- 1 The eleven novels of English novelist Emily Hilda Young (1880-1947) garnered both popular and criti (...)
1In E.H. Young’s1 “The Stream” (1932), two office colleagues take a summer holiday together to the Welsh coast. Halfway through their two-week stay, the young men consider an expedition into the uncharted and difficult terrain of the mountains. Alfred, the older and more responsible of the two friends, discourages the plan: no track connects the two points of civilization indicated on the map. The younger of the two men, William, obstinately decides to set out, and Alfred feels bound to accompany him. Before the expedition is over, William has pushed Alfred over a precipice, causing both of his legs to break. The next day, William returns to the scene and stones his friend to death. The story concludes with a shepherd’s discovery of William’s own body floating in the stream.
- 2 One of these, “The Grey Mare” was broadcast as a “Mid-Morning Story” on the BBC in 1948, but may no (...)
2“The Stream” was first published in the May 1932 British edition of Good Housekeeping. It is the only story Young published in Good Housekeeping, and in its subject matter, setting, and length, stands apart from her other five published short stories.2 Young was primarily known for her novels, and indeed, the Good Housekeeping editors presumed their readers’ familiarity with her most recently successful novel, Miss Mole (1930). In a parenthesis on the first double spread of the printed story, beneath the author’s name, readers were invited to link “The Stream” to the “Author of ‘Miss Mole’” (7). In the April issue as well, readers would have found an inset announcement of “‘The Stream,’ an astonishingly clever story appearing in next month’s ‘Good Housekeeping,’ by the author of ‘Miss Mole’[:] E.H. Young” (196).
3Reading this long and enigmatic story in its original print context, one notices that it is neither about nor particularly for women. The subheading characterized the story simply as “Strange incidents on a lonely mountainside” (6). What might “The Stream” have meant to these initial readers, and how might the textual environment of the magazine have influenced their reading? In this essay, I will adapt Jerome McGann’s concept of the “bibliographic code” to describe Good Housekeeping readers’ active reading strategies and likely interpretation of “The Stream.” I will suggest that to resolve enigmas in the story, these readers drew on a composite textual environment, one that allowed them to make connections between social and cultural debates over several months’ reading of the magazine.
4Certainly “The Stream” demands interpretation. What drove William to this cruelty? Was it a sudden psychological breakdown? Was it an index of social ills? Did William undergo a mystical experience? Good Housekeeping readers of “The Stream” would have engaged with these questions. From its initial publication in 1922, the British Good Housekeeping addressed the modern woman comprehensively, considering her not only as a homemaker, mother, and wife, but as a student of history, philosophy, and culture. She was both the keeper of cultural heritage and an informed participant in contemporary society. Every issue of Good Housekeeping in this period contained literature, book reviews, profiles of interesting professional or accomplished men and women, and opinion and commentary about both topical and enduring questions: Does money contribute to happiness? What would God make of contemporary English life? Should women run for Parliament? The Good Housekeeping reader was kept in touch with all facets of contemporary life and was accustomed to debating important questions of the day.
- 3 In chronological order, these republications are: Head, Alice M., ed. Twelve Best Stories From Good (...)
- 4 For example, the Good Housekeeping text of “The Stream” was augmented with illustrations, captions, (...)
5“The Stream,” I will argue, should be set in dialogue with two such topical questions interrogating man’s nature and his postwar predicament. Additionally, we should understand the appeal of “The Stream” within postwar debates about the form, substance, and future of the modern short story. Amid concerns that the short story’s dependence on magazine publication doomed it to ephemerality, Young’s story proved repeatedly worthy of rereading. Indeed, “The Stream” was subsequently reprinted four times between 1933 and 1952, three times in anthologies and once in the UK’s Argosy, a digest of new and reprinted fiction.3 Each of these printings gave “The Stream” a distinct material and textual environment; each facilitated a different reading practice and fostered a new interpretation of the story.4 The broad appeal of “The Stream,” I will argue, arose from its ability to represent a human crisis on multiple levels and to represent it obliquely. “The Stream” represented this crisis as evidence both of man’s primitive instincts and of a dead end in modernity. As well, the oblique or ambiguous treatment of the crisis—the narrator declines to interpret the strange behavior of the main character—forced readers actively to determine its meaning, and ensured that the story would be read and reread.
6The short story’s perceived ephemerality was at the heart of modern debates about it. The proliferation of widely circulating magazines was held responsible for the rapid production of short stories. One observer noted:
There is the closest connexion between the development of this class of periodicals and the short story. They have acted and reacted upon one another, and each has been in turn cause and effect of the increase of the other. The more magazines the more need of stories to fill them, and the more stories the wider the demand for magazines. (Walker xv-xvi.)
7In turn, most commentators linked this demand for short stories to their decline in quality and their fleeting impact on readers. Poet, critic, and anthologist Edward O’Brien devoted an entire volume of social criticism to the problem of the American short story in the industrial age, The Dance of the Machines, published in 1929. “American magazines of large circulation have no creativeness,” he complained. “They go on with their set program and are perfectly certain that creativeness is a regrettable function” (128), for it is standardization they seek (130). “The American short story is designed to be absolutely interchangeable with its fellows” (123). At the root of this standardization is money: “The magazine of large circulation being designed to make money for men, its passion is to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible.” So “it imposes speed values upon the writers who contribute to its pages, corrupting them with money in order to gain its end” (134).
8O’Brien saw that the anthology might defend against the ephemerality and the crass commercialization of the short story. Arguably, though, the “extraverted” short story’s own form, demanding that readers actively interpret its sparse “formulas,” carried its own imperative that stories be reread and find new audiences.
9Early twentieth-century commentators on the modern short story praised it as an intensely flavored extract, and they linked this condensation to its powerful impact on readers. Elizabeth Bowen identified an objective, ”extraverted” short story, which, “bare of analysis, sparse in emotional statement—is the formula for, never the transcript of, that amazement with which poetry deals” (11). And in his classic study of the modern short story, H.E. Bates emphasized moments seen telescopically, “brightly focused, unelaborated and unexplained,” such that each moment implies something it does not state” (22). Bates linked the terse, oblique approach of the short story to the postwar mood: writers did not feel the lyricism with which prewar writers had aligned their voices. They avoided both poetry and the more didactic form of the novel. Bates saw the heyday of the short story as fruit of the war. What the youngest generation had to say “was too much the sour fruit of frustration to find expression in lyricism, and yet was too urgent to be wrapped up in the complacent folds of ordinary prose” (123). Postwar writers sought a form between lyric poetry and fictional prose: the short story (123).
10The obliqueness, indirectness, and condensation of the short story form came to define its art. The succinct form of the modern short story also threw onto the reader a certain burden to interpret it. Bates continually returns to the role of the reader in shaping the modern short story, which he credits with “realism and poetry” (206). Whereas the nineteenth-century novelists continually underestimated the reader, or else compensated for the genuine limits of individual readers’ knowledge and experience of others (22-23), the modern reader needs only a few telling details to complete short story characters herself, and has thus “made a greater contribution than ever before” to the “independent existence” of modern short story characters (206). In Bates’s eyes, the short story simply didn’t work without that reader’s involvement:
The story now described less, but implied and suggested more; it stopped short, it rendered life obliquely, or it was merely episodic; so that the reader, if the value of the story was to be fully realized at all, had to supply the confirmation of his own experience, the fuller substance of the lightly defined emotion, and even the action between and after the episodes. (206-07)
11Bates’s insightful study delineates a theory of reader-response criticism decades before theorists laid claim to this approach to reading and interpretation. This reliance on the reader worked advantageously against the ephemerality of “The Stream.”
- 5 Henceforth, page numbers refer to “The Stream” in Best British Short Stories of 1933.
12One question for 1932 readers of “The Stream” was whether William is essentially malicious or especially vulnerable. Should he be understood as a gifted, and therefore tortured, man? In the course of the day, William “hears” the mountain stream speaking. At first when he listens it is “all perfectly clear […] we have no business here […] specially you, Alfred” (222).5 As they climb, he insists that they keep the stream between them. Soon, William decides, the stream, “full of anger and desire” (224), is “shouting messages with a great voice” (224). More and more intimidated by the stream, ruled by his conviction that he must at once interpret its message and escape its wrath, William begins to outstrip Alfred, occasionally turning on the latter a face “like that of some harried animal, an animal who might snarl and spring on his pursuer” (224). When Alfred becomes paralyzed by panic as he tries to negotiate a precipice, William only urges him on: “That stream [… is] after us, I tell you!” (225). As Alfred extends his hand for help, William strikes him; the fall breaks Alfred’s two legs, and William abandons him there. Making his way down to a cottage, William temporarily feels a “deep peace” because “he had escaped the stream and propitiated it with Alfred” (226). To the cottagers who give him breakfast William claims that he and his friend got separated, and later, beginning to worry that a crime will be pinned on him, he returns secretly to Alfred and stones him to death. Back at the cottage, William eventually dissolves in tears and asks for help finding Alfred. Shortly after leading the search party to Alfred’s body, William slinks away, and is later himself found dead in the stream.
- 6 In Interpretation and Overinterpretation, Umberto Eco describes the importance of the cultural “enc (...)
13The cultural “encyclopedia”6 for 1932 readers of “The Stream” would have included ongoing debates about the source of myth and about the primitive nature of man. Through William, “The Stream” evokes the human will to find the natural world intelligible. In 1871, anthropologist E.B. Tylor had described a special kind of “primitive mentality” at the origin of myth. Creating myths, primitive peoples attributed a spirit both to living things and to inanimate objects, attempting to establish a relationship with phenomena outside themselves and confusing their subjective experience with objective events (Nash 179).
- 7 For a good overview of the multi-disciplinary field of analysts, see Nash.
14Young also alludes to primitive rites of sacrifice, scapegoating, purification, and burial. As many modern writers did, Young drew on the reservoir of imagery and motifs of the ritual practices chronicled by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough and by diverse scholars working in archaic myth, including cultural anthropologists, folklorists, classical philologists, philosophers and psychologists. Folklorist Andrew Lang, classical scholar Jane Harrison, and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, among others, offered diverse responses to questions of how contemporary Britons might still bear the traces of the beliefs and instincts of their “savage” ancestors.7
15William’s apprehension of gods residing in natural forms and of their demands for a scapegoat emerges gradually and ultimately violently as irrational conviction. These creative patterns, whose effect is so destructive, are preceded by William’s half-acknowledged desire for release from the confines of modern routine to enjoy an expansion of sensuous and aesthetic experience. A fastidious aesthete—though such cultural categories would not interest him—William is displeased by his colleague’s stout form and irritated by his very presence: Alfred’s cheerfulness is “obtrusive,” his politeness “heavy,” and his clothing thick (204). William’s sensitivity soon reveals itself as a more general distaste for human beings, those lumbering, leaden bodies lacking the ethereal fineness of the birds, sky, and distant hills. Early in the story, we learn that William “was inclined to shrink altogether from the human form because he had never seen one which did not slightly sicken him” (207). William’s distaste for human beings is counterbalanced by his attraction to the distant hills; the narrator several times underscores his “wandering eyes” (207). He imagines the hills “holding tarns, like secrets, in their great arms” (205), and as he sits on the beach, he is aware that “behind him were the hill and the dim shapes of distant ones fading into each other and the sky in perfect curves” (207).
16Naturally susceptible to the “unknown, the unimaginable,” William puts up no cultural or conventional barrier to it, developing instead the spiritual and aesthetic faculties that take him away from human moral schema as he opens himself to the animated world of the hills and their creatures. From the beginning he senses their meaningful, but mysterious existence. As he watches gulls diminish in size as they fly into the hills, William says aloud, “those mountains put out their hands and draw them right in. It’s just as if they had a message to carry and they’re let out again when they’ve done their job” (209). Later William will hear such a message uttered to him, and he will carry out a task at the behest of the stream god.
17Many Good Housekeeping readers would have found in William’s strange conversion the residue of primitive ritual practices. Frazer describes the propitiation of animals with whom the “savage” wishes to keep on good terms; purification festivals, for example, among the Cherokees, in which tribe members send their clothing down a stream, “by which means they supposed their impurities to be removed” (Frazer 296, quoting E.G. Squire); and, of course, among ancient peoples, the sacrifice of a scapegoat, or a mock king, to ensure the fertility of the land and the well-being of the entire tribe. But William’s convictions are strikingly detached from any holistic religious significance and do not inform him of a cyclical fertility process. His behavior speaks of the bleak, and finally destructive, detachment of modern man from his God.
18William’s violent turn on his friend constitutes one of “The Stream”’s interpretive enigmas. Another is the very basis of the two men’s companionship. Their personal histories are conspicuously absent from the story. Readers do not learn their ages, although we may infer that the men’s youth means they are not veterans of the First World War. We glimpse only something of the dynamics that brought them together first in the office environment and then for the holiday. While this reticence is one way that the modern short story demarcates its different methods from those of the novel, it throws a considerable weight of significance onto the two men’s relationship. Their contrasting temperaments, the symbiotic nature of their friendship, and the shifting valence of their strengths and weaknesses become the focus of readers’ interpretations. The pragmatic, reliable Alfred is filled with plans for “self-improvement”: in his pocket he always carries “a small edition of a great mind from which he hoped to suck wisdom” (208). Upon their arrival at the lodging, Alfred fusses over where to put his toothbrush, while William imagines how rain would change the view of sea and hill from the rented room. In contrast to Alfred’s industry, William enjoys idleness; he lies on the beach, staring inland, and responding with arrogance to the pleasure of the sun, wind and sand, for it seems to him that “this life of indolence and keen sensuousness was rightly, and always had been, his” (208). His imagination is active; even when they take out a map, William’s eyes enrich the dullness of it (211).
19Their skeletal personal history also emphasizes the archetypal opposition of the two men’s temperaments on holiday. They might be seen as nature vs. culture, egoist vs. altruist, Dionysian vs. Apollonian. The qualities that could complement one another under duress to ensure both men’s survival instead work against them. Alfred can rely less and less on the wisdom of his “small editions”; but he also does not benefit from William’s intuitive apprehension that the mountain and stream are alive; to Alfred, William is just a “funny” fellow, even when his antagonism begins to manifest itself.
20From the outset, “The Stream” presents the two men’s companionship as a transaction in which each stands to gain something of value. William finds “oppressive” the “sturdy bulk of Alfred Sparkes,” but he tolerates it because of the “sense of security” furnished by Alfred’s “reassuring,” “sturdy honesty of […] character” (204): “it was more than worth William’s while to put up with what he disliked for the sake of what he gained” (204-05). For his part, Alfred likes to feel that he is trusted and relied on (204). Yet the divergent temperaments of the two men make them an odd couple even before they face any hardship.
21If the contrast in the two men’s temperaments suggests the arrangement by which each gets along in the office, it simultaneously points to the lack of visible support for either man outside the symbiotic office bond. This reticence represents a lacuna for the reader to fill with speculation. What circumstances might account for the two men’s friendship of convenience?
22Good Housekeeping readers would certainly have noted the absence of young women from the story. Mrs. Macintyre, who lodges the two men on holiday, has none of the influence of a wife or mother. As well, the companionship of the two men is in one sense based on their common exclusion from the society of women. Alfred longs for “feminine society,” but “has not passed the giggling stage in such affairs,” while William is afraid of girls: “He thought that they laughed at him and he disliked the clothes, whether they were gay or dowdy, and the manners, whether frivolous or severe, of the only types he knew” (208). It is as if the two men have missed some stage in their maturation toward adulthood.
23To understand what British Good Housekeeping readers would have made of the two men’s peculiar solitude à deux, we can consider the “bibliographic code” of the magazine, which would have furnished a socio-economic context for the two men’s plight. Jerome McGann’s “bibliographic code” refers to the “symbolic and signifying dimensions of the physical medium through which (or rather as which) the linguistic text is embodied” (56). George Bornstein suggests that we extend this understanding of the bibliographic code to include not only semantic features such as cover design, illustrations, and page layout, but also the entire contents of the periodical. In this essay, I extend this usage to include the more global bibliographic code, the composite effect of reading many months of Good Housekeeping. For Good Housekeeping shaped the modern woman and her world in contemporary social and cultural terms. Throughout the day she negotiates a series of domestic, social, economic, cultural, and aesthetic transactions. Virtually all of the ads and articles in Good Housekeeping were addressed to the modern woman, often in her more specific guises of wife, mother, worker, shopper, cook, house cleaner, household manager, and decision maker. She is offered healthful and moneysaving recipes, informed of best household practices, advised about new appliances, and educated in her taste. Her opinions are solicited, and she is credited with the desire continually to educate herself, invited implicitly to enter into debate about current political, cultural, philosophical, economic, and social affairs. Ads in each issue supplement this impression. They anticipate and address women’s worries, needs, and desires. They flatter her and keep alive her fantasies of youth, beauty, and freedom. They confirm her British identity and loyalty to British industry. Either as an object or a subject of knowledge, the modern woman reader of Good Housekeeping is at the center of the universe.
24Set within this busy, confident, and forward-looking modern woman’s world, the two men in “The Stream” would be glaringly other. They would be understood not just as literally adrift, as they lose themselves on the mountain, but socially, economically, and spiritually so. The female reader of Good Housekeeping, with such robust support, so much documentation of her capacity to cope with the many faces of modernity, so many articles touting her achievements, could not help but make the distinction between her life and those of Alfred and William.
- 8 Nicholls may have read H.G. Wells’s “The Grisly Folk” (1921), in which Wells vividly describes the (...)
25Two articles appearing in the months before “The Stream” illuminate the outlook of British young men in 1932; and they might be said to supply the social and cultural milieu in which the action of “The Stream” takes place but that the reader must infer. In “A Study in Black” (March 1932), Beverley Nichols justifies his pessimism. After reviewing the “completely and finally collapsed” system of capitalism, Nicholls considers the likelihood of another war, one that “might quite possibly put an end to all life, human and animal, on the entire planet” (quoted in Braithwaite 142). Nicholls ultimately views both capitalism and world war in the context of savage nature; he sees the “‘red teeth of Neanderthal Man’8 gleaming behind the polite mask of the twentieth century gentleman” (145), even in himself. “I believe that I myself am as kind and as generous as the average man,” he writes. “Yet, I have horrible instincts. Strange, latent impulses, deep down in me, are frightening. I am still half ape. So are you” (145).
26Only one month earlier, Godfrey Winn’s “Why Are We Failing the Dead?” told of the “despairing” “cry” of the “younger generation—of those who were children in the days of the ‘War to end War’ (133):
Ten years ago [writes Winn], five even, I used to remind myself with a sense of tingling pride that here was my opportunity to prove to the dead and those survivors of the war who were left by it either physically maimed or mentally crippled, that the sacrifice that they had made on our behalf had not been made in vain. Together with the rest of my generation, I would dedicate myself to reconstruction. (133)
27He blames their failure to undertake that reconstruction on the Great Slump, on the “present economic situation that stultifies industry” (133-34) and denies young men the positions of “trust and responsibility” they would have gained before the war (134). Their parental instinct, he believes, is “suppressed and bottled up, hidden away in the deep recesses of our heart” (134), and if they are not unemployed they are “sitting on an office stool, earning a pittance, out of sympathy with their work, the slaves of a routine that is slowly but surely sapping their vitality and destroying their initiative” (134).
28How might testaments such as Nichols’s and Winn’s have influenced Good Housekeeping readers of “The Stream”? Especially in consideration of “The Stream”’s narrator’s failure to explain or analyze William’s disintegration, the unusually frank attestations of Nichols and Winn would have forcefully articulated for readers of “The Stream” the bleak outlook of many young men in 1932. Even though Nicholls’s and Winn’s commentaries did not appear in the same issue as “The Stream,” these biographical statements enter naturally into dialogue with Young’s fiction. They speak of the primitive patterns guiding modern man’s behavior, and of the brutal historical circumstances that in 1932 gave these patterns new prominence.
29This essay has not exhausted potential readings of “The Stream.” I have not, for example, done justice to its richly textured design. In particular, new readers of “The Stream” might revisit my contention that, characteristic of an “extraverted” short story, the narrator of “The Stream” offers no explanation for William’s perceptions and actions. I have described the narrator’s reticent stance, arguing that she fosters critical readers who must probe William’s most banal utterances, his most innocuous gestures. New readers of “The Stream” might deconstruct such a claim, asking what we should make of the narrator’s lavish characterizations of the landscape, her leisurely delineation of hills, heather, rocks, scree, stream, and sky. Indeed, in writing about “The Stream,” I hope to extend to new readers the rewarding experience of reading E.H. Young’s story, even as it generated prolific reading in the decades following its initial appearance in Good Housekeeping.
- 9 Working with Walter Benjamin’s contention that the aura of a work of art arises from its presence i (...)
30I have also explored the experience of reading “The Stream” in 1932, in Good Housekeeping. Digital archives such as the Modernist Journals Project have given new life to many early twentieth-century periodicals, enabling us to restore much of the aura of a text9 and opening productive lines of inquiry into the experience of its initial readers. I have argued that the miscellaneous contents of Good Housekeeping cultivated the literacy of its readers, encouraging them to treat the entire contents of the magazine—even of multiple issues of the magazine—as a set of intertexts for “The Stream.” Loyal readers of Good Housekeeping would have drawn freely on both the material and intellectual data of Good Housekeeping to fill in lacunae in the biographies of Alfred and William in much the way they would draw on their lived experience of 1932 Britain. Returning to these periodicals helps us recover one such multi-faceted experience.
- 10 In a recent compelling contribution, Wai Chee Dimock’s theory of resonance posits textual endurance (...)
31My work also contributes to debates about the relation between literary form and textual endurance, a question that preoccupied early twentieth-century writers and critics, and that continues to elicit path-breaking responses today.10 I demonstrate a particular nexus between form, reader, and the ability of a text to establish its fitness for new print contexts. The modern, “extraverted” short story did not merely help to establish the short story as an art form; in addition, the sparse design it imposed on experience created a significant role for the reader to create meaning, prompting engagement with the issues it raised and ensuring its own survival within the collective memory of generations of readers.