Back Nancy Hale, “The Empress’s Ring”

Nancy Hale (1908–1988)
From Where the Light Falls: Selected Stories of Nancy Hale

Two paintings (oil on canvas) by American artist Lilian Westcott Hale (1880–1963): When She Was a Little Girl, c. 1918 (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), and Nancy and the Map of Europe, 1919 (Books and Art). Nancy Hale wrote in her memoir, “A prize-winning painting of my mother’s called Nancy and the Map of Europe shows me and my large doll dressed in identical blue cotton-crepe dresses with waistlines up under the armpits, and white guimpes. I hated dresses with high waistlines, because the other girls wore dresses with low waistlines. For that matter, I hated my doll, too. . . . I had to pose so much in my childhood that when I reached the age of about thirteen I finally figured out a requirement of my own. I wouldn’t pose, I said, unless I could be painted with a book. So all subsequent pictures of me show me in the act of reading.”

The novelist Lauren Groff writes, “How sad it seems that, in the thirty years since her death, Nancy Hale has been almost entirely forgotten. . . . Over these months of living with Hale’s voice in my head, I have asked myself over and over how we could have turned our eyes from her.”

What makes Hale’s slide into oblivion more remarkable is that during her lifetime she was praised by critics and the reading public alike and championed by such esteemed editors as Maxwell Perkins and William Maxwell. She published more than eighty short stories in The New Yorker and still holds the record for most short stories published there in a twelve-month period (1954–55), as well as most stories purchased by the magazine in a single year (1961). One of her seven novels (The Prodigal Women) was a surprise best seller in the 1940s; her biography of Mary Cassatt has been acclaimed by art historians and museum-goers since its publication.

Might a Hale renaissance be on the horizon? One of Hale’s stories was chosen for the recently published 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. And she has retained a small following of devoted and quite disparate writers, including Dan Chaon, Ann Beattie, Phong Nguyen, and Megan Mayhew Bergman.

Groff, a recent convert, has collected twenty-five of the best stories by Nancy Hale into a new book, which has just arrived from the printer. We present as our Story of the Week “The Empress’s Ring,” one of the selections most popular with readers during Hale’s lifetime.

Read “The Empress’s Ring” by Nancy Hale

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