MISS ALICE FRENCH OF CLOVER BEND
Source - Arkansas History 1906
The world best knows this splendid woman by her pen name,
"Octave Thanet," and it is equally true, that the great world of
letters best knows Arkansas by and through the pen productions
of this same woman. She lives for about the same length of time
each year in Arkansas, in Iowa and in the East.
Neither Arkansas nor Iowa may claim her as a child born
within their borders, nor can her native state claim the exclusive
honor of her affections, nor of the elements that have made her
life a success. She was born at Andover, Mass., on March 19,
1850, but removed to Iowa with her parents in 1856 or 1857,
where her education was begun.
Her New England ancestry dates back to the earliest settlement
of the Massachusetts Bay Colonies, and through the
Careys and the Allertons she is connected with the oldest families
of Virginia. She is a daughter of George Henry and Frances
(Morton) French, and a granddaughter of George and Mary
(Richardson) French, and of Marcus and Charlotte Tillinghast
(Hodges) Morton; among her ancestors are William French
and George Morton, the Pilgrims; Jonathan Danforth, the Rev.
John Lothrop and Pardon Tillinghast, each well known in the
early history of New England. William French, the Pilgrim,
was one of the original proprietors and the first captain of the
town of Billerica, and a member of the first provincial legislature.
Her mother was a daughter of Governor Marcus Morton
of Massachusetts, through whom she is descended from the
Winslows, Lothrops, Mayhews, Tillinghasts, Carvers, Allertons,
Careys, Hodges, and by direct line from George Morton, the
The education of Alice French was finished at Abbot Academy,
Andover, Mass. After her graduation she made a trip to
England and became interested in English social history of the
time of Edward VI and Queen Mary, which interest she has
never lost. She also pursued the study of English literature in
its higher forms and of German philosophy. She gained by this
means, what she called a "perilous smattering" of Hegel and
Schopenhauer; the single story, "Schopenhauer on Lake Pepin,"
is the only record remaining of her early flight into this hazy
realm of incomprehensible thought.
As a manufacturer's daughter and a confidante of her
brothers, who were successful business men, she became more
and more interested in industrial questions, and all the better
prepared for her real life work. It has been said of her "that
probably no living short story writer knows so much at first
hand of the workingmen and his employer as she."
Miss French believes that from industrial co-operation rather
than trades unions will come the final solution of the labor problem,
but holds, nevertheless, that the organization of workingmen
is the preliminary step to perfect co-operation.
She is a believer in temperance and the regulation of the
liquor traffic by law. She is frank to admit that the question is
beset by grave and perilous difficulties, and hesitates to express
herself. At times, she thinks that a pure liquor law strictly enforced
would deal intemperance a worse blow than nominal prohibition
of the saloon with real encouragement of the blind
tiger. She is of unchangeable opinion, however, that there has
been a change for evil in Lawrence County since the multiplication
of the saloons.
As to woman's suffrage, she does not favor it, but on the
contrary, is an advocate of anything that will limit the ballot
rather than extend it. She holds that the giving of suffrage to the
negroes was not only a mistake but a crime, and that, as is usual,
the innocent have had to pay the penalty as well as the guilty.
She also believes that if every alien were required to live in
America twenty-one years before voting, as every native born
American must, that many of our real dangers would be diminished.
She is a firm believer in settlement work, for the reason that
it throws the educated and favored classes into contact with the
class that has had fewer chances for success. She recognizes
that ardent youngsters will lose their heads over suffering which
they realize for the first time; but at the same time, if they will
but continue their association with the sufferers, their Anglo-
Saxon common sense will lead them to see that virtue belongs
to no class, and that as she says through one of her characters
(Billy Bates), "We are all cut out of the same piece of cloth,
pants and coat; the under dog would tear the top one's coat, if
he could; it's not a sweet disposition got him under." She says:
"What we all need most of all is to know each other better, and
anything promoting that acquaintance, as settlement work does,
is of real use."
She is president of the Iowa Society of Colonial Dames, and
is an honorary member of several woman's clubs, among them
The Woman's Club, Denver, Colo.; the Woman's Club,
Memphis, Tenn.; The November Club, Andover, Mass.; and the
Tuesday Club, Davenport, la.
She is a member of the Colonial Governors and the May
Flower Descendants (patriotic societies), as well as the Colonial
Dames, and she belongs to several social clubs in Boston and New
York, such as the May Flower, the National 'Arts and the
She began writing in 1878, and has wielded a busy pen ever
since. Her writings disclose an intimate knowledge of the human
heart, and a sane, sympathetic view of human life. She is in
the largest and best sense an optimist, a fact that has contributed
largely to the eminence she has attained. Her style is modeled
after the best French story tellers, of whom she is an ardent admirer
and a most industrious student. But, best of all, her style
is simple and direct. It touches the heart of every reader and
recalls bygone pictures and images to every mind.
Her short stories have appeared in all the best magazines
of the United States, while many of them have been published
in book form to the delight of her readers in every part of the
world. Those published books with the dates of their publication
are as follows:
"Knitters in the Sun;" Houghton, Mifflin & Co., circa 1881.
"Otto, the Knight;" Houghton, Mifflin & Co., circa 1883.
"We All;" Appleton & Sons, 1891.
"Stories of a Western Town;" Scribners, 1893.
"An Adventure in Photography;" Scribners, 1894.
"The Heart of Toil;" Scribners, 1898.
"Expiation;" Scribners, circa 1891.
"A Slave to Duty;" Herbert Stone & Co., circa 1899.
"A Book of True Lovers;" Phillips & McClure, 1898.
In 1883 she entered Arkansas. Colonel F. W. Tucker, now
Collector of Internal Revenue at Little Rock, with Mrs. Crawford
and others, owned a plantation at Clover Bend, in Lawrence
County, and invited Miss French to visit them. Her friendship
for Mrs. Crawford was the great and moving motive of Miss
French's acceptation of the invitation, but after reaching Clover
Bend she wanted to stay, and did so. She said that the surroundings
of the plantation were so quiet and so beautiful that she could
not help the desire to stay. But it may be that some sweet Divinity
was shaping the destiny of Alice French, and that behind
her friends, who stood beckoning, there was that more majestic
form whose presence she could not see, but whose power was not
to be disobeyed. For what state is richer in the mythical than
Arkansas ? Where in all the world may a finer mass of half
historical, half traditional matter be found? What remains of
the Frenchmen who battled for life and love at Arkansas Post
more than two centuries ago? What of the phlegmatic Germans
who danced in wooden shoes in Arkansas County in 1716? They
were there, but all that is left of their life work is so mythical
that the historian avoids it and the masses magnify it. The touch
of the novelist will yet vivify these half-buried, half-announced
morsels with a life as real as the constitution of the state and
far more pleasing.
And where in Arkansas could a gifted story writer find more
fitting themes than along the banks of Black River and the Cascades
of the White? Anthony Janis and his French trappers
lived near Clover Bend as early as 1780, and what rich magazines
of fact and fancy these decadent Frenchmen left in Lawrence
and adjoining counties! What splendid mythical and real buried
treasure turn up now and then to whet the fancy and turn a story!
The realm of the dead unfolds to the mind capable of receieving
it a mighty realm of unrecorded facts, which help to a far brighter
realm of pulsing life. Where find better dead men than tradition
gives to the shaded glens of the Current River, or the lower
reaches of the Black ? The virtues, the vices of the earlier people
are not written, but whispers give them immortality. And then,
the "hants," the real, actual, never-to-be-denied ghosts, that our
colored mammies taught us never to doubt, much less disbelieve!
And if Hawthorne could discover "A House With Seven
Gables" in a quiet provincial town and clothe it with life ever
lasting; if Nicholson could uncover "The House of a Thousand
Candles" on the dreary Wabash, why shall not Alice French dig
up "A Palace with a Million Fountains" on Cherokee Bay, or
some other gifted son or daughter of the State find "Dungeons
more terrible than those of Chillon" at Cagle's Rock?
Arkansans who have visited Clover Bend will appreciate
to the fullest the perfect quietude and absolute beauty of the
place. No place on Black River can yield a greater serenity
and beauty than the plantation of Colonel Tucker at Clover Bend,
while no place is richer in the story life of the elfs and fairies,
or the more martial imagery of the half-proven heroic, or the
sable vestments of unrecorded human hopes and superhuman
lives. The dwelling in which Mrs. Crawford lived was a fine
cottage home, winsome to the eye, and in this cottage for many
years Miss French spent her winters, penning those imaginative
records of traditional life which swept her on to fame. Into
these traditions, more than half real, as all traditions are, she
forced that more perfect realism which is born of truth and which
she gathered by actual contact with living beings at her Clover
The land was filled to the uttermost with all that is sweet
to the fancy and only awaited the hand of a master mind to recreate
a world and bring back to life the spirits that were stilled.
Such a hand was that of Octave Thanet and to such a world her
controlling divinity led her conquering march.
In 1895 this cottage burned down and in the next year the
life-long friends, Mrs. Crawford and Alice French, became
partners in a piece of land near the old plantation upon which a
new house was built for their joint occupancy. She says that
from about one-third to one-half of her literary work for the
great world at large has been prepared in her cozy Arkansas
home, and that from the neighborhood of Clover Bend has come
many of the plots and characters of her books.
In "Knitters of the Sun," "Otto, the Knight," and "A Book
of True Lovers," are many Arkansas stories, bristling with Arkansas
characters and tinted with Black River coloring.
Her book, "Expiation," has won deserved and high praise
among book lovers everywhere for its nervous vitality, truth to
life and vivid local color. This is a historical novelette of the
guerilla days in the last year of the war. The scene is laid in
Lawrence County, and Clover Bend plantation is disguised as
"We All" is a fine book for boys, and is also laid in Lawrence
"Whitsun Harp, Regulator;" "Ma' Bowlin," "The Conjured
Kitchen," "The Mortgage on Jeffy," "Why Abylonia Surrendered,"
and "The Strike at Glascock's" are all Arkansas
stories. The initial story in "A Book of True Lovers" is about a
pair of old lovers without words; Abylonia is an Arkansas
preacher's wife who wrote his sermons.
Four or five of these books have been translated into the
French, German, Italian and Russian languages. Miss French
has also edited the "Best Letters of Mary Wortley Montague."
In 1895, Madame Blanc, of Paris, France, visited Miss
French at Clover Bend, and carried back to France many new
ideas concerning the United States and an entirely new insight
as to Arkansas. These two women had never met, yet with all
the vigor of their souls they were friends. Indeed Madame
Blanc was led to see the West and South as they are, solely and
alone through the truthful portraiture of the stories of Alice
French. When Madame Blanc returned to Paris, she published
an article of thirty pages in "Revue des Deux Mondes" devoted
exclusively to her Arkansas visit and to her Arkansas friend. In
that article she said:
"It has only been since I have myself visited the West and
the New South, that I have been able to realize fully the minute
fidelity in the description of things and people which makes each
of the short stories of Octave Thanet a little masterpiece of honest
and piquant realism."
One can but admire Octave Thanet as he follows the vivacious
narrative of Madame Blanc as she talks of Chicago, and
of the towns she visited en route to Clover Bend. On every
hand she recognized characters to whom Octave Thanet had introduced
her in her many books.
It is said that the ways of women are past finding out. Certain
it is that no masculine mind could have arranged for mutual
recognition as did these two eminent literary women. Alice
French was to meet Madame Blanc at Memphis and travel with
her to Clover Bend. In order that each might know the other
and that no cruel faux pas might ensue, each was to dress in an
agreed manner and approach each other as though each had
always known the other. Miss French has not given me the
order of the wardrobe, but the result was charming. "They
knew each other afar off," and a la Francaise and a V Anglaise
saluted each other with a kiss.
Madame Blanc said: "I don't believe that any two persons
seeing each other for the first time, ever had so strongly the
feeling that they were already old friends."
That visit gained for Arkansas another admirer, and sent to
the world a story from Paris that kindled kindlier feelings in
other hearts for Arkansas, the home of Octave Thanet.
Madame Blanc visited the white and colored schools, the
churches, the little towns, the places of hidden treasure and the
rendezvous of "the hants," and had a splendid time. At the
schools Madame Blanc distributed dolls to the smaller folk, whose
chief value, although the children did not know it, was that each
of these rustic dolls had been dressed by the fairy fingers of
Another writer has said of Alice French: "Her fair complexion,
blue eyes, light brown hair, tender conscience and love
of learning ally her to New England; her charming manners,
splendid speech and magnificent physique are Southern, while her
humorous mouth and vigorous practical mind bespeak her a
daughter of the West."
Whether in her house at Davenport or at "Montaine," Arkansas,
or in the society of the Eastern world which delights to
honor her, Alice French has written to please and to help the
world. She has been true to her ideals and has never slept at
the post of duty. She is justly called the best short-story writer
of the world, and Clover Bend has been the fruitful thesaurus
from which much of this mintage came. She has been an honor
to New England, to Iowa, and to Arkansas, and above all to herself
and to her sex, and as a native Arkansan I gladly place
these laurels on her brow. Wishing a few words more from her
own pen to close this sketch of her life, I asked Alice French
to give me an apostrophe to Arkansas, which she has most
charmingly done in the following words:
"Arkansas has an ideal climate, a grandiose and enchanting
landscape, the kindliest of soils; yet in none of these lies her
subtlest charm. About her is a curious half-human pathos; those
unimaginably rich mountain ranges, sullenly guarding a world's
store of metals, those mysterious forests hardly tapped by the lumberman's
axe, those neglected, unfilled fields that yield luxuriantly
even to the most careless culture—how all these seem to halfmock,
half-mourn the deadly swamps, the miry roadways, the
forlorn cabins that are too frequent amid her prosperous farms!
"But the swamps are as beautiful as deadly; and the cabin
dwellers have certain luxuries of sweet air and sunshine and
space of which they wot nothing; but which unite to give them
their easy-going temperaments and to make the higher class Arkansans
as charming as the Irish gentry and their poorer neighbors
more winning than the Irish peasant. They are the most
hospitable, most generous people in the world. I am glad to
think that they are my own people, by choice if not by birth."