It is always hazardous to prophesy the future course of an admirable writer, but it is safe to say that the rich, human embodiment of the stories collected in this volume assure them a permanence in our literature for their imaginative reality, their warm color, and their finality of artistic execution. Almost without exception they represent the best that is being accomplished in America today by a literary artist.
— Edward J. O’Brien, Introduction to Land’s End and Other Stories (1918)
When I first read Wilbur Daniel Steele’s 1919 short story, “Out of Exile,” it struck me right away. The language was beautiful, the imagery evocative. I loved it. I felt immediately drawn into this New England fishing community, on the fictional Urkey Island, as the love triangle at the heart of the story unfolded through the filter of the narrator’s growing up and coming-of-age. And although the story was not in any way supernatural, somehow it felt like a ghost story. And that, of course, is a plus, as far as I’m concerned. I wondered: who is this Wilbur Daniel Steele? Did he write any actual ghost stories? What are they like?
He’s quite forgotten today (sorry, Mr. O’Brien!), but Wilbur Daniel Steele was one of the most popular American short story writers of the early twentieth century. He wrote both for prestigious fiction magazines and for women’s magazines. Between 1915 and 1933, at least ten of Steele’s stories appeared in Edward J. O’Brien’s annual Best [American] Short Stories of the Year. Over the same period, eleven of his stories were O. Henry prize selections: one more than John Cheever, one fewer than Alice Munro and William Faulkner.
After about 1933, he seems to have published fewer short stories, and these largely in women’s magazines. He had a revival of sorts around the 1950s, when some of his earlier work was republished in crime fiction magazines like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. After that, he dropped off the radar. Steele passed away in 1970, at the age of 84.
Much of Steele’s earlier work is online, and I dug through it all. Most of the stories I found are naturalistic: dramas of everyday life, crime stories, travelogues, tales of the sea, of fisherfolk and sailors, of the Caribbean, the South Pacific, North Africa. I did find a few ghostly or otherwise supernatural tales, and even more stories that brushed up along the edge of the uncanny. Even in his naturalistic work, Steele often had a way of describing scenes and situations that conjured up the eerie, the otherworldly, the macabre.
His best works, in my opinion, are the the stories of life in the fishing communities of Massachusetts, both Yankee and Portuguese. These seem to be the stories—and the characters—he cared about most. When I read the stories of these fisherfolk, I get the impression of a real affection in the way that Steele writes about them. Whereas, when I read his stories about affluent suburbanites or city people, his attitude to the characters, while generally kind, feels detached. And his language, always lovely, is especially beautiful in these New England tales; Steele loved the ocean. I’m honestly surprised that his Urkey Island, Old Harbor, and Great Neck stories aren’t better remembered.
I also really like his crime stories. Before I discovered “classic ghost stories” as an adult, I grew up devouring tattered old pocketbook reprints and well-worn hardcover editions of the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock macabre tale anthologies from my local library. Those were my literary loves growing up, and Steele does them well. I’m surprised that these aren’t remembered, either.
Unfortunately, his stories are sometimes marred by the casual racism of the era: ethnic slurs (including the N-word) appear in his stories once in a while. A few times while reading I had to shake my head because a passing utterance would spoil what would otherwise be an unambigously enjoyable story. But here I want to point out the distinction between racist/prejudicial attitudes as expressions of the author, versus expressions of their characters (and hence, not necessarily the attitude of the author). For the most part, in Steele’s stories the slurs and problematic language are from the characters—often, unsympathetic characters.
I won’t say that Steele’s attitudes are up to contemporary standards, but I do think that for his time he did a decent job of writing characters of color as people, not just symbols or stereotypes or caricatures. Black characters (mostly West Indians, in the stories I’ve read) in a Steele story may be good or bad, strong or weak, but they don’t roll their eyes and call white people “massa.” They speak standard English and pronounce all their dipthongs. In fact, most people of color in the Steele stories that I’ve read are characters with a great deal of dignity.
It might be worth mentioning here that the Portuguese (mostly Azorean) fisherfolk that Steele often wrote about were probably not considered “white” in the same way that the Anglo fisherfolk that came before them were. And they were fairly recent immigrants. Reading the Steele’s stories, I can’t help but contrast how he portrays his Portuguese (and sometimes Chinese, Italian, or West Indian) characters to the authorial attitudes towards non-Anglo immigrants that you might find in a story by H.P. Lovecraft, or Henry C. Mercer, who were writing at approximately the same time. I don’t believe that I’ve seen an explicit ethnic slur in a Mercer story, for instance; but his stories (and I wanted to like them) often leave me with a decidedly bad taste in my mouth. Not so with Steele’s stories, though they may make me wince occasionally.
Anyway. For the curious, I’ve picked out from all my reading some selections that I think might appeal to people with similar tastes as mine. These fall in three categories: supernatural(ish) tales, New England fisherfolk tales, and crime stories. Often the categories overlap. In addition to the actual tales of the supernatural, I’ve favored stories that have a touch of an otherworldly, eerie mood to them, as those are the ones I’m drawn to the most.
I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
Featured Image: Hannaford’s Cove, George Luks (1922). Source: WikiArt