Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie

Poirot Investigates
Agatha Christie
1925, England

Entry number four in the ongoing Agatha Christie challenge keeps us with Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings, only instead of a single mystery, we now have a set of fourteen unconnected short stories. (A side note: this is the American edition – the UK edition only contains 11.) These stories originally appeared in magazine format (Sketch in the UK, from April to October of 1923; Blue Book Magazine in the US, from October 1923 to April 1925), and were collected for publication in book format in 1924 (UK) and 1925 (US).

These are much on the same lines as the first two Hercule Poirot novel entries – Poirot exercises his grey cells, Hastings is obtuse, and the mystery is neatly wrapped up in the final pages. (Well…perhaps “The Chocolate Box” is less true to these lines, but it would be spoiling things to say too much.) However, rather than reminding me strictly of The Mysterious Affair at Styles or Murder on the Links, what really sprung to mind were the short mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. From reading the earlier novels, it was already apparent that Christie’s characters owed a debt to Doyle, but here I was even more forcefully reminded of his short story format. As in so many Holmes stories, we frequently see Poirot sitting in his rooms when a client arrives with a tricky little puzzle for Poirot to solve. In the opening story, “The Adventure of the ‘Western Star,’” he quickly deduces that the young woman walking up the street is coming to see him. And in “The Veiled Lady,” Poirot bemoans the quality of the criminal class (specifically his lack of interesting cases) and remarks that perhaps he should have taken up criminal acts himself. The ghost of Holmes haunts continually. This all adds up to the suggestion that these are still early Christie. On the other hand, I noticed less of the tendency to have Poirot solve the crime by means  of knowledge the reader doesn’t (and can’t) have; even when he seems to have pulled the answer out of thin air, a revisit to the start of the story shows tracks carefully laid for the reader. And we still get the opportunity to outwit Hastings, who remains remarkably obtuse at times, a perfect foil to Poirot.

All-in-all, they are enjoyable little diversions. None perhaps terribly memorable on their own, but each easily readable in a short bit of time, perfect as the just-before-bed read.

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Ficciones
Jorge Luis Borges
(1956 ed., Argentina)

In searching out my copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude (for a readalong I’m currently failing at) I found a sticky note on the front of the Spanish language edition. It my handwriting, “Read Ficciones first, then One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I don’t now recall why I wrote this instruction to myself. Was it a recommendation I ran across somewhere? Or was it the blurb on the front cover of my copy of Ficciones from Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, “Without Borges the modern Latin American novel simply would not exist”? I don’t know. Regardless, I had planned to read Ficciones this year anyways, in part for Richard’s (Caravana de recuerdos) 2020 Argentine literature event, so I pulled it off my shelf and began.

I’ve actually read the first four stories previously but was apparently not inspired to work further. For I find that Borges IS work—in a good way. These are not light afternoon garden parties of stories, they are morning lectures by an erudite professor. The more the reader puts in, the more they will be rewarded. The more the reader returns, the more there is to see.

An Argentinian by birth, Borges was of Spanish, Portuguese and English heritage. As a youth, his family moved to Switzerland and, after World War I, he traveled and lived throughout Europe for some years.  Over the years, his style would continue to develop, touching on fantasy, philosophy, and perhaps even, per some critics, containing the beginnings of Latin American realismo magico. (I see hints of it, but I’m hardly an expert.) It is evident from his stories that not was only was Borges well-traveled but well-read, on a wide range of topics. Returning to his work now, ­­eight years after my first attempt, I am grateful for the lapse of time, for it has given me the opportunity to encounter more of Borges’s references for myself—even if I am still woefully ignorant of many of them (i.e., Schopenhauer, who remains just a name to me).

As currently published, Ficciones is a collection of two volumes, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941) and Artifices (1944; 3 stories added to 1956 edition). I’m not sure I can quite explain it, but I found tonal differences between the two parts. It seems to me that The Garden of Forking Paths is more experimental, while Artifices is more straightforward, but no, that doesn’t seem quite right either. Perhaps I was just getting more “used” to Borges by the time I reached the second half. There are themes the recur throughout both halves: fictional books, fictional authors, fictional lands, mirrors, multiplications, labyrinths, libraries. Many of his stories could be classified as a type of fantasy, but not the fantasy that gets all the press – far more philosophical; I think that’s the right word. (I’m hampered here by my near-zero knowledge of philosophy. I know about Plato’s cave and that’s about it. Adding to the to-do list. If you have recommendations of where to start, please share!) There also at times seems something mathematical about it all.

The stories that attract me the most are the ones that have a non-fiction styling about them. The reviews of books that don’t exist (but that sound wondrously interesting). The memorials to authors who never walked this earth. The journalistic account of events that aren’t even possible, or couldn’t have possibly been observed. There is something delightful in the matter-of-fact tone in which they are written. It is something that suggests to me as well the idea of the absurd, of humor sprinkled throughout, even when the stories themselves may relate terrible things.

While there is much that could be said on these—and if I were to do this again, I’d perhaps write up something on each story as I go—for now, I’ll leave it with some thoughts on some of my favorites.

“Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” (1939)

It is unnecessary to add that his aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincide–word for word and line for line–with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

I found “Pierre Menard” to be on the surface one of the most absurd in its concept. It also may be my favorite. It is written as if it is a defense, published in a literary magazine, of the late (fictional) author Pierre Menard, whose most notable work, in the mind of the unnamed critic, was to write portions of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but from his own head, not by copying it down. It seems a mind-boggling impossibility, and yet, it leads to some wonderful ideas regarding literary criticism and contextualization. Taking the concept at face value—had a Pierre Menard really produced Don Quixote in the early twentieth century, there truly would have been a completely different critical and contextual response to the work as compared to its seventeenth century counterpart. How could there not?

 The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.

And at the same time, in its concluding paragraph, it reminds us that in our responses at readers, we read as if these very possibilities were so, for rare is the reader who only ever reads a book in relation to only what was written before without knowledge of all literature that has come after. Many wonderful ideas to consider.

 Menard (perhaps without wishing to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the hesitant and rudimentary art of reading: the technique is one of deliberate anachronism and erroneous attributions. This technique, with its infinite applications, urges us to run through the Odyssey as if it were written after the Aeneid, and to read Le jardin du Centaure by Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique would fill the dullest books with adventure. Would not the attributing of The Imitation of Christ to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce be a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual counsels?

 “The Circular Ruins” (1940)

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though supernatural. He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality.

Of all the stories in the collection, “The Circular Ruins,” perhaps comes closest to our typical pop culture definition of “fantasy.” It tells the story of a man who determines to dream a man into physical being. I am reminded of the myth of Pygmalion, only our creator here seeks to create not of the substance of the earth, but of his mind. His process, his efforts, his results are laid out carefully, suggesting what could almost be called a realistic progression. It is a metaphor of creation, perhaps of the writing process, or any other art form, but perhaps it is a meditation on the ideas of religion and the many creation stories as well. Often, throughout his stories, Borges seems to venture into the realm of religion, but with a skeptical eye.

“The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941)

The last story of the first collection, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” seems at first a straightforward narrative. But as with so many of Borges’s stories, the payoff is in the conclusion. Never assume you know where you’re going until you get there (err…at least if you’re reading as inattentively as I am often guilty of). As with so many of the stories, themes of labyrinths, infinity, circularity recur. Did we have a concept of multiverse before Borges?

Then I reflected that all things happen, happen to one, precisely now. Century follows century, and things happen only in the present. There are countless men in the air, on land and at sea, and all that really happens happens to me.

“Death and the Compass” (1942)

In my notes, I call this a “proper mystery,” though perhaps that could be said of more than one of Borges’s stories. It is simple in its solution, though complex in its deduction. Like other stories in the Artifices half, I found it more straightforward to read. The narrative however, of a detective following a wickedly clever crime, meets me at my fondness for traditional detective fiction, but with the unmistakable markers of Borges still here: a multitude of references (he must have been so well read!), labyrinths, mirrors, Kabbalah, mysticism.

“The End” (1953) and
“The South” (1953)

While “The End” is earlier in the Artifices half of the  collection, the final story of Ficciones is “The South.” And yet it seems fitting for the order to be this way. “The End” is an imagining of the last chapter of Argentine epic Martin Fierro, while “The South” recounts the injury and recovery of a man who has just received a new copy of The Thousand and One Nights. At first, there seems no relation between the two, but as he recovers, Juan Dahlmann travels to the south of the country, the landscape begins to sound like that of “The End,” and we begin to see that perhaps the earlier story illuminates the conclusion of “The South.” Otherwise we are left with only a bit of foreshadowing to inform us. Unless of course, the seemingly straight-forward narrative of “The South” is not as it seems. Tantalizingly, there are several possibilities as to the actual nature, and truth of, the story, and the vagueness in which Borges leaves us seems a fitting end to the collection. (As a side note, with at least two stories in Ficciones referencing Martin Fierro, I have concluded that reading that epic poem needs to move up my “to read” list.)

These are not stories to be rushed through, but rather to be savored, meditated on, digested slowly. They are stories to return to as we grow as readers, to find ever something new, enjoy an ever better understanding. Looking back on the stories as I write this, I find that I want to return to them again, now, yet I think perhaps leaving some time to pass first, may be of infinite value, for how I may change as a reader, and in my understanding, can only promise new richness to come.

I read Ficciones as one of my Classics Club selections, for Richard’s 2020 Argentine Literature of Doom Event, as my selection “A Classic in Translation” for Back to the Classics and for Reading the Classics Challenge.

Completed: The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes

Cover: The Case Book of Sherlock HolmesThe Case Book of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Scotland, 1927

Earlier this year, several years after beginning my journey through the complete Sherlock Holmes, I finally finished reading the last collection of stories, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. (Thank you, 2018 TBR Challenge!) Although an earlier story, “His Last Bow,” is chronologically the last Holmes story (by Doyle at least), the twelve stories in The Case Book are the last of the Holmes stories actually written by Doyle, and were all originally published in The Strand Magazine between October 1921 and April 1927.

It was my impression while reading–and a quick Internet search seems to bear this up–that these stories are not among Doyle’s best work. (Indeed, there are those who think some of the stories weren’t written by Doyle at all!*) To me it almost felt like Doyle was “phoning it in,” that his heart was no longer into the writing of Holmes stories, that he was wanting to let Holmes retire to his beekeeping in peace. [Aside…if BBC/WGBH ever resume the Sherlock series, I wonder if they might choose to eventually retire Sherlock to beekeeping–or what they might decide the 21st century equivalent is?] And as I write these notes up a few weeks after finishing the stories, I realize that I don’t really remember them. (Fortunately I have a copy on hand to flip through.) They just didn’t really strike a deep impression, not even a story with such a sensational title as “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” which of course, being a true Holmes story ended sensibly enough with a perfectly logical explanation. “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” on the other hand, which begins to come back to me now, bordered on science-fiction–perhaps we see here the influence of Doyle’s own Professor Challenger stories?

Although some seemed typical Holmes stories–after a while, you begin to develop a feel for the rhythm of the tales–there was also some divergence from the pattern. One story, “The Adventure of the Mazarin Man,” is written in the third person. Holmes himself narrates “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” which gives the reader an entirely different feel that Watson’s narration. This variation is not necessarily bad, but it certainly strikes a different feel from the “typical” story.

All in all, the collection proved a brief entertainment, but unremarkable. I am sure I will revisit Holmes at some point, though I feel it more likely to be among the earlier stories and novels.

This collection was read as part of my 2018 TBR Challenge list, part of my Mysteries and Detective Fiction project list and for the 20th Century Title for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I call that multi-tasking!

* For example, the Wikipedia Article quotes Kyle Freeman from his Introduction to The Complete Sherlock Holmes as doubting the authorship of “The Mazarin Stone” and “The Three Gables.”

Deal-Me-In Challenge – 2017

The last few years I’ve watched other bloggers make and post lists for a challenge hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis–52 short items (frequently short stories, but often also including poems, essay, or plays), each linked to a specific playing card. The idea: over the course of the coming year to select a card for each week then read that item in the appropriate week of the year. And it’s always been tempting–nothing too long to read, a great way to spend some time with literature types I don’t usually read. I finally succumbed to the temptation year, but under the strict understanding: I will almost certainly fail (I’m placing my bet on week four 😉 ). Actually I stand a lot better chance if I don’t commit to posting on everything I read, so, whether I do or not will probably be by whim. Regardless, I’m hope this helps me continue to push my reading boundaries away from longer forms.
Deal Me In Short Stories Challenge Logo

My List is half short stories / half poems (for weeks with more than one poem, the poems in question are very short). All selections are from collections either on my own shelves or pilfered from my parents (they won’t even notice…)

Hearts – short stories
A – The Leader of the People – John Steinbeck
2 – Mr. Know-All – W. Somerset Maugham
3 – The Old Demon – Pearl S. Buck
4 – Young Archimedes – Aldous Huxley
5 – Butch Minds the Baby – Damon Runyon
6 – Suspicion – Dorothy L. Sayers
7 – The Open Boat – Stephen Crane
8 – My Oedipus Complex – Frank O’Connor
9 – The Snows of Kilimanjaro – Ernest Hemingway
10 – Six Feet of the Country – Nadine Gordimer
J – The Boarding House – James Joyce
Q – The Brute – Joseph Conrad
K – Lead Her Like a Pigeon – Jessamyn West

Spades – short stories
A – Vanka – Anton Chekhov
2 – Hautot and His Son – Guy de Maupassant
3 – A Letter to God – Gregorio López y Fuentes
4 – The Little Bouilloux Girl – Colette
5 – The Ruby – Corrado Alvaro
6 – A Double Game – Alberto Moravia
7 – Maternity – Lilika Nakos
8 – God Sees the Truth, But Waits – Leo Tolstoy
9 – The Walker-Through-Walls – Marcel Aymé
10 – The Augsburg Chalk Circle – Bertolt Brecht
J – The Procurator of Judæa – Anatole France
Q – My Lord, the Baby – Rabindranath Tagore
K – Modern Children – Sholom Aleichem

Diamonds – poetry
A – To the Memory of My Beloved Master, William Shakespeare – Ben Jonson
2 – L’Allegro – John Milton
3 – Il Penseroso – John Milton
4 – Lycidas – John Milton
5 – To a Mouse – Robert Burns
6 – Tam o’ Shanter – Robert Burns
7 – Kubla Khan – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
8 – Morte d’Arthur – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
9 – Ulysses – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
10 – A Grammarian’s Funeral – Robert Browning
J – Pioneers! O Pioneers! – Walt Whitman
Q – O Captain! My Captain! – Walt Whitman
K – When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d – Walt Whitman

Clubs – poetry
A – Sonetos I, LXI, LXXXI – Juan Boscán
2 – Sonetos & “Da mi basia mille” – Cristóbal de Castillejo
3 – Sonetos I, IV, X, XI – Garcilaso de la Vega
4 – Sonetos XIV, XXIII, XXIX, XXXII – Garcilaso de la Vega
5 – Canción III – Garcilaso de la Vega
6 – Canción V – Garcilaso de la Vega
7 – Madrigales I, II & Soneto I – Gutierre de Cetina
8 – Sonetos V, XX, XXIII – Francisco de la Torre
9 – Endecha II – Francisco de la Torre
10 – Soneto al rey nuestro señor – Hernando de Acuña
J – Oda I – Fray Luis de León
Q – Oda III – Fray Luis de León
K – Oda VII – Fray Luis de León

I look forward to starting this one – come Sunday! It should be a nice challenge. A thank you to Jay for hosting.

Completed: Folks from Dixie by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Cover: The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence DunbarFolks from Dixie
Paul Laurence Dunbar
(U.S., Ohio, 1898)
as republished in The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar
Ed. Gene Andrew Jarrett and Thomas Lewis Morgan
Forward by Shelley Fisher Fishkin
(Ohio University Press, 2005)

It is a very fortunate thing that I took notes as I made my way through some of Dunbar’s stories this past spring; it has been so long since that I read them, that my memories have grown faint. Although I had at hand a collection of the entirety of Dunbar’s short fiction, I opted at this point to stick with just those stories making up Folks from Dixie, the first published collection of short stories by Dunbar.

One trouble I had reading the stories from the  21st century perspective was trying to make out where Dunbar was portraying realistic situations (as his contemporary critics praised him for) vs. what was expected by his white audience–was he pandering in stereotype or were his stories accurate? Is it one of those things where we look back years later and see stereotype or cliché but it was fresh or unusual at the time? Regardless, it was an interesting set of stories and characters, with settings in both the north and south, among the poor and the middle class and the previously rich, with characters both black and white. Dialect is employed liberally–and not just African American Vernacular; one of the stories is set in West Virginia and so an Appalachian dialect is used as appropriate. Faith, community, and family are the predominant themes. Some stories are heart-warming, some amusing. Some portray the complexities of relationships between blacks and whites both before and after the Civil War, while some focus entirely on African American characters.

Even more so than I noted in Dunbar’s poetry, a happy–or at least uplifting–ending seems almost requisite. Even when everything seems to have gone wrong, or every opportunity is there for the story to take a darker turn, it always seems to work out in the end. I couldn’t say if this was reflective of Dunbar’s own personality or point-of-view or simply if it was what would sell. (And I know too little of the era’s short stories to know if such positivity was generally common in published short fiction. They do perhaps bring to mind the short stories of L.M. Montgomery which are also consistently uplifting.) In a way though, it is refreshing to read, at least when the current reality of 2016 seems to always want to take the darker path. And it is perhaps our 21st century cynicism that makes me notice Dunbar’s optimism.

“Anner ‘Lizer’s Stumblin’ Block”

A plantation story—all the characters are slaves—yet, it feels odd, as if it is one of those stories that is romanticizing the plantation era, even though written by a descendant of slaves. Quite the contrast to Charles W. Chestnutt. But it is striking to me, from both Dunbar’s and Chestnutt’s stories, there is almost the sound as if slaves were just allowed to walk around wherever—that is, Sam is out “‘coon hunting” and the other slaves go to revival service—I would have thought they’d be more limited, more confined. What is accurate?

In this, Anner ‘Lizer goes to a revival service & finds herself wanting “‘ligion,” but she can never seem to overcome some “stumblin’ block” that keeps her from leaving the “mourner’s bench.” This “stumblin’ block” turns out to be Sam: Anner ‘Lizer isn’t sure if he wants to marry her or Phinny, another slave. It is an ironic story, as seen in the difference between what Anner ‘Lizer is really thinking and what the other slaves think she is thinking, i.e., they think she is solely focused on getting religion, while in reality she can’t get Sam off her mind.

“The Ordeal at Mt. Hope”

He passed vacant lots which lay open and inviting children to healthful play; but instead of marbles or leap-frog or ball, he found little boys in ragged knickerbockers huddled together on the ground, ‘shooting craps’ with precocious avidity and quarrelling over the pennies that made the pitiful wagers. He heard a glib profanity rolling from the lips of children who should have been stumbling through baby catechisms; and his heart ached for them.” (17)

Another southern story, but this one post-war and in an all-black community. It is an interesting look at the contrasts between an educated, northern black man and his uneducated southern small-town counterparts. Although in some ways I suppose it might stereotype, just including a standard-English speaking black man was, I would guess, an accomplishment for the late 1800s. On a certain level, it is a universal story and shows that some things haven’t changed (and some never well)–young folks not doing what their elders want, the lure of alcohol and other temptations, the wariness of a small town of outsiders, the way communities just sit in hopelessness, seemingly unwilling or unable to try to change anything and make things better. Indeed, “Mt. Hope” is an ironic town name, yet true to Dunbar’s form, it is flipped on its head to be accurate by the end.

He could not talk to Elias. He could not lecture him. He would only be dashing his words against the accumulated evil of years of bondage as the ripples of a summer sea beat against a stone wall. It was not the wickedness of this boy he was fighting or even the wrongdoing of Mt. Hope. It was the aggregation of the evils of the fathers, the grandfathers, the masters and mistresses of these people. Against this what could talk avail?” (21)

“The Colonel’s Awakening”

A very sad story of a southern gentleman whose mind has been in the past ever since his two sons were killed in the war. Two of his former slaves (“servants”) care for him, pretending for him that it is just the same as it always was. But rather than romanticizing the antebellum South, with servants staying out of loyalty to their master, it appears that due to age, they don’t know how else they might live. The colonel is however portrayed sympathetically, despite his past slave-holding. Loss is universal.

…and in the haste of the retreat he had been buried with the unknown dead. Into that trench, among the unknown, Colonel Robert Estridge had laid his heart, and there it had stayed. Time stopped, and his faculties wandered. He lived always in the dear past. The present and future were not.” (26)

“The Trial Sermons on Bull-Skin”

A church is in need of a new pastor, but there are two factions who cannot agree on who it should be. It is decided to give the two choices each a Sunday sermon, and the faction leaders embark on plots to win over others to their side while undercutting the other. I found it quite an amusing story, even knowing how common such a congregational fractures are, for Dunbar keeps it lighthearted, and there never seems any real danger that this will split up the church–though perhaps some feelings will be long hurt.

“Jimsella”

Here, we have a portrait of domestic distress: abandonment and adultery, but in the end the power of an infant brings the father/husband back hope. A bit of a sweet story, actually, despite how unpromising it begins. It is yet another example of Dunbar’s penchant for uplifting endings. “Jimsella” is set in a northern city–perhaps New York? According to the introduction to The Complete Stories, this would have been a challenge to preconceived notions of the era’s readers, expecting to only see former slaves or their descendants in the rural south.

“Mt. Pisgah’s Christmas ‘Possum”

This one was perhaps less jolly that I might have expected for a Christmas story, as it turns out that Brother Jabez ate 3 of the 4 Christmas ‘Possums! I admit, before reading this collection, I had never contemplated the thought of eating ‘possum, but apparently it would not have been uncommon in Dunbar’s day, as a number of stories reference it.

“A Family Feud”

The old woman had been a trusted house-servant in one of the wealthiest of the old Kentucky families, and a visit to her never failed to elicit some reminiscence of the interesting past. Aunt Doshy was inordinately proud of her family, as she designated the Venables, and was never weary of detailing accounts of their grandeur and generosity. What if some of the harshness of reality was softened by the distance through which she looked back upon them; what if the glamour of memory did put a halo round the heads of some people who were never meant to be canonised? It was all plain fact to Aunt Doshy…” (45)

This is different in that this story, while a plantation story, is the story of a white family, specifically a father and son, and the split that nearly happens between them over the woman the son chooses to marry. It is told by an old woman who had been a slave on the plantation, and one of the characters was the master’s son’s old nurse who does what it takes to reunite the two. It is interesting to me in that it illustrates the complexities of relationships between master and slaves. There is perhaps a bit of romanticism of the past, but I would guess that–considering the story told in The Help–the idea of such relationship between nurse and son is not complete fiction. A sweet story, really.

“Aunt Mandy’s Investment”

A swindler sets up an investment (Ponzi) scheme, convincing the poor blacks of a city he’s just arrived at that if they invest with him, they will reap the benefits and avoid the white man gaining their money. An old lady, Mandy, comes to him privately to invest her little savings that she might bring her son back from out west. This is a charming story, the reader knowing by now that Dunbar will work it all out–for Mandy at least.

“The Intervention of Peter”

Peter, desperate to prevent his master from dying in a duel (of honor), takes matters into his own hands and is about to fire an old fowling piece at the opponent when discovered, a discovery which causes all concerned (save Peter) to howl with laughter. Looking at this and “A Family Feud,” I notice that Dunbar seems to be showing that the slaves have more sense than their masters. Is this where we see him subverting the plantation story?

“Nelse Hatton’s Vengence”

The people had eaten their suppers, and the male portion of the families had come out in front of their houses to smoke and rest or read the evening paper. Those who had porches drew their rockers out on them, and sat with their feet on the railing. Others took their more humble positions on the front steps, while still others, whose houses were flush with the street, went even so far as to bring their chairs out upon the sidewalk, and over all there was an air of calmness and repose save when a glance through the open doors revealed the housewives busy at their evening dishes, or the blithe voices of the children playing in the street told that little Sally Waters was a-sitting in a saucer or asserted with doubtful veracity that London Bridge Was falling down. Here and there a belated fisherman came straggling up the street that led from the river, every now and then holding up his string of slimy, wiggling catfish in answer to the query ‘Wha’ ‘d you ketch?'” (59)

A tramp shows up on the back door of former slave Nelse Hatton’s house (in Ohio), begging for food. Nelse’s wife reluctantly sets the table at Nelse’s insistence, and he and the tramp have a conversation while the tramp eats, leading to the discovery that the tramp is “Mas’ Tom,” the son of Nelse’s old master. Excited, he wants to introduce his family, but his wife, Eliza, scorns meeting the man who gave her husband a scar on his neck. Her anger brings Nelse’s to rise, and for a moment we are afraid he will do as he once vowed and kill the man. But in the end, Tom Hatton having expressed remorse for the scar, Nelse gives him his Sunday suit and money to return home to Kentucky.

This is another illustration of the complex relations between (ex)slaves and (ex)masters. But I think the kicker is Nelse’s final statement: “Bless God, ‘Lizzy, I feel as good as a young convert.” Religion/faith may not be overt in this story, but it colors the end.

“At Shaft 11”

Unlike the other stories, in this one, a white man, Jason Andrews, is the primary protagonist, or at least as much as anyone is in the story. (A black man, Sam Bowles, is another.) It is a story of a mine strike—and it seems to be anti-union.  Or at least, pro-capitalist. The black men are the strike breakers, Jason is against the strike, but has left the mine so his white friends can’t say he profited. This interaction between black and white takes on an interesting dimension when it also equals strikers vs. strike breakers: even without a racial aspect, tension leading to violence seems highly likely. Interesting to me, also, unlike Chestnutt’s stories in which his ex-slave story teller frequently used “n—-r” to refer to his fellow African Americans, this was the first story in which Dunbar employed the term, and there in the voice of the strikers.

“The Deliberation of Mr. Dunkin”

This is a very familiar story, about the courting of a very pretty young woman, Miss Callena Johnson, the new school teacher, by Mr. Alonzo Taft, although he is supposedly acting on behalf of his friend, Mr. Dunkin.  It is so familiar, in fact, that I read it already this year—The Two Gentlemen of Verona— and I’m sure elsewhere as well. Of course, all works out in the end, and the collection ends on a very charming note.

3/3 posts relating to my spring reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar works. Read as part of my Reading Ohio project and for the category “a volume of classic short stories” for the Back to the Classics Challenge.