(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Asbury Fox is a failed writer. Leaving behind the provincialism of his small-town southern roots, he moved to New York to seek his destiny as a playwright, novelist, and poet. His legacy, however, consists only of “two lifeless novels . . . stationary plays . . . prosy poems . . . sketchy short stories.” He returns home believing that he is dying of some unnamed disease. He is also out of money.

Met at the train station by his mother and sister, Asbury certainly looks like one about to die, and his mother immediately plans Asbury’s recuperation: mornings are devoted to his writing career, afternoons to helping the black dairy workers milk the farm’s cows and to treatment by Dr. Block, the local physician. Asbury immediately balks; he has come home to die—not to take up the life of the country gentleman. If it had been possible to find a cure, a New York specialist would have found it. His school-principal sister, Mary George, however, refuses to pity him. Skeptical of both his malady and his manner, she scorns her ashen-faced brother and his pseudo-intellectualism.

Asbury’s plan is simply to spend time in reflection on his tragic life. Amid his unsuccessful manuscripts is the chronicle of his short, unhappy ordeal: a long, explanatory letter to his mother that fills two notebooks. Intending it to be read after his death, he regards it as a letter such as that “Kafka had addressed to his father.” In reading it, Mrs. Fox would finally come to understand the degree to which she has been responsible for Asbury’s disappointments: how she domesticated him, squelching his talent and imagination, but “not his desire for these things.” She left him with the worst of both worlds: a taste for artistic achievement without the means to reach it. Although her “literal mind” would not allow her to see the deep...

(The entire section is 756 words.)