Elizabeth Gilbert: “The Signature of All Things” from One Story #183, 9/5/13

William Birch, "The Woodlands Seat of Mr. Wm Hamilton" 1809

William Birch, “The Woodlands Seat of Mr. Wm Hamilton” 1809

She was her father’s daughter. It was said of her from the beginning. For one thing, Alma Whittaker looked precisely like Henry….What’s more, Alma was clever like him. Sturdy, too. A right little dromedary, she was—tireless and uncomplaining. Never took ill. Stubborn. From the moment the girl learned to speak, she could not put an argument to rest. If her millstone of a mother had not steadfastly ground the impudence out of her, she might have turned out to be frankly rude. As it was, she was merely forceful. She wanted to understand the world, and she made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance.

Watch out – I’m about to take One Story, my favorite literary magazine, to task.

In a way, the best thing about the magazine contains the seeds of occasional discontent. The editors go out of their way to present a wide variety of authors – never publishing anyone more than once – and literary styles, from narrative experimentation to fable to romance to spec fic to realism to, most recently, a comic book (the formal term is “graphic story,” but I still hesitate to plop that phrase down without reassuring those over 50 that we’re not talking obscenity, but a more visual approach to storytelling). This is something I love about One Story. But it’s pretty inevitable that at some point, someone with even the widest range interests will encounter something that doesn’t appeal. It’s akin to free speech – you’re going to occasionally hear something you don’t like, but that’s the cost of having the right to say something someone else doesn’t like.

This latest issue had one strike going against it from the start. I’m not really a big fan of historical fiction. One Story‘s variety-pack approach has been helpful in that regard, truth be told, since it occasionally exposes me to historical fiction I end up enjoying very much, as with “World’s End” and “The History of Living Forever” and “No Flies, No Folly.” Still, I start out skeptical.

Skeptical, I can take in stride. I don’t expect every story to be my cup of tea, and One Story has a terrific batting average as far as I’m concerned. Even the stories I don’t particularly “like” offer something, this one included. But then came the final straw: this is an excerpt.

One Story has published excerpts before, and I’ve been patient, but now that they’ve published three in the past 12 months, I’m officially annoyed. I have to be annoyed, to be consistent: I grumble when TNY does it, after all. Maybe I hold One Story to a higher standard. Maybe I feel like a magazine that uses the name “One Story” should be honoring the short story tradition – allowing for a rare exception just to mix things up – instead of publishing chapters that may be excellent exposition for extraordinary novels, but are terrible examples of the short story.

There must be a reason litmags do this; I’m going to assume the reason isn’t a dearth of submissions of excellent stories. Is it the name factor? Is there some cost benefit involved? Is the idea that this will lure new readers? If you know, please tell me. I have some vague sense of the grim economic realities of publishing, and I’m grudgingly willing to accept some compromise may be necessary. And by the way, who am I to second-guess Hannah Tinti, who knows far more about the short story and literature in general than I ever will. But I don’t have to be happy about it.

Both Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, equally intolerant of dullness, encouraged the spirit of investigation in their daughter.
…If other people’s toddlers could be taught to lisp prayers and catechisms as soon as they could speak, then, Beatrix believed, her child could certainly be taught anything.

The “story” presented here is virtually all exposition. There is a bit of narrative towards the end, culminating in a delightfully visual (do I smell another movie?) scene of a houseful of high-IQ guests enacting the motions of the solar system on a sprawling early-19th-century Philadelphia estate lawn. But the energy of the story is almost entirely directed towards establishing a background for Alma Whittaker, who will, in the novel that follows, grow up and become a world-travelling botanist.

The excerpt focuses on Alma’s childhood influences, from her loving but demanding parents and the housekeeper who provides comfort when needed, to the intellectually demanding dinner parties for the intelligentsia of the era. It’s nicely written and fairly pleasant reading, though a bit of the standard cookbook recipe for the precocious child who becomes a successful adult. I should probably be more impressed by the historical detailing of the estate and the circumstances of the family, including the father’s involvement in what passed for medical chemistry of the era. It could well be that for historic fiction buffs, this is a winner; Gilbert based the White Acre estate partly on Philadelphia’s The Woodlands, and they’ve included a comment from her on their blog (“The Woodlands has now become so intrinsically entwined in my mind with White Acre that I can scarcely tell the two apart”). Gilbert discusses the origins of the excerpt – a combination of gardening and the inheritance of a 1784 edition of Captain Cook’s voyages – as well as some of the features of the novel from which it comes, in her One Story Q&A.

Nobody stopped her. She was a comet.
She did not know that she was not flying.

For me, it was a somewhat more high-end chapter out of, say, Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself; it was only in this past summer’s bookshelf purge that I parted with my own collection of Sidney Sheldon. It’s especially not a bad thing when offered as one of the many varieties the One Story smorgasbord includes. But this one wasn’t my cup of tea. Is that the story, or is that me, sporting an attitude? Undetermined.

I still love you, One Story. Next issue, please.

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