Miss Mary E. Wilkins Wins
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Miss Mary E. Wilkins Wins is an article, written by B. B. Vallentine, published in several American newspapers on 23 and 24 june 1895.
The article announced the winners of The $2000 Prize for the best short detective story, where Arthur Conan Doyle was mentioned as one of the most distinguished authors of the age represented in this contest.
Unfortunately it is not known which text was sent by Arthur Conan Doyle (if he really submitted one), and if he was selected in the best fifty or best thirteen...
Miss Mary E. Wilkins Wins
The $2,000 Prize in the Detective Story Competition Goes to Her.
Prof. Brander Matthews Second
How the Largest Sum of Money Ever Offered for a 12,000 Word Story Was Competed for and Awarded.
The fact that a short story proved a marketable commodity at $2,000 ought to be the best possible evidence that it was a very good short story, indeed. Two thousand dollars is the largest sum ever won in a short story competition, and the kind of tale that could secure such a prize is a matter of the utmost literary importance as a guide to the producer of salable fiction. It was a detective story.
Probably the great popularity of the "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" and similar tales first revealed the possibilities of detective fiction. At any rate, such stories and their immense successes prompted the Bacheller Newspaper Syndicate to make its unprecedented offer. As no coupon scheme or other claptrap contrivance marred the contest, the competition rapidly assumed an international character, and some of the greatest authors living entered the lists.
Perhaps the details of the competition, the surprises of the result and the high average of the tales entered for the prize form a story fully as thrilling as the best piece of work submitted. That story is here told. Even the disappointed may not remain unconsoled when it is mentioned that one excellent tale — "A Diplomatic Mystery," which was written by A. E. Evans of Cheltenham, England, failed of serious consideration by the judges because it could not be divided advantageously.
The circular sent to competitors ran as follows:
"It is imperative that all stories be received at this office on or before May 1, 1895; It is desirable that they be received as early as possible.
"As to length, each story submitted must come within the lines prescribed in the offer, otherwise it cannot enter the competition. All good stories will be purchased at a fair price.
"As to the character of stories desired, we can only say that we are seeking clean stories which will interest the average newspaper reader and which can be published to advantage in installments of about two thousand words each. We hold that a very high quality of art is consistent with these requirements. The novelty and ingenuity of the plot and the literary and constructive art developed in its treatment are considerations which will probably most influence the minds of the judges in reaching a decision. The judges will be gentlemen of unquestionable fairness and competency.
"To facilitate our work and insure legibility, all stories submitted must be typewritten, and addressed Prize Editor, Bacheller, Johnson & Bacheller, 115 Tribune Building, New York."
Advertisements of the competition were inserted in the Century, Harper's Monthly, the Critic, in the London Strand Magazine, and in many newspapers. About the beginning of April the manuscripts in Mr. Irving Bacheller's private office were as thick as the leaves of Vallombrosa. There were not fewer than three thousand stories sent in. They came from all parts of the globe. England, Ireland, Scotland, Greece, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, the West Indies and Mexico, were among the foreign countries whence came manuscripts from English-speaking authors.
All the stories were read in the first instance by Mr. Bacheller and a start of experienced coadjutors. In accordance with the terms of the competition, every manuscript had to be type-written and accompanied by a sealed envelope containing the name of its author. This was not to be opened until a decision was reached. For identification the envelope bore some mark, which was also to appear on the story submitted.
These rules were violated in a number of instances Some of the manuscripts were in execrable handwriting, and in many that were typewritten the authors did not hesitate to avow their names. Their stories, of course, could not be considered in the contest. Those that were not typewritten, but were in legible handwriting and otherwise complied with the conditions of the competition were not thrown out. The authors who persist in rolling their manuscripts were numerous. Their stories were read, however, but if the writers only knew the annoyance their particular packages caused the examiners they would never again send a rolled story to an editor whom they wished to propitiate.
Fifty of the best stories were selected. Each reader made a note of the stories read by him, giving a short account of it and expressing an opinion on its merits.
The fifty stories were then handed to Mr. John H. Boner, associate editor of the Literary Digest.
Mr. Boner selected the best thirteen from those fifty and handed them to Mr. Hamilton W. Mabie, editor of the Outlook.
Mr. Mabie selected the winning stories and checks for the fortunate competitors are at their disposal. Mr. Mabie received the manuscripts only, without the envelopes, still sealed, containing the names of the writers, so that his decision was entirely unbiased, and he was not aware to whom he was awarding the prizes.
Both Mr. Mabie and Mr. Boner recommended several other stories for purchase in addition to the prize stories.
Mr. Mable's letter, giving the titles of the prize-winning stories, is in full, as follows :
- June 8, 1895.
- I have read the stories submitted to me in typewritten manuscript with special regard to dramatic interest, inventiveness, novelty, and simplicity and directness of style. In my judgment, the story which combines these qualities in the highest degree is that entitled "The Long Arm." Next in order of excellence I should place, that entitled "The Twinkling of an Eye."
- Yours very truly,
- Hamilton W. Mabie
- Messrs. Bacheller, Johnson & Bacheller.
When the sealed envelopes were opened it was found that the author of "The Long Arm" was Miss Mary E. Wilkins, the well-known writer of stories of New England life and character. Miss Wilkins had in this instance worked in collaboration with Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, of the editorial staff of the Youth's Companion. Mr. Chamberlin is widely known also as the "Listener" of the Boston Transcript.
The author of "The Twinkling of an Eye" was discovered to be Professor Brander Matthews, of Columbia college.
Miss Mary E. Wilkins, who has thus boldly entered at field hitherto entirely foreign to her, and has taken first rank in it sit the first attempt, was born in Randolph, Mass. She lived for some time in Brattleboro, Vt., but on the death of her parents returned to Randolph, which has since been her home. Miss Wilkins wrote verses almost as early as she could talk. He first serious literary efforts were in the direction of children's stories. Afterward she became a contributor to the Harpers' publications. Probably her strongest work is "Pembroke." Next that she herself ranks "A New England Nun" and "Jane Field." The Rev. Dr. Phillips Brooks pronounced "A Humble Romance" the best short story ever written. Her understanding of New England life and grasp of New England character have given her a world-wide reputation.
Prof. brander Matthews, the winner of the second prize, who is professor of English literature at Columbia College, was born in New Orleans in 1852. He was graduated from Columbia college in 1871, and from the Law School of that institution two years later. He has written copiously for the magazines under his own name and that of "Arthur Penn." He is the author of "The Theatres of Paris," "French Dramatists," "Vignettes of Manhattan," "In a Vestibule Limited," "A Tale of Treasure Trove in the Streets of New York," "The Royal Marine," "This Picture and That," and other volumes. Prof. Matthews is also the author of several plays. "A Gold Mine" was played by Mr. Nat Goodwin with success, and "On Probation" was written specially for Mr. W. H. Crane.
Mr. John H. Boner, who brought the fifty manuscripts down to thirteen, is a North Carolinian by birth. He was formerly a member of the staff of the Century Dictionary. Afterwards he became literary editor of the New York World, and is now editor of the Literary Digest. He is a constant contributor of verse to the magazines, and has published a volume of poems, "Whispering Pines."
Hamilton W. Mabie, LL. D., who made the final decision, was born at Cold Spring, N. Y., in 1845. He graduated at Williams College, and entered journalism. He joined the staff of the Outlook (then Christian Union), in 1879, and became its associate editor five years later. Mr. Mabie is without question one of the three or four leading critics of the country. Among his volumes of literary criticism are "My Study Fire," "Essays in Literary Interpretation," and "Short Studies in Literature." He is a frequent contributor to the magazines and reviews, and also a constant deliverer of literary addresses before the colleges and other literary bodies. His permanent home is at Summit, N. J., where he lives about half the year. Besides his critical and editorial work, he has written much concerning nature and outdoor life.
Among the well-known writers who submitted stories in competition for the prize were Anna Katherine Green, author of "The Leavenworth Case;" Florence Marryat, Duffield Osborne, Robert W. Chambers, author of "The King in Yellow;" Howard Fielding and others.
Stories worthy of honorable mention were written by John Seymour Wood, of the University Club, New York city, H. Lynde, of Richmond, Ind.; Edgar Thormet Roy, of New York city, and David Skeets Foster, of Utica, N. Y.
Too much cannot be said in praise of the average merit of the stories submitted. A mass of good material was piled in upon the syndicate, and the task of selection was no easy one.
The competition disclosed many interesting features, especially the trend of thought of the writers on the subjects assumed to be the basis of a detective story.
The great fault with numbers of the stories was the announcement in the first paragraph that a crime had been committed and the immediate introduction of the astute detective, who proceeded to unravel the mystery. Such a bald treatment was not calculated to afford an opportunity for bright writing, interesting dialogue or picturesque description. Many of the writers failed utterly in comprehending the logical sequence and development indispensable to an effective detective story.
The influence of Poe, Gaboriau, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle was apparent in innumerable instances. Some of the competitors were conscious, or unconscious, plagiarists, and had paraphrased whole pages from these authors with sorry success. Others told their stories as if they were mere newspaper reports, destitute alike of color and character drawing.
The favorite subject of the writers was the theft of diamonds. Then came murder, abduction, kidnaping, hypnotism and mysterious disappearances. Diamonds, however, were the basis of the plot in a very large percentage of the stories. Judging by the competition, enough diamonds have been stolen by decent people, unable to resist temptation to stock all the jewellers' shops in Christendom, and to anticipate years of production in the mines of South Africa and Golconda.
But some ingenuity was displayed even in the treatment of this stock subject. Sometimes, when the diamonds were found, they turned out to be paste. In other instances they had not been stolen at all, but mislaid, and, again, in a few cases, the persons to whom the diamonds belonged had hidden them in order to throw suspicion upon an innocent party.
As a matter of course, hundreds of stories dealt with murders, some under circumstances of most revolting brutality, and others on the most refined, scientific and up-to-date methods. Hanging, shooting, poisoning and drowning were much in favor. In one story a man was murdered by telephone; in another a detective subject to fits of somnambulism arrived at the conclusion that he himself must have committed the murder, the perpetrator or which he was seeking to discover.
Crime by hypnotic suggestion figured very largely in the contest, but no specially ingenious treatment of the subject was apparent in any of the stories.
Then there were ostensible suicides which were murders, and ostensible murders which were suicides. There were also deaths by extraordinary or unusual accident that in some instances looked like murder, and in other cases like suicide.
Naturally the bulk of the stories were written by Americans. There were many, however, in which the scene was laid in foreign countries, one, two an three hundred years ago.
There were several civil war and revolutionary detective stories relating to spies and stolen or intercepted dispatches. Most of these were weak.
The superiority of the professional writer over the amateur hand was immediately apparent to the readers. Even the poor stories by those accustomed to write were more easily read than those of the non-professionals, who took up so many pages in coming to the point and getting their thoughts underway.
The humorous an curious features were numerous. One writer went to the trouble and expense of having his story set up in type. The scene was laid in France, but in his endeavor to give it a French atmosphere he had only succeeded in investing it with a Brooklyn tone, and his mistakes, even in the simplest French phrases and expressions, were ludicrous.
Still another was comic in its absurdity. It must have been written by one of Lord Byron's "bread and butter misses" at a boarding school in Boston, for the scene was laid in that city. The humor of it lay in the extraordinary ideas of the writer as to the manner in which the business of a large firm is carried on, and her curious ideas of legal procedure.