Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1026

Francis Richard Stockton was one of the most popular American humorists of the late nineteenth century, excelling in stories of whimsical fancy, in episodic novels of domestic comedy, and in tales of the occult and supernatural. A descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Stockton was the third son of William Smith Stockton and his second wife, Emily Drean Stockton. Because his physique was generally frail and because he had been born with one leg shorter than the other, young Frank was severely limited in his childhood activities. On his daily walks to school, however, he began to develop his imaginative faculties by orchestrating dramas in his mind, plotting serial tales for his personal diversion. He later noted, “I caused the fanciful creatures who inhabited the world of fairy-land to act . . . as if they were inhabitants of the real world.” Such creative strategy later came to characterize Stockton’s most successful children’s literature and science fiction.{$S[A]Fort, Paul;Stockton, Frank R.}{$S[A]Lewes, John;Stockton, Frank R.}

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At Central High School in Philadelphia, Stockton won a short-story contest, an achievement which encouraged his aspirations toward an eventual career in writing. In 1852, though, when he graduated, Stockton was apprenticed to a wood engraver and for the next fourteen years worked for a living at this craft, accumulating rejection slips for his occasional forays into fiction. By 1859, he had published only two short stories. In 1860, Stockton married Mary Anne (or Marianne) Edwards Tuttle (her first name has also been spelled without the e). He then began to apply himself more vigorously to his writing, and he soon had a serialized tale accepted for publication in the prestigious Southern Literary Messenger, a journal at one time partially written and edited by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). A brief, uncharacteristic political posture manifested itself at this time in Stockton’s life: He published a pamphlet supporting the right of the South to secede from the Union. When Fort Sumter fell, however, Stockton, a genial, amiable gentleman who actually abhorred controversy, withdrew the slender publication and, for the rest of his life, happily avoided any social or political dispute.

When Stockton published “Ting-a-Ling,” a fairy tale about a giant and a dwarf, in Riverside Magazine in 1867, he came to the attention of Mary Mapes Dodge (1831-1905), soon to be recognized as a significant force in children’s literature. Dodge hired Stockton as her assistant editor on Hearth and Home, a periodical for the juvenile market. He was now able to focus his complete attention on the literary arena, and when five years later Dodge assumed the editorship of the classic St. Nicholas magazine, she took Stockton along to continue as her assistant editor. Stockton not only helped edit St. Nicholas but also contributed tales under his own name and under the pseudonyms Paul Fort and John Lewes.

In 1876, Stockton began experiencing eye difficulties, problems exacerbated by his increasingly heavy load of editorial work and his demanding writing schedule; by 1878, he was forced to resign his post at St. Nicholas. From then on, with his wife often acting as his amanuensis and reader, Stockton devoted himself to his own creative writing, with humor constituting his major orientation. He observed, “The discovery that humorous compositions could be used in journals other than those termed comic marked a new era in my life.” Sitting comfortably in his New Jersey home, Stockton dictated stories and novels which, he insisted, were without hidden philosophic meaning or deep, critical implications. Success as an entertainer was his simple aim.

His best-known works now began to appear in book form as well as in such popular magazines of the day as Cosmopolitan, Scribner’s, and the Ladies’ Home Journal. A resounding success was the episodic novel Rudder Grange, vignettes chronicling the misadventures of a newly married couple who, with their shrewd but often miscalculating maid Pomona, settle on a houseboat. The audience demanded sequels, and Stockton delivered more sketches of the hapless group in The Rudder Grangers Abroad, and Other Stories and Pomona’s Travels.

Financial success afforded the Stocktons opportunity to travel, and voyages abroad continued to energize the abundant imagination of the acclaimed humorist, particularly directing him to compose another renowned success, The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, a tale of two widows from a small town in Pennsylvania who, along with a formal gentleman, are shipwrecked but, nevertheless, find themselves in enviable circumstances: They are castaways on a tropical island, yet living in a charming home with a full larder. The Dusantes became the sequel demanded by Stockton’s readership.

Stockton’s most memorable piece, however, the one for which succeeding generations of readers have remembered and will continue to remember his name is “The Lady, or the Tiger?” a tale originally appearing in Century’s Magazine for November, 1882. The story’s challenging conclusion spawned much speculation as intrigued readers endeavored to disentangle the verbal clues in pursuit of a solution to this literary cipher that is timelessly intriguing. From time to time, Stockton exploited occultist worlds and other spiritualist manifestations in his imaginative prose. “The Lady in the Box,” for example, a tale from John Gayther’s Garden and Stories Told Therein, is strongly reminiscent of Poe and the elements of gothic mystery as a woman’s cataleptic trance is controlled in history, a phenomenon enabling her to transcend forty years without aging. The Great Stone of Sardis, set in the New York of 1947, deals with materials virtually foreign to the pre-twentieth century sensibility: submarines, sophisticated communications systems, and the existence of a mammoth diamond located in the very center of the earth. The influence of Jules Verne (1828-1905) on Stockton’s science-fiction work is most clearly noticeable in this story.

The Stocktons retired to an estate they had purchased in West Virginia. In mid-April, 1902, Stockton attended the banquet of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. While there, he was taken ill and carried to his hotel room, where he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Stockton was buried in Woodland Cemetery, Philadelphia, not far from the spot where he had been born.

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