My bedtime reading lately has been this collection of short stories that my father gave me shortly before his death.
The stories were selected by John Updike, a man whose writing always seemed aimed at my father’s generation … but he did win a Pulitzer and so what the heck do I know? It was edited by Katrina Kennison who now lives up in Northern New Hampshire where she focuses on “celebrating the gift of each ordinary day.” One can only surmise that editing the likes of John Updike for a publishing giant like Houghton Mifflin would make anyone long for an ordinary day.
Here is the list of authors whose work was selected as the best of the last century.
How many names do you recognize? I recognized 29. Many, to be honest, because the author is better known for his or her novels. But as I navigate these disparate voices, I find myself most intrigued by those “lost literary gems,” so called because the author’s name, once written in sand, has been washed out to sea.
Last night I read “Wild Plums” by Grace Stone Coates, published originally in 1929 in The Frontier: a Magazine of the West. It’s the story of a young girl forbidden to go on a plum-picking campout with a family her immigrant father considers vulgar and untrustworthy.
As the family returns home with a wagon full of wild plums, they throw a few to the young girl as they pass her home. She takes them inside to her mother who tells her they’re not worth eating. This is the unforgettable ending to the story:
“I went out quietly, knowing I would never tell her that they were strange on my tongue as wild honey, holding the warmth of sand that sun had fingered, and the mystery of water under leaning boughs.
For I had eaten one at the road.”From “Wild Plums”
From her two sentence bio in the appendix I learnt that Grace Stone Coates was an editor for The Frontier: a Magazine of the West who spent most of her life in Montana. Well, that wasn’t enough for me so I went to the google machine.
As to what forces and events actually created this splendid writer, well, it depends the source. According to Wikipedia, her father was a well educated German forced by circumstances to live in the rural midwest where she was born in 1881. She attended three different universities without taking a degree and then moved to Butte Montana where she managed to get a teaching certificate. In 1910 she married and moved to Martinsdale, described as a “tiny ranching community” where her husband ran the general store and she began writing. She was encouraged by H.G. Merriam an academician who promoted regionalism (writing focused on “linguistic features peculiar to a specific region”) to publish a few books of poems which led to the novel “Dark Cherries,” published by Knopf in 1929.
However, after her husband’s death in 1930 she gave up “serious writing” and focused on maintaining correspondence with fellow writers William Saroyan and Frank Bird Linderman. She also began to hallucinate and wander the streets late at night. Finally in 1963 the townsfolk intervened and moved her to a retirement home in Bozeman Montana. The Wikipedia article implies that, after her husband’s death Coates went into a steady decline and gave up writing. However, the real reason for her decline is more complicated according to Elaine Showalter who studied women writers of that time and place.
To summarize Ms. Showalter’s theory, Coates had a miserable childhood with a father who was either overbearing or never around. She lived most of her adult life in what she described as “an alien world” of isolation with a husband who more than likely frowned on her writing. She went into a decline after her second novel was declined by Knopf as being “unsellable.” That second novel, said to be auto-biographical, did not survive. Fortunately her letters were saved by a young woman (Lee Rostad) who came to know her in the 1950s. Rostad used those letters to write a biography of “the brilliant, passionate woman behind the demure housewife who wrote the local news for the county newspapers.” Unfortunately that book is out of print.
Anyway, now you know more than you probably wanted (if you stuck with me) about an obscure, little-known writer. It all brings me back to this firefly by R. Tagore.
So, go ahead and light your lamp. You never know who it will reach or when.