William Malone Baskervill (essay date 1897)
SOURCE: "Charles Egbert Craddock," in Southern Writers: Biographical and Critical Studies, Vol. I, M. E. Church, 1897, pp. 357-404.
[In the following excerpt, Baskervill surveys Murfree 's work, noting influences on her writng, and commenting on her characterizations, descriptions, use of humor, and literary style in general]
[Murfree perceived the] elemental qualities of our common humanity, but also the sturdy independence, integrity, strength of character, and finer feelings always found in the English race, however disguised by rugged exterior or hindered by harsh environment. Their honesty, their patriotism, their respect for law, their gloomy Calvinistic religion, their hospitality were in spite of the most curious modifications the salient points of a striking individuality and unique character. The mountains seemed to impart to them something of their own dignity, solemnity and silence. . . .
No phase of [their] unique life escaped the keen eye and powerful imagination of the most robust of Southern writers in this most impressible period of her life.
The growth of Craddock's art can not now be traced with certainty, though it is known that she served an apprenticeship of nearly ten years before her stories began to make any stir in the world. The general belief, therefore, that her literary career began with the "Dancin' Party at Harrison's Cove," which appeared in the Atlantic for May, 1878, is incorrect. She used to contribute to the weekly edition of Appleton s Journal, which ceased publication in that form in 1876, and it is a little remarkable that her contributions were even then signed Charles E. Craddock. Two of her stories were left over, and one of them, published in Appleton s Summer Book, in 1880, "Taking the Blue Ribbon at the Fair," rather indicates that she had not yet discovered wherein her true power lay. Although it is a pleasing little story, it is not specially remarkable for any of the finer qualities of her later writings; and it appears out of place in a collection of stories published in 1895, as if it were a new production. The assumed name which her writings bore was finally determined upon by accident, though the matter had been much discussed in her family. It was adopted for the double purpose of cloaking failure and of securing the advantage which a man is supposed to have over a woman in literature. It veiled one of the best-concealed identities in literary history. More than one person divined George Eliot's secret, and the penetrating Dickens observed that she knew what was in the heart of woman. But neither internal nor external evidence offered any clue to Craddock's personality. The startlingly vigorous and robust style and the intimate knowledge of the mountain folk in their almost inaccessible homes, suggestive of the sturdy climber and bold adventurer, gave no hint of femininity, while certain portions of her writings, both in thought and treatment, were peculiarly masculine. . . .
Miss Murfree's literary success really began with the publication of her collection of short stories, In the Tennessee Mountains, in May, 1884. It was at once recognized that another Southern writer of uncommon art, originality, and power had entered into a field altogether new and perfectly fresh. Only here and there was discernible the slightest trace of imitation in conception or manner, while the atmosphere was entirely her own; and to the rare qualities of sincerity, simplicity, and closeness of observation were added the more striking ones of vivid realization and picturing of scene and incident and character. Her magic wand revealed the poetry as well as the pathos in the hard, narrow, and monotonous life of the mountaineers, and touched crag and stream and wood and mountain range with an enduring splendor. All the admirable qualities of her art are present in this volume. The spontaneous, instinctive power of telling a story for its own sake proclaimed close kinship with Scott, while the exquisite word-painting and beautiful descriptions of mountain scenery, with all the shifting phases of spring and autumn, of sunset, mist, storm, and forest fire, could have been learned only in the school of Ruskin and of nature. In the profound and tragically serious view and contemplation of life she is the child of George Eliot and of the battle-scarred South. But her real power, as is true of every writer that has been either an enriching or an uplifting force in human lives, rests upon a sympathetic understanding of human life. Her insight into the ordinary, commonplace, seemingly unpoetic lives of the mountaineers, her tenderness for them, her perception of the beauty and the wonder of their narrow existence is one of the finest traits in her character and her art. Through this wonderful power of human sympathy the delicately nurtured and highly cultured lady entered into the life of the common folk and heard their heart-throbs underneath jeans and homespun. She realized anew for her fellow men that untutored souls are perplexed with the same questions and shaken by the same doubts that baffle the learned, and that it is inherent in humanity to rise to the heroic heights of self-forgetfulness and devotion to duty in any environment. Indeed, the key-note of her studies is found in the last sentence of this volume: "The grace of culture is, in its way, a fine thing, but the best that art can do—the polish of a gentleman—is hardly equal to the best that nature can do in her higher moods."
Each of these stories embodies a "higher mood" of some uncultivated, simple soul influenced by a noble motive, and the good lesson taught with equal art and modesty stirs the heart with refining pity and admiration. Cynthia Ware's long journeys on foot and heroic exertions are rewarded with the pardon of the unjustly imprisoned man whom she loves, only to find that he has never taken the trouble to ask who secured his release, that his love was but a little thing which he had left in the mountains, and that while she was waiting for him he was married to some one else. Through Craddock's skill we become witnesses of this heart tragedy and enter into the inner experience of a human soul which through suffering learns to adjust itself anew, "ceases to question and regret, and bravely does the work nearest her hand. . . ." Again it is the weak and slender Celia Shaw who painfully toils at night through the bleak, snow-covered woods to save the lives of the men whom her father and his friends had determined to...
(The entire section is 2685 words.)