29 November 2007

Best Short Stories of 1919, Edward J. O'Brien, Editor


This book is available as a free electronic book from Project Gutenberg. It is in the public domain. Release Date: November 11, 2007 [EBook #23445]

What was 1919 like in the USA? It was the end of World War I, the era of the pandemic flu which killed more people than the Great War. In 1919 women in the USA did not have the right to vote; it wasn't until August 26, 1920 that the 19th Amendment was passed, granting suffrage to American women. Prohibition --the Volstead Act -- started, that was the 18th Amendment, in 1919. It went on for 14 years.

Elsewhere in the world: In 1919 the Soviet Union was forming, the first Communist International was held in Moscow on March 2. Ghandi began working in India to resist British rule with nonviolence.

Civilization was changing in 1919. The nineteenth century had seen the industrial revolution, and now the twentieth was truly underway, with a horrible war at the center of its second decade. Many ideas and norms that had made up social, political, and economic conventions were in question, or crumbling to ruins.

The number-one best selling fiction in 1919 was The Four Horsemen of the Apolcalypse [Link to e-book at Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia library. The e-book is publicly accessible.] According to information on the Kingwood College Library website, this book sold for $1.90 -- publishers didn't think the public would pay $2 for a book. (Kingwood College is a Community College in Kingwood, Texas.)

Here is a collection of twenty short stories by writers in that year. Some of their names are familiar to me: Sherwood Anderson and Djuna Barnes for sure, some of the others seem familiar, and the rest are new to me.

The very first story, "The Kitchen Gods," by G. F. Alsop, grabbed my attention because of its title. A few years ago I read and enjoyed a book by Amy Tan called The Kitchen God's Wife, and couldn't help wondering if she had read this story. It tells the story of a polygamous Chinese marriage, and the result of the husband's desire to embrace Christianity. The atmosphere is painted beautifully and economically, however self-conscious the author is in her description of this culture.

I found a little about Alsop, from Contemporary Authors Online, Gale 2004. (I got to this database through my public library system; I don't think it's freely available without a subscription.) Her name was Gulielma Fell Alsop, she lived from 1881 to 1978 (a long life!). The last place she lived was in Vermont. She was a medical missionary in China in 1908, head of the Barnard College Medical Department in 1917. She is listed in Barnard's Alumnae Bibliography.

"An Awakening," by Sherwood Anderson, I found to be an odd kind of story. I am not sure I get the point of it, but it may be due to the 88 years that have elapsed since its publication obscuring certain cultural and social assumptions or norms. The story takes place in Winesburg, Ohio, fictional setting for many of Anderson's stories. (According to Wikipedia, at the preceding link, there is a Winesburg, Ohio, but it is not the fictional Winesburg. Instead, Anderson's Winesburg is modeled on a city named Clyde, Ohio, where Anderson grew up.) In this story we see two men attracted to the same woman. One wins, one loses. I wish someone would explain this one to me. There is a Wikipedia entry for the novel Winesburg, Ohio that provides some clues, I think.

"Willum's Vanilla," by Edwina Stanton Babcock, tells the story of the return of a young man to a rural community in the United States. Mr. and Mrs. Pawket, the elderly agrarian couple who provided this orphaned youngster with a home in his youth, are excited to see their foster son again. "Willum" has been living in Italy, and has married an Italian woman. For his bride, he has ordered the construction of an Italian villa (which word becomes corrupted to the "vanilla" of the title), and to facilitate this project he sends an architect ahead who is to supervise the project, and who will board with Mr. and Mrs. Pawket. While these plans seem solid evidence of young William's solvency, even wealth, events conspire to convince the Pawket's and some of the townspeople that William has fallen on hard times and is returning home from Italy somewhat worse for the wear. This is a perfectly delightful piece, with great use of dialect and terrific characterizations. The story is written with humor, but not without affection, and I enjoyed it immensely.

"A Night Among the Horses," by Djuna Barnes, is a dark tale involving -- apparently -- a man who has married above his station in life and suffers some regret. I'm afraid this one missed me, too.

Djuna Barnes

"Long, Long Ago,"
by Frederick Orin Bartlett tells the story of a newspaperman who comes to New York on his vacation to visit the offices of the paper where he got his start. He's been gone five years, and hopes to see at least some of his old co-workers. I found the story mildly amusing, if dated. The opening sentence was confusing:
When the brakeman swung back the door and with resonant indifference shouted in Esperanto "Granderantal stashun," Galbraithe felt like jumping up and shaking the man's hand.

Apparently the reference to Esperanto is a joke. I didn't get it. I thought at first that it was some type of futuristic fiction, which would have been interesting from 1919. But it's not.

The point of "Long, Long Ago" is, in my understanding, that time goes by very quickly in the news business in New York compared to the speed with which it travels in Kansas -- and the vacationing newsman realizes that given this realization, he should get back to Kansas, where he'll live longer.

"Dishes," by Agnes Mary Brownell is a story of domestic life. I enjoyed this story immensely. It's deceptively simple, with simple characters, and plain, vernacular speech. It is the story of a woman who comes into her new husband's home to live with him and his mother. His sister, who used to live with them, has married and gone off to live with her husband. The new wife must take the sister's place, in some ways. It is a story that deals with how our true characters can be suppressed through mundane routines in life, repeated and subscribed to, but perhaps without necessity or meaning.

"The Blood Red One," by Maxwell Struthers Burt, may be an allegorical tale about something to do with World War I. I didn't understand the references, I assume there were certain allusions, but I haven't a clue what they were. It's strange, told with good language, words that flow and sound well. There is a mysterious character who appears and tells two stories about "The Maimed One" -- perhaps this is Woodrow Wilson, or some other world leader during the Great War?

Here's a link to another Maxwell Struthers Burt story, called "The Water Hole." I like it better, and didn't have any trouble at all understanding it. I read about MSB a little bit, and it seems that he was a poet as well as a prose writer, and lived the last part of his life in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he ran a dude ranch, among other pursuits. You can find information about him on Wikipedia and other sources, just put his name into Google.

"The Wedding Jest," by James Branch Cabell, is written in a flowery sort of pseudo-Arthurian English, which bothered me and tempted me to skip it, but that would have been a mistake. This story of love, marriage, and ghosts explodes at the end and reveals a deviousness of plot that is not evident until that moment. I recommend patient reading of each and every word, and attention to detail.

"The Wrists on the Door,"
by Horace Fish, could probably be described as a right-to-life fable. Blah, blah, blah...

"Government Goat," by Susan Glaspell, is set in Cape Cod, and has to do mostly with two families, the Cadaras, and the Doanes. Joe Cadara, the father of his family, has been killed at sea. Joe Doane, father of the family next door, is alive and well, albeit employed only on land, at "odd jobs," since his family's fishing business has failed. The families are forced to compare their relative well-being: the Cadaras receive much generous charity, but the Doanes still have a father. When the Cadaras receive a goat from "the government," Joe Doane thinks about who is lucky, and who is not. The story is told with skill, and a great sense of humor.

"The Stone," by Henry Goodman: an evil man hounds his wife from the grave. In 1919, before Stephen King, and all the sensational horror movies, and the Twilight Zone, this probably was sort of frightening, original, even entertaining.

"To The Bitter End," by Richard Matthews Hallet. This is one Hell of a story. Written in seagoing dialect, one elegant phrase upon another, ultimately a sort of long joke with a dry punchline, one can only draw back with awe and admire the skill with which it's told. Here's a little taste:
"And now Elmer and his wife, who were stationed ankle deep in that yellow sea of chips under her prow, could see the brows of the shore gang beaded with sweat, and a look of desperate hurry in the eyes of the youngster coming with the paint pot and painting the bottom of the keel as the blocks fell one by one. Well he might hurry; for sometimes the ship trips the last dozen blocks or so, and thus stepped on with all that tonnage they snap and crackle, and splinters fly in every direction."

Two formidable women are involved, and disaster stalks on the horizon.

"The Meeker Ritual," by Joseph Hergesheimer, is a quaint story of a story told to a sort of cynic-philosopher type, of a family of spiritualists and the strange goings-on within their home. I am not sure that I understood all that was implied in this tale, but I found it vaguely amusing. The Wikipedia entry for Hergesheimer speaks of his "aesthetic" style, and how powerfully descriptive it can be, while at the same time obscure, lacking a depth of characterization.

"The Centenarian," by Will E. Ingersoll, is as corny as Iowa, but beautifully written, and touching in its descriptions and observations of old age and our inevitable decline. The ending has a bit of a twist, though not unpredictable. I looked up 1 August 1914 and found, as I had guessed, that it marks the date of Germany declaring war upon Russia and the mobilization of the Swiss army: the beginning of the Great War.

I found very little about Mr. Ingersoll, except that he was (is?) Canadian, and published some other works.

"Messengers," by Calvin Johnston, is a sentimental story, written in an Irish brogue, of railroads and people, and Duty.

"Mrs. Drainger's Veil," by Howard Mumford Jones (1892-1980), is fascinating and suspenseful. I am a little bit disappointed in the plot, though. Am I addicted to mystery? Perhaps. I don't like to figure out what's happening in a mysterious (if not mystery) story before I am (I think) supposed to. In this story of long years of spite between a mother and daughter, living in seclusion in an ancient, neglected house, I did guess the deep dark secret. But, having said that, I may have just had dumb luck; or perhaps others will not be distracted by this. The writing is excellent and the story is one of the best I've ever read, of any kind.

Howard Mumford Jones appears to have accomplished quite a lot during a long life. In 1965 he received the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book O Strange New World: American Culture-The Formative Years. He was Professor of English and Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University.

Howard Mumford Jones sources:
"Under a Wine-Glass," by Ellen N. La Motte. A story told in the tropics, the "Gulf of Siam," from a ship's captain to his passenger, of a "lonely man" with a great gift who, having temporarily lost his gift, searched for the right place to regain it.

"A Thing of Beauty," by Elias Lieberman (1883-1961), in which John Keats himself appears to remind us that we must not be saddened by life, only focus on beauty, and be happy.

"The Other Room," by Mary Heaton Vorse, tells of people who have come to terms with the inevitable. This is one of the stories that makes me feel that I am missing something that might be obvious if I understood an allusion -- but I can't tell you what that might have been!

"The Fat of the Land," by Anzia Yezierska, is a colorfully written rags-to-riches-to -disappointment story, with lots of great dialect and dialogue. I'm not sure it goes anywhere, but I enjoyed reading it. The Jewish Virtual Library has an entry for Yezierska. A Google search of her name will yield much information, such as this.

The editor considers this story to be the best in the collection. In his foreword he says it is "the finest imaginative contribution to the short story made by an American artist this year."

At the end of the collection is an appendix, "The Yearbook of the American Short Story, November 1918 to September 1919." O'Brien explains in detail in his foreword, and in the appendix, how and why he put it together. It is a good picture of how American short fiction looked in that time. What he would think of it today is a topic for amusing conjecture.

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