February 24, 2012

Dreiser: nothing else in this life to be fond of

After the success of his first anthology, Edward J. O'Brien published his second compilation The Best American Short Stories on February 24, 1917. His 476-page "Yearbook of the American Short Story" showcased what he deemed the greatest tales published in magazines in the preceding year, 1916. O'Brien also included commentary on these stories and a list of short story collections that saw publication that year. An advertisement for the book is shown here.

A glance at the table of contents shows that most of these writers are long forgotten. The one story that stands out the most might be "The Lost Phoebe" by Theodore Dreiser. About a decade and a half earlier, Dreiser had a hard time publishing Sister Carrie, now recognized as his greatest work. "The Lost Phoebe" originally met with similar difficulty; it was rejected several times over four years before it was finally published in The Century Magazine in 1916.

The story begins with a bleak description of a decaying, breaking home and its furnishings. Here once lived Henry Reifsneider and his wife Phoebe Ann. The story begins 48 years after their marriage but Dreiser describes scenes of the past and the present in a phantasmagorical way, making it unclear what is happening when. Phoebe is already dead, and Henry is too accustomed to his simple, isolated life to do anything differently without her. In fact, one day he decides to go for a walk and look for her. He does not stop until he finds her seven years later:

Old Henry and his wife Phoebe were as fond of each other as it is possible for two old people to be who have nothing else in this life to be fond of. He was a thin old man, seventy when she died, a queer, crotchety person with coarse gray-black hair and beard, quite straggly and unkempt. He looked at you out of dull, fishy, watery eyes that had deep brown crow's-feet at the sides.

In his short analysis of the story, O'Brien concludes that "The Lost Phoebe" is one of the top three stories published that year, "despite serious faults of style and a certain wilful verbosity." He compares it to the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, noting the two authors' "plaintive singing quality, a dull richness of background, and a sharply delineated portraiture, which by a reiterative monotony conveys a poignant effect of tragic futility."

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