Black American Short Story 20th Century Collection Critical Essays

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A black man comes to the home of a friend's mother, Mrs. Poole, who also is black. This exchange follows: " 'Ah's in trubble, Mis' Poole.' 'W'at you done done now?' 'Shot a man . . . ' 'White man o' niggah?' 'Cain't say.' " No sooner does Mrs. Poole agree to hide him than the sheriff arrives to inform her that her son is dead--and the chief suspect in his murder is the man to whom she has given sanctuary. " 'You ain't noticed anybody pass this evenin'?' " inquires the sheriff. Mrs. Poole, at once a bereaved mother and a jury of one, answers: " 'No.' " This 1930 Nella Larsen story raises peculiarly American questions of justice that recur throughout this anthology, the most comprehensive of its kind in three decades. Can the American legal process be trusted to correctly decide an African American's guilt? Or have two codes of justice--public and private--evolved? In a 1933 tale by Zora Neale Hurston, a husband finds his wife in bed with another man whose promise of a gold coin prompted her unfaithfulness. The husband pockets the coin as a small but torturous reminder of her crime. One morning she discovers the coin under her pillow, his intimate signal of her punishment's end. Two-thirds of this volume consists of stories written after 1962, and these demonstrate how recent writers have not only sustained the stylistic brilliance of Larsen and Hurston but continued to explore these questions of justice. Rich in biblical allusions, Charles Johnson's entry concerns the slave owner Moses's attempt to mold his slave, Mingo, in his own image. When Mingo commits a murder, however, Moses discovers the depth of their connection, telling Mingo: " 'All the wrong, all the good you do . . . it's me indirectly doing it, but without the lies and excuses.' " Johnson keenly uncovers the irony in the master-slave relationship that Major ( Parking Lots ), in his introduction, sees as emerging when the enslaver, forcing himself on the slave, secretly acknowledges "the slave's humanity . . . which he officially denied." This kinship--and the myriad black-white relations that flow from it--is one of the strongest underground currents in American literature since Twain and the slave narratives. This indispensable collection presents the metamorphosis of this kinship, revealing the true--at times warped--shape of our national values of liberty and justice for all.
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date: 11 March 2018

The Short Story in America

Many critics agree with Frank O'Connor's 1963 assessment that “Americans have handled the short story so wonderfully that one can say that it is a national art form.” Although the short story has received little critical attention compared with other genres such as poems or novels, it has flourished over the last century and a half to become an integral aspect of American letters. Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle (1819) frequently is cited as the first American short story, or “tale,” but the genre remained undistinguished until Edgar Allan Poe's well-known 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-told Tales. Since Poe's review, in which he distinguished short fiction from other genres, the American short story has evolved both in form and in content.

The Mid-Nineteenth Century

During the romantic period of American literature in the mid-nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville contributed significantly to the development of the American short story. In form, style, and subject matter, their short fiction departed from early American sketches such as Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, tales generally made up of summarized narratives, episodic plots, and portraits of magical events. American romantic short fiction moved from a tale to a story with a unified plot, a protagonist, and a single effect.

Indicative of the title of one of Poe's collections of short fiction, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), his short stories are grotesque, blending elements of Gothic horror with cryptic settings filled with castles, tombs, labyrinth paths, and dark and gloomy rooms. The characters sometimes cross boundaries between the living and the dead and the situations question whether ghosts are more real than humans. Among Poe's most well-known gothic/grotesque stories are The Premature Burial, in which a man believes he is buried alive; The Black Cat, in which the howling of a trapped cat leads to the discovery of a dead body; and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, in which the dying M. Valdemar agrees to be hypnotized and remains rigid yet semiconscious for seven months, until physicians attempting to awaken him transform him into a liquid mass. Perhaps Poe's most familiar story is The Fall of the House of Usher. The story portrays Roderick Usher, who experiences mysterious feelings of dreariness, gloom, and terror that haunt him while he resides at the House of Usher. Roderick buries his twin sister, Madeline, and stores the coffin in a vault. At the end of the story, Madeline crashes through the walls and Roderick exclaims to his visitor that she has been buried alive. As Madeline, whose bloody body shows signs of physical struggle, stands in the doorway, the ensuing storm intensifies and the mansion crumbles and fades. Typical of Poe's themes and style, The Fall of the House of Usher is filled with cryptic descriptions of the Usher mansion and demonstrates psychological fear and terror.

Poe also wrote detective short fiction and is credited with inspiring the detective fiction genre that gave rise to later writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the Sherlock Holmes character. Poe's series of detective short stories, which include The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, and The Purloined Letter, depict Auguste Dupin as a shrewd detective able to unravel mysteries with his self-proclaimed ability to think like the perpetrator and examine evidence from his opponent's point of view.

Hawthorne's short stories also blur distinctions between reality and fiction, but with less grotesqueness than in Poe's short fiction. Hawthorne's best-known short story collection, Twice-told Tales, includes sketches and tales, most of which are allegories with moral messages. Many of Hawthorne's stories reveal early New England history and blend historical events with the supernatural. As in his longer works, Hawthorne's shorter fiction explores themes relevant to the Puritan conscience. Young Goodman Brown, one of Hawthorne's most frequently anthologized short stories, illustrates techniques and themes found throughout his works. Typical of an allegory, the names of the characters reveal their traits. Goodman Brown sets out on a spiritual journey, in which he meets in the forest the devil and becomes distressed because his faith is gone. While running deeper into the forest, his wife, Faith, appears among both respected and disrespected members of the community. As he warns Faith to resist, the vision disappears, and he awakens. The story criticizes Puritan doctrine that considers humans depraved beings who must constantly question whether they and members of their communities are worthy of salvation. Goodman Brown loses his faith, his wife, and respect for his community because he holds unattainable spiritual expectations for himself and others.

Three of Hawthorne's best-known stories reveal that science and intellect often conflict with concerns of the heart or soul. In The Birthmark, the scientist Aylmer's wife dies during his attempt to remove a birthmark from her cheek. Rappaccini's Daughter concerns the plight of Beatrice, whose death is the result of an antidote her lover urges her to consume to counteract the poison her father has fed her as an experiment. Ethan Brand shows the downfall of Ethan, who spends eighteen years investigating humans in an attempt to find an unpardonable sin, only to discover that his own search has led him to commit the very unpardonable sin for which he has searched. These stories demonstrate the ironic dangers of searching for perfection, either physical or spiritual.

Compared with Hawthorne and Poe, Melville wrote a small body of short fiction, mostly essaylike stories. However, Benito Cereno and Bartleby the Scrivener remain among the finest pieces of short fiction written during this time period. Benito Cereno tells of Captain Delano, who joins a vessel inhabited by slaves, passengers, and crew, dwelling amidst hunger and disease. The twist in the story comes when the captain learns that the seemingly oppressed are really the empowered amongst the inhabitants of the vessel, which becomes a microcosm of society. Bartleby the Scrivener reveals the plight of Bartleby, who after three days of working as scrivener for a lawyer, begins to announce that he prefers not to perform his duties. The lawyer feels both angry and confused at Bartleby's behavior, and eventually invites him to live with him, an invitation Bartleby declines. When the lawyer moves his office and withholds from Bartleby the address, Bartleby becomes a vagrant and is consequently imprisoned. Further isolated and trapped within walls, Bartleby refuses to eat and eventually dies. Readers learn very little about Bartleby's history, but the story ultimately uses his plight to criticize ways intolerant societies treat nonconformists. Melville's short fiction moves closer to realism than does Hawthorne's or Poe's and provides a bridge between the romantic and the realist short story.

Among Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, Poe contributed most significantly to the development of the American short story partly because of the body of stories he wrote, but more importantly because he first identified the genre in his well-known review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-told Tales. Although Poe does not use the term “short story,” he refers to a work of short fiction as a “tale proper,” a “prose tale,” a “short prose narrative,” and a “brief tale” and distinguishes tales from other genres such as novels or poetry. Arguing “unity of effect or impression” as having the utmost importance in composition, he offers concrete instructions:

A skillful literary artist has constructed a 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 effects as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect.…In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one preestablished design.

Although much debated by contemporary literary theorists, many theories of literary criticism and many guidelines for writing short fiction rely at least in part on Poe's dictum.

Late Nineteenth to Early Twentieth Century

During the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, American short stories became less like the essays or allegorical morality tales still somewhat apparent in the romantic period, and moved even more toward use of formal elements such as plot, character, and dialogue found in later short fiction. After the Civil War, American literature moved from romanticism to realism, and as the name “realism” suggests, the stories were told more realistically.

Building on Poe's initial definitions of the short story, Brander Matthews in 1901 published the influential essay “The Philosophy of the Short-Story,” which alludes to Poe's The Philosophy of Composition and develops the principles that Poe outlines in his essay as well as in his review of Hawthorne's Twice-told Tales. Matthews says that more than mere length considerations distinguish the short story from other genres and that the short story differs from the novel “in its essential unity of impression” that “shows one action, in one place, on one day. A Short-story deals with a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of emotions called forth by a single situation.” Like Poe, Matthews offers guidelines for short-story writers, suggesting that, in addition to “originality and ingenuity,” short fiction should concisely display “symmetry of design.” Elaborating upon Poe's and Matthew's ideas, many short fiction how-to books appeared during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Many of the formulas for writing fiction expounded in these books are still used to teach short-story writing.

Although William Dean Howells is considered a champion of American realism, his contribution to the short story rests more with his role as editor and his influence on realism in general than with his fiction writing. For example, as editor of the distinguished Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, he had considerable impact on the type of stories published. Similarly, Henry James, with his European ties and critically acclaimed novels, contributed to American letters in ways that shadow his short-story writings; however, he nevertheless produced a significant body of short stories. Many of James's stories question the purpose of art and the role of artists. Among these stories are The Author of Beltraffio, The Middle Years, The Figure in the Carpet, The Liar, and The Real Thing. The last provides a good example of James's complex themes and subjects. In this story, an illustrator for popular magazines is able to depict Major and Mrs. Monarch as representative of the upper class to which they actually belong, yet despite repeated efforts, his renditions of them always look the same. Ironically, Miss Churn and Oronte, both from lower-class society, provide better models for depicting the upper class. The story suggests that renditions of reality do not always lead to artistic portrayals and conveys James's artistic philosophy that art need not imitate life but make an impression of life or truth.

During the 1890s, Stephen Crane produced a body of short fiction using techniques that inspired later writers. Like his masterpiece novel, The Red Badge of Courage, many of Crane's stories concern war: A Mystery of Heroism, An Episode of War, The Price of the Harness, Death and the Child, and The Upturned Face. However, his most significant short stories are The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel. While The Open Boat explores the subject of man against nature, The Blue Hotel concerns the notion of man against man. The Open Boat portrays four men who develop a strong camaraderie as they struggle against the forces of nature. The Blue Hotel concerns three men and reveals issues involving social responsibility. While the cowboy claims that the Swede's death is his own fault, the easterner assumes responsibility because he had refused to help the Swede fight for his convictions. While the easterner proclaims that the Swede's death is the result of all men's moral weaknesses, the cowboy only defends his own innocence. Both The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel suspensefully demonstrate relationships between groups of men who form a microcosmic society.

Local Color

Paralleling realism, the local color tradition flourished in America during the latter half of the nineteenth century until the early twentieth century. Local color short stories reveal realistic images of lifestyles in specific regions of the United States. They portray commonplace scenes and characteristics of their chosen locales, representing character types, speech patterns, and social customs and beliefs. From Bret Harte's boisterous and ill-mannered westerners, to Edith Wharton's refined upper-class New Yorkers, to Kate Chopin's Creoles and Sarah Orne Jewett's New England villagers, these writers offer geographically specific portraits of America.

Southwestern humor describes the stories by writers such as Bret Harte and Mark Twain. Depicting Southwest frontiers, these stories often highlight the contrast between reality and appearance and frequently juxtapose a naïve southwesterner against an elite easterner. Additionally, these stories often consist of tall tales, told by a boastful narrator who exaggerates and sometimes performs pranks. They sometimes employ framing devices in which a narrator tells a story that contains an inner tale. Although many of Twain's best stories, including The Story of the Old Ram and Buck Fanshaw's Funeral are anecdotal and appear in larger works such as Roughing It, others, such as The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, represent fully developed stories. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg portrays a stranger who visits Hadleyburg and shows the greed and dishonesty of supposedly incorruptible citizens. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County is a framed narrative, in which the narrator, upon request from his eastern friend, approaches Simon Wheeler to inquire about Leonidas Smiley. Wheeler begins a rambling tale of Smiley and his frog, interjected with asides and digressive comments. Despite Wheeler's attempt to tell the narrator the tale of a one-eyed yellow cow, the narrator excuses himself. This story uses tall tale, exaggeration, trickery, digression, and humor, all elements of southwestern humor. Similarly, Harte's The Luck of Roaring Camp exemplifies local color in its lighthearted depiction of a group of miners. When a prostitute dies during childbirth, the rough, ill-mannered mining campers christen her child Thomas Luck. The presence of the infant among the men inspires them to become generous, compassionate, clean, and mannerly. The story humorously shows incongruity between the habits of the men before and after the infant arrives.

Southern plantation stories such as those by Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, and George Washington Cable appeared in periodicals in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the plantation literary tradition was in vogue. Although contemporary critics consider this type of fiction racist propaganda, Harris's series of Uncle Remus tales were immensely popular during this time and have become classics. The stories employ a framing device in which Uncle Remus, a wise old African American, incorporates wisdom and philosophy by telling allegorical tales about Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and other animal characters to entertain a young white boy. Charles Chesnutt, one of the most prominent late-nineteenth-century African-American short-story writers, also published stories in popular magazines, some of which are similar in structure to Harris's Uncle Remus tales. Chesnutt's stories, however, defy racism, as the African-American Uncle Julius outwits John, the white man to whom he narrates stories that reveal African-American myth and folklore.

Some of the most significant local color short-story writers during this time are women, many of whom characterize women who defy stereotypes. Sarah Orne Jewett's best-known short fiction concerns small northeastern communities such as Dunnet Landing, Maine, the setting of The Country of the Pointed Firs and related stories. In these stories, typically, the narrator is introduced to a resident of Dunnet Landing, who tells her a story that reveals regional folklore or history. These stories reveal lost loves, loneliness, and regret amidst a compassionate humanity that often makes heroes of ordinary people. The lives of women and their relationships with other women are central to Jewett's fiction. Jewett also contributed to the American short-story tradition by influencing other women local color writers such as Mary Wilkins Freeman, Kate Chopin, and Willa Cather, who dedicated her masterpiece O Pioneers! (1913) to Jewett.

Mary Wilkins Freeman's portraits of rural New England heroines represent independent and strong women. In A New England Nun, Louisa, who learns that her fiancé is in love with another woman, releases his commitment to her so she can continue to live the solitary life she prefers. Through patience and persistence, Hetty, the protagonist of A Church Mouse, becomes church sexton and establishes residency in the congregation's meeting hall. In The Revolt of Mother, Sarah Penn unrelentingly demands that her husband keep the promise he made forty years ago to build a new house. Told humorously and tongue-in-cheek, The Revolt of Mother and A Church Mouse nevertheless describe strong women who defy oppressive societies.

Set mainly in New Orleans and rural Louisiana, much of Kate Chopin's fiction explores ways patriarchy restrains and oppresses women. Well known for her masterpiece novel The Awakening, Chopin also explores the plight of women in sexist societies in many of her short stories, of which the best known are The Story of an Hour, Desiree's Baby, At the Cadian Ball, The Storm, Odalie Misses Mass, and A Lady of Bayou St. John. In addition to showing white women as victims of sexism, Chopin is noted for her portrayal of the oppression of African-American women.

Well-known for her mockery of New York high society, Edith Wharton's stories such as Souls Belated, The Reckoning, Autres Temps, Bunner Sisters, The Other Two, The Long Run, and Atrophy often criticize the institution of marriage. In addition to the institution of marriage, Wharton examines society at large and shows the impact of oppression on women. In The Rembrandt, for example, we see the plight of Mrs. Fontage, who ironically is victimized by her dignity and upper social class. Once wealthy, she now struggles to survive in a rented room because she lives in a society that has never encouraged women to care for themselves or tend to financial matters.

Writers such as Hamlin Garland and Willa Cather present the Midwest in their fiction. Many of Garland's works protest against the plight of exploited prairie farmers. In Under the Lion's Paw, Garland's most anthologized story, the protagonist Tim Haskins endures and labors to turn a dilapidated piece of land into a productive farm. Haskins approaches the owner about buying the farm, only to be told that the value of the property as well as the rent has increased. Symbolically, Haskins is “under the lion's paw,” in a no-win situation: if he relinquishes the farm, he forfeits his hard work and his source of income; if he buys the farm, he will be burdened with a high mortgage. Unlike Garland, Cather uses the midwestern prairie settings in the pastoral sense, in which her characters long for simple lives and feel close spiritual ties to the land. Although acclaimed for her novels, Cather also created a substantial body of short stories, of which The Sculptor's Funeral and Paul's Case are best known.

Early to Mid-1900s

The early twentieth century marks a flourishing time in the history of the American short story. The time period embraces modernism, the most influential literary movement of the twentieth century. Short-story writers found many profitable markets for their work, and distinctions between commercial and literary short fiction were made. The Best American Short Stories, an annual collection of a guest editor's selection of the best American stories published each year, debuted in 1915, and in 1922 the first O. Henry Memorial Awards annual volume appeared. These annual collections continue to highlight the most esteemed American short-story writers. The New Yorker and Story magazines debuted in 1925 and 1931, respectively, and continue to publish the most distinguished short stories. During the 1930s, the New Criticism school of literary analysis began to influence both short-story writers and the ways critics looked at short stories. New Criticism focuses on the form and structure of literature and discourages using sources outside the text as considerations for interpretations. Both writers and critics began to pay more attention to formal elements of a text such as plot, setting, character, dialogue, tone, style, and theme, and the short story proved an ideal genre for this sort of analysis.

One of the most influential short-story writers of the early twentieth century is O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). His ironic, twisted endings have become synonymous with his name, and his formula for writing stories has influenced many writers, especially those writing for popular audiences. Whereas the novels of most writers overshadow their short stories, O. Henry continues to garner recognition for classics such as The Ransom of Red Chief, A Retrieved Reformation, The Caballero's Way, and The Hiding of Black Bill. Rare for a short story, The Gift of the Magi has become an international classic and is told around the world at Christmas. The story tells of young Della and Jim, who are very much in love but cannot afford to buy each other a Christmas gift. Della cuts and sells her hair to buy a chain for Jim's gold watch, while he sells his watch to purchase expensive combs for her hair. Representative of O. Henry's fiction, The Gift of the Magi represents ordinary people and uses sentiment to create entertaining, heartwarming stories that appeal to broad audiences.

Because of his influence on writers such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson is one of the most important short-story writers of the early twentieth century. Critically acclaimed for innovating the short story in structure, theme, style, and characterization, his stories have both entertained popular audiences and been hailed by literary critics. In addition to those included in his masterpiece Winesburg, Ohio, a short-story cycle that portrays individuals of the small town of Winesburg, Anderson's celebrated stories include The Egg, I'm a Fool, I Want to Know Why, The Man Who Became a Woman, and Death in the Woods.

Southern women writers recognized as much for their contributions to the short story as for writings in other genres include Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, and Carson McCullers, often compared and contrasted with each other and cited as writers who have influenced contemporary southern women writers. O'Connor's stories usually explore Catholic and Christian ideologies, in which a character experiences an epiphany resulting from contact with an outsider. O'Connor blends humor and grotesqueness to the southern setting of her stories and gives them surreal and mythical qualities. Among well-known stories such as The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Good Country People, and The Artificial Nigger, O'Connor's most anthologized short story remains A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Exemplary of her short fiction, the story describes an epiphany the grandmother of a vacationing family experiences when encountered by The Misfit and two other men. The story represents the moment of grace O'Connor's characters experience through epiphanies.

Most of Welty's works take place in the Mississippi Delta and although realistically portraying southern mores and customs, they also allude to myths and folklore. Welty's stories embrace a variety of forms and themes. Death of a Traveling Salesman contrasts the loneliness of a salesman with the tightly bonded relationship between a couple that helps him after he drives his car into a ravine. Phoenix, the protagonist of A Worn Path, demonstrates the same strength and triumph of her mythical name, while Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden represents southern Gothic fiction, with its grotesque characterizations and descriptions of the unfortunate people exploited as circus freaks. Welty's best-known story, Why I Live at the P.O., is a humorous first-person account of Sister, who moves to the Post Office because she perceives that her younger sister's return has usurped her position in the family. Welty is known for the lyrical prose and poetic allusions to folklore and myth displayed in stories such as Livvie, The Wide Net, A Still Moment, and those collected in The Golden Apples (1949) and The Bride of the Innisfallen (1955).

Unlike Welty and O'Connor, southern writer William Faulkner is better recognized for his novels than for his short stories, but he did produce a substantial body of short fiction. As in his novels, his short fiction chronicles southern history and reflects his complicated style, consisting of long complex sentences that often invite multiple interpretations. Among Faulkner's best-known stories—including The Bear, Red Leaves, Barn Burning, That Evening Sun, and Dry September—A Rose for Emily remains Faulkner's masterpiece. It depicts Miss Emily Grierson, an aging southern belle, and juxtaposes the antebellum past of the South against two later generations of southern ideology.

Despite the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote short stories to support himself and that the quality and merit of his stories are uneven, he produced outstanding short fiction such as May Day, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, Winter Dreams, The Rich Boy, Babylon Revisited, Last Kiss, and Crazy Sunday. As in his novels, Fitzgerald's stories explore notions of loss of innocence and disillusionment of marriage. For example, in The Rich Boy, although the young Anson deeply loves Paula, he finds excuses for marrying her and becomes a marriage counselor instead. Paula marries and divorces another man, but when Anson later encounters Paula, she is remarried and pregnant. After Paula dies during childbirth, the disillusioned Anson goes on a cruise, where he flirts with women in order to reaffirm his sense of self-worth.

Fitzgerald's contemporary Ernest Hemingway is one of the most significant and influential short-story writers of the twentieth century. Departing from short stories that focus on formal elements of literature and develop plot in classical ways, Hemingway's short fiction marks the beginning of the minimalist short story in America. Hemingway's often-quoted dictum that employs an iceberg analogy to say that seven-eighths of the meaning of fiction should take place under the surface level of the story has been the basis of many short-story guidebooks. Many of Hemingway's stories concern the protagonist Nick Adams, who usually undergoes an initiation experience. Best known among the Nick Adams cycle is Big Two-Hearted River, in which Nick returns to the idyllic place of his youth only to find the land destroyed by fire. Hills Like White Elephants, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber are among Hemingway's most critically acclaimed minimalist stories. Hills Like White Elephants and A Clean, Well-Lighted Place consist almost entirely of dialogue that invites readers to interpret the situation as though eavesdropping. Typical of Hemingway's short stories and exemplary of his iceberg theory, the action in most of his stories occurs beneath the surface.

The Second Half of the Twentieth Century

A large variety of short stories have appeared since the 1950s, when some writers continued to write stories in the traditional form and structure and others broke from that style. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the civil rights movement, which paralleled the Black Arts movement, followed by the second wave of feminism in America. In addition to providing opportunities for women and ethnic short-story writers, short fiction by women and minorities was rediscovered. For example, since the rediscovery of Susan Glaspell's A Jury of Her Peers (1916) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), both stories have been reprinted in countless textbooks and anthologies and both have been the subject of many scholarly articles. In addition to publication of numerous African-American short-story anthologies and short-story collections by individual African-American writers, examples of the flourishing of the African-American short story during the 1960s and 1970s include the critical acclaim given to James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues, which appears in his 1965 collection Going to Meet the Man and has since been reprinted in numerous anthologies and textbooks; the recognition of Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love (1972), which continues to influence African-American women short-story writers; and the awarding of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize to James McPherson for Elbow Room. On the other hand, despite immense opportunity provided to women and minority writers during the 1960s and 1970s, it is interesting to note that the short stories of prominent Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston were not collected as a volume until 1995; the seminal short-story collections of Native American Zitkala-Sa (Old Indian Legends and American Indian Stories) did not appear until 1985; Mourning Dove's short stories (Coyote Stories) were not rediscovered and reprinted until 1990; the groundbreaking stories by Chinese-American Sui Sin Far were not reprinted as the volume Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings until 1995; and Ralph Ellison's short stories were not collected in a single volume until the 1996 publication of Flying Home and Other Stories.

Perhaps the most influential American short-story writer from the 1950s to the 1970s is John Cheever. Accolades for his short stories include a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award, an American Book Award, and the National Medal for Literature. He helped spur interest in the short story and contributed both to its commercial and literary successes. Told for the most part in a conventional form, Cheever's stories usually portray a male, white-collar protagonist. His characters are usually bored with marriage and desire personal fulfillment, although most are unable to articulate their concerns. Additionally, their material abundance contrasts with their spiritual emptiness. Among Cheever's best-known stories are Goodbye, My Brother, The Enormous Radio, O Youth and Beauty!, The Five-Forty-Eight, The Country Husband, and The Swimmer. Representative of Cheever's stories, The Swimmer presents Neddy Merrill's journey from a friend's house to his own home via swimming pools. He embarks upon this journey to celebrate the fine day's possibilities but the challenge begins to shake his confidence as he gradually becomes physically weaker and more disoriented. The story turns from a portrayal of reality to a surreal narrative as Neddy begins to remember events from his life and repressed memories emerge. The story suggests that whether Neddy's house really is empty as he finds it when he completes his journey or the image is a figment of his imagination, he comes to understand that his suburban lifestyle is empty. Instead of offering him a spiritual rebirth, as going into water might symbolize, Neddy's symbolic baptism exposes his shallow life.

Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud dominated postwar Jewish-American writing. Whereas all three excelled in the novel, most critics agree that Malamud's artistic genius surfaces more in his short stories. Throughout his stories, he demonstrates hardships and despair to portray the plight of the contemporary American Jew. He employs a tightly woven, sparse, yet lyrical style and sometimes blends fantasy and allegory with realism. His best known stories include The First Seven Years, Idiots First, Rembrandt's Hat, The Jewbird, A Choice of Profession, Angel Levine, and The Magic Barrel. Some of his stories, published individually but later collected in Pictures of Fidelman (1969), form a cycle that characterizes Arthur Fidelman, a failed painter. Malamud's reputation as a master of the short story began with the publication of The Magic Barrel in 1958, and some of the stories in this collection are among the most anthologized stories in the American postwar canon. One of Malamud's most critically acclaimed stories, The Magic Barrel describes Leo Finkle, the lonely and isolated rabbinical student who seeks the services of a marriage broker. Although his motive for marriage is gaining a congregation, he falls in love with the picture of the marriage broker's daughter, a prostitute in whom he recognizes the hope of redemption. The story reveals irony because the broker is worried about his daughter, and although it is unlikely he really has a magical matchmaking gift, he indeed leads Leo to his ideal match. The experiences he encounters while searching for a mate change Leo from a person with superficial values to a spiritual human being.

Some of the most influential short-story writers of this period use postmodern techniques, especially metaphysical devices, in their short stories. The seminal postmodern short fiction writers John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Coover serve as good examples. Barth's short-story cycle Lost in the Funhouse (1968) consists of related stories depicting nameless characters, characters named from mythology, and the central character, Ambrose. The characters are storytellers, who personify intangible states such as love and art. The stories are metafictional in their thematic representations of the art of fiction writing, storytelling, or art in general. They are sometimes witty and almost always use language in a crafty manner so that the stories are about language itself. The stories are filled with nontraditional literary elements such as the use of italics and dashes.

One of the most influential writers since 1960, Donald Barthelme has written stories that are elliptical and use devices such as journal entries, diagrams, question-and-answer formats, and lists. Also exemplary of metafiction, Barthelme's short fiction frequently alludes to other writers, comments on art, and concerns the writing process. His stories play with language, as demonstrated in “Sentence,” a story one sentence long but nevertheless packed with meaning.

Also representative of postmodernism are Robert Coover's short stories, many of which, like those of Barthelme and Barth, concern the art of fiction writing. In addition to many of the techniques found in the fiction of Barthelme and Barth, some of Coover's stories provide several beginnings or reveal several intertwined subplots. Throughout their short fiction, Barth, Barthelme, and Coover employ self-reflexivity in ways that allow the stories to comment about themselves. These stories defy plot summary and challenge description because the merit lies in the telling of the story, not the story itself.

John Edgar Wideman, one of the most significant contemporary African-American short-story writers, uses postmodern and metaphysical devices. Wideman explores a variety of themes and subjects, but much of his short fiction concerns personal and social relationships and criticizes racism. Wideman's complex writing techniques prevail in stories such as All Stories Are True, Signs, Surfiction, The Watermelon Story, Doc's Story, and Lizabeth: The Caterpillar Story. In Surfiction, the title of which is a literary term that refers to a specific type of metafiction, Wideman creates levels of narratives that pay homage not only to Charles Chesnutt but also to the African-American short-story tradition. Surfiction, as in many of Wideman's stories, reveals complex techniques that blur boundaries between fiction and reality.

Among the most prolific contemporary short-story writers is Joyce Carol Oates, a master of the short-story form. Aspects of Oates's short fiction include depictions of random violence (often grotesque), the sexual exploitation of women, and perverse obsessions. Her characters are frequently victims of both physical and psychological violence. Oates's most critically acclaimed short story, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, gives the suspenseful and chilling account of the psychological turmoil of the teenaged Connie, who is manipulated and seduced by Arnold Friend, who clearly plans to abduct her from her home and sexually torture and perhaps kill her. Although this story represents some of Oates's fiction, she uses a variety of styles and forms, both experimental and conventional.

It is no surprise that John Updike was chosen to edit the distinguished Best American Short Stories of the Century (1999), for he has been publishing short stories for half a century and is regarded as a master of style and form. Many of Updike's short stories reveal young men who experience some sort of initiation. His short fiction also addresses relationships between husbands and wives. Most of his fiction is set in urban Pennsylvania and addresses issues relevant to middle-class suburbia. Several of his fictional pieces make up cycles of stories, some involving the couple the Maples, others dealing with the character Henry Bech, and others portraying the young protagonist from Pigeon Feathers. A&P and Gesturing, among his most critically acclaimed stories, respectively depict a young male protagonist and a couple experiencing a troubled marriage, two of Updike's most common subjects. A&P depicts the plight of Sammy, a young clerk at the A&P grocery who defends three young girls the manager chastises. His heroic attempt and perhaps sexual desire inspire him to quit his job. Although uncertain of his decision, especially when the manager informs him that his attitude will haunt him throughout his life, Sammy nevertheless quits his job. In Gesturing, Joan and Richard Maples have recently separated, leaving Richard no one for whom to perform his gestures, symbolic of the life force. Although both struggle to redefine themselves as individuals, the story ends with them eating together at a restaurant and laughing. Significantly, they continue to gesture together, suggesting that each has influenced the other in ways that have shaped their lives and that their long history of gesturing has not dissolved even though their marriage has ended.

Beginning in the 1970s, the American short story has experienced a renaissance. Creative writing classes have sprung up in universities across the nation, and well-known writers continue to teach these courses. A plethora of short fiction anthologies and manuals on writing fiction have appeared. Among the most influential was John Gardner's The Art of Fiction (1984), still considered the bible for college writing workshops. More literary journals—usually housed at universities—were developed, offering increased outlets for short fiction. The tradition developed by Anton Chekhov and started in America by Hemingway was termed “minimalism” and defined the sparse, terse style and the open-ended narratives of writers such as Frederick Barthelme, Amy Hempel, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Mary Robison, and Tobias Wolff. Among this group of writers, Raymond Carver is the most influential. He is one of the few American writers whose reputation rests almost entirely on his work in the short-story genre. He usually writes of working-class people, many hopeless and desperate alcoholics. His better-known stories include Where I'm Calling From, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Feathers, So Much Water So Close to Home, Are These Actual Miles?, and Errand. His most anthologized stories are A Small, Good Thing and Cathedral. A Small, Good Thing concerns the parents of Scotty, a young child struck by a car on his birthday. During his hospital stay, his parents are taunted by phone calls that refer to him. After Scotty dies, the mother realizes the caller is the baker from whom she had ordered Scotty's birthday cake. She and her husband approach the baker and accuse him of insensitivity. Apologetically, he offers the couple bread, saying that eating is “a small, good thing.” Cathedral concerns a visit by a blind man to visit his friend, a woman whose husband at first is jealous. At the end of the story, the blind man and the woman's husband bond through mutual understanding and respect that develops when they attempt to draw a cathedral. While in many of Carver's stories the characters remain hopeless, in both of these stories, characters experience some sort of spiritual awakening through connecting with another human.

The Future of the American Short Story

In addition to the multitudinous and delightful variety of stories being published at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the American short story received increased critical attention. Short-story collections were reviewed in both popular and literary magazines, and short fiction classes continued to be taught in higher learning institutions across the nation. More essays appeared about short stories, and more honors for American short stories were being awarded.

See also Anderson, Sherwood and his Winesburg, Ohio; Baldwin, James; Barth, John; Barthelme, Donald; Carver, Raymond; Cather, Willa; Cheever, John; Chesnutt, Charles; Chopin, Kate; Crane, Stephen; Ellison, Ralph; Faulkner, William; Fitzgerald, F. Scott; Gardner, John; Garland, Hamlin; Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper”; Harte, Bret; Hawthorne, Nathaniel; Hemingway, Ernest; Henry, O.; Howells, William Dean; Irving, Washington; Jackson's “The Lottery”; James, Henry; Jewett, Sarah Orne; Malamud, Bernard; Melville, Herman and his “Bartleby the Scrivener”; Metafiction; Oates, Joyce Carol; O'Connor, Flannery; Poe, Edgar Allan; Twain, Mark; Updike, John; Welty, Eudora; Wharton, Edith; and Wideman, John Edgar.

Further Reading

Current-Garcia, Eugene. The American Short Story before 1850: A Critical History. Boston, 1985. Provides valuable discussions of short-story writers such as Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe in relation to the beginning of the American short story.Find this resource:

Fagin, N. Bryllion. America through the Short Story. Boston, 1936. Reprints short stories categorized according to subjects and offers interesting discussions to introduce each chapter.Find this resource:

Gerlach, John. Toward the End: Closure and Structure in the American Short Story. University, Ala., 1985. Valuable for its examination of several American short stories in terms of their endings.Find this resource:

Lee, A. Robert, ed. The Nineteenth-Century American Short Story. Totowa, N.J., 1985. A collection of nine essays by different scholars, all of whom contribute valuable insights about specific nineteenth-century American short-story writers.Find this resource:

Levy, Andrew. The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story. New York, 1993. Offers valuable interpretations of the short story as an American cultural project in works by authors ranging from Poe to Bobbie Ann Mason.Find this resource:

Lohafer, Susan. Coming to Terms with the Short Story. Baton Rouge, La., 1983. Offers short-story theory, but especially valuable for its interpretations of individual American classic short stories.Find this resource:

May, Charles E. The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice. New York, 1995. Provides an excellent analysis of the evolution of the short story genre.Find this resource:

May, Charles E., ed. The New Short Story Theories. Athens, Ohio, 1994. Although not limited to the American short-story tradition, this work offers a collection of essays that demonstrate various critical reactions to the short-story genre and show how it has evolved. Includes Brander Matthews's “The Philosophy of the Short Story” and Poe's “Review of Twice-Told Tales.”Find this resource:

O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. New York, 1985. Valuable for its influential assessment of the protagonist of short fiction as being someone who stands outside of society.Find this resource:

Pattee, Fred Lewis. The Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey. New York, 1923. Important for its early assessment of American short-story writers from Irving to O. Henry.Find this resource:

Peden, William. The American Short Story: Continuity and Change, 1940–1975. Boston, 1975. Offers insightful essays about American short-story writers between 1940 and 1975.Find this resource:

Rhode, Robert D. Setting in the American Short Story of Local Color, 1865–1900. The Hague, 1975. Demonstrates the significance of setting in the American local color short story.Find this resource:

Voss, Arthur. The American Short Story: A Critical Survey. Norman, Okla., 1973. Gives overviews of American short-story writers through the 1950s, providing mostly summaries but some useful interpretations.Find this resource:

West, Ray B., Jr. The Short Story in America, 1900–1950. Chicago, 1952. Offers a valuable survey of the American short story beginning with the twentieth century.Find this resource:


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