In Mark Twain’s “The Man Who Put Up at Gadsby’s”, the narrator and his friend Riley (an “odd” friend as the narrator puts it), both journalists, walk down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D. C. in the midst of a winter storm when they are met by Mr. Lykins, a teacher from San Francisco who aspires to a post-office position in his California home.
Perhaps because Riley is amused at Mr. Lykins for thinking these journalists will have some sort of pull to get him the position he’s looking for, Riley proceeds to tell Mr. Lykins a story:
He backed Mr. Lykins against an iron fence, buttonholed him, fastened him with his eye, like the Ancient Mariner, and proceeded to unfold his narrative as placidly and peacefully as if we were all stretched comfortably in a blossomy summer meadow instead of being persecuted by a wintry midnight tempest…
The story goes on longer than Mr. Lykin probably expects and has nothing to do with Mr. Lykin’s ambitions. In spite of Riley’s “oddness”, Twain throws his sympathies to him for being able to keep Mr. Lykin’s attention for so long with no specific point.
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History was always just names and dates to him…the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him.
Bobbie Ann Mason’s short story “Shiloh” takes the disintegrating marriage of Leroy and Norma Jean Moffit to the location of the Civil War battle at Shiloh on the Tennessee River. Mason contrasts history and tradition with the here and now, the present, and all the changes that go along with this contrast.
With third-person narration, the reader gets Leroy’s point of view but an unusual dynamic exists between the three characters of the story, Leroy and Norma Jean and Norma Jean’s mother, Mabel. Leroy’s mother-in-law isn’t suppose to like Leroy because he got Norma Jean pregnant out-of-wedlock though they lost the baby. However, Norma Jean’s insistence on going to school and having a career unnerves Mabel to the point where Mabel, without really knowing it, takes Leroy’s side in her daughter’s marital matters. Leroy relies mostly on tradition to try to keep his marriage together.
It’s Mabel’s idea for the couple to visit the Shiloh battle site. Mabel and her husband went there on their honeymoon and somehow she thinks all this “history” will spark something in Norma Jean and she can have a happy marriage – or at least a marriage with which Mabel can be comfortable.
Even from the beginning of the story, one can guess how successful Mabel is going to be.
“Shiloh” is included in the collection Shiloh and Other Stories by Bobbie Ann Mason that I borrowed from my public library. I read it when I selected the Four of Clubs for Week 21 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
“Be pure, honest, sober, industrious, and considerate of others, and success in life is assured.”
Mark Twain’s “Edward Mills and George Benton: A Tale” ploughs through terrain we’ve experienced before specifically in “The Story of the Bad Little Boy” and “The Story of the Good Little Boy”.
This story includes the same theme of turning the results of moral choices on its head much the same way the above stories do; however, this one contrasts two orphaned cousins adopted by the same parents. One falls under the good little boy category and one under the bad little boy.
Given the contrast between the two boys, I would say “Edward Mills and George Benton: A Tale” is the better of the three stories. Is it funnier? Perhaps. But it’s not difficult to guess from early on that the advice given by the parents to the boys that I quoted above doesn’t turn out quite the way the parents think it will.
“How wonderful it is! Two little hours ago I was a free man, and now my heart’s in San Francisco!”
In “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton”, Mark Twain gives us another hilarious situation involving technology. This time it’s that new fangled thing called a telephone.
With Alonzo in Maine on a boring snowy day, he uses the new invention to call his Aunt Susan in San Francisco. While talking, Alonzo overhears an almost lovely singing voice (a few notes are flat) and inquires as to who it might be. This is the start of a beautiful relationship between Alonzo and Ronsannah Ethelton – even though they can’t see each other.
The biggest laughs come when Twain gives lengthy descriptions of what each party is wearing even though we know they can’t see each other. In another instance someone picks up the phone and pretends to be someone else giving the relationship its first little bump in the road.
I’ll leave the ultimate resolution of the relationship to anyone who might want to read this story themselves.
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My collection Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia (edited by Charles Dodd White and Page Seay) includes a story by Mindy Beth Miller entitled “Real Good Man”. I’m not familiar with the author and could not find much on the internet about her other than she has connections to Hazard, Kentucky and Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. I read this story when I selected the Queen of Clubs for Week 20 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
“Real Good Man” comes as a pleasant surprise from a new-to-me author even if it wasn’t a story with a pleasant topic. Paul and Desta live somewhere in the mountains (I’ll guess its Kentucky but that’s only a guess) and Paul has had a difficult time holding down a job. While this frustrates Desta, she appears to want to stand by her husband.
The majority of the story comes from Paul’s point of view as he wanders around town trying to make sense of things and trying to find a job – not succeeding at either of them.
Miller grasps the complexity of the unemployed as Paul teeters between comdemning himself and condemning others. As with many of the stories I’ve read that are set in Appalachia, the landscape and natural world play an important part but the beauty of the stars in the night sky doesn’t take away the desperation Paul feels during the day.
As Paul wanders the almost deserted town, he stops by an antique shop because Hess, the owner happens to be sitting outside. Much like a sage, Hess offers Paul his point of view:
“People just flat don’t care,” Hess said, holding out his hand. “Their world is not your world. They don’t see you in it.”
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Then the leaves began to ruffle like they do when the light gets green, and my grandfather said to me,”Son, it’s gonna hail.”
My appreciation for Kentucky author Robert Penn Warren grows with every story of his that I read and that didn’t change with “When the Light Gets Green”.
A young boy gives the reader a look at his grandfather in the years just prior to World War I. The grandfather fought in the Civil War and made less than successful attempts at raising horses and tobacco. His daughters called him”visionary” because he read books and memorized poetry but also blame his lack of success on this visionary aspect.
Warren seamlessly describes the landscape as the grandson describes his grandfather. As beautiful as this natural world might be, it’s never quite considered a friend and in some ways it’s an enemy – a world that destroys as much as it might give.
The reader knows nothing about the grandson’s parents other than they are not around. His aunt and uncle also live with his grandfather and as war breaks out and his grandfather ages, the reader knows that he no longer lives with them.
While the grandson recognizes that he has no feelings for his grandfather, Warren manages to give this story an emotional punch for the reader.
This story is included in Robert Penn Warren’s collection The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories which I borrowed from my public library. I read it when I selected the Seven of Clubs for Week 19 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
He carefully made up his mind, and once more entered the field – this time to make a collection of echoes.
“Of what?” said I.
In Mark Twain’s “The Canvasser’s Tale”, the canvasser tells the narrator the story of his uncle who buys and sells echoes. While he manages to make some money, of course, eventually everything falls through.
It’s the 19th century version of derivitives. Or the 19th century version of Enron. Or the 19th century version of the 21st century’s Great Recession. Well, OK, I realize there have been other recessions and depressions since the 19th century so maybe my analogy went a little too far.
But Mark Twain is quite the prophet.