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Anna Katharine Green

by E.F. Harkins and C.H.L. Johnston

Anna Katharine GreenIT is related that when “The Leavenworth Case” was published in 1878, the Pennsylvania Legislature turned from politics to discuss the identity of its author. There was the name on the title-page — Anna Katharine Green — as distinct as the city of Harrisburgh itself. But it must be a nom de plume, some protested. A man wrote the story — maybe a man already famous — and signed a woman’s name to it. The story was manifestly beyond a woman’s powers. Feminine names were considerably scarcer in the American fiction list then than they are to-day, when girls fresh from the high school take a place among the authors of the “best-selling” books.

A New York lawyer happened to be present at the politicians’ discussion. “You are mistaken,” he said to the incredulous. “I have seen the author of ‘The Leavenworth Case’ and conversed with her, and her name is really Miss Green.”

“Then she must have got some man to help her,” retorted the more obstinate theorists. They strongly remind us of the characters whom Miss Green — as we shall call her for the moment — portrays so skillfully, the self-willed characters that aim so well, but do not hit even the target, not to mention the bull’s-eye.

The incredulity exemplified by the Pennsylvanians was natural enough. That an American woman in those days should venture into the field of romantic literature was so uncommon as to be noteworthy; but that an American woman should write detective stories — well, that was quite preposterous.

And yet, nowadays, it would seem no more preposterous than a request to Mr. Carnegie to build a library. For the love of a good detective story, of a story interwoven with adventure and mystery, is in most persons a simple manifestation of the instinctive love of excitement. We know a professor — one of the most brilliant men in his profession — who has never lost his juvenile fondness for the pursuit of fire-engines. Similarly, many men and women are never cured of their youthful passion for the literature of the disguises and the handcuffs. Hawkshaw! How the name thrills even to-day! It takes many a man back to the days when the tattered dime-novel was smuggled into the schoolroom. Sometimes the almost breathless attention to syntax or the map of the New England States betrayed the guilt; but we firmly believe that there were teachers who never confiscated those prizes.

But, measuring by the incessant changes in times and in manners, it is not difficult to understand that a quarter of a century ago the still conservative reading public was loth to believe that the author of “The Leavenworth Case” was a woman.

Anna Katharine Green, the woman in question, was born in Brooklyn, N. Y., on Nov. 11, 1846. She was thirty-two, therefore, it will be seen, when the story that made her famous was published. Her father was a well-known lawyer; indeed, the Greens, we have been told, were a family of lawyers. This may account for the skill with which the daughter has tied and cut Gordian knots. It unquestionably accounts for her nimble imagination, her skill in producing subtle hypotheses and her strength in handling the most intricate psychological problems. In 1867 Anna was graduated from the Ripley Female College, in Poultney, Vt., and she may, if she please, write B.A. after her name. She composed verses and stories at the age of eleven. And speaking of verses, how many readers are acquainted with the fact that the author of “The Leavenworth Case” is also the author of a drama in blank verse and of a volume of ballads and narrative poems? Yet “The Defence of the Bride, and Other Poems” has won encomiums from discreet critics: and in some respects “Risifi’s Daughter: A Drama,” is her most ambitious work.

Perhaps, therefore, as we are to consider her poetry as an incidental, it may not be amiss at this point to quote a few characteristic verses. The two stanzas which follow are taken from a poem entitled “At the Piano”:

Play on! Play on! As softly glides
   The low refrain, I seem, I seem,
To float, to float on golden tides,
   By sunlit isles, where life and dream
Are one, are one; and hope and bliss
Move hand in hand, and thrilling, kiss
      ‘Neath bowery blooms
      In twilight glooms,
And love is life, and life is love.

Play on ! Play on ! As higher rise
   The lifted strains, I seem, I seem
To mount, to mount through roseate skies,
   Through drifted cloud and golden gleam,
To realms, to realms of thought and fire,
Where angels walk and souls aspire,
And sorrow comes but as the night
That brings a star for our delight.

Some of the criticisms of the book — “The Defence of the Bride, and Other Poems” — were extremely, and, indeed, rather absurdly flattering; a moderately toned opinion was given in Harper’s Monthly:

“The ballads and narrative poems which form the greater part of this collection are vigorous productions, whose barrenness of redundant words and epithets, and whose directness and straightforwardness of narration, are in strong contrast with the diffuse garrulity of most female writers. She has the true storyteller’s faculty for investing what she has to say with interest, and for keeping expectation on the stretch; and she delivers her message with masculine force and brevity.”

One of the critics, by the way, compared Miss Green — she was still Miss Green then, in 1882 —with Alfred Austin. “Miss Green,” says the critic, “seems to be able to say delicate and graceful things as easily as does the English poet.” That was before Mr. Austin became Poet Laureate — before comparisons with him were particularly odious.

“Risifi’s Daughter,” we may say, in a word, is notable rather for its well-sustained dramatic strength than for any especial skill or grace of versification. It seems to have convinced its author that her lines might be cast in happier places.

But to return to the main road. We have already seen that as a girl Anna had literary aspirations, but they reached no serious stage of development until after her return from Ripley College. She felt drawn to literature, and yet she was in no hurry either to decide which of the divers literary fields was best suited to her taste and talent, or to see her name in print. At this critical time her father was friend and counsellor. He perceived that there was no fickleness back of his daughter’s ambition to adopt literature as a profession; and, what is more important, he perceived that she might successfully qualify as a candidate. So he set about to direct and to encourage her zeal.

He found Anna a docile pupil. When doubts arose, when discouragement appeared, he was nearby to cheer her and to advise. He enlisted her sympathy in different cases that interested him; he sharpened her wits ; he discoursed to her on his own interesting experiences; he contributed judicious criticisms; above all, he fostered her confidence in her own powers. In this way she acquired from her father gifts that she had not inherited from him. Hers was a remarkably well-equipped intellect before one of her books had been published.

“The Leavenworth Case” came to startle the reading public in 1878. The plot of the story had been in the author’s mind for some years. The book, therefore, was no inspired or spasmodic effort; rather it was the product of a finely regulated intellect applied to the ever-entertaining theories of cause and effect. What if those legislators had been informed of the fact that the author was a student of criminology!

Mrs. Rohlfs is too adept a psychologist to pretend that instinct led her with the manuscript of “The Leavenworth Case” to Mr. G. P. Putnam’s office; it was more likely a simple piece of good fortune to happen upon so wise and liberal an appraiser. It is a tribute to his perspicacity that he introduced to the American reading public one of its most popular writers, and it is a happy commentary on the relationship between author and publisher that, with an exception or two, the Putnam house has issued the periodical output of Anna Katharine Green.

When “A Strange Disappearance” appeared, in 1885, a critic—or perhaps we should say reviewer — made the comment: “We have a Gaboriau in our own tongue.” It must have seemed extremely flattering — assuming that the author of “A Strange Disappearance” is normally susceptible to flattery — to be named favorably in the same sentence with the brilliant Frenchman. Mrs. Rohlfs resembles Gaboriau in so far as her strong point, as his was, is the simple and perspicuous narrative of events; thus, too, she resembles Wilkie Collins, who was called an imitator of Gaboriau. But we doubt that any pen excepting Gaboriau’s could write or could have written the first part of “Monsieur Lecocq.” Possibly the English writer thought he saw an imitator in the author of “The Leavenworth Case.” At any rate, while she was enjoying the first fruits of
renown, Collins wrote to her publishers that he sincerely admired her stories; and we understand that he conveyed to the young American some “wise practical hints” and “warm expressions of belief in her future.” The belief has been abundantly justified.

“It is said” — we quote from an anonymous paper dealing with the career of the New York author — “that she does not herself claim to be a novelist. She is not a novelist in the sense that George Eliot and Hawthorne are novelists.” These words remind us of the reflections of Mr. Herbert Paul, the brilliant English essayist, on Collins’s “Woman in White” and “Moonstone.” “Are these books and others like them literature?” he asks. “Wilkie Collins deliberately stripped his style of all embellishment. Even epithets are excluded, as they are from John Austin’s ‘Letters on Jurisprudence.’ It is strange that a man of letters should try to make his books resemble police reports. But, if he does, he must take the consequences. He cannot serve God and Mammon.” The reflections, to some extent, may be applied direct to Mrs. Rohlfs’s books, for they, too, are stripped almost bare of epithets. But if, as Mr. Crawford, for example, urges, if the first purpose of a novel is entertainment, then the books bearing the name of Anna Katharine Green are excellent novels. But it is not a point to be insisted upon. Let the statement suffice that the books in question, whatever be their true denomination, give rare pleasure. Fastidious critics, like Professor Bates of Wellesley, may classify them as police-court literature; but even in the police court is revealed the joy and the woe of human passions, the wonderful keenness and the terrible dullness of the human intellect. Mrs. Rohlfs knows her limitations, and is content to be exalted or condemned by her performances.

Her manner of working takes us back to Charles Reade. “The account of any remarkable or strange event that comes to her attention in the reading of the newspapers she cuts out and pastes into a scrap-book. . . When the time comes to write out the plots which she has previously developed in her mind, she takes care to work only when she can work at her best. Sometimes she writes, therefore, two hours a day, sometimes ten; but there is none of that plan of persistent plodding, day in and day out, to produce a prescribed amount, which Anthony Trollope carried on so successfully.” Yet in the twenty-three years covering her literary career she has written a score of books. This has been no light task for one with a household to take care of, for in November, 1884, the novelist became Mrs. Charles Rohlfs. Some of the books have been translated into German and Swedish, which circumstance is a notable tribute to their attractiveness.

Technically, Professor Bates was justified in referring to Mrs. Rohlfs as “the foremost representative in America to-day of police-court literature”; yet to us this reference seems unsatisfactory, inadequate. It conveys no hint of the constructive skill, the imaginative power and the perceptive faculties necessary for the praiseworthy writing of police-court literature; and, furthermore, it offers no suggestion of Anna Katharine Green’s exquisite sense of humor. How delightfully, for example, that most interesting spinster in “That Affair next Door” — Miss Butterworth, as we remember the name — plays hostess for the Van Burnam girls! What a genuine piece of comedy amid the pathos and terror roundabout! And how much flesh and blood there is in many of these unpretentious tales of mystery. One may not approve that sort of literature, or take any pleasure in it, but it is not to be denied that Mrs. Rohlfs writes artistically. Art concerns the work, not the subject.

We venture the prediction that the stories written by Anna Katharine Green, by virtue not only of their attractive skillfulness but also of their perennially interesting subjects, will be read eagerly and with delight when many of the novels of brighter present fame have accumulated dust.