“I am,” said A. E. Coppard, “a writer about people who live, talk, do, without anything at the back of my mind than what I conceive to be fitting for their presentation as interesting human beings.” This direct and modest statement was characteristic of the author, an expression of deceptive innocence, neither denying nor emphasizing his quality of art, which was strongly individual and notably self-contained. A master of the modern short story, his long career began in 1921 with his first publication, ADAM AND EVE AND PINCH ME, and lasted until his death in 1957 with the printing the same year of an autobiography, IT’S ME, O LORD! Coppard was one of the few whose position can be described as maverick. The irony is that he always alluded to his work as part of the continuing English tradition and declined in fact to call what he wrote “stories.” They were more precisely, he said, “tales,” offspring of an ancient art, which was “a thing of joy even before writing, not to mention printing, was invented.”
Considering his remarkable range, psychological subtlety, and penetration, it seems at first glance hard to understand why he did not promote himself more as modern. In an age of literary experimentation, of publicly devaluating values and making rampant symbolism, Coppard maintained that he was pursuing an ordinary course, telling stories merely because that was what he liked to do.
The key to this evasion—of not making a little more histrionic bid for fame—may have been suggested by Frank O’Connor, who notes in Coppard a deep concern for personal freedom. It also is pointed out that, in his plots, Coppard was fascinated by the “secretiveness” of women. This observation might be carried further to see that with many of Coppard’s main characters, not only women but also men and children, there is often some vital inner judgment concealed. The hero may never explain his actions to others. The revelations are left implicit. In the web of his own enigmas, the protagonist is either trapped (as in the powerful and nearly too frustrating love story “Judith”) or triumphant; or more usually, as in the mysterious and sensual “Dusky Ruth” and the circumspect “Black Dog,” he falls into a silence that is both comprehension and wonder, before the rich, incommunicable sense of the world. In “Black Dog,” the hero is laconic because he believes it useless to try to analyze a person’s deficiencies or failings. Others see people at different angles, in different ways, and one is both lucky and wise if he can maintain the particular angle of vision from which he views himself.
Such a vision is, by its nature, solitary. There is an odd restiveness about Coppard’s people. They exist, however,...
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