Her editor published her work for several years before realizing she wasn’t a man

Posted by | May 18, 2017

“The clouds were blowing away from a densely instarred sky; the moon was hardly more than a crescent and dipping low in the west, but he could see the sombre outline of the opposite mountain, and the white mists that shifted in a ghostly and elusive fashion along the summit. The night was still, save for a late katydid, spared by the frost, and piping shrilly.

“He experienced a terrible shock of surprise when a sudden voice—a voice he had never heard before—cried out sharply, ‘Hello there! Help! help!’

“As he pressed tremulously forward, he beheld a sight which made him ask himself if it were possible that Alf Coggin had sent for him to join in some nefarious work which had ended in leaving a man—a stranger—bound to the old lightning-scathed tree.

“Even in the uncertain light Tom could see that he was pallid and panting, evidently exhausted in some desperate struggle: there was blood on his face, his clothes were torn, and by all odds he was the angriest man that was ever waylaid and robbed.

“‘Ter-morrer he’ll be jes’ a-swoopin’!’ thought Tom, tremulously untying the complicated knots, and listening to his threats of vengeance on the unknown robbers, ‘an’ every critter on the mounting will git a clutch from his claws.’

“And in fact, it was hardly daybreak before the constable of the district, who lived hard by in the valley, was informed of all the details of the affair, so far as known to Tom or the Traveler,—for thus the mountaineers designated him, as if he were the only one in the world.”

—from The Young Mountaineers / Short Stories, by Charles Egbert Craddock, with illustrations by Malcolm Fraser, 1897

Tennessee author Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1922), better known as Charles Egbert Craddock, was born in Murfreesboro, TN. For fifteen years she spent her summers in the Tennessee mountains among the people of whom she writes.

“Miss Seawell might have written her stories from anywhere, but that is not true of the greatest woman writer in the South, Miss Mary Murfree,” commented Anna Leach in Literary Workers of the South (1895).

“It is her delineations of mountain character, and her descriptions of mountain scenery, that have placed her work in the place it holds. Her style is bold, full of humor, and yet as delicate as a bit of lace. To Mary Wilkins’ gift of giving exact pictures of homely life, Miss Murfree unites great power of plot and a keen wit. The little old woman who sits on the edge of a chair in one of her novels, has added stores to America’s proverbs. ‘There ain’t nothin’ so becomin’ to a fool as a shet mouth,’ has taken its place with its older kindred.”

“Her work was published by a well known Boston editor for several years before he discovered that she was not a man. Her handwriting is very heavy and black, and it was Mr. Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s joke to say, ‘I wonder if Craddock has taken in his winter supply of ink, and can let me have a serial.’

“One day a card came to Mr. Aldrich bearing the well known name in the well known writing, and the editor rushed out to greet his old contributor, expecting to see a sturdy Tennessee mountaineer. When a slight, delicate little woman arose to answer his greeting, it is said that Mr. Aldrich put his hands before his face, and simply spun around without a word, absolutely bewildered by astonishment.”

Charles Egbert Craddock“The sensation in the Atlantic office spread everywhere and gave tremendous vogue not only to the book but to the type of short story that it represented,” observed the Cambridge History of English and American Literature in retrospect. “No one had gone quite so far before: the dialect was pressed to an extreme that made it almost unintelligible; grotesque localisms in manners and point of view were made central; and all was displayed before a curtain of mountains splashed with broad colours.”

Murfree’s critical reputation has not fared well more recently. “Her fiction has been consistently criticized for its stereotyping of the mountaineer and for its overblown, highly romanticized descriptions of the landscape,” says Allison Ensor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Almost every reader notices the wide gap between the tone and vocabulary of the narrator and the mountain dialect of her characters. Like many other local color writers, she felt it necessary to provide as narrator a cultured, sophisticated intermediary, someone like the reader she hoped to reach.”

sources: http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/imagegallery.php?EntryID=M131
Literary Workers of the South, by Anna Leach, Munsey’s, 1895 at www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/murfree.htm
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21) VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.


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