Francis Richard Stockton
( Originally Published 1907 )
AT a dinner given in honour of Mr. Frank R. Stockton by the Author's Club of New York, early in the year 1901, Mr. Richard Watson Gilder, the Editor of The Century, is reported to have told the following story: "A young man once came to me and said that he would like to contribute to The Century every month. I asked him what he wanted to write. ' Oh,' he said, I'd like to send you each month a story like "The Lady or the Tiger?"" Mr. Gilder, we are told, said at the end of his speech that night: "When I think of the immense amount of pleasure Mr. Stockton brought into the life of Stevenson it seems to me that alone would be to him a benediction forever."
The Editor of The Century thus happily illustrated the attitude of the reading world toward Mr. Stockton : on one side is an eager desire to emulate him, and on the other an equally eager desire to go to him for pleasure or for comfort. There is a natural grace about his stories which has often deceived the inexpert into an attempt to rival him, while the sweet and simple comedy of the stories has for more than a quarter of a century been the delight of young and old. The young man who visited Mr. Gilder, and the brilliant novelist solacing himself with the acquaintance of Pomona, Ardis Claverden, Mrs. Null, and Chipperton, are types.
The object of this variety of admiration was born in Philadelphia on April 5, 1834. He belongs to the Stockton family of New Jersey, but not, he has informed us, to the Princeton branch. His father, William S. Stockton, was a well-known writer on church government.
On the matter of his ancestry Mr. Stockton has given us this interesting information : " The ancestor of the Stockton family in New Jersey came from Flushing, L I., in 1690, and purchased a tract of several thousand acres, to which he gave the Indian name of Oneanickon. His oldest son, Richard, did not settle here, but went to Stony Brook, afterward Princeton, where he founded that illustrious line of Stocktons, among whom were the signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Commodore Stockton, to whom this country owes, in great part, the possession of California, and to whom the negro race owes Liberia. My ancestor was the second son, John Stockton, and his descendants, like himself, were generally yeomen, or farmers ; but they remained true to Oneanickon, and that estate, shorn of many of its acres, but still containing the site of the old homestead of Richard and Abigail Stockton, now remains in the possession of my branch of the family, where it has been for 211 years, a pretty long stretch for America."
The story-writer's father married twice, and his second wife was the mother of Francis Richard. She was a Virginian, and from her side of the family tree was derived the name Ardis found in " Ardis Claverden." There is a Stocktonian touch in the familiar story that the author's Christian name was imposed upon him by one of his half-sisters, who borrowed a part of it from Francis L of France and a part from Richard Coeur de Lion. The same relative gave Francis's sister the full name of Napoleon's second wife. Strange to say, Mr. Stockton has avowed a difficulty in giving his characters names.
The boy first was sent to a private school in West Philadelphia. Later he attended the public schools, and at the age of eighteen was graduated from the Central High School with the degree of Bachelor of Arts. It was noticed at school that his bent was to literature. In fact, this was obvious to his parents when he was only ten, for at that age he began to scribble verses. In spite of this proclivity, however, Francis, after leaving the high school, took up engraving as a profession. Just one bond was left existing between himself and the world of letters, and that was his membership in an organization of young men called the " Forensic and Literary Circle." Upon this slight basis has been erected an exceptionally successful career, for it was to the Circle that the " Ting-a-ling Stories " were first read. The Circle also heard "Kate" as soon as it was written. This tale and " The Story of Champaigne " were published by the Southern Messenger; and it is sufficient to relate that they created a demand for more like them. Thereafter, until 1874, Stockton wrote many short stories, his star all the time rising a little higher above the horizon.
But in 1874 the star blazed forth wondrously with the appearance of the first part of "Rudder Grange." From that day the author's place among the foremost American humorists has been secure. " Rudder Grange" is undoubtedly his most popular work, for it is in demand even at this late day. We have heard it said that among many of Mr. Stockton's admirers and who, by the way, would attempt to number those happy beings ? it is regarded as his masterpiece. We shall let the statement pass without examination, believing as we do that in this case comparisons would be particularly odious. However, it is no back-handed compliment to say that upon the profusion and the quaintness of the humour of " Rudder Grange " the author has never improved.
Meantime, we should say here, the young Pennsylvanian had definitely adopted literature as a profession. He had served an apprenticeship on the Philadelphia Morning Post; later he had joined Edward Eggleston on Hearth and Home ; then he had become a member of the editorial staff of Scribner's Monthly. It was while occupying this last position that he wrote "Rudder Grange." Afterward he cast his lot with the editors of St. Nicholas. In 1880, determining to devote his time entirely to story-writing, he abandoned editorial work for good and all.
Even more remarkable than the success of "Rudder Grange" was the success of " The Lady or the Tiger ? " How the reading public has pondered that cunningly made mystery ! How it has written and talked about it ! Truly it has been and is today, indeed one of the nine wonders of the literary world ! It still is unsolved. Mr. Stockton himself cannot, or perhaps will not, offer any solution. So much has been said of the puzzle that doubtless by this time the subject is distasteful to him. He has declared repeatedly that he does not know whether the Lady or the Tiger . But there ! We are raking a fire that perhaps had better be allowed to go out. Just for the sake of history we will add that a comic opera based on the story was produced in 1889.
During the last twenty years Mr. Stockton has written the stories that make up the greater part of the familiar Shenandoah edition. He always dictates his manuscript for publication, and he does his work in the morning. In the early days he dictated to his wife, who was Miss Marian E. Tuttle, of Amelia County, Virginia ; but in recent years he has employed a stenographer. We have seen the statement that when the author has his subject well in mind he delivers fifteen hundred words before the morning is over.
A few years ago Stockton moved from Convent Station, New Jersey, to Charles Town, Jefferson County, West Virginia. The estate, named Claymont, embraces one hundred and fifty acres, and it was once a part of a large estate owned by Washing-ton. There the author spends the pleasant seasons of the year, taking his vacation in the winter.
In answer to a question as to his recreations, the famous humorist has informed us : " I generally spend my afternoons out-of-doors, and my recreation is driving doing the driving myself. For a good many years I have driven every afternoon. I lately calculated (the date of his letter is Dec. 4, 1901) that in the eight months I usually spend in the country I have driven as many miles as would take me across the continent. Wherever I am I explore every road within a radius of a dozen miles or more. My mare, Kitty, used to be my traveling companion, but now Kitty is old and I drive a pair of younger animals. But in wandering through the fields and woods Kitty still goes with me, caring no more for roads and regular ways than a poet does for the market reports. My wife and I are very fond of the country, and in all our married life, except for one month when we hired a furnished house in Washington, we have never kept house in a city.
"I am not a farmer, but I have a farm, and it is a great pleasure to me to overlook its operations ; but I have inherited from my ancestors a great love of gardening, and to my garden of two acres and a half I give my special attention. Under my study windows I also have a little walled garden, thirty feet square, which is crowded with flowers from the tulip season to the days of the hardy marigold and the enduring cosmos. I very much enjoy the woods and fields about my present home.
" I used to be an enthusiastic fisherman, and have fished for many years in many waters, but of late I have not lived near any suitable stream or body of water, and in my outdoor hours I prefer the whip to the rod."
In appearance Mr. Stockton is small and spare, with partly white hair. At first glance he might be taken for a sad man, and judging by his portrait one would hardly associate him with humor ah ! and such quaint, original humor. That is the author in repose. Animated, he is an-other man. "The big, dark eyes, full of patient, weary expression, are luminous," says one who knew him years ago ; "the mouth, close and discouraged, expands into smiling curves, sweet and sympathetic; the whole soul is in the face, and, from head to foot, Frank Stockton is the genial, responsive man. It is like a brilliant burst of sunshine following a cloud, suddenly and unexpectedly, and therefore more delicious in surprise and beauty."
No one, it is said, by the way, has ever heard Stockton laugh, but he is reputed to be a " beautiful smiler."
Mr. George Cary Eggleston once spoke of the author of "Rudder Grange" as "the greatest story-teller America has ever produced." Certainly America has produced no more delightful or more original humorist. He has given an immense amount of pleasure to the young and to the old. Now the critic is constrained to acclaim him as a spring of purest humor, and again to question whether he is not an incomparable spinner of fairy-tales. From the very first (note " The Ting-a-ling Stories ") he has been very happy in his tales for children whimsical and fanciful, but never artificial or clownish. He is always master of the situation, and he can be dignified, and even imposing, in his drollest adventures. His stories are not a mere day's tickling. They will refresh and entertain generations to come. This is no prophecy ; it is rather an opinion derived from the history of his successes up to date. His early productions are no less popular than his later ones. Stockton is no stylist ; he is a plain humorist. Style may be acquired, but humor must be born in a man. To be sure, there are several kinds of humor, and each kind has its devotees, some choosing Chicago slang, others the laboriously exaggerated bad spelling, and still others that vulgar offshoot colloquially known as " freshness;" but we think that they are wiser and happier who choose the odd, sweet, and charming kind developed by the creator of Pomona, Mrs. Leeks, and Mrs. Aleshine. The characters in Mr. Stockton's books are one of the best companies to be met in our literature.
Unlike most American writers, Frank R. as he has called himself ever since his literary beginning has drawn back from personal contact with the reading public, for, as we have said, he is a shy man. It must be hoped by his idealizing admirers that he will never overcome that shyness. Some authors are to be seen and heard though few of them are to the platform manner born, like Mr. Cable or John Fox, Jr. We would have this be-loved story-teller of the present moment remain where he has ever been in the background, close to Wonderland. There, we like to imagine, he dwells only to conjure up the inimitable children of his brain and send them forth to give us pleasure. What a beautiful life to ease the troubled, to cheer the downcast, to amuse all sorts and conditions of men and women and children ! to be conscious of all that and yet to continue unaffectedly simple and genial!
In the portrait accompanying this sketch the reader will see the kindliness of the eyes. It is the direct reflection of kindliness of the heart. Yes, in that heart, freshened daily perhaps by the waters of some fountain of perpetual youth, is kindliness (we have testimony to that effect before us), sweetness, and unlimited cheerfulness enough, indeed, to recreate all those who seek his heart in his books.