Wilbur Daniel Steele Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Wilbur Daniel Steele enjoyed a long and highly successful career writing for Harper’s Magazine and other popular periodicals. In stories that typically ran about twenty carefully plotted pages, he presented smooth, flowing narratives blessed with convincing dialogue that sometimes featured regional dialects. Commonly, Steele’s tales work up endings that recall the plot switches of O. Henry, who shared Steele’s birthplace of Greensboro, North Carolina. The great variety of settings compensates somewhat for the reader’s eventual sense that a Steele story will lead to a contrived and often predictable ending. Of the twenty-four tales in The Best Stories of Wilbur Daniel Steele, four are set along the Massachusetts coast and feature Portuguese immigrants, one is set in the Caribbean, one in the South Pacific, three in North Africa, and two in the South Carolina coastal islands. The others take place in American locales that have no significant plot function.

Steele has had only negligible impact on literary history. He did not chronicle a period, as did F. Scott Fitzgerald, nor did he create a vivid microcosm to compare with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, but he was an accomplished storyteller for middle-class audiences looking for the kind of short reading experience praised by Edgar Allan Poe. Steele’s best stories create characters for whom the reader genuinely cares (for example, the wife and mother in “When Hell Froze” and the girl who is “How Beautiful with Shoes”), but he seldom achieves the kind of convincing moral and psychological complexity of Nathaniel Hawthorne in “The Birthmark,” Herman Melville in “Bartleby,” or, much later, John Cheever. Steele was a graceful stylist, but he frequently lapsed into the kind of ethnic stereotyping and demeaning epithets that later generations would find offensive. In this respect, as in his sense of the taste of his audience, Steele was thoroughly a writer of his time.

“The Shame Dance”

“The Shame Dance,” included in The Best American Short Stories 1921, is set on a tiny island in the South Pacific and reads a little like one of Joseph Conrad’s stories set in the same region. The narrator, Cole, captains a trading schooner, and when he puts in at Taai he finds himself trapped in conversation with Signet, an American vagabond on board as a passenger. The man is a blatherer, borrowing cigarettes and chattering about making a lot of money in Manhattan. When Cole goes ashore, he is entertained by the de facto ruler of Taai known only as “the Dutchman.” They watch that evening an entertainment staged by three touring “Kanaka” men and a woman who is described as their common “wife.” The husbands play a beguiling melody on primitive instruments while the wife performs the so-called Shame Dance, an extraordinarily erotic arabesque, which hypnotizes the Dutchman, the vagabond, and the narrator. Later, the Dutchman implants in the vagabond’s mind the idea of killing the husbands, and then he imprisons the hapless murderer and appropriates the woman. Cole returns thirteen days later to find the Dutchman apparently dead and Signet briefly ruling Taai before disappearing with the dancer. Sitting in a bar in Honolulu sometime later, Cole hears a startling tune, which he recalls from the Shame Dance, and learns that it is an old melody called “Paragon Park” and the original music of the “Shimmie” dance. Moreover, his bar companion, a telegraph operator from Colorado, tells of being...

(The entire section is 1446 words.)