(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Most of William Humphrey’s stories are set in and around his native Red River County, Texas, which is located in the far northeastern corner of the state. The county borders the state of Oklahoma, and many of the stories take place across the Red River in “the Little Dixie” section of Oklahoma. Northeastern Texas and southeastern Oklahoma were settled by southerners who came West before and after the Civil War, Indians driven West when the South was being cleared of Native Americans during the rapid expansion of the 1820’s and 1830’s, and slaves—later freed—brought in by both whites and Indians.

The Last Husband, and Other Stories

Humphrey’s ancestors came into his part of Texas following the Civil War, and it is this part of the world that Humphrey always understood best, even though he left Clarksville for good in 1937. His best stories and novels are about the people and places he knew when he was a boy growing up in Clarksville. His first book of stories The Last Husband, and Other Stories shows clearly how much Humphrey is dependent on his homeland for the success of his work. The six best stories in the volume are Texas-based. Five take place in and around Clarksville, and one is about a transplanted Texan isolated in a northern city and longing for home. The four stories set in the East, where Humphrey lived during his writing apprenticeship, lack the life found in his Clarksville stories. It is not that the themes are deficient or that the style suffers in his eastern stories. There are excellent scenes and some of the characters are as well developed as those in his regional works. Something is missing, however, and it is very clear that it is a sense of time and place that Humphrey must have in order to tell his stories and develop his points. He understands the people of Red River County and can make them speak a language that is real. When he shifts to New York, his “other” setting, place becomes unreal for him. The sense of kinship with the people who speak his language and share his customs disappears. The stories and novels suffer. Even his later works—produced after a lifetime as a fiction writer—lack the immediacy of his earlier works, his works about Clarksville.

The non-Texas stories, written while he was still in his Katherine Anne Porter phase, are technically correct and usually well written. They are typical of the pieces published in highbrow magazines in the years immediately following World War II. The people are modern and sophisticated, and their lives in the suburbs are as hollow as up-to-date social critics and old-fashioned moralists would like one to believe they are. Furthermore, following the modern mode of fiction, the stories are ironic and ultimately depressing.

The book’s title story is about a man named Edward Gavin who has a series of mistresses in a desperate attempt to get his wife, an unsuccessful artist with a successful sister, to pay attention to him and live the kind of life that married people are traditionally supposed to live. Edward, whom the reader knows only through a narrator, loses his battle with his wife of two decades, proving that his infidelities netted him nothing. His wife’s winning gets her nothing either. They are as dead as people in a wasteland always are.

“The Last Husband” is not a bad story until one begins to compare it to Humphrey’s best regional work. His early story “The Hardys” makes a nice contrast to “The Last Husband.” The Hardys are an old couple closing their home to move in with their children. Mr. Hardy was widowed before he met his present wife, and Mrs. Hardy has spent years being jealous. The reader learns, in this story, told first from one point of view, then from another, that Mr. Hardy has long since forgotten his first wife and that Mrs. Hardy has no need to be jealous. (Interestingly, Edward Gavin summarizes “The Hardys” for the narrator when the two are riding the train home from Grand Central Station one night.) “The Hardys” is filled with the homey regional details and carefully rendered speech that make for excellent fiction.

“Quail for Mr. Forester” is a typical Humphrey story in that the reader sees the changing ways of the South through the eyes of a young boy—a method Humphrey uses again and again. Mr. Forester’s family once made up the local aristocracy, but in recent years the Foresters have come down in the world. The narrator’s father, a top-notch hunter, kills some excellent quail and invites Mr. Forester to dine. The dinner conversation is all about the decline of the Old South, which, ironically, is felt much more keenly by the narrator’s family of working-class people than by Mr. Forester. At the end of an evening talking about the glory days before the Civil War, the boy, still awed, muses, “I felt that there was no hope for me in these mean times I had been born into.” The mean...

(The entire section is 2015 words.)