Henry James Goes to Key West – A Deal Me In Short Story Challenge Post

This one was hard.

For the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge, I’ve been drawing two cards for two stories and then trying to find a link between the two.  It’s been fun, and relatively easy, up to now.

key west talesJohn Hersey’s “The Wedding Dress” from his collection Key West and Henry James’s “John Delavoy” from the Penguin Anthology The Figure in the Carpet.  So far Mr. Hersey’s stories are rather light, slice of  life tales focused on characters with not much in the way of plot.  His prose is very clean, very modern.  Mr. James, from the few I have read, has kind of a twisted outlook at times, though he is often very funny about it.  His stories are much longer than Mr. Hersey’s with much larger casts of characters.  And his prose is such that it has its own name, Jamesian.

Finding a link between the two was not easy, but I think I’ve got a decent one.

“The Wedding Dress” begins with a customer spotting a beautiful wedding dress on sale in a dry cleaners for just twenty five dollars.  How did the dress come to be there?  The shop owner states that store policy is unclaimed goods are sold for up to twenty five dollars after 30 days.  A young woman dropped off the dress and never went back for it.

figure in the carpet“John Delavoy” is about a writer attempting to pay tribute to another, John Delavoy, who has just passed.  The writer, who is working on a piece that will be a true tribute, meets Delavoy’s sister who shows him a simple pencil sketch she did of her deceased brother.  She agrees to let the write publish it alongside his essay in a popular magazine.

Neither the beautiful dress nor the charming pencil sketch tell the full story.

The bride in Hersey’s story married a man obsessed with something other than her.  Her young husband is devoted to the new sport of sail boarding.  He leaves her at home alone with their new daughter for hours, sometimes days on end, eventually leaving her altogether in favor of the trending sailboarding scene in Hawaii.  She abandons the dress at a Key West dry cleaner that very same day.

The pencil sketch is all that anyone will publish in a major magazine in memorium of John Delavoy.  His work was far too scandalous to mention, and the tribute the writer has submitted not the sort of thing most readers want to read though it is just what his sister wanted published:

“..What I’ve said is unprintable.’ I leaned against the chimney-piece with a serenity of which, I admit, I was conscious; I rubbed it in and felt a private joy in watching my influence.

“Then what have you said?”

“You know perfectly.  You heard my thing from beginning to end. You said it was beautiful.”

She remembered as I looked at her; she showed all the shings she called back.  “It was beautiful.”  I went over and picked it up; I came back with it to the fire.  “It was the best thing ever said about him,” she went on.  “It was the finest and truest.”

While I’ve not read enough of John Hersey’s stories to say how this one compares with the rest, I think I have read enough of Henry James to know that “John Delavoy” is not up to his usual standards.  Look at the above passage, how the speaker is interrupted the write can go across the room, pick up the document in question, cross back to the fire.  Sounds like a scene in a soap opera.

While Mr. Hersey’s story is certainly one that has been told many times, it all rang true. I even believe the wedding dress on sale at the Key West dry cleaners.   Mr. James’s story didn’t exactly ring false, but it rang contrived.  He’s got an ax to grind in “John Delavoy” against the publishers of his day who refused to print the work of many writers, including James himself, for reasons of propriety that most 21st century readers now find very hard to understand.  Contemporary American publishers refused to print “John Delavoy.” But too often this makes the characters in “John Delavoy” sound like mouth pieces for the author rather than people, even people in a Henry James story.

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5 Comments

  1. Dale says:

    James,
    Very nice blog and I enjoyed reading about your stories. I had not read either of them. I’ve only read Turn of the Screw by Henry James – which I remember liking.

    It seems like it’s sometimes difficult to write a good story when the author is trying to “make a point”.

    -Dale

    1. Thank you, Dale. I highly recommend Henry James’s other short stories. He is a master of the form.

  2. Jay says:

    Hi James,
    I haven’t read John Hersey (though I’ve read lots of Henry James – some for prior years of my Deal Me In project) but based on your post I think I would have liked his story better of the two. Maybe my favorite HJ story is “The Middle Years.” Is that one among the ones you’ve read?
    -Jay

    1. I’ve only read a handful at this point, not “The Middle Years.” But I did draw another Henry James for this weeks reading. Henry James and George Orwell. Wish me luck.

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