Friday, March 2, 2012

Golden Baby

Alice Brown (1856–1948)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Born in New Hampshire, Alice Brown lived most of her adult life in Boston and published seventeen novels, a number of plays, three books of poetry, dozens of essays, several children’s books, and over one hundred stories collected in eight volumes during the course of a career spanning five decades. In a scholarly study published exactly one hundred years ago, the Russian-born American critic Elias Lieberman acknowledged her influence at the dawn of the twentieth century: “For some peculiar psychologic reason, the field of New England portraiture has been monopolized by three women. They are Mary Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett and Alice Brown.” Yet, unlike her illustrious contemporaries (both of whom have been featured previously on Story of the Week), Brown’s writings were falling into neglect by the time she stopped writing at the age of seventy-nine in 1935, and in recent years a dedicated coterie of scholars have begun exploring and reassessing her work. Literary historian Susan Koppelman has speculated that Brown’s reputation suffered because her prominence as a writer of local-color fiction was simply behind the times: “she wrote during the years of declining interest in literary regionalism.”

“The Golden Baby” is a departure from the “typical” Alice Brown story, which usually portrays women, notably mothers and daughters, living in New England. Here we have an eerie tale that opens with a group of male travelers in the smoking room of a ship during an ocean voyage. Just when they seem to be getting on one another’s nerves, their boredom is relieved when they “scent” the beginning of a good story coming from a member of their group. We are then treated to the story-within-the-story, about the mysterious appearance of a slave woman and her child on a Caribbean cruise whose passengers have formed into cliques, divided by their “hatreds and the mildew of exclusiveness.”

Notes: The William Morris man is so described because his appearance evokes the artist and graphic designer of that name. One of the other men makes several references, which perplex his fellow travelers, to Sir Philip Sidney, who was killed in 1586 while leading an attack on a Spanish convoy near the Netherlands city of Zutphen. George Osborne (p. 375) is the self-indulgent military officer who dies at the battle of Waterloo in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. The lines of doggerel on page 378—“water wouldn’t quench fire, fire wouldn’t burn axe”—are from the nursery rhyme “The Woman And Her Pig.”

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We were in the Sycorax smoking-room, within an hour of turning the lights out for the night. The air was gray with smoke, and everybody, even the men that made it, looked dulled by it. . . . 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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