Mary N. Murfree Criticism - Essay

William Malone Baskervill (essay date 1897)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.)

The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1899)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Miss Murfree's New Book," in The New York Times Book Review, July 29, 1899, p. 499.

[The anonymous critic, evaluating The Bushwhackers and Other Stories, finds the volume stylistically weaker and less interesting oveall than Murfree's previous work.]

Charles Egbert Craddock is the pen name of a lady who writes many interesting stories, and it is only fair to say that most of them are more interesting than those which go to make up [The Bushwhackers and Other Stories]. Nevertheless these are a fairly good lot, as the auctioneers would put it. The title of the volume is taken from a story in which it must be said that the "Bushwhackers" do not play...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

E. F. Harkins and C. H. L. Johnston (essay date 1902)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Charles Egbert Craddock," in Little Pilgrimages among the Women Who Have Written Famous Books, L. C. Page & Company, 1902, pp. 75-90.

[In the following excerpt, the critics recount Murfree's association with the Atlantic Monthly magazine.]

It was in May, 1878, during the administration of Mr. Howells, that the readers of the Atlantic were treated to a most delightful, a most refreshing surprise, a story of the Tennessee Mountains, called "The Dancin' Party at Harrison's Cove," by a new author, Charles Egbert Craddock.

The quaint and unprecedented strain was noticeable in the first colloquial sentence:


(The entire section is 1061 words.)

The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1904)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "With the Pioneers," in The New York Times Book Review, May 28, 1904, p. 359.

[In the following essay, the reviewer provides a favorable evaluation of The Frontiersmen.]

With a large class of novel readers there is always a keen sympathy with the men and women who blazed the trail on the frontier; those who defended their homesteads and stockades against fierce American Indians. . . . These readers prefer reminiscences of homely and adventurous life to the conventional society novel. Among such, Charles Egbert Craddock has made the pioneers in the frontier region that is now Tennessee a field peculiarly her own. Her newest book [The Frontiersmen] deals...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

G. H. Baskette (essay date 1907)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mary Noailles Murfree," in Library of Southern Literature, Vol. VIII, Madison-Murfree, edited by Edwin Anderson Alderman and Joel Chandler Harris, The Martin and Hoyt Company, 1907, pp. 3721-745.

[In the following excerpt, Baskette judges Murfree's mountain stories fresh and unique, and believes they constitute her strongest claim to a lasting place in Southern literature.]

In general, it may be said that Miss Murfree's writings are marked by an originality of style and method that places her among the creative authors of America as distinguished from many other writers of fiction who have attained reputation and popularity. This is especially true in...

(The entire section is 1367 words.)

Harry Aubrey Toulmin, Jr. (essay date 1911)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Charles Egbert Craddock," in Social Historians, The Gorham Press, 1911, pp. 59-97.

[In the following excerpt, Toulmin assesses Murfree's role as social historian. ]

Nowhere have more notable expositions been presented of the character and scenes in any particular locality, than those in the volumes of Charles Egbert Craddock dealing with the Tennessee Mountain folk. The inhabitants of the Great Smoky Mountains entered their forest homes with ideas and equipment modern a century ago. To-day, they maintain virtually the same aspect and the identical implements of their forefathers barely modified by the marvels of outside invention. It is scant wonder that the...

(The entire section is 4561 words.)

Fred Lewis Pattee (essay date 1915)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Era of Southern Themes and Writers," in A History of American Literature since 1870, 1915. Reprint by Cooper Square Publishers, 1968, pp. 294-321.

[Pattee was a widely respected educator, editor, and critic. He is considered one of the most influential figures in the decline of English literary colonialism and the subsequent declaration of American literary independence in the early years of the twentieth century. In the following excerpt, originally published in 1915, he offers a stylistic analysis of Murfree's work. ]

Criticism of the Craddock novels must begin always with the statement that their author was not a native of the region with which she...

(The entire section is 2297 words.)

The Outlook (essay date 1922)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Romance of the Tennessee Mountains," in The Outlook, Vol. 131, No. 16, August 16, 1922, p. 626.

[In the following essay, the critic outlines Murfree's career. ]

A generation ago, when Mary N. Murfree wrote her romance of Tennessee, The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains, the emphasis in American short-story writing was being placed on local color. Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett gave us the local color of New England; George Cable, that of Louisiana; and so over almost every section of the country. But the Southern mountains and the life and character of their people were then practically an unknown subject in fiction. It was before the time...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Fred Lewis Pattee (essay date 1923)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Reign of Dialect," in The Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1923, pp. 268-90.

[In the following excerpt, Pattee discusses Murfree's place in what he calls "the reign of dialect" during the 1880s and her influence on the subsequent generation of writers. ]

The final avalanche of [writing in] dialect which came with the 'eighties was precipitated by a curious bit of uncontracted-for advertising. In 1878 a story had come in to The Atlantic from the Southwest over the unheardof name of "Charles Egbert Craddock." There was dialect in the very title, "The Dancin' Party at Harrison's Cove," and...

(The entire section is 2060 words.)

Van Wyck Brooks (essay date 1947)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: 'The South: Miss Murfree and Cable," in The Times of Melville and Whitman, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1947, pp. 378-94.

[Brooks was an American poet. In the following excerpt, he praises Murfree's writing for its realistic rendering of a previously "unknown human sphere, " but finds the use of dialect nearly "unreadable. "]

In [Mary Murfree's] many stories, long and short, the same characters reappeared that one met in her first book, In the Tennessee Mountains, but this and The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains revealed an unknown human sphere in a way that was singularly real, impressive and poetic. One of the recurring themes was that of...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

William B. Dillingham (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to When Old Baldy Spoke, by Charles Egbert Craddock, in The Emory University Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1962, pp. 93-106.

[In the following excerpt, Dillingham links Murfree's short fiction with both the genteel tradition and the school of realism. ]

In 1885, the year when William Dean Howells published The Rise of Silas Lapham and the Statue of Liberty was being assembled on Bedloe's Island, a young woman walked calmly into the offices of the Atlantic Monthly and informed the editor, Thomas Baily Aldrich, that SHE was the Mr. Charles Egbert Craddock who had been writing stories for his magazine. Neither Silas...

(The entire section is 951 words.)

Richard Cary (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mystique of the Mountains," in Mary N. Murfree, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1967, pp. 45-78.

[In the excerpt below, Cary discusses the significance of the mountain milieu in Murfree's short fiction.]

The overwhelming central fact of life in Miss Murfree's tales of Tennessee are the mountains. Their presence is felt within the first page of all but one of these eight stories [in In the Tennessee Mountains], . . .

The effect of the mountains is unquestionably pervasive, for Miss Murfree has marvelous evocative powers. Yet, even in this collection, the press of too many recurrences and too many adjectives becomes onerous. She fails...

(The entire section is 11921 words.)

Harry R. Warfel (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Local Color and Literary Artistry: Mary Noailles Murfree's In the Tennessee Mountains," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall, 1970, pp. 154-63.

[Warfel was an American educator, editor, and critic with a special interest in tracing the development of American intellectual and literary life. In the following essay, he explores Murfree's role as a local colorisi and praises the organization of her stories. ]

It is good to have a new reprinting of In the Tennessee Mountains, originally published in 1884. Not only do the eight stories demonstrate the geographical and human substance of local-color fiction, which Professor Nathalia...

(The entire section is 2886 words.)

Richard Cary (essay date 1971-72)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of In the Tennessee Mountains, in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1971-72, pp. 94-7.

[In the essay below, Cary offers a favorable assessment of In the Tennessee Mountains.]

As a purveyor of attractive fictions, Mary Murfree's heart was indubitably in the highlands. Of the eighteen novels and seven volumes of collected short stories she published in almost half a century of unrelenting "literary" effort, ten and six, respectively, dealt specifically with the folk and folkways of the Tennessee mountains. On the wave of local-color writing engendered by the expansion of national self-consciousness following the Civil War, she...

(The entire section is 968 words.)

Mary Nilles (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Craddock's Girls: A Look at Some Unliberated Women," in The Markham Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, October, 1972, pp. 74-7.

[In the essay below, Nilles examines Murfree's stereotypical heroines. ]

". . . gals air cur'ous critters, ye know yerself; thar's no sort o' countin' on 'em . . ."

—"Dancin' Party at Harrison's Cove"

Even a cursory look at the heroines in the fiction of Charles Egbert Craddock (Mary Noailles Murfree, 1850-1922) reveals that they were the antithesis of "modern" or "liberated" women. These female characters were often shallow and shadowy repetitions of each other,...

(The entire section is 1561 words.)

Reese M. Carleton (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1922): An Annotated Bibliography," in American Literary Realism 1870-1910, Vol. 7, No. 4, Autumn, 1974, pp. 293-378.

[In the following excerpt, Carleton evaluates Murfree's place in American literature and discusses her ultimate inability to fulfill the promise of her early short fiction. ]

Mary Noailles Murfree submitted her first short story for publication in 1878, and during the next twenty years, under the pseudonym "Charles Egbert Craddock," she produced many stories and novels dealing with the mountaineers of Tennessee. In the 1880s and early 1890s, when a regional focus was popular in American literature, Murfree achieved...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Visitants from Yesterday': An Atypical, Previously Unpublished Story from the Pen of 'Charles Egbert Craddock'," in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. 26, 1981, pp. 89-100.

[Fisher is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Murfree's "The Visitants from Yesterday."]

The name "Charles Egbert Craddock," Mary Noailles Murfree's familiar pseudonym, inevitably suggests the Tennessee mountains and mountaineers. Indeed she may be called the laureate of the Great Smokies. Less commonly known are her writings that delineate Mississippi and, in fewer cases, other environs; and, perhaps more...

(The entire section is 1198 words.)

Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mary Noailles Murfree's 'Special' Sense of Humor," in Studies in American Humor, n.s., Vol. 4, Nos. 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1985, pp. 30-8.

[In the excerpt below, Fisher surveys the comic elements in Murfree's short fiction. ]

Placing Mary Murfree as a humorist is analogous to the similar positioning of one of her American literary precedessors, Edgar Allan Poe. His comedy was readily noted by contemporaries; then, for better than a century, it was largely ignored or lamented as an excrescence. Mid-twentieth-century critics, like Clark Griffith and Richard P. Benton, however, initiated revaluations that have spurred wide recognition and admiration for Poe's...

(The entire section is 1896 words.)