Monday, May 20, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 27: Olivia Howard Dunbar, The Shell of Sense (#143)

Olivia Howard Dunbar, "The Shell of Sense" (1908) from American Fantastic Tales:

Is it my imagination or do many of these stories come from American Fantastic Tales? I think that double-volume set suffers a bit under the idea that these stories should be entertaining; I mean, when we read Nathaniel Hawthorne, many readers probably say, "Well, this story might be boring or strange or too subtle--but it's Literature, so that's okay." But when we hand someone a ghost story and it seems boring or strange, we don't have the crutch of the Literature label to fall back on.

You can probably guess that I don't give Hawthorne any leeway I wouldn't give a ghost story; in their own ways, almost everyone we think of as Literary was trying to write entertaining literature at some point. (Check out Henry James's disappointment that his plays didn't end up being crowd-pleasers/money-makers.) That said, I found "The Shell of Sense" weighed down by a turn-of-the-century wordiness that interfered with its entertainment.

There's a solid premise here: a story told from the POV of the ghost who sees that her husband/widower and sister love each other. In fact, they always loved each other, but they resisted their own desires out of love/devotion to the now-dead wife. The ghost starts out wanting to keep them apart and then, realizing how good they are, shifts to wanting to get them together, which is a great character arc where success in one desire is achieved and fails to satisfy at the same time. So that's a great structure.

Only at 11 pages, "The Shell of Sense" seems to stretch out the premise, while sounding a bit like the spiritualist and New Thought writers of the time

I am glad I read this story for at least introducing me to the Dunbars. Olivia Howard Dunbar wrote an essay in 1905 noticing how the supernatural has always been in fiction, but has recently dropped off (which is a fascinating theory that I've seen echoed in scholarly books); and she was a suffragette; while her husband Ridgely Torrence staged an all-black non-minstrel show on Broadway in 1917. Very interesting.

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