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The Preliminaries: And Other Stories... Paperback – Import, 5 Mar 2012
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I learned about Comer from the American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855 -- 1916). In his "The Sources of Religious Insight" (2012), Royce discussed at length Comer's story "The Preliminaries" in what has become the best-known chapter of the book, "The Religious Mission of Sorrow". Royce used the story to illustrate his claim that certain kinds of human suffering, which involve choice, coming to terms with the past, and determining one's loyalties, can be enobling to people. Royce understood that Comer would likely not become a popular author. He wrote:
"This admirable sketch shows an insight into the nature of good and evil which I had myself come to regard as very little present to the minds of the story-tellers of today, who are so often dominated by the recent love of power, by the tedious blindness of modern individualism, by false doctrines as to the merely temporal expediency of truth, and by he merely glittering show of worldly efficiency. I rejoice to find that .... there is still place for so straightforward and practical a recognition of eternal truth as the wise woman who has written this short story exemplifies."
Comer published "The Preliminaries" in the 1910 "Atlantic Monthly". In 1912, she published it as a book together with two additional stories. After reading Royce's discussion of her story, I wanted to read Comer for myself. The book is readily available online, in Kindle, and in offprint editions.
"The Preliminaries" tells the story of the proposed marriage between a young attorney who works in his father's office, Oliver, and Ruth, whose father is serving a six-year prison term for embezzlement. Ruth tells Oliver that she will accept his proposal only if she is assured that Oliver respects her father. Oliver meets with Ruth's mother, with his own father, and then with Ruth's imprisoned father to clarify his mind.
Ruth's mother discourages the young man on grounds that he is not financially able to care for a wife and on grounds that marriage deprives a woman of independence, sexual, emotional, or financial. In her portrayal of the mother, Comer criticizes the feminists of her day. Oliver's father counsels his son against the marriage on grounds that the couple's children would be stigmatized by the convict grandfather. "The world is chuck full of good girls", he advises his son.
When Oliver meets Ruth's father, Peter, in prison, his life changes. Peter praises the young man's courage in coming to see him and advises him to examine his heart and his loyalties. Peter says: "You are safe only when you can stand everything that can happen to you. Then, and then only! Endurance is the measure of a man!
When Oliver leaves the prison, he discovers that he has resolved his questions. Comer writes: "He had left his boyhood behind him as he crossed that stern threshold, for the last hour had made a man of him, and a prisoner had given him the master-key that opened every door."
The remaining two stories in the collection, "The Long Inheritance" and "Clarissa's Own Child" explore themes of divorce and of the modern woman's search for autonomy and independence. Comer evidences a substantial skepticism. Narrated in the first person by an elderly uncle, "The Long Inheritance" tells the story of a woman of about 30, Desire, with two children who goes to Reno to divorce her physician husband. She has been attracted to another man and believes she will have a better opportunity for independence and for the development of her talents and interests. While in Reno satisfying the residency requirement for divorce, the young woman has an experience which causes her to rethink her plans and to return to her husband.
In "Clarissa's Own Child", Clarissa Charleroy does secure a divorce from her husband, a professor at a Midwestern university, in order to further her dreams of becoming a public speaker to further various broad causes, particularly the independence of women. She leaves behind an eight-year old daughter, Marvel. Four years after she leaves, Paul Charleroy remarries and his new wife treats Marvel as her own daughter. Marvel graduates from college, spends a year in Europe, and has an academic career awaiting her, when she receives a letter from her mother in Chicago asking to see her daughter. Mother and daughter have a tense, somewhat harsh reunion, as Clarissa regrets the loneliness of her life while Marvel, hostile at first, develops sympathy and understanding for her. The story concludes:
"Her own child's hand had struck her down. Yet, in her overthrow, she read in Marvel's face the sign all mothers seek. Ungentle and unmerciful the girl had been, yet gentler and more merciful than she! And by that token she knew her life not wasted utterly. For she had given to this world--this piteous world for which she had labored clumsily and ineffectually in alien ways--the best thing that the woman has to give. Offspring a little better than herself she gave to it. This child of hers, just now so hard, yet now become so pitiful, was her own child and more. Of her flesh and of her spirit had been wrought a finer thing than she."
Comer's stories are thoughtful and well-written. Royce rightly praised her for the understanding she shows about conflict and about using it to make one stronger. The stories also will give the reader an understanding of a way of thought on gender-related and other issues that has largely been rejected today. It is worth coming into contact with views that may not be one's own. I was pleased to have the opportunity to get to read and write about this forgotten American writer.