It is shared at any rate by some thousands of people on this side of the Atlantic. Only, one is not quite sure how far their admiration extends. As far as can be guessed—for I have never come across any British attempt at a serious appreciation of Mr. Stockton—the general disposition is to regard him as an amusing kind of “cuss” with a queer kink in his fancy, who writes puzzling little stories that make you smile. As for taking him seriously, “why he doesn’t even profess to write seriously”—an absurd objection, of course; but good enough for the present-day reviewer, who sits up all night in order that the public may have his earliest possible opinion on the Reminiscences of Bishop A, or the Personal Recollections of Field-Marshal B, or a Tour taken in Ireland by the Honorable Mrs. C. For criticism just now, as a mere matter of business convenience, provides a relative importance for books before they appear; and in this classification the space allotted to fiction and labelled “important” is crowded for the moment with works dealing with religious or sexual difficulties. Everyone has read Rudder Grange, The Lady or the Tiger? and A Borrowed Month; but somehow few people seem to think of them as subjects for serious criticism.
And yet these stories are almost classics. That is to say, they have the classical qualities, and only need time to ripen them into classics: for nothing but age divides a story of the quality of The Lady or the Tiger? (for instance) from a story of the quality of Rip Van Winkle. They are full of wit; but the wit never chokes the style, which is simple and pellucid. Their fanciful postulates being granted, they are absolutely rational. And they are in a high degree original. Originality, good temper, good sense, moderation, wit—these are classical qualities: and he is a rare benefactor who employs them all for the amusement of the world.
At first sight it may seem absurd to compare Mr. Stockton with Defoe. You can scarcely imagine two men with more dissimilar notions of the value of gracefulness and humor, or with more divergent aims in writing. Mr. Stockton is nothing if not fanciful, and Defoe is hardly fanciful at all. Nevertheless in reading one I am constantly reminded of the other. You must remember Mr. Stockton’s habit is to confine his eccentricities of fancy to the postulates of a tale. He starts with some wildly unusual—but, as a rule, not impossible—conjuncture of circumstances. This being granted, however, he deduces his story logically and precisely, appealing never to our passions and almost constantly to our common sense. His people are as full of common-sense as Defoe’s. They may have more pluck than the average man or woman, and they usually have more adaptability; but they apply to extraordinary circumstances the good unsentimental reasoning of ordinary life,