By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, 1st ed.
Familiar names, unfamiliar titles: this, in part, was my initial inspiration in assembling The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. The challenge was to discover, wherever possible, short stories by our finest writers that were less known than the stories by these writers usually found in anthologies, yet of equal merit and interest; stories that, while reflecting authors’ characteristic styles, visions, and subjects, suggested other aspects of sensibility. We Americans are justly proud of our literature, and a good deal of that pride stems from our awareness of the crucial role of the short story—in its earliest manifestations, the short tale or romance—as a form ideally suited to the expression of the imagination.
In my reading of many months I was enormously pleased to discover virtually unknown yet fascinating work by certain of our classic American writers, whose famous titles recur from anthology to anthology with dismaying predictability. Certainly, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Birthmark” are brilliant moral parables—but what of the more psychologically realistic “The Wives of the Dead,” of which no one seems to have heard? Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” has entered our literary consciousness, deservedly, but what of “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” with its eerily contemporary theme of sexual/class exploitation? (I first read this unclassifiable prose piece— hardly a “tale” in any conventional sense, still less a “story”—when I was an undergraduate at Syracuse University, and I have been haunted by its images ever since. Herman Melville, our first native feminist?—can it be so?) Henry James’s aesthetic is nowhere more perfectly realized than in “The Beast in the Jungle,” anthologized virtually everywhere; yet what of The Middle Years,” so much more direct, more human, more personal in its statement of the isolate’s (or the artist’s) life? It is in this lesser-known story that The Master speaks with painful candor, giving voice to what all artists know, yet perhaps would not want to express in such raw, unmediated terms:
We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.
As schoolchildren we read and admired Mark Twain’s early, frankly derivative tall tale, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” but the darker, more sinister, yes and funnier Twain, as represented in the mordant “Cannibalism in the Cars,” is virtually unknown. (And why, in most general anthologies, is there no representation at all of Twain’s great contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose popularity as a writer was by no means confined to her most famous work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin?) So too with such familiar classics as Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever,” Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force.” These are certainly great works of art, at the very least, they have helped to define the range and depth of the short story in America. But the reader begins to feel frustration when they are encountered repeatedly, alternated now and then with a very few other titles of almost equal familiarity. Though among them F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Peter Taylor, and John Updike have written literally hundreds of short stories, the same two or three titles by each writer are recycled continuously. Why, given such plenitude, is this so? Do editors of anthologies consult only other anthologies, instead of reading original collections of stories? But isn’t the implicit promise of an anthology that it will, or aspires to, present something different, unexpected?
How ironic, it seemed to me, yet, perhaps, how symbolic, that in our age of rapid mass-production and the easy proliferation of consumer products, the richness and diversity of the American literary imagination should be so misrepresented in most anthologies and textbooks!
Of course, I must confess that, despite months of reading and rereading, I could not avoid reprinting certain very familiar favorites. Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well Lighted Place,” William Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun”—the consequence of an ideal conjunction of quality of prose and quantity of pages. (All anthologies are compromises when a finitude of space is an issue.) James Baldwin’s and Ralph Ellison’s much-reprinted “Sonny’s Blues” and “Battle Royal” are works by major American writers who did not cultivate the short story form, and so offer very few titles. Other old favorites which the scanning eye will note as absent—Ring Lardner’s Haircut, James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”—were reluctantly excluded because they are so readily available elsewhere, and because, with space restrictions, I thought it more important to present outstanding titles by writers representing a broad spectrum of cultural traditions: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Paul Bowles, Leslie Marmon Silko, Bharati Mukherjee, Amy Tan, David Leavitt, Sandra Cisneros, to name but a few.
“No creative writer can swallow another contemporary, Virginia Woolf once noted, as a way, perhaps, of rationalizing her own highly subjective tastes, “—the reception of living work is too coarse and partial if you’re doing the same thing yourself.” Even if one is not doing the same thing oneself, or anything approaching it, there remains an obvious difficulty in attempting an overview of the very landscape one inhabits.
As we move through the post-War era and into contemporary times, the proliferation of published stories and the immense diversities of talent make selection enormously difficult. What riches here, and what sorrow for the editor in having to exclude so much! Here indeed is American plenitude—not solely of talent but of distinct aesthetic agendas; distinct ethnic and minority voices; distinct regional themes. It will be evident that, beginning with Harriet Beecher Stowe, I have sought to include more women writers than commonly appear in such volumes; yet, in the past two decades, so many outstanding women writers have emerged, and are emerging still, often as “ethnic” voices, that a proportional representation of their work, in such limited space, is all but impossible. Ethnic and minority fiction has revitalized our contemporary literature and constitutes, it might be argued, a new regionalism. (Or is American literature at its core a literature of regions? Note how In this volume, works by contemporaries so seemingly diverse as John Edgar Wideman and Sandra Cisneros, Eudora Welty and Saul Bellow, Leslie Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Bobbie Ann Mason, as well as John Updike, Peter Taylor, and John Cheever, are related along lines that have less to do with traditional American themes than with stories set in highly specific, brilliantly realized American places. Indeed, in writers so clearly linked to an idiomatic oral tradition as Flannery O’Connor and the young West Virginian Pinckney Benedict, place is voice.)
Because my emphasis in this anthology is on storytelling, often with a social and/or political theme, and not on literary experimentation, I have included, of the celebrated “meta-fictionalists” of the 1960’s and 1970’s, only Donald Barthelme, whose principal mode of fiction was the short story. Had I more space, I would have wished to include such dazzlingly inventive talents as John Barth, William Gass, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Paul West, and Steven Millhauser, among others. Of writers associated with gender, I have included only David Leavitt, whose most representative fiction, though generally concerned with young gay Caucasian men of an educated middle class, transcends any labels; of the controversial “minimalists” of recent years, I have included only Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Tobias Wolff—with the immediate qualification, which I assert with some urgency, that I, personally, do not consider these writers “minimalists” any more than Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and William Carlos Williams are “minimalists.’ Even to classify them as “realists” is reductive and misleading.
Other editors have remarked in print of a problem arguably unique to our time and nation, of the proliferation of published stories by serious, committed, highly gifted writers who are carving out careers for themselves that will, in time, not only rest upon a few distinguished works but upon solid bodies of work, which will, in turn, help to define our increasingly diversified and heterogeneous American literature. Obviously, I could include only a sampling of this richness. To do justice to the remarkable fecundity of the American short story would require not a single volume of this size, but a second.
Not that the story need be long,
but it will take a long while
to make it short.
Henry David Thoreau
Formal definitions of the short story are commonplace, yet there is none quite democratic enough to accommodate an art that includes so much variety and an art that so readily lends itself to experimentation and idiosyncratic voices. Perhaps length alone should be the sole criterion? Whenever critics try to impose other, more subjective strictures on the genre (as on any genre) too much work is excluded.
Yet length itself is problematic. No more than 10,000 words? Why not then 10,500? 11,000? Where, in fact, does a short story end and a novella begin? (Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” can be classified as both.) And there is the reverse problem, for, as short stories condense, they are equally difficult to define. What is the short-short story, precisely? What is that most teasing of prose works, the prose-poem? We can be guided by critical intuition in distinguishing between a newspaper article or an anecdote and a fully realized story, but intuition is notoriously difficult to define (or depend upon). Since the cultivation of the aesthetically subtle minimally resolved short story by such masters as Chekhov, Lawrence, Joyce, and Hemingway, the definition of the “fully realized” story has become problematic as well.
My personal definition of the form is that it represents a concentration of imagination, and not an expansion, it is no more than 10,000 words; and, no matter its mysteries or experimental properties, it achieves closure—meaning that, when it ends, the attentive reader understand why.
That is to say, the short story is a prose piece that is not a mere concatenation of events, as in a news account or an anecdote, but an intensification of meaning by way of events. Its “plot” may be wholly interior, seemingly static, a matter of the progression of a character’s thought. Its resolution need not be a formally articulated statement, as in many of Hawthorne’s more didactic tales, or, in this collection, William Austin’s once-famous cautionary tale “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man,” but it signals a tangible change of some sort; a distinct shift in consciousness, a deepening of insight. In the most elliptical of stories, a characteristic of the modern and contemporary story, the actual resolution frequently occurs in the readers, and not the fictional characters’, consciousness. To read stories as disparate as Katherine Anne Porter’s “He,” Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode,” Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” Raymond Carver’s “Are These Actual Miles?” and Tobias Wolff’s “Hunters in the Snow,” among others in this volume, is to read stories so structured as to provide the reader, and not the characters themselves, with insight. Because the meaning of a story does not lie on its surface, visible and self-defining, does not mean that meaning does not exist. Indeed, the ambiguity of meaning, its inner, private quality, may well be part of the writer’s vision.
In addition to these qualities, most short stories (but hardly all) are restricted in time and place; concentrate upon a very small number of characters; and move toward a single ascending dramatic scene or revelation. And all are generated by conflict.
The artist is the focal point of conflict. Lovers of pristine harmony, those who dislike being upset, shocked, made to think and to feel, are not naturally suited to appreciate art, at least not serious art, which, unlike television dramas and situation comedies, for instance, does not evoke conflict merely to solve it within a brief space of time. Rather, conflict is the implicit subject, itself; as conflict, the establishment of disequilibrium, is the impetus for the evolution of life, so is conflict the genesis, the prime mover, the secret heart of all art.
Discord, then, and not harmony, is the subject our writers share in common. Though the quelling of discord and the re-establishment of harmony may well be the point of the art.
The “literary” short story, the meticulously constructed short story, descends to us by way of the phenomenon of magazine publication, beginning in the nineteenth century, but has as its ancestor the oral tale.
We must assume that storytelling is as old as mankind, at least as old as spoken language. Reality is not enough for us—we crave the imagination’s embellishments upon it. In the beginning. Once upon a time. A long time ago there lived a princess who. How the pulse quickens, hearing such beginnings! such promises of something new, strange, unexpected! The epic poem, the ballad, the parable, the beast-fable, sacred narratives, visionary prophecies— the fabulous mythopoetic “histories” of ancient cultures—the “divinely inspired” books of the Old and New Testament: all are forms of storytelling, expressions of the human imagination.
Like a river fed by countless small streams, the modern short story derives from a multiplicity of sources. Historically, the earliest literary documents of which we have knowledge are Egyptian papyri dating from 4000-3000 B.C., containing a work called, most intriguingly, Tales of the Magicians. The Middle Ages revered such secular works as fabliaux, ballads, and verse romances; the Arabian Thousand and One Nights and the Latin tales and anecdotes of the Gesta Romanorum, collected before the end of the thirteenth century, as well as the one hundred tales of Boccaccio’s The Decameron, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, were enormously popular for centuries. Storytelling as an oral art, like the folk ballad, was or is, characteristic of non-literate cultures, for obvious reasons. Even the prolongation of light (by artificial means) had an effect upon the storytelling tradition of our ancestors. The rise in literacy marked the ebbing of interest in old fairy tales and ballads, as did the gradual stabilization of languages and the cessation of local dialects in which the tales and ballads had been told most effectively. (The Brothers Grimm noted this phenomenon: if, in High German, a fairy tale gained in superficial clarity, it “lost in flavor, and no longer had such a firm hold of the kernel of meaning.”)
One of the signal accomplishments of American literature, most famously exemplified by the great commercial and critical success of Samuel Clemens, is the reclamation of that “lost” flavor—the use, as style, of dialect, regional, and strongly (often comically) vernacular language. Of course, before Samuel Clemens cultivated the ingenuous-ironic persona of “Mark Twain,” there were dialect writers and tale-tellers in America (for instance, Joel Chandler Harris, creator of the popular “Uncle Remus” stories); but Mark Twain was a phenomenon of a kind previously unknown here—our first American writer to be avidly read, coast to coast, by all classes of Americans, from the most high-born to the least cultured and minimally literate. The development of mass-market newspapers and subscription book sales made this success possible, but it was the brilliant reclamation of the vernacular in Twain’s work (the early “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” for instance) that made him into so uniquely American a writer, our counterpart to Dickens.
Twain’s rapid ascent was by way of popular newspapers, which syndicated features coast to coast, and his crowd-pleasing public performances’ but the more typical outlet for a short story writer particularly of self-consciously “literary” work, was the magazine. Virtually every writer in this volume, from Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne onward, began his or her career publishing short fiction in magazines before moving on to book publication; in the nineteenth century, such highly regarded, and, in some cases, high-paying magazines as The North American Review, Harper’s Monthly, Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s Monthly (later The Century), The Dial, and Graham’s Magazine (briefly edited by Edgar Allan Poe) advanced the careers of writers who would otherwise have had financial difficulties in establishing themselves. In postWorld War II America, the majority of short story writers publish in small-circulation “literary” magazines throughout their careers. It is all but unknown for a writer to publish a book of short stories without having published most of them in magazines beforehand.
Edgar Allan Poe’s famous review-essay of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (Graham’s Magazine, 1842) is justly celebrated as one of the crucial documents in the establishment of the short story as a distinct literary genre. Poe’s aesthetic is a curious admixture of the romantic and the classic: the intention of the art-work is to move the reader’s soul deeply, but the means to this intention is coolly, if not chillingly, cerebral. Poe in his philosophy as in his practice is both visionary and manipulator:
A skillful literary artist has constructed his tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect.
Magazine publication is the ideal outlet for Poe’s hypothesized tale, where works “requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in [their] perusal” appeared. Indeed, the emphasis in Poe’s review essay is on the reader’s experience of the work, and not upon the work itself; as if—can this be genius speaking? in the very language of the hack?—it scarcely matters what has been written, only that it has been written to a certain pre-conceived effect. (It should be noted too, and not incidentally, that Poe was a man of vast literary ambitions, and not simply, or not exclusively, a tormented Romantic driven to the composition of uncanny poetry and prose: he wrote for magazines, and he edited magazines, and it was his professional obsession from 1836 to his death in 1849 to found and edit a magazine, to be called Penn Magazine.)
As the literary short story derives from the oral tale, so, in Poe’s aesthetic’ the meticulously constructed short story relates to the poem. While the highest genius, arguably, is best employed in poetry (“not to exceed in length what might be perused in an hour”), the “loftiest talent” may turn to the prose tale, as exemplified by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Poe elevates the prose tale above much of poetry, in fact, and above the novel, for poetry brings the reader to too high a pitch of excitement to be sustained, and the novel is objectionable because of its “undue” length. By contrast, the brief tale enables the writer “to carry out the fullness of his intention. . . During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control. There are no external or extrinsic influences—resulting from weariness or interruption.
In Poe’s somewhat Aristotelian terms, the secret of the short story’s composition is its unity. Yet, within this, as within a well made play, a multiplicity of modes or inflections of thought and expression—”the ratiocinative, for example, the sarcastic, or the humorous”—are available to the writer, as they are not available, apparently, to the poet. This concept, dogmatic even for its time relates only incidentally to the stories Poe himself wrote, but provides an aesthetic anticipating the work of such masters of the genre as Chekhov, Joyce, Henry James, and Hemingway, in which everything is excluded that does not contribute to the general effect, or design, of the story. (Like most critics who are also artists Poe was formulating an aesthetic to accommodate his own practice and his own limitations. Temperamentally, Poe was probably incapable of the sustained effort of the novelist; this helps to explain his envious disparagement of Charles Dickens, who, for all his apparent flaws in Poe’s judgment, enjoyed the enormous popular success denied to Poe during his own lifetime.)
The American short story, however, has had no more thoughtful, visionary, and influential an early critic than Poe, just as the history of the short story itself in America is bound up with the unique work Poe published in 1840, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.
A predominant vein connecting the majority of the stories in this volume from Washington Irving and William Austin through to our contemporaries, is the quest, in some cases a distinctly American quest, for one’s place in the world; one’s cultural and spiritual identity, in terms of self and others.
For ours is the nation, so rare in human history, of self-determination; a theoretical experiment in newness, exploration, discovery. In theory at least, who our ancestors have been, what languages they have spoken, in what religions they believed—these factors cannot really help to define us. And it has been often noted that, in the New World, history itself has moved with extraordinary rapidity. Each generation constitutes a beginning-again, a new discovery, sometimes of language itself.
Washington Irving, who begins most volumes of American short fiction, was, in much of his work, a chronicler of tumultuous political change. Though English-oriented in his education, and immensely influenced by eighteenth-century English writers of the didactic and satirical sort, Irving’s genius was to appropriate, in his most famous tales, a theme out of folklore: the comedy of the dislocated citizen, who, visited by the supernatural, ends up not knowing who he is. In “Rip Van Winkle,” the theme is brilliantly applied to the hapless Rip who falls asleep in colonial America and wakes in post-Revolutionary America: waking to an irrevocably altered world.
Irving was born in 1783, at the end of the American Revolution. But, like Hawthorne, he derived great imaginative inspiration from the history of the region in which he lived. Not Irving’s contemporary America, that vital, seething young nation, but Colonial America, in the quaintly sequestered world of the Kaatskill Mountains, is the setting for the robustly tall tale “Rip Van Winkle,” a parable of dislocation. Rip, a descendant of Dutch settlers of the early eighteenth century, falls into an enchanted sleep, and, when he wakes, finds himself in post-Revolutionary America, where, to his astonishment, a new political language is spoken. The likeness of old King George has been metamorphosed into a dapper military portrait of someone called General Washington; Rip is no longer a subject of British rule, but a “free citizen of the United States”— which means nothing to him. It is a concept simply beyond his comprehension, as, Irving suggests, it is a concept beyond the comprehension of many citizens who had lived through the Revolution but were incapable of “revolutionizing” themselves. So, too, perhaps with the majority of men and women, in periods of violent social upheaval?
Where Irving’s tone is jocular, tongue-in-cheek, William Austin’s is grimly serious in his parable of Peter Rugg, the Missing Man. Here, the enchantment is clearly a curse, and Peter Rugg is a Flying Dutchman of sorts, doomed to ceaseless motion. Austin may have intended his archetypal hero to represent a newer species of man—a “lost” man—an atheist—who utters an oath that offends God, thus sealing his doom. Like certain of Hawthorne’s similarly accursed heroes Rugg is dislocated yet more radically than Rip Van Winkle. To Rugg, the new generation of Bostonians are his enemies, and his home, his family, his very identity have been stripped from him. (Compare the equally desperate fate of the elderly Major Molineux in Hawthorne’s ‘ My Kinsman, Major Molineux. )
Another aspect of identity, that of “gendered” fate, at least as linked with the vicissitudes of social class, is taken up, with characteristic irony, by Melville in his linked sexual allegories “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.” The vision of sexual determinism—for the working-class female, her doom—strikes us as disturbingly contemporary. (Melville, in his great, brooding, idiosyncratic prose works, is always our contemporary.) How like the nightmare fate of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s heroine, trapped in her femaleness as in the yellow wallpaper of her confinement these young factory workers: blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in blank hands, blankly folding blank paper. Biological destiny and the position of the individual in a burgeoning industrial society are memorably linked, in Melville’s vision of hell where Cupid himself is an overseer, and where the production of blank white soulless pulp is an image of the blankness—and inevitability—of human reproduction. Melville’s protagonist-observer becomes spellbound—”What made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it.” Only Herman Melville could have fashioned out of real” events (his visits to a gentleman’s club in London and to a paper-mill factory in Dalton, Massachusetts) such harrowing and dreamlike allegorical fiction.
By Poe’s criteria, “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” is perhaps not a successful tale, lacking unity. Yet it is as horrific an image of man’s (and woman’s) fate as Poe himself created.
Questions of sexual and racial identity are taken up in more realistic terms by writers of subsequent generations, like Charles W. Chesnutt (whose “The Sheriff’s Children” anticipates the obsessive father-son theme of Langston Hughes’ work), Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (whose “Old Woman Magoun” anticipates radical feminist texts of our time), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (whose “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a Poe-inspired narration of lyric madness, has become in fact a celebrated feminist text of our time). Edith Wharton’s unusually frank “A Journey” is a naturalistic allegory dramatizing a young wife’s experience of her husband’s dying; her resentment and terror of the burden his very body represents to her in death—as if she, yearning to live, will be stigmatized by his death, forced to disembark prematurely from the train (of life?). A similar moment of crisis is experienced—and transcended—by the hysterically repressed Presbyterian minister of Sherwood Anderson’s “The Strength of God” (from Winesburg, Ohio): “God has appeared to me,” the minister announces, “—in the person of Kate Swift, the school teacher, kneeling naked on a bed.”
Arguably, most African-American writing is about racial identity: black cohesiveness and dispersion in a rapidly industrialized country; black experience (suffering, resignation, rebellion, rage, accommodation, integration, self-determination) in the face of historical white oppression. In broad theoretical images, the “white father’s black son”—the unacknowledged progeny of the “white master”— is an emblem of the misbegotten and the rejected who returns as a powerful threat. The “Jesus” of William Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun” is a bitter sort of savior; the degraded black man, the probable son of slaves, who revenges himself against the only victim available to him in his powerlessness—the black woman who is his wife. Faulkner’s depiction of this tragedy is the more wrenching in that it is told to us obliquely, through the chattering and arguing of a self-absorbed white Mississippian family.
Striking a distinctly ominous note is Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” (the black youth who is “almost” a murderer, and on his way to being one)—a story disturbing to white readers as the author’s controversial Native Son, one of the seminal novels of black American experience. The young black men of Jean Toomer’s “Blood-Burning Moon” and Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” inhabit a society divided along indisputably racist lines; Eudora Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” presents a deranged white murderer, the very voice of a retrograde Southern society of the 1960’s. Only James Baldwin’s “Sonnys Blues” ends with an image of transcendence and hope, however painfully won: “Then they all gathered around Sonny, and Sonny played…. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others.” In a contemporary story by John Edgar Wideman, “Fever,” blackness itself is perceived by whites as a contagion— “evil incarnate”—yet acquires a purposeful strength, the strength of bitterness, cunning, ironic detachment.
Among those writers with whom we associate literary Modernism (Ernest Hemingway, for instance) and those writers who are our contemporaries, questions of identity have become all-absorbing. The quintessential Hemingway hero is a paradigm for the hero (or heroine) of much twentieth-century fiction, whose predicament is: once one has stripped oneself of superfluities of identity, what remains? The terror of night.?—nothingness? “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name,” is the prayer of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”—as if God were nothing, and nothingness is God. Scott Fitzgerald’s cartoonisthero of the painfully autobiographical “An Alcoholic Case” looks into a corner of the hotel bathroom and sees death awaiting him: and nothing more. Perhaps the most extreme (and unforgettable) image of twentieth-century existential dislocation is the brutalized, tongueless American professor (of linguistics) of Paul Bowles’s nightmare parable, “A Distant Episode.”
In our contemporaries, the burden of history and politics as personal fate, weighing, at times, almost physically upon the shoulders of survivors and descendants, is dramatized in stories encompassing a wide range of subject matter, style, and vision—from Flannery O’Connor’s mordant “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” (an aged Civil War veteran’s hallucinatory descent into death and into his identity) to Bernard Malamud’s “My Son the Murderer” (generational conflict in the radicalized, despairing Sixties) Louise Erdrich’s “Fleur” (a Native American “witch” resists the fate that would make her a victim) and Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief” (the surviving member of a Hindu family killed in a terrorist bombing detaches herself, through pain, from the paralysis of grief). The elliptical, poetic tales of Sandra Cisneros and the seemingly forthright, conversational “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan take for granted a dominant Caucasian world outside the family—here, such abstractions as history and politics are realized in the experience of sensitive, yet representative, adolescent girls.
Meticulous chroniclers of lives less dramatically touched by history, though yet distinctly, often disturbingly American, are such writers as John Cheever, John Updike, Alice Adams, Ursula Le Guin, Raymond Carver, among others, who have taken for their subjects the lives (and what radically differing lives, told in what radically differing voices) of what might be called mainstream Americans of the Caucasian middle class. What these writers share is their artistry; their commitment to the short story; their faith in the imaginative reconstruction of reality that constitutes literature.
As Tolstoy said, talent is the capacity to direct concentrated attention upon the subject: “the gift of seeing what others have not seen.”
Though it is hardly necessary, I suggest that the reader read this volume as it is assembled, more or less chronologically. A tale will unfold, by way of numerous tales, that is uniquely and wonderfully American.