Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902)

Engraver, Author, Editor, Humorist
Born April 5, 1834, Blockley, Pennsylvania
Died April 20, 1902, Washington, D.C.

Frank R. Stockton was the author of "The Lady, or the Tiger?", one of the most renowned and intriguing stories ever written and a perennial favorite in the high school classroom. If he had written nothing but that story, Stockton's name would still be known and his reputation secure.

Francis Richard Stockton was born on April 5, 1834, in Blockley, Pennsylvania, of an old Colonial family. (One of his ancestors, Richard Stockton, signed the Declaration of Independence.) Stockton was made lame by a leg injury at age five. He would be plagued by infirmity, including a serious eye injury, as an adult. By middle age, he was forced to dictate his stories to his wife, often while lying in a hammock.

Stockton attended public schools in Philadelphia. As a student at Central High School, he won a short story contest put on by the Boys' and Girls' Journal. It was his first success as  a writer. Stockton's father was a Methodist minister who--though a writer himself--discouraged Stockton from writing for his living. He wanted his son to study medicine. Instead Frank Stockton went to work as a wood engraver, sharing a shop in New York City with his brother, John, an engraver of steel. Some of Stockton's illustrations appeared in Vanity Fair, and he went so far as to invent a new engraving tool. In his spare time, Stockton wrote about giants, dwarves, magic, and other fairy tale topics.

Eighteen sixty was marked by three big events in Stockton's life. He married Marian Edwards Tuttle, a native of South Carolina and a teacher at the West Philadelphia School for Young Ladies, an institution founded by Stockton's mother. The newly wed couple then moved into a house on Walnut Street in Nutley, New Jersey. When his father died that same year, Stockton gave up the engraving trade for journalism. His story "Kate" had been published the year before in the Southern Literary MessengerStockton went on to see his work published in the American Courier, Riverside MagazinePhiladelphia Press, Philadelphia Morning Post, and in children's magazines and humor magazines. Stockton returned to Philadelphia in 1867 to work on a newspaper founded by his brother. He and his wife later lived in Morristown, New Jersey, and Charles Town, West Virginia.

Frank Stockton avoided the ornate prose and didactic style of his time, preferring humor and clarity in his storytelling. He wrote for children and adults, authoring ghost stories, humor, fantasy, fairy tales, and even science fiction. His first fairy tale, "Ting-a-ling," was published in The Riverside Magazine for Young People in 1867 and in a hardback edition, Ting-a-Ling Tales in 1870. His many tales include "The Lady, or the Tiger?" (1882) and its sequel, "The Discourager of Hesitancy," as well as "The Griffin and the Minor Canon" (1885) and "The Bee-Man of Orn" (1887). Following the success of "Ting-a-Ling," Stockton served as assistant editor of Edward Eggleston's Hearth and Home magazine. He also worked for The Century Magazine and as an assistant editor for St. Nicholas between 1873 and 1878. (The editor of St. Nicholas was Mary Mapes Dodge, author of Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates.) His failing eyesight forced him to leave the magazine in 1878 and all editorial work in 1882. Thereafter, Stockton devoted himself to writing. His books include Rudder Grange (1879), The Lady, or The Tiger? and Other Tales (1884), The Floating Prince and Other Fairy Tales (1881), The Bee-Man of Orn and Other Fanciful Tales (1887), A Storytellers Pack (1897), and The Magic Egg and Other Stories (1909).

Good humored and well liked, Frank Stockton met with great success as a writer. His works have won many awards and accolades. "The Griffin and the Minor Canon" was awarded a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1963. The Storytellers Pack: A Frank R. Stockton Reader won the same award in 1969. Maurice Sendak's illustrated edition of the "The Bee Man of Orn" came out in 1964. In 2003, Stockton was named to the Nutley Hall of Fame. "The Lady, or the Tiger?" originally entitled "In the King's Arena," is Stockton's most famous work. It ranks with "The Monkey's Paw" and "The Most Dangerous Game" among the standards of high school literature class (at least back in the old days). Stockton's tale was even turned into a musical comedy. I should note that he used the pseudonyms Paul Fort and John Lewees.

Stockton died on April 20, 1892, at age sixty-eight and was buried at The Woodlands in Philadelphia. More than a quarter century after his death, Weird Tales reprinted his story "The Magic Egg" in its May 1930 issue. Other pulp magazines made use of Stockton's work as well. His 1889 series of stories from the magazine Once a Week, collected in a book called The Great War Syndicate (1889), described a futuristic war between the United States and Great Britain. Their arms include "a sort of V-2 weapon with an atomic warhead . . . . the destructive power [of which] reads like a report of an actual nuclear blast." According to science fiction historian David Kyle (quoted here), The Great War Syndicate was an inspiration for H.G. Welles and his "scientific romances." In 1976, Gregg Press issued a collection called The Science Fiction of Frank R. Stockton. Stockton's work has since been collected in many other books and is readily available online. You can wear yourself out reading all of it.

Frank R. Stockton's Story in Weird Tales
"The Magic Egg" (May 1930)

Further Reading
Frank R. Stockton is so well known as an author that you won't have any trouble finding more sources on him and his work. I have compiled my biography from several online sources. You'll find more thorough biographical information at the library. One possible source: Frank R. Stockton: A Critical Biography by Martin Ignatius Joseph Griffin (1939).

Frank R. Stockton was one of the best known popular writers of his time, his reputation based in no small part on the story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" from 1882. You could call it a "Let's Make a Deal" kind of story except that it ends before you find out which door the hero chooses. The decision is yours. Maybe the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1980s and '90s began here. (Incongruously, the illustration on the cover is for another story.)
"The Lady, or the Tiger?" has been translated into other languages . . . 
even Greek.
Stockton's career began with the success of "Ting-a-Ling," a fairy tale from 1867. This title page is dated 1916, but I suspect the illustration is original to the nineteenth century.
Here's a more recent illustration (for Stockton's book Rudder Grange), though not by much. I don't know the artist or the time period, but it looks like it's from about the 1920s to the 1940s.
Stockton concluded his career in the era of art nouveau as this cover shows. 
Here's a more poster-like illustration for the cover of a book. That "F" as the signature makes me think this is the work of Charles Buckles Falls  (1874-1960).
Stockton also lived into the golden age of American magazines, including pulp magazines, which began 1896.  Even after his death, Stockton's name appeared on the covers of story magazines, such as this one, Golden Book Magazine, from June 1931.
Here's another one, Tales of the Sea, from Spring 1953.
Frank Stockton was and is known for his fairy tales but he also wrote science fiction. His novel, The Great Stone of Sardis, published in 1898 (or 1897), was set fifty years in the future, in 1947. It's a story of marvels and can be added to the list of polar novels.
Maurice Sendak illustrated Stockton's story "The Griffin and the Minor Canon" in 1964. Even today, Stockton's work is still being published, though less and less on paper. Do we need any more evidence that we live in a science fiction world?

Text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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