welding of humor and pathos, and the wreck of the train is as dramatic a scene as Sardou himself ever drew.
But, while the dramatic element is in mind, let us take a scene from ” Expiation,” Miss French’s most ambitious work the scene in which Bud Fowler covertly watches Fairfax Rutherford on guard over the villainous Dick Barnabas in the swamp. The guerilla is pleading to be freed, and the hero is sorely perplexed.
” It ‘s no use, Barnabas; I bear you no malice, but I can’t let you go.’
“Ye das n’t let me go ! You ‘re a coward ! ‘ screamed the wretch. His voice was terrible.
” Fairfax’s face was whiter than his. In-stead of replying to the taunt, he pulled a whiskey flask out of his pocket and threw it at the outlaw, calling him to catch it, drink it it would keep the cold out.
“But he would not look at the man gulping down the liquor in furious haste.
“He wheeled his horse to ride back a little distance, thinking to get a better view through the trees, and to call for help. At the same instant Betty Ward shied, and something like a line of white fire sheared the air past him, to bury itself in a cypress-trunk, where it hung quivering Dick Barnabas’s bowie-knife.
Fairfax turned. But not for the useless blow ; he turned because the wood was reverberating with the crash of a gunshot and a scream of agony.
Where Dick had stood there remained only an awful bas-relief of a head and shoulders flung face downward, with out-stretched arms on the smooth black mud. A hand moved once. The wind lifted the long black hair. That was all. In a few moments the smooth black surface was unbroken.
” Bud Fowler stepped calmly down from his perch in a swamp hackberry-tree, at right angles to Fairfax. He was neither pale nor flushed, but sallow and freckled and solemn-looking, as usual. And, as usual, one of his hands was hitching up his trousers.
All that ar good whiskey plumb wasted!’ was his first speech. ‘ Wa’al, he won’t drink no more. I promised maw I ‘d kill ‘im, an’ I done it.’ ”
For a small picture it is one of the most terribly dramatic in American fiction. In excitement it falls short of the rescue of the bishop in ” The Bishop’s Vagabond,” the scene to which we referred previously, but for grimness combined with brevity it is unsurpassably impressive.
Coming back to Mrs. Moulton’s opinion and the question of preference, there has for years been a strong popular and critical liking for ” The Ogre of Ha Ha Bay,” which, it seems to us, shows the author at her best.” This story was printed in The Atlantic Monthly in October, 1885. It won for Miss French the hearty admiration of Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
Truth,” she said to an interviewer once, ” is what I seek above all things else. I want to tell my story as it really is, and describe things and people as they really are “which reminds us of a famous line that Kipling wrote a few years ago. ” I do not try to write ‘purpose stories,’ nor have my stories often a pointed moral. I say what I have to say, and let my readers draw their own conclusions.” Which re-minds us if another intrusion will be excused of what a critic said when ” Ex piation ” and “We All” were new : ” There is a lurid, realistic tone . . . in some of her later fiction that does not impress us as favorably as that which had preceded it.” But Octave Thanet is stubborn in her purposes and erratic, as witness her preposterous ideas on the Fosburgh mystery. She does not court popularity. But we were quoting her remarks :
” Yes, I have written much of western towns. I think it is in the villages and in the country districts that the best of ourAmerican citizenship can be found today, not in the big cities. I am a believer in all things American, and I believe, too, that many Of the social questions that vex us to-day may be solved without hard feeling or trouble if both sides try to understand each other. Sympathy and understanding are needed.”
Miss French’s working hours are as long as the daylight is, but she has her wholesome amusements, also. She loves the southwestern country. There, we are told, she roams enthusiastically, admiring the landscape, which she calls “ideally beautiful “; and her wanderings always strengthen her conviction that there are no forests like the cypress woods in Spring.” She has been wont to spend a part of every summer in the East, on the sands of Cape Cod. It was in the East a decade or so ago, that she acquired no mean skill in photography.
One who has viewed the author at close range says : ” Many seeing Miss French would readily believe her a very contented German. She is of medium height, rather stout, and has light brown, curling hair, now just beginning to mark the flight of time. Her expression is very animated and her conversation vivacious. She excels in cooking and is very domestic.”
She excels, too, we must say, in the writing of short stories. Writers of that sort of literature have become almost as numerous in this country as blades of grass since Mr. Stoddard uttered his very flattering opinion of her, but the name of Octave Thanet is still exceedingly brilliant, and in adeptness of construction and power of expression and vividness of portrayal, the author of ” The Bishop’s Vagabond” still remains among our foremost writers of fiction.