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Short Story Masterpieces (1954)

by Robert Penn Warren (Editor), Albert Erskine (Editor)

Other authors: Conrad Aiken (Contributor), Nelson Algren (Contributor), Sherwood Anderson (Contributor), John Cheever (Contributor), John Collier (Contributor)31 more, Joseph Conrad (Contributor), A.E. Coppard (Contributor), Stephen Crane (Contributor), H.L. Davis (Contributor), William Faulkner (Contributor), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Contributor), Ernest Hemingway (Contributor), Henry James (Contributor), James Joyce (Contributor), Ring Lardner (Contributor), D.H. Lawrence (Contributor), Sinclair Lewis (Contributor), Katherine Mansfield (Contributor), W. Somerset Maugham (Contributor), Mary McCarthy (Contributor), Carson McCullers (Contributor), Frank O'Connor (Contributor), Sean O'Faolain (Contributor), Elizabeth Parsons (Contributor), Katherine Anne Porter (Contributor), J. F. Powers (Contributor), Saki (Contributor), J. D. Salinger (Contributor), Irwin Shaw (Contributor), Jean Stafford (Contributor), John Steinbeck (Contributor), Elizabeth Taylor (Contributor), Peter Taylor (Contributor), James Thurber (Contributor), Eudora Welty (Contributor), William Carlos Williams (Contributor)

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542432,674 (3.81)19
Since its first printing in 1954, this outstanding anthology has been the book of choice by teachers, students, and lovers of short fiction. Surveying stories by British and American writers in the first half of the twentieth century, editors Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine selected stories that broke new ground and challenged the imagination with their style, subject matter, or tone: the unforgettable, enduring works that shaped the literature of our time. A truly exceptional collection of great stories, including: The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky by Stephen Crane The Horse Dealer's Daughter by D. H. Lawrence Barn Burning by William Faulkner The Sojourner by Carson McCullers The Open Window by Saki Flowering Judas by Katherine Anne Porter The Boarding House by James Joyce Soldier's Home by Ernest Hemingway The Tree of Knowledge by Henry James Why I Live at the P.O. by Eudora Welty . . . and twenty-five more of the century's best stories!… (more)



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Short Story Masterpieces

Edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Laurel, Paperback, undated.

12mo. xiii+513 pp. Editors' Note [xi-xiii].

First published, 1954.


Editors' Note

Conrad Aiken, Impulse
Nelson Algren, A Bottle of Milk for Mother
Sherwood Anderson, The Egg
John Cheever, Torch Song
John Collier, Witch's Money
Joseph Conrad, An Outpost of Progress
A. E. Coppard, The Third Prize
Stephen Crane, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky
H. L. Davis, Open Winter
William Faulkner, Barn Burning
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winter Dreams
Ernest Hemingway, Soldier's Home
Henry James, The Tree of Knowledge
James Joyce, The Boarding House
Ring Lardner, Liberty Hall
D. H. Lawrence, The Horse Dealer's Daughter
Sinclair Lewis, Virga Vay & Allan Cedar
Katherine Mansfield, Marriage a la Mode
W. Somerset Maugham, The Outstation
Mary McCarthy, "Cruel and Barbarous Treatment"
Carson McCullers, The Sojourner
Saki (H. H. Munro), The Open Window
Frank O'Connor, My Oedipus Complex
Seán O'Faoláin, Innocence
Elizabeth Parsons, The Nightingales Sing
Katherine Anne Porter, Flowering Judas
J. F. Powers, The Valiant Woman
Irwin Shaw, The Eighty-Yard Run
Jean Stafford, A Country Love Story
John Steinbeck, Flight
Elizabeth Taylor, A Red-letter Day
Peter Taylor, A Spinster's Tale
James Thurber, You Could Look It Up
Eudora Welty, Why I Live at the P.O.
William Carlos Williams, The Use of Force


As anthologies go, this one is quite a mixed bag. The only way this type of book to please you completely is to compile it yourself. Leave the job to somebody else, no matter how eminent or experienced, and you’ll end up with a very mixed bag indeed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine boast rather impressive credentials, but, all the same, their selection is, on the whole, disappointing.

A great deal of my disappointment is, of course, my own fault. I have never been able to see the merit of many famous authors.

What many readers perceive as “beautiful” in the style of Scott Fitzgerald seems to me affected, pretentious, graceless and all too self-conscious striving for originality. I have little patience with phrases like “exquisite excitability” and “drenched with the splendor of the damp moonlight”. A sentence like “The fragile glow of her face seemed to blossom as she smiled at him.” makes me cringe. The best thing I can say about Scott Fitzgerald is that he has a gift for creating vacuous rich people, especially women. A staggering achievement, no doubt, but not exactly the type of character I would care to read about. “Winter Dreams” is a promising tale about obsessive and masochistic attraction, yet it never fulfils its promise. It has its moments, brief though they are, but it also has that type of writing that makes it hard, for me, to believe in the characters.

D. H. Lawrence lives up to his naughty notoriety in “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter”, a tale of unlikely yet oddly moving romance. But the writing is fabulously uneven. When Lawrence makes up his mind that one character is foolish, he makes him speak with “foolish flippancy” in a “foolish voice” and move with “foolish restlessness”. In my book, this type of writing is called lazy and crude. On the other hand, there are passages of rare power and insight. For example:

She had kept house for ten years. But previously, it was with unstinted means. Then, however brutal and coarse everything was, the sense of money had kept her proud, confident. The men might be foul-mouthed, the women in the kitchen might have bad reputations, her brothers might have illegitimate children. But so long as there was money, the girl felt herself established, and brutally proud, reserved.

Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” obviously raises serious issues. I only wish the author had developed them at least a bit. As it is, he merely stated them briefly and left them hanging in the air. It may be that William Faulkner, as I sometimes hear, is the greatest American writer and Light in August the greatest American novel. All the same, “Barn Burning” is a silly little tale about a pyromaniac father and his confused son; indifferently written, too. Joyce’s “The Boarding House” is a mildly amusing trifle about a formidable mother and a flighty daughter – and an unfortunate young man in between. “The Tree of Knowledge” is surprisingly readable for Henry James, but the mediocrity of an artist, though not quite as trivial as the salon culture in “Brooksmith”, is still not worthy of so much elaboration. The great subtlety and the even greater verbosity of Mr James kill the depth and drama of his stories.

All these stories show some real promise but little actual accomplishment: this is the saddest thing about them. Other stories fare better. They attempt less and achieve more. In this category, I am inclined to put H. L. Davis, Conrad Aiken, Carson McCullers, Mary McCarthy, Saki, Sinclair Lewis, Irwin Shaw, Ring Lardner and, surprisingly, Katherine Mansfield. Their stories leave a trace and would bear a re-reading. They certainly deserve a few words.

“Marriage a la Mode” is the least substantial piece in the group, yet surprisingly substantial for Katherine Mansfield. She has captured the proverbial marriage on the rocks with palpable vividness. “Cruel and barbarous treatment” deals with pretty much the same subject, but at greater length and in much greater depth. It is one of the strangest stories in the volume, written virtually without dialogue but with insightful lucidity, and it raises profound philosophical issues such as acting in “real” life. “Virga Vay & Allan Cedar” is a wickedly funny tale about an extramarital romance, rather touching under the farcical surface. “The Open Window”, just a few pages long as Saki likes it, is a charming portrait of a “very self-possessed young lady of fifteen” whose specialty is “romance at short notice”. As regards Irwin Shaw, don’t be afraid if American football is not your Super Bowl of fiction. “The Eighty-Yard Run” is a human story about a football star in college, with the lovely name Christian Darling, whose life is a constant downhill for the next fifteen years. It contains some of the most incisive writing in the whole volume:

He looked at her face, lovelier now at thirty-five than it had ever been before, but fogged over now as it had been for five years with a kind of patient, kindly, remote boredom.

Ring Lardner again surprised me, as in the case of “Old Folks’ Christmas”, with a finely written story. “Liberty Hall” is a devastating satire of that type of human leech which kills you with kindness. “The Sojourner”, much unlike “The Jockey”, is a poignant sketch of one foreign correspondent and his rootless, restless and pointless life. Conrad Aiken’s “Impulse” investigates the disastrous consequences of yielding to our impulses; not a very good story, but still thought-provoking. “Open Winter” is rather tritely written but oddly moving coming-of-age tale set in something like the Wild West. H. L. Davis extracts a surprising amount of tension and wisdom from two men, “one past sixty and the other around sixteen”, herding horses against all the odds.

Among the total disappointments, I count the contributions of Anderson, Algren, Collier, Crane, Coppard, Cheever, Porter and Welty. I am often left at sea what these writers tried to say – if anything.

“The Egg”, so far as I can tell, is a completely pointless tale about a wacky family. Its symbolical and allegorical significance is quite beyond me. “A Bottle of Milk for Mother” tries, and fails, to generate interest into teenage criminals and their scuffles with the police mostly under the form of hardly coherent dialogue. “Witch’s Money” is a mildly amusing but mightily tedious financial parable. This was my second reading of “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”: I still cannot comprehend what sense it makes, if any. “Third Prize” is a boring piece with boring characters boringly trying to touch on something deeper. “Torch Song” is a badly written portrait of an unbelievable altruist only to bring a shocking twist in the end. “Flowering Judas” is a great title that hides tediously written glimpse into the Mexican Revolution. As for Eudora Welty, the best I can say about her is that she tries hard to be funny. “Why I Live at the P.O.” is another promising title that delivers only an atrociously written tale of two bickering sisters. Boredom doesn’t get any more exalted than that!

Then there are the indifferent stories, those you find pleasant to read – only to forget them as soon as you finish them. Frank O’Connor’s “My Oedipus Complex” is far less interesting than its title may suggest. Like his other story I have read, “The Man of the House”, it has some keen insights into the child’s mind, but that’s all. “Innocence” begins promisingly as an indictment on this curious Catholic invention, the Confession, but it soon withers away, its promise wasted like a lovely sunset on a blind man. “A Valliant Woman” progresses from a dull beginning to something like human interest, but then just ends. “A Country Love Story” could have been a penetrating study of dying love in the country, but Jean Stafford was too smitten with her verbosity and too sentimental to write it properly. “The Use of Force” is an ingenious example of justified child abuse, but I’m glad it’s short. “The Nightingales Sing” shows some atmospheric if flowery writing conferred on plotless exercise with dull characters. Few moments in the old horse farm are vividly captured indeed, but is this enough? No wonder Elizabeth Parsons is a name of monumental obscurity.

Only two among these 35 stories from the first half of the last century would I describe as unqualified masterpieces. It’s fortunate to have them in a single volume. They show how a broadly similar subject can be treated in completely different, but equally valid, ways by writers who have nothing in common.

The inclusion of Maugham’s “The Outstation” and Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress” in the same volume is a stroke of genius. Arthur Clarke’s “Breaking Strain” would have made a perfect trio, but I guess science fiction was quite beyond the reading experience of the editors. All these stories deal with intense conflicts between colleagues under unusual circumstances. Yet no three pieces of short fiction could have been more different, and I don’t mean the superficial difference of the settings. I mean the meat. Conrad shows the disastrous effect of tropical climate and months of isolation on a friendship, while Maugham generates tension from the beginning based on profound difference in the personalities (as does Clarke). Conrad’s resolution is tragic and his sense of irony goes no further than the title. Maugham avoids the tragedy by superior characterisation and cynical twist in the end. Clarke, in yet another variation, turns the impending tragedy into a serious comedy.

If Maugham and Conrad are represented by their best work, Steinbeck certainly is not. He has written a lot better stories than “The Flight”. The editors could have chosen, conventionally, “The Gift”, or, if they insist on being unconventional, “The Vigilante”, “The Murder” or even “Saint Katy the Virgin”. This is an occupational hazard with reading anthologies. If you’re not reasonably familiar with a writer’s output, you can never be sure you’re getting the best of him or her.

All in all, this is yet another anthology which I am happy to take with me while travelling, but would like to keep on my shelves only for a handful of fine stories I don’t have elsewhere. The short story anthology especially for me remains to be found – or compiled. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Sep 20, 2016 |
I guess just looking at the names of the authors on the cover I thought this would be one stunning short story collection. I can’t really say that is was, but it was good. None of the stories were terrible, a couple were kind of weak, but most were solidly good, and a couple were great. Almost all of them would be in the 3-4 star range for me. ( )
  bongo_x | Apr 6, 2013 |
In 1975 I left home for the first time with a new mechanical engineering degree and moved to a small town in Alabama to work at a nuclear plant that was then under construction. Moving from the big city to a small southern town was a huge culture shock, and I was very lonely. There was a small bookstore on the town square where I went one day and bought this book. The first story I read was Carson McCullers' "The Sojourner." I was already depressed and lonely, and this story shattered me. I put the book away, and in nine months had quit my job and moved back home. It has taken me 36 years to finally finish reading this book. It was worth the wait. These are by-and-large brilliant examples of the form by some of the preeminent writers of the first half of the 20th century. Every story has a quality that recommends it, but I find myself most often telling people about "The Open Window" by H.H. Munro. I think though that F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Winter Dreams" has the most delicious writing. Here is my favorite quote. "He knew the sort of men they were-the men who when he first went to college had entered from the great prep schools with graceful clothes and the deep tan of healthy summers. He had seen that, in one sense, he was better than these men. He was newer and stronger. Yet in acknowledging in himself that he wished his children to be like them he was admitting that he was but the rough, strong stuff from which they eternally sprang." Gives you goosebumps, huh?-David ( )
1 vote Superdave08 | Aug 9, 2012 |
The title does not lie. An excellent collection of short stories. ( )
  Borg-mx5 | Apr 15, 2010 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Warren, Robert PennEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Erskine, AlbertEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Aiken, ConradContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Algren, NelsonContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Anderson, SherwoodContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cheever, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Collier, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Conrad, JosephContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Coppard, A.E.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Crane, StephenContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Davis, H.L.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Faulkner, WilliamContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fitzgerald, F. ScottContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hemingway, ErnestContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
James, HenryContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Joyce, JamesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lardner, RingContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lawrence, D.H.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lewis, SinclairContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mansfield, KatherineContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Maugham, W. SomersetContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
McCarthy, MaryContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
McCullers, CarsonContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
O'Connor, FrankContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
O'Faolain, SeanContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Parsons, ElizabethContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Porter, Katherine AnneContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Powers, J. F.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
SakiContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Salinger, J. D.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Shaw, IrwinContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Stafford, JeanContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Steinbeck, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Taylor, ElizabethContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Taylor, PeterContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Thurber, JamesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Welty, EudoraContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Williams, William CarlosContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed

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Since its first printing in 1954, this outstanding anthology has been the book of choice by teachers, students, and lovers of short fiction. Surveying stories by British and American writers in the first half of the twentieth century, editors Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine selected stories that broke new ground and challenged the imagination with their style, subject matter, or tone: the unforgettable, enduring works that shaped the literature of our time. A truly exceptional collection of great stories, including: The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky by Stephen Crane The Horse Dealer's Daughter by D. H. Lawrence Barn Burning by William Faulkner The Sojourner by Carson McCullers The Open Window by Saki Flowering Judas by Katherine Anne Porter The Boarding House by James Joyce Soldier's Home by Ernest Hemingway The Tree of Knowledge by Henry James Why I Live at the P.O. by Eudora Welty . . . and twenty-five more of the century's best stories!

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