Alfred C. Ward (essay date 1924)
SOURCE: Ward, Alfred C. “Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘The Merry Men.’” In Aspects of the Modern Short Story: English and American, pp. 102–15. London: University of London Press, 1924.
[In the following excerpt, Ward asserts that “Markheim,” although it strains the reader's credibility, is successful as a parable with a stated moral.]
Stevenson's earliest short stories (the “New Arabian Nights” series) ran in the pages of magazines in 1878; nine years later, Kipling's “Plain Tales from the Hills” (his first prose volume) was published. It is with these two collections—belonging, roughly speaking, to the eighteen-eighties—that the cult of the short story by British writers may be said to begin: half a century or so after the form had been naturalized in America.
Even in regard to that late date, it is necessary to particularize British rather than English writers, since it was the Scottish mind and the Anglo-Indian that first found expression in the short story on the eastern side of the Atlantic. English writers might be mentioned who had practised in this branch of literature long before the eighteen-eighties; but there was none—certainly not Meredith—who had found in the prose short story a medium that befitted his genius incomparably better than any other form. Almost without exception, these earlier experimenters had been novelists first and foremost, and short-story writers only incidentally.
“A deal of Ariel, just a streak of Puck, much Antony, of Hamlet most of all, and something of the Shorter-Catechist”: thus had W. E. Henley catalogued a few of the ingredients that go to the making of a Robert Louis Stevenson. Not improbably, a somewhat closer analysis might reveal more than a trace of Don Quixote and Falstaff. At least, where Stevenson the short-story writer is concerned, it may be felt that the delicious freakishness of the one and the full-bodied humour of the other each contributed to the diverse moods which govern tales ranging from “The Sire de Malétroit's Door,” through “Providence and the Guitar,” to “Markheim” and “Thrawn Janet.” But in these and other stories there is also Puck and Ariel and, markedly, the Shorter-Catechist.
Why, with Stevenson, did attention become sharply focussed upon the short story in English literature? The material facts of the growth of periodical literature, and the emergence of a new reading public with no great time to spare, must not be overlooked; yet the primary reason in the case of Stevenson is not to be found there. By more than a few, it has been maintained that R. L. S. the essayist out-tops any other aspect of R. L. S., in spite of the fact that the Samoan natives found the one right name for him in Tusitala—the tale-teller. Stevenson's upbringing and all his characteristics inclined him toward the spinning of yarns, and his mind had been crammed with weird tales.
He grew up, therefore, with a wealth of fictional matter at command; and he possessed a moderated gift of invention. It was at this point that his limitations determined that he should be a maker of short stories rather than of novels. He had no sustained power either in narrative or invention. When he essayed a novel, the resultant book always fell far short of the five or six hundred pages customary in Victorian novels; and, even so, he had frequently to whip his mind, which usually proved an unwilling steed on such excursions. All would go swimmingly for a matter of fifty pages or so—after that, a prolonged and despairing halt ere a fresh impetus was provided.
Necessity rather than choice, therefore—a lack of “staying-power” rather than any special predilection—determined Stevenson's adoption of the short-story form; and to this must be added that the short story is more readily adaptable to the moralizing and sermonizing tendency which was dear to Stevenson the Shorter-Catechist. Four, at least, of the six stories in The Merry Men have a more “serious” intention...
(The entire section is 31,043 words.)