Friday, October 15, 2010

The Little Room

Madeline Yale Wynne (1847–1918)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

The reputations of some authors endure through the ages, even though (and sometimes because) they wrote only one memorable book. John Kennedy Toole, Harper Lee, and Margaret Mitchell are a few of America’s more famous one-hit wonders, but if readers today know of Madeline Yale Wynne at all, it is because of the six short pieces of fiction gathered in The Little Room and Other Stories—or more precisely, because of the collection’s title story, which continues to appear in anthologies more than a century after its initial publication in Harper’s in 1895.

Yet, had Wynne never written “The Little Room,” she would still be noted by a small cadre of regional historians and art scholars as a prominent leader of the Arts and Crafts movement in Massachusetts. The daughter of Linus Yale, who invented several types of locks and founded the Yale Lock Manufacturing Company, she became well known as an accomplished metal-smith and president of The Society of Deerfield Industries, a collective of local artisans, mostly women. After a revival of sorts during the 1970s, Wynne’s creations (ranging from shoe buckles to an iron-and-oak chest) are eagerly sought after today by collectors and museums.

The Little Room would not be Wynne's only publication. Her expertise as an artisan led her to write essays for home and style magazines, such as “Clay Paint and Other Wall Finishings” (The House Beautiful, 1902). The year before she died, Si Briggs Talk, a short book of humorous but unexceptional country-folk doggerel, would appear. An Ancestral Invasion and Other Stories is a posthumous anthology of uncollected and unpublished work selected and edited by Annie Putnam, her companion for more than three decades, and introduced by Edward Waldo Emerson (the youngest son of Ralph).

But it is “The Little Room” that remains Wynne’s most influential story, recently praised by literary scholar Alfred Bendixen as “one of the most effective ‘puzzle stories’ ever written.” Featuring a space whose contents anticipate the quantum quandary of Schrödinger’s cat, the mystery is set in a house inhabited by two unmarried aunts, who seem unperturbed by the different accounts they hear from visitors concerning what’s behind a particular door. The story’s themes have also invited modern feminist readings, such as Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s appraisal in Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women: “What haunts in this story, and what women are never able to find in the presences of their husbands, is an intimate feminine space—a space of refuge, healing, and play.” For some visitors, it becomes a “room of one’s own”; for others, it is a closet of domestic confinement.

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‘How would it do for a smoking-room?’ . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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