Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hudson Strode and Highsmith: The Tale of "The Heroine" and the 1946 O. Henry Prize Stories

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)
It is frequently stated that Patricia Highsmith won "an O. Henry Award" for her story "The Heroine," recently anthologized by Sarah Weinman in her book Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.

It is true that "The Heroine" was one of 22 "O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1946," published that year by Doubleday in an annual anthology, along with, among others, Truman Capote's "Miriam" (another fine portrait of mental disintegration), Kay Boyle's "Winter Night," Dorothy Canfield Fisher's "Sex Education," Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' "Black Secret" and Eudora Welty's "A Sketching Trip."

However, four specific cash prizes were awarded to stories in this anthology: first, second and third prizes, plus a special prize for a first published short story.  Highsmith did not win any of these prizes; neither did Capote, Welty, or any of the other authors listed above.

First prize went to John Mayo Goss, for "Bird Song."  Second prize went to Margaret Shedd, for "The Innocent Bystander."  Third prize went to Victor Ullman, for "Sometimes You Break Even." And the special prize for first published short story went to Cord Meyer, Jr., for "Waves of Darkness."

There were three judges for the O. Henry Prize Stories that year: James Gray, "novelist, authority on the Middle West and book reviewer, now literary editor of the Chicago Daily News"; Helen Hull (1888-1971), "novelist, short-story writer, and teacher at Columbia University"; and Hudson Strode (1892-1976), "author of travel books, lecturer, and outstandingly successful teacher of courses in creative writing at the University of Alabama."

What?  You haven't heard of Hudson Strode, "outstandingly successful teacher in courses of creative writing at the University of Alabama"?  Well, allow me to remedy this (stick with me, this will ultimately take us back to Patricia Highsmith).

Hudson Strode (1892-1976)

I have some familiarity with what might be called "the Legend of Hudson Strode," having graduated, eleven years after Strode's death, from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the center of his academic domain.  Professor Strode was famed in Alabama for his ability to get his creative writing students published. Perhaps his best-known students are Borden Deal, who wrote some crime genre stories as well as mainstream novels, and Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump (1986), who came along to UA in the early 1960s, at the very end of the Strode regime (Strode retired in 1963).

A great deal was made of Strode in Alabama academe, even though when it came to his own writing Strode himself for most of his life was distinguished for his raft of travel books, such as The Story of Bermuda (1932), The Pageant of Cuba (1934), Finland Forever (1941), Sweden: Model for the World (1949; for this one Strode was awarded the Order of the North Star by King Gustav VI Adolf, something which became an essential part of the Great Man's bio) and Denmark is a Lovely Land (1951).

Strode loved world traveling and hobnobbing with the rich and/or famous (if the truly rich and/or famous were not available, minor European royalty and aristocracy would do). When noting in his memoirs, The Eleventh House (1975), that his book on Cuba was turned down by the famed leftist publisher Victor Gollancz--the publisher, incidentally, of a great deal of crime fiction--on the grounds that the book was too conservative, Strode bemusedly reflected

I had not known that this highly successful publisher was a Communist.  I was told that he gave most elaborate and costly parties.

a cover apparently inspired by
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
(I think that's our King Gustav on the
lower left, below F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Later in life Strode also published an admiring three-volume biography of Confederate president Jefferson Davis that is not taken seriously within the academic community today. His book of memoirs is the sort that is inevitably called chatty, not to mention possibly the greatest case of major (and very often minor) celebrity name-dropping ever committed to paper.

I didn't mind his recollections of the time he spent two hours sitting on a porch swing with my teenage writing idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald:

I had never met him before.  Scott was not drinking that week.  He looked as fresh as he was handsome....He was wearing plus fours and jacket of a muted mixed green color....I found his conversation fascinating....

However, Strode's prolix preoccupation with seemingly each and every member of each and every royal house in Europe grew wearying:

In the upper box above Mrs. Hanson, wife of the Prime Minister, and her companions, appeared three royal princesses: first, Sibylla, wife of the Crown Prince's eldest son; then Ingeborg, Danish-born sister-in-law of King Gustav and mother of the Crown Princess Martha of Norway and the late Queen Astrid of the Belgians.  Last, to the front seat of honor, came Crown Princess Louise, sister of England's Lord Louis Mountbatten and aunt of Philip, later Duke of Edinburgh and consort of Queen Elizabeth II.  All three ladies wore their court jewels and evening gowns of pastel colors....

If this kind of thing really interests you, there is a lot more of it in The Eleventh House. Or, of course, you could just grab a random copy of Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage.

Yet as a teacher Strode clearly was beloved by his students (who were locally-known as "Strodents") and he obviously labored to help get them into print and publicized. A case in point can be seen with the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1946.

Mulling his loss to John Mayo Goss?
Truman Capote (1924-1984)
Who was John Mayo Goss, who won first prize over Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, Eudora Welty, etc., for the stories considered in 1946?

Why, he was a "Stroder"--a Hudson Strode student!

Herschell Brickell, selector and editor of the volume that year, obviously realized there was a potential conflict-of-interest issue here, with Hudson Strode serving as one of the three judges, for he addressed the matter head-on in his introduction:

It needs to be explained that Mr. Strode has had Mr. Goss in his classes...in an honest attempt to lean over backward, he placed [Goss' story] second, giving Miss Shedd's "The Innocent Bystander" first place.

Of course, Goss won first prize anyway (I assume the other two judges placed him at the top of their ballots), so all worked out well for the University of Alabama creative writing program. Goss later published a novel, This Magnificent World (1948).  Patricia Highsmith and Truman Capote went on to publish a few things too, as we know, Highsmith primarily and Capote occasionally (In Cold Blood) books about crime.

Herschell Brickell seemed to feel the comparative snubbing of Capote keenly, writing (chidingly?) in his introduction that the young man--who spent some crucial childhood years in Alabama but unfortunately did not take classes in creative writing with Hudson Strode--was in his opinion the "most remarkable new talent of the year" and would "take his place among the best short-story writers of the rising generation."

Helen Rose Hull (1888-1971)
not high on Highsmith 
Little was said about Highsmith's "The Heroine" and that which was said was critical.  Judge Helen Hull dismissed the story as "having no significance," being "merely the projection into action of the daydream of a disordered mind."

Ironically, Helen Hull herself would publish, near the end of her long fiction writing career, a psychological crime novel, A Tapping on the Wall (1960). Was she inspired by Patrica Highsmith's success? Over at Goodreads, Geert Daelemans does not think too much of Hull's Tapping.  However, unlike Highsmith's "The Heroine," the novel did win a cash prize ($3000 from Dodd, Mead for the best mystery/suspense novel written by a professor). I'm going to judge for myself!

For more on 1946 literary prizes involving crime fiction, see Faulkner vs. Wellman: The Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine 1946 Showdown.

4 comments:

  1. Fascinating! Another interesting footnote: the Cord Meyer, Jr. who won the best first story prize ended up being the same Cord Meyer who became a prominent CIA operative and whose onetime wife Mary -- who also happened to be one of JFK's lovers - was murdered 50 years ago, a death that remains officially unsolved.

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    1. Sarah, I was wondering if that was the same Cord Meyer. It seemed like an uncommon name! Hudson Strode voted Meyer's story third place.

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  2. You know, this story (with its behind the scenes shenanigans, scary crime story writer snubbed, the CIA, JFK, and murder) would make a good background for a mystery novel!

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    1. The Cord Meyer story, as I recollect, is about a man dying on a battlefield, more a sketch really. Did he ever write anything else, I wonder?

      I do find it interesting that a student of Hudson Strode, "outstandingly successful teacher in courses of creative writing at the University of Alabama," just happened to win! I can't help feeling that Patrica Highsmith and Truman Capote might have fared better had they been his students (at least Eudora Welty had won two cash prizes in previous years).

      People really should read The Eleventh House, it's something of a camp classic in my view. You can also find out that when Strode had over for luncheon Amelia Earhart (he calls her the famous aviatrix), she had two (two!) goblets of buttermilk. My gracious, the lady simply adored her buttermilk!

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