Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Mary Noailles Murfree (Charles Egbert Craddock) (1850–1922)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
WHEN Miss Murfree’s first work appeared, not only was her pseudonym, Charles Egbert Craddock, accepted by her editors without suspicion as her proper name, but the public was equally deceived. The firm, quiet touch, the matter wholly free from subjectiveness, the robust humor, and the understanding of masculine life, had no trace of femininity.  1
  Her first book, ‘Where the Battle was Fought,’ which finally appeared in 1884, was the effort of a very young writer, containing more of promise than fulfillment, though the peculiarities of style and character were prophetic of her later manner. No publisher desired it until the great favor accorded to ‘In the Tennessee Mountains’ opened the way. In the maturer story was struck a more confident note. Miss Murfree had found her field, and henceforth the Tennessee mountains and their inhabitants were to occupy her descriptive powers. These men and women are for the first part rude people, kept in unlikeness to the outside world not only by their distance from civilization, but by the mist of tradition in which they live. Here is a colony of people who have their own ideas of etiquette,—and as strict a code as that of Versailles in the time of Louis XIV.,—their own notions of comfort and wealth, and their own civil and moral laws. Here they dwell in their mountain fastnesses, distilling illicit whisky with as clear a conscience as they plant the corn from which they make it, or as the Northern farmer makes cider from his apples—in their opinion an exact parallel. Passionately religious, full of picturesque poetry,—which they learn from the Bible, their only familiar book,—no wonder the “Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountain” thrilled his audiences when he described the scenes enacted in the Old Testament as having been transacted on the very hillsides where he preached, and that the majestic imagery of the Book was heightened by the majestic surroundings.  2
  But good “material,” in a literary sense, as are the Tennessee mountaineers, no sort of idealization nor surface acquaintance, however aided by artistic intuition, could have made them natural to the outside world. It was the office of one who knew them as Miss Murfree knew them, not only from the inside view but the view of a social superior, which enabled her to give the picture a perspective. Nowhere is this gift better indicated than in the artistic story ‘Drifting down Lost Creek,’ in which the elements of interest are thoroughly worked up, the motive of the delicate romance touched with a perfect consciousness of the author’s audience; while there is such a regard for the verities, that the whole story turns on the everyday feminine loyalty of a mountain girl to her lover. ‘On Big Injin Mountain’ is an episode of a sturdier kind, more dramatic both in matter and in manner than ‘Drifting down Lost Creek’; but at its close, when the rude mountaineers display a tenderness for the man they have misunderstood, the reader, gentle or simple, is perforce thrilled into sympathy,—for this is a passage to which the better part of human nature, wherever found, responds.  3
  In Miss Murfree’s writings we are perhaps too often reminded of the pictorial art which she undoubtedly possesses, by the effect she evolves from the use of words. She has a clear vision and a dramatic temperament; and it is a temptation, not always resisted, to emphasize physical surroundings in order to heighten situations. The moment a lull occurs in the action of her personages, the mountain solitudes come in to play their part,—the sylvan glades, the chromatic hues, the foaming cataracts, the empurpled shadows. Even the wild animals assume the functions of dramatis personæ, and are an inarticulate chorus to interpret the emotions of the human actors.  4
  But it is not given to a redundant and enthusiastic nature, a youthful nature at least in her earlier stories,—for Miss Murfree was born about 1850 in the township of Murfreesborough, Tennessee, a town called after her respected and influential family,—always to use one word when two or three seem to do as well. The normal mind is more active in the details of human life than in the details of landscape; but Miss Murfree, although she has not always accepted this as a fact, has painted scenes where she has perfectly adjusted her characters and their surroundings. In ‘Old Sledge at the Settlemint,’ the picture of the group of card-players throwing their cards on the inverted splint basket by the light of the tallow dip and a pitch-pine fire, while the moon shines without, and the uncanny echoes ring through the rocks and woods, is as graphic as one of Spagnoletto’s paintings. And she has done a gentler and even more sympathetic service in depicting the lonely, self-reliant, half mournful life of the mountain women whom she loves; particularly the young women, pure, sweet, naïve, and innocent of all evil. The older women “hold out wasted hands to the years as they pass,—holding them out always, and always empty”; but in drawing her old women, Miss Murfree lightens her somewhat somber pictures by their shrewd fun and keen knowledge of human nature. Mrs. Purvine is a stroke of genius.  5
  Nor could Miss Murfree’s stories have won their wide popularity with an American audience without a sense of humor, which is to her landscape as the sun to the mist. Her mountaineer who has been restrained from killing the suspected horse-thief is rather relieved than otherwise, having still a sense of justice: “The bay filly ain’t such a killin’ matter nohow; ef it was the roan three-year-old ’twould be different.”  6
  Miss Murfree’s stories now make a long list. If none surely surpass the early favorites ‘In the Tennessee Mountains’ and ‘The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountain,’ yet all are vigorous and dramatic pictures of the mountain life.  7

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.