Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, May 11, 2021


 "The Knitters in the Sun"  by Arlo Bates (from his collection The Intoxicated Ghost and Other Stories, 1908: earlier publication, if any, is not known)

It's a warm day and two elderly women are sitting on the porch of an old mansion, knitting.  They are the Souther sisters -- Hannah Wild and Sarah Souther.  Both are widows but Sarah, older and strong-willed, never took her husband's name.  The women are servants to Leonard Grayman, the eighty-year-old invalid last surviving male of the Grayman line, which had occupiped the houe since Revolutionary War days.  Once powerful, respected, and wealthy, the Graymans have lost it all over the years.  For many generations they have been served by the Southers, bound by ancestral duty.  As the Grayman's fortunes faded, the Souther's rose; now Sarah is far richer than Leonard Grayson.  As a matter of fact, she has been using her money to keep the Grayman home afloat without Leonard's knowledge.  Bound by tradition, Sarah maintains her position as a servant.

There is one other person living at the Grayman house:  Leonard's daughter Edith, now twenty seven.  Ten years earlier she had become involved with George Souther, Sarah's son.  When he discovered the relationaship, he banned Edith from seeing George.  A servent's child romancing his daughter?  No way was he going to allow that to happen.  Edith, ever dutiful to her father's wishes, broke it off with George.  George left.  Over the next ten years, he became wealthy but never forgot his love for Edith, nor she for him, but as long as Leonard lived she would obey her father.

Now after a decade George has returned, hoping that time would have altered Edith's vow.  After greeting his mother and aunt on the porch, George goes down to the river bank where Edith is.  Leonard, convalescing in his bed as he has done for at least ten years, somehow heard George's voice from the porch.  Angrily, he calls out to Sarah.  He tells Sarah that George is not welcome and that he will never have Edith.  He vehemently curses George.

Meanwhile, George meets Edith and trie to get her to leve with him.  Edith however remains true to her promise to her father -- despite her deep love for George over the years, she can never be with him as long as her father lives.  Dejected, George makes ready to leave.

Upstairs, Sarah, the ever-loyal servant, on hearing Leonard curse her son, takes a pillow and smothers him.

Back on the porch he tells George and Edith that Leonard has died.  The two can now be together.

Despite its New England background. there's a lot of Southern Gothic in this character study.

Arlo Bates (1850-1918) had a grandfather who felt that every man should have a name of his very own and not shared with anyone.  Thus the grandfather begat Niran, Niran begat Arlo, and Arlo begat Oric.  The names had no meaning and were just a jumble of letters, but  no one had ever had those names before.  (This, of course, was long before Arlo Guthrie came along.)

Arlo Bates had a strong interest in literature.  He served as editor of the Bates College newspaper.  On graduating he moved to Boston, where he lived for the rest of his life.  He started a newspaper called The Broadside, which struggled from 1878 to the following year before closing.  In 1880, he was named editor of the once-prestigious Sunday Courier, a journal that had fallen on hard times.  During his thirteen years as editor there, Bates was able to bring back much of the paper's glory.  Under Bates, the Courier "was read for its editorial, literary reviews and notes on current topics, for all of which he [Bates] was responsible and most of which he wrote himself."  [Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1922]

In 1893 Bates switched careera to accept a post as professor of english at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  It was at MIT that he had his greatest success.  During his 23 years there he developed a reputation as an outstanding teacher by students and faculty alike.  He retired in 1915, three years before his death.

Bates had been writing thoughout his various careers until the last ten years of his life..  His first novel was published in 1881.  His novels, stories, poetry, and essays, although popular with his literary associates his books were not as profitable as he would have liked.  Nonetheless he was elected a Fellow of the Anerican Academy of Arts and Science in 1900 and a Member of the American Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1904.  His last book was the collection The Intoxicated Ghost and Other Stories, released in 1908.  His greatest strength appears to be in his essays, some of which were collected in Talks on Writing English (1897), Talks on the Study of Literature (1898), The Diary of a Saint (1902), and Talks on Teaching Literature (1906).  Bates also published six books of poetry.  Here is a sample of one of his poems:

Bates married the love of his life, Harriet Vose, a well-respected magazine writer, in 1882.  The marriage lasted for only four years, ending with her death.  Bates mourned her for the rest of his life, never remarrying.

Arlo Bates was also a member of The Tavern Club for some twnty years.  There he would often write and perform in plays, sketches, and burlesques.  "Some of his wittiest and and most brilliant work was done in plays he wrote for the club, and it is a pity that there was so small a public to enjoy them." [ibid.]

The Intoxicated Ghost and Other Stories is available to be read online.


  1. A lot of plot for a short story. Impressive. I was taught not to do that but I sometimes think it was a mistake. Basically I was taught 2-3 characters, one or two setting, one main issue.

  2. Seems like advice that leads to the kind of story Stewart O'Nan describes in the essay you link to, Patti--one way to skin a cat, nut by no means the only way: "But the new fiction only superficially resembled his. It had a thinness of characterization, leaving the story’s true movement to the surface of the prose and often what remained unstated beneath it. And the new authors rarely moved time or favored omniscient narration the way Yates did. In its stylization and severity the new fiction simplified the positions of author and character, choosing as a default mode a neutral, unjudgmental stance and asking the reader to abide by the same rules; and the characters often seemed so flat and cryptic, emblematic, without desire or fear, that this tack seemed appropriate."