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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Octave Thanet (Alice French) (1850–1934)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE ARKANSAS and other stories of the South and West by Octave Thanet—known in private life as Miss Alice French—are part of the vital contribution to sectional American literature. She belongs with those writers in the United States who are studying with insight and sympathy varied types of humanity; and while producing good literature, are drawing East and West, North and South together, by making them better known to each other. Miss French’s stories are skillful in workmanship, warm with humanity, and very dramatic in conception and handling. She is a realist in the best sense; basing her fiction on close observation and understanding of the characters she creates. She is doing for a certain part of the Southwest what no previous author has done so well.  1
  Although Arkansas is her favorite study ground, and Iowa is her present home, Miss French was born about 1850 at Andover, Massachusetts; and comes of an old New England family, which traces back to Massachusetts Bay colonists. Her father went West for his health, and settled in Davenport, Iowa; keeping in touch with the East, however, by annual visits to the Massachusetts coast and sojourns in Boston. Alice was graduated at Andover Academy. Her early tastes in reading were historical, and she began by writing on social and economic themes. Her first story to attract attention was ‘The Bishop’s Vagabond,’ in the Atlantic Monthly; a South Carolina watering-place sketch, which contains a salient bit of characterization humorously presented, yet with strong undercurrents of pathos and tragedy, and which proved the forerunner of many which revealed to her and her public the true scope and nature of her powers.  2
  Miss French passes her winters on her plantation, Clover Bend, on the Black River, in Arkansas; and it is there that she has made the careful studies of the native life upon which her tales are based. The scenery, the characters, and even the incidents, in some of her fiction, are direct transcripts of what she has seen and heard, idealized by the artist touch. The pseudonym “Octave Thanet” is in derivation a curious composite: the first of the two names is that of a school room-mate, the second was discovered on the side of a passing freight-car.  3
  Miss French’s first collection of short stories was ‘Knitters in the Sun’ (1884): and it has been followed by ‘Expiation,’ a novel (1890); ‘Otto the Knight, and other Trans-Mississippi Stories’ (1891); ‘We All,’ another novel (1891); ‘Stories of a Western Town’ (1893); ‘An Adventure in Photography,’ a practical treatise on amateur picture-taking (1893); and ‘The Missionary Sheriff,’ in which the West instead of the Southwest is depicted,—the tales being laid in Iowa and Illinois. Her later fiction has gone still farther afield and includes ‘A Book of True Lovers’ (1898); ‘The Heart of Toil’ (1898); ‘A Slave to Duty’ (1900); ‘Man of the Hour’ (1905); ‘The Lion’s Share’ (1907); ‘By Inheritance’ (1910); ‘Stories that End Well’ (1911) and ‘A Step on the Stair’ (1913).  4
  The author’s growth, from the lurid massing of horrors in ‘Expiation,’—an Arkansas war-tale of the most grewsome sort,—to the later short stories, with their artistic restraint and fine sense of balanced comedy and tragedy, has been steady in the direction of an assured command of her material. Her fiction as a whole furnishes an admirably vivid interpretation of a very individual and interesting kind of American life. Dialect, character, and scenery are put before the reader with force and truth; and while interest is aroused by the fresh locale, it is held by the writer’s power in story-making, and in dramatic situations. When she shifts the scene from Arkansas to Iowa, as in the title-story, ‘The Missionary Sheriff,’—one of her most enjoyable character studies,—she displays the same effective qualities. She deals with the main motives and passions of plain men and women. Miss French is strongest in the short story; that medium affords her talent its best expression. She is at once accurate and picturesque in her descriptions. The land of the canebrake and the cypress swamp, of the poor white, the decayed planter and the negro, the Western town with its crude energy and strongly marked types, are painted in a way to make it all real; yet a fine romanticism colors Miss French’s work: she has faith in the good in rough, uncouth folk; she finds nobler traits masking in unexpected quarters.  5
 
 
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