Contribution

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Although Frank R. Stockton is virtually unknown today, he was so greatly esteemed in his own era that American librarians in the 1890’s reported only Mark Twain and F. Marion Crawford as more in demand. A 1928 list of great books included Stockton’s as among the two hundred best worldwide, an 1899 poll by Literature ranked him fifth among the writers of his day (ahead of Henry James and Bret Harte), and noted writers and critics have sung his praises, among them Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Quiller-Couch, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edmund Gosse, Robert Browning, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Sendak, and Edmund Wilson. Stockton’s The Adventures of Captain Horn (1895) outsold all other American novels the year of its first printing, and his story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” continues to be read.

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A prolific popular writer, Stockton paved the way for others in a variety of areas. As Henry L. Golemba notes, his children’s stories foreshadowed those of Mark Twain, his fairy tales influenced Maurice Sendak, his experimentation with point-of-view narration inspired Gertrude Stein’s technique, and his stories about the complexities and frustrations of ordinary middle-class life anticipated the stories of James Thurber, just as his anti-imperialist and antiwar sketches anticipated Leonard Holton’s The Mouse That Roared (1955). Some have called him the first American science-fiction novelist, and others have praised his multidimensional depictions of the frustrations of the late nineteenth century woman seeking self-fulfillment. Some of his stories were precursors of the inverted detective story, and his originality in handling ratiocination and in reversing traditional formulas of the genre paved the way for later writers.

Other Literary Forms

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Frank R. Stockton wrote many articles for periodicals and was on the staffs of Hearth and Home, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, and assistant editor of St. Nicholas from the time he was thirty-nine until he was forty-seven. He began as a juvenile writer, and some of his children’s stories are still popular, particularly “The Bee Man of Orn,” illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Of his many adult novels, the best loved was Rudder Grange (1879), for which the public demanded two sequels, The Rudder Grangers Abroad, and Other Stories and Pomona’s Travels (1894).

Achievements

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A prolific writer, Frank R. Stockton is to be classed with Mark Twain and Joel Chandler Harris as one of the finest humorists of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He was widely admired during his lifetime, especially for his short stories, and was perhaps the first American science-fiction novelist. Yet Stockton’s name is all but unknown to the modern reader. The choice presented in his most popular story “The Lady or the Tiger?” may be familiar to some today, but the story itself—which has been cited as a predecessor of modern recreative fiction—has been essentially forgotten.

It has been suggested that Stockton led the way for other more well-known authors. His novel What Might Have Been Expected (1874) was a forerunner of Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); his portrayal of ordinary middle-class life in the 1880’s preceded James Thurber’s stories of the 1940’s. Stockton’s experiments with narrative technique inspired Gertrude Stein’s approach in her The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), and his political satire “The Governor-General” (1898) is remarkably similar to Leonard Patrick O’Connor Wibberley’s 1950’s bestseller The Mouse That Roared (1955).

Bibliography

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Golemba, Henry L. Frank R. Stockton. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Part of Twayne’s United States Authors series, this extended examination of Stockton and his art includes an introductory bibliography and chronological investigation of Stockton’s works. Golemba also suggests reasons for Stockton’s neglect, in relation not only to the works themselves but also to the history of publishing and literary criticism over the last hundred years. Contains a select bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Griffin, Martin I. J. Frank R. Stockton. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1939. This biography gathers together details of Stockton’s life—many taken from original sources—and shows the relationship between his life and his works. In the discussion of Stockton’s work, however, plot summary dominates over critical interpretation. Includes a bibliography.

Hall, Ernest Jackson. The Satirical Element in the American Novel. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1969. Brief monograph on American satire emphasizes Stockton’s place in the development of the satirical novel.

Howells, William Dean. “Stockton’s Stories.” The Atlantic Monthly 59 (January, 1887): 130-132. Citing particular Stockton stories, Howells discusses Stockton’s influence on the short-story form, analyzing characteristics of both the author and the form that make them such a good match. This article, along with three others Howells wrote during Stockton’s lifetime, provides some of the best criticism of Stockton’s art.

Johnson, Robert U. Remembered Yesterdays. Boston: Little, Brown, 1923. This memoir by a former editor in chief of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine includes information about many men and women memorable in the fields of letters and publishing. His short chapter on Stockton, entitled “A Joyful Humorist,” gives a feeling for the man through personal recollections and anecdotes.

May, Charles. The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice. New York: Twayne, 1995. Brief comment on Stockton’s best-known story, “The Lady or the Tiger?” as a so-called trick-ending story; suggests the story is not as open-ended as it is often claimed to be.

Panek, LeRoy Lad. The Origins of the American Detective Story. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. Study of the beginnings and establishment of American detective-fiction conventions, focusing especially on the replacement of the police by the private detective and the place of forensic science in the genre. Provides perspective on Stockton’s writings.

Vedder, Henry C. American Writers of Today. Boston: Silver Burdett, 1894. This analysis of American writers includes a twelve-page chapter on Stockton and his work. Offers interesting insights and a flavor of the times in which Stockton wrote. Vedder gives considerable attention to Stockton’s originality and droll humor.

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