March 4, 2011

The curtain was wrung down

The issue of the Boston Evening Transcript for March 4, 1885, reported a "genuine surprise" for some of Boston's literary elite. The prior evening, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and William Dean Howells went to dine with Thomas Bailey Aldrich, then editor of The Atlantic Monthly, to meet one of that magazine's newest sensations. Charles Egbert Craddock, whose writings included "The Dancin' Party at Harrison's Cove" and "In the Tennessee Mountains," was the special guest of the evening. Though they knew the name was a fake, they did not expect that the pseudonym hid that the talented writer was a woman.

For six years, it was not known that Craddock was really Mary N. Murfree, a young writer from St. Louis. As the Transcript reported, "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!"

Aldrich (himself a poet and playwright) had met Murfree the night before and was quite shocked, expecting a strapping and broad-shoulder six-foot man from Tennessee. Knowing that the same reaction would come from Holmes and Howells, he orchestrated the dinner the next evening. The three men, it was reported, referred to Craddock/Murfree using the plural "they" for the evening. Upon seeing her, Holmes is said to have shouted, "He is a woman!" Irony must not have been lost on Howells; during his late tenure on the Atlantic before Aldrich took over, he had published some of the works of Craddock/Murfree. Later, in his Literature and Life: Studies, he praised Craddock/Murfree for the use of regional dialect and local color. But, somewhat passive-aggressively, he referred to her as "Miss Murfree, who so long masqueraded as Charles Egbert Craddock."

*At least one account mentions that Annie Adams Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett were also present. Their reaction is not recorded, so far as I have found.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, Rob! Murfree's _Where the Battle Was Fought_ ( is a really under-read and interesting Civil War/Reconstruction novel.