Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Moonstone Mass

Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835–1921)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Polar Sea (The Cathedral), 1867, oil on canvas by American painter George Curtis (1830–1910). Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.
Although her career spanned sixty years and she published dozens of stories in America’s leading national magazines, Harriet Prescott Spofford is hardly known to readers today—except, perhaps, as a footnote in Emily Dickinson’s biography. Both authors shared a literary mentor, Thomas Higginson, who recommended Spofford’s fiction to the reclusive Amherst poet. After Dickinson read her debut story, which appeared in the February 1860 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, she became a fan and asked her friends to send along other works by this new author. In fact, when Spofford had originally submitted that first story, Atlantic editor James Russell Lowell didn’t believe an unknown young woman could have written it, and Higginson stepped forward to confirm the provenance. Upon reading a second story by Spofford, Dickinson wrote to Higginson, “I read ‘Circumstance,’ but it followed me in the Dark – so I avoid her.” Still another story moved her to write, “It is the only thing I ever read in my life that I didn’t think I could have imagined myself.”

“The Moonstone Mass” is one of many Gothic-tinged tales Spofford published during the first decade of her career. The nameless narrator is challenged by his wealthy uncle (who is, notably, a “misogynist”) to seek the elusive Northwest Passage and thereby earn his inheritance; by agreeing to this journey the young man puts off the possibility of marriage to his would-be fiancĂ©e, Eleanor. The meat of the story shows the influence of such eerie adventure tales as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and “MS. Found in a Bottle,” both of which based their plots around contemporary theories of hidden wonderlands to be found at either pole of the earth. Yet, contends literary scholar Alfred Bendixen, in spite of Spofford’s apparent debt to these and similar tales, her story repudiates their underlying themes, proposing instead “a rejection of the male quest for power (as expressed in the treasure hunt and other references to senseless greed) in favor of the world of feminine love and contentment (as represented by Eleanor).”

Note: At the end of the story, the phrase per si muove (Italian, eppur si muove) refers to Galileo’s alleged utterance after the Inquisition forced him to disavow his belief that the earth moves around the sun.

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There was a certain weakness possessed by my ancestors, though in nowise peculiar to them, and of which, in common with other more or less undesirable traits, I have come into the inheritance.

It was the fear of dying in poverty. . . .If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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