Ruth Mcenery Stuart
( Originally Published 1901 )
THE fact that a spirit of commercialism is creeping into the old Latin or Creole quarter of New Orleans was well exemplified by the sign that a small bootmaker, who had evidently been studying the up-to-date conversational advertisements in the daily papers, recently hung over his door. Translated literally, it read: "Oh, my God ! Shoes half soled for fifty cents !"
It is, however, the old, the picturesque, and the thoroughly lazy New Orleans of which Ruth McEnery Stuart has writ-ten, and it is with the " yaller gals," the Creoles, the plantation negroes, the " cunnels " and the " majahs," that she is thoroughly at home. It is true that she has touched upon places that have been thoroughly covered by others, for the whole theme of the southern negro and his surroundings has been well treated by George W. Cable, with his " Cajians " and Creoles ; by Thomas Nelson Page, with " Marse Channins " devoted body-servant, and his Virginian field bards ; by Joel Chandler Harris, with his chronicles of " Brier Rabbit," " Brer Bar," and the lesser animals, and by Virginia Frazer Boyle, with her voudoo and devil tales ; but Mrs. Stuart has given us glimpses of this life that have been permeated with her own personality, and the possibilities among these archaic and most accessible people have been many.
Perhaps the negro poet, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, of recent years has given us better and more sympathetic songs of the plantation life, which is so rapidly disappearing, than other expositors of southern scenes and scenery ; but although Mrs. Stuart has not written voluminously, those poems and short stories which have, upon rare occasions, drifted into the different news-papers and periodicals, have shown an appreciation of the curious rhythm of the plantation song, and its innocent spirit and childish repetitions, which stamp them as truthful expositions of those unintellectual and simple minds that few Americans know well enough to interpret.
What, in truth, could more faithfully exhibit the spirit of the ante-bellum darky than the poem called " Daddy Do-Funny," which only recently appeared in St. Nicholas ? " Ole Daddy Do-Funny," with his list of " miseries," is a typical plantation daddy.
The author of such a truly valuable addition to American folk-song was bred in the very hotbed of negro superstition and voudoo worship. She was born at Avoyelles parish, Louisiana, and was the daughter of a wealthy family of planters who had always been slaveholders, and were life-long residents of the State. In early childhood she was taken to New Orleans, where her father was in business, and there she was educated at public and private schools, and there remained until her marriage in 1879 to Alfred O. Stuart, who owned large cotton plantations in Arkansas. Of her married life she has recently informed a newspaper paragrapher: " During my married life I lived on my husband's plantation in Arkansas, and most of my negro character-studies have come from my association with the negroes while there. We lived right among them — there were hundreds of negroes to one white person. My Arkansas life covered about five years, from 1879 to late in 1883. Two plantations were owned by my husband, although we did not live on either of them, but in a little town near by, and I can see the darkies now, riding in on their mules, hitching them to the mulberry trees in our yard, sitting in rows upon our front steps,'restin" and foolin'roun" generally. Some old 'aunty' would surely come walking in every morning with a battered tin pail on her arm, filled with perfectly worth-less berries, gathered up by the wayside, not to sell, but ' ter swap fur jes a leetle flour, please ma'am, an' a pinch er butter, honey, an' a couple er lumps er sugar, please ma'am, Mis' Stuart.' Then there was an old 'uncle,' who used to sit silently fishing all day long in a shallow pool, with his under lip stuck out phenomenally far, even for a negro's, who, when anyone asked him, ' Say, uncle, what 's that you 've got in your mouth?' would reply laconically, Wums,' and shut his tongue down upon his imprisoned bait again."
Of her first literary endeavors she has also said : " I was never a great reader, but was more fond of people than books, though, I had my favorite authors, as every girl has — still, I was not a great reader. I have always felt interested in the common folk, but never thought seriously about writing them up until after my husband's death. It was in 1887 that I first thought about writing, and in 1888 my first story was published. I sent two stories to the Harpers. It was in this way I wrote an anonymous letter to them, and in reply received a very pleasant note from Mr. Charles Dudley Warner, who afterward sent one of my stories to Professor Sloane of the Princeton Review, and kept one for Harper's Magazine. The Princeton Review thus happened to be the first magazine to print a story for me.
" As to my writing dialect, I did not do it intentionally. I simply wrote dialect stories because when I demanded of my-self a story, it was the recollection of the negroes which made it possible for me to write it. I could not help writing dialect.
" My characters are all drawn from imagination. I have found that in writing stories, facts or bits taken from life intact, hamper instead of help me. There is always a question as to the real incidents fitting naturally into a new situation. I always fancy I can see the stitches around the patch. Besides, is it not true that the real incident that suggests itself for use is apt to be attractive for its exceptional character? Hence it is not true to life. It was noticeable in life for this very reason. When it is put into a story, since it cannot be taken with its entire common-place setting, it loses its relative value — it 's out of drawing and false.
I try to devote the first half of each day to my desk, and this is my rule. My favorite work hours are those of the early morning, from about six to breakfast-time. As to my favorite authors of fiction — I might name George Eliot, George Meredith, and Victor Hugo : and among our own authors I esteem none more highly than Mary E. Wilkins and James Lane Allen; but it is difficult to select a few lights from a galaxy so brilliant that each of a score of names would be familiar to everyone. As to my literary ambitions — oh, don't ask me. I am now doing stories, and am in arrears with my engagements."
Since the death of her husband, Mrs. Stuart has resided in New York City and here she has done most of her literary work. A list of her books includes : " Moriah's Mourning"; " In Simpkinsville " ; " A Golden Wedding "; " Carlotta's Intended " ; " Solomon Crow's Christmas Pockets " ; " The Story of Babette " ; "Sonny," and " Holly and Pizen." She is not only an indefatigable worker, but also a reader of considerable reputation, and, although not a professional elocutionist or one of the modern " reciters," interprets her own writings with great vivacity and effect. " Her pictures of Louisiana life, both white and colored, are indeed the best we have," Charles Dudley Warner has said, "—truthful, humorous, and not seldom pathetic, but never overdrawn or sentimental. Not a little of her success in presenting them to an audience lies in her power to reproduce her characters in accent and dialect, and in such a manner that we see them as they really are."
She is slender and graceful, and wears her dark-brown hair thrown softly back from her face in half-pompadour style, and has the delightful accent of the southland. Her hobby is to study mycology, and each year she finds several months' pleasure in the difficult pursuit of the one-legged mushroom. She is likewise engaged in the collection of aboriginal baskets, which rep-resent the feelings of both art and utility of half-civilized peoples in various parts of the world. A great many paragraphers have been pleased to comment upon her as being a normal domestic woman," which is indeed what she really is, as she is an excellent housekeeper and likes to dabble in cookery and other arts of the household.
Perhaps she has written nothing more thoroughly «coon" than "Uncle Ephe's Advice to Brer Rabbit," which faithfully demonstrates her ability as a chronicler of plantation echoes, and well exemplifies the poetic mind of the dense, but tuneful, negro of the cotton-field and the cane-brake.
The lilt of
Hoppit— lippit ! Bull-frog gait !
has in it the onomatopoetic quality of genuine barbaric verse.
Mrs. Stuart's self-confessed lack of "bookish " traits is perhaps one secret of her success in her own field. She is versed in the study of the simple characters into whose lives she has so fully entered as no student of mere letters could be. The author of " Sonny " and the Simpkinsville stories well deserves her creditable rank among the American writers of genre fiction.