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Fifty Great American Short Stories by Milton…
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Fifty Great American Short Stories

by Milton Crane (Editor)

Other authors: George Ade (Contributor), James Agee (Contributor), Conrad Aiken (Contributor), Sherwood Anderson (Contributor), Ludwig Bemelmans (Contributor)45 more, Stephen Vincent Benet (Contributor), Ambrose Bierce (Contributor), Kay Boyle (Contributor), Erskine Caldwell (Contributor), John Cheever (Contributor), Robert M. Coates (Contributor), John Collier (Contributor), Stephen Crane (Contributor), Clarence Day (Contributor), Theodore Dreiser (Contributor), Finley Peter Dunne (Contributor), William Faulkner (Contributor), Charles M. Flandrau (Contributor), Seymour Freedgood (Contributor), Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman (Contributor), Bret Harte (Contributor), Nathaniel Hawthorne (Contributor), Ernest Hemingway (Contributor), O. Henry (Contributor), Washington Irving (Contributor), Henry James (Contributor), Sarah Orne Jewett (Contributor), Oliver La Farge (Contributor), Ring W. Lardner (Contributor), Jack London (Contributor), William Maxwell (Contributor), Carson McCullers (Contributor), John McNulty (Contributor), Herman Melville (Contributor), Joseph Mitchell (Contributor), Fitz-James O'Brien (Contributor), Dorothy Parker (Contributor), James Reid Parker (Contributor), Edgar Allen Poe (Contributor), Richard P. Russell (Contributor), William Saroyan (Contributor), Irwin Shaw (Contributor), Wallace Stegner (Contributor), John Steinbeck (Contributor), James Thurber (Contributor), Mark Twain (Contributor), John Updike (Contributor), Edith Wharton (Contributor), E. B. White (Contributor), William Carlos Williams (Contributor)

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Fifty Great American Short Stories

Edited and with an Introduction by Milton Crane

Bantam Classic, Paperback [2008].

12mo. xi+654 pp. Introduction by Milton Crane [v-vii].

Bantam Classic mass market edition, March 1965.
Bantam Literature edition, April 1972.
Bantam Classic reissue, June 2008.
46th printing per number line.

Contents*

Introduction

The Adventure of the German Student, Washington Irving [1824]
Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne [1835]
MS. Found in a Bottle, Edgar Allan Poe [1833]
The Fiddler, Herman Melville [1854]
What Was It?, Fitz-James O’Brien [1859]
Luck, Mark Twain [1891]
The Outcasts of Poker Flat, Francis Bret Harte [1869]
The Damned Thing, Ambrose Bierce [1893]
The Two Faces, Henry James [1900]
A New England Nun, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman [1891]
The Courting of Sister Wisby, Sarah Orne Jewett [1890]
The Dilettante, Edith Wharton [1904]
Masters of Arts, O. Henry [1896]
Effie Whittlesy, George Ade [1903]
Mr Dooley on the Popularity of Firemen, Finley Peter Dunne [1898]
The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, Stephen Crane [1898]
A Dead Issue, Charles M. Flandrau [???]
The Lost Phoebe, Theodore Dreiser [1916]
Father is Firm with His Ailments, Clarence Day [1933]
Death in the Woods, Sherwood Anderson [1926]
To Build a Fire, Jack London [1908]
The Use of Force, William Carlos Williams [1938]
Old Folks’ Christmas, Ring Lardner [1928]
Silent Snow, Secret Snow, Conrad Aiken [1934]
By the Waters of Babylon, Stephen Vincent Benét [1937]
Soldiers of the Republic, Dorothy Parker [1938]
Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife, James Thurber [1934]
Cluney McFarrar Hardtack, John McNulty [1943]
The Darkness of the Night, Robert M. Coates [1942]
The Old People, William Faulkner [1940]
Grapes for Monsieur Cape, Ludwig Bemelmans [1938]
A Man of the World, Ernest Hemingway [1957]
The Hour of Letdown, E. B. White [1951]
The Resting Place, Oliver La Farge [1955]
The Touch of Nutmeg Makes It, John Collier [1941]
The Harness, John Steinbeck [1938]
Friend of the Family, Kay Boyle [1946]
The Rumor, Erskine Caldwell [1946]
There was a Young Lady of Perth, William Saroyan [1961]
The Downfall of Fascism in Black Ankle County, Joseph Mitchell [1939]
The French Scarecrow, William Maxwell [1956]
The Blue-Winged Teal, Wallace Stegner [1954]
The Archimandrite’s Niece, James Reid Parker [1941]
A Mother’s Tale, James Agee [1952]
The National Pastime, John Cheever [1953]
The Girls in Their Summer Dresses, Irwin Shaw [1939]
The Death of Shorty, Richard P. Bissell [1950]
Grandma and the Hindu Monk, Seymour Freedgood [1951]
Madam Zilensky and the King of Finland, Carson McCullers [1951]
The Lucid Eye in Silver Town, John Updike [1964]

Copyright Notices and Acknowledgments
Selected Bibliography

*Year of first publication, taken from “Copyright Notices and Acknowledgments”, occasionally supplemented or corrected from the Web.

=====================================

My previous encounter with Milton Crane was not auspicious. I found his selection of 50 Great Short Stories (1952) puzzling rather than entertaining. Nevertheless, I decided to give him a second chance. Maybe he did a better job when confined only to American short fiction. Maybe in the 13 years between he became wiser and got rid of his academic prejudices. So I naively thought. But when I finished the second paragraph of Mr Crane’s introduction, my blood froze. Struggling to define the genre, the editor reflects:

It is not easy to obtain general agreement on the antiquity of the short story, or even on its precise definition. These two problems obviously are linked. If we were to adopt, for example, an abbreviation of Abel Chevalley’s definition of the novel (cited by E. M. Forster in his perennially fresh and lively Aspects of the Novel): “a fiction in prose of a certain extent (une fiction en prose d’une certaine étendue),” then we might be permitted to claim as a short story that most powerful and memorable of all short narratives, the story of King David, Bath-sheba, and the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 11-12). The same is true of the celebrated Milesian tale that has come down to us as “The Widow of Ephesus”. But, on the other hand, there are critics who maintain vigorously that these two stories are tales, however excellent, and not short stories in the modern sense. This term they reserve for short fiction dealing principally with the evocation of mood and the revelation of character, as practiced by Chekhov, Joyce, and their followers. By this standard, the tale, as written by Kipling, Guy de Maupassant, or Somerset Maugham, is a special literary genre, which employs basically primitive narrative techniques to achieve limited aesthetic effects.

Very much to his credit, Mr Crane has the audacity not to accept this ludicrous literary snobbishness. He continues:

It is not the business of this book to try to render or apply a definitive judgment in this continuing controversy. The short story seems to me to be sufficiently flexible and eclectic to accommodate both Kipling’s tales and Chekhov’s vignettes – and, for that matter, Virginia Woolf’s impressionistic sketches and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fables.

For the record, I should like to make clear that for me “tale”, “fable”, “vignette”, “impression” and even “sketch” all fall under the term “short story”. The word “story” does, of course, imply a narrative of incidents, and this is indeed what even the most extravagant and plotless examples of modernism usually contain, however insubstantial and aimless it might be. The only significant difference between “modernist” short fiction and the “old school” is that in the first case you’re given the material but have to make the story yourself. That is all. Both ways have great advantages and grave defects. To claim that one is superior to the other is absurd.

To get back to Mr Crane, he has indeed improved with time. The range is vast, from horror tales set amidst The Reign of Terror (Irving) to amusing trifles with poignant overtones (Twain, Melville), and the quality is, on the whole, remarkably high. There is inevitably some junk (Harte, Dunne, James), but there are some masterpieces too (London, Steinbeck, Shaw). Most of the stories fall somewhere between these extremes, occasionally closer to the junk container (Flandrau, Crane, Bierce), but more often closer to the preservation shelf (Hawthorne, Lardner, Dreiser, Ade, Anderson).

Let’s start with a few grave and not so grave disappointments, shall we? Some of them were by old acquaintances.

I again found Poe and his verbose rhetoric (“I could not help feeling the utter hopelessness of hope itself”, “the swelling of the black stupendous seas became more dismally appalling”, etc., etc.) strangely ineffective. I can see what he is trying to do from a mile away, so when it comes it just doesn’t work. “MS. Found in a Bottle” is supposed to be one of his most famous tales, but I found it a tedious and unrewarding read. As an exercise in suspenseful horror, it is a dud. Nat Hawthorne has done a far better job in this department.

I was again stupefied by Henry James. So much effort wasted on such triviality! So many words to say so little! I can hardly agree more with Somerset Maugham, harsh as his words may sound. I can only repeat those words I have quoted so often:

Henry James had discernment, a generous heart and artistic integrity; but he applied his gifts to matters of no great import. He was like a man who would provide himself with all the impedimenta necessary to ascend Mount Everest in order to climb Primrose Hill.[1]

Poor Henry, he’s spending eternity wandering round and round a stately park and the fence is just too high for him to peep over and they’re having tea just too far away for him to hear what the countess is saying.[2]

Edith Wharton requires extra attention. Her prose is the epitome of elaborate obscurity. I can see why she is often compared to Henry James, the great difference being that she is surprisingly readable, if not exactly a light read. Then there is the society she describes with such meticulous care. It is unimaginably different than the present. Conversation is an art form of tremendous sophistication. The greatest sin is to be “crude” in speech; you must practice evasion, allusion, obliqueness, anything that covers your real feelings. It all sounds very boring, but in fact it isn’t. Miss Wharton works slowly but inexorably towards a climax when “the veils of reticence and ambiguity” vanish. The problem with this story, “The Dilettante”, is the overdose of subtlety. Like every other virtue, this one is corrupted by overuse. I read the story twice and carefully. I’m still not quite sure what happened…

The classical status of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” is something I don’t understand. The plot is unbelievable to the point of idiocy, the writing is the epitome of pretentious formality, and the characters are nothing more than ridiculous caricatures. Whatever effect Mr Harte may have sought, humorous or dramatic or tragic, for my part he didn’t achieve it. Stephen Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”, another piece set in the greatest American invention of all time, the Wild West, doesn’t fare much better. It’s a tedious and pointless story, adorned with a grand anti-climax in the end.

Unless you have graduated from Harvard, or at least one of the less exalted American universities, you may well find the story by Mr Flandrau quite boring. I certainly did. There are some touching nuances about lost youth and personal isolation, but on the whole this drawn-out tale reminds me why I have never found restrictive fiction very appealing: if it isn’t right up your alley, it’s unreadable. In his introduction, Mr Crane calls this story “an extraordinary portrait of a world-famous philosopher as a young man” – a perplexing description, to say the least. Who that philosopher might be and what so extraordinary there is about his portrait I have yet to discover. As far as I’m concerned, the story remains “A Dead Issue” indeed!

Incidentally, Mr Flandrau’s story is supposed to be one of the “little-known masterpieces” (according to the blurb on the back cover) that “have rarely, if ever, been reprinted since they were first published” (in Mr Crane’s words). The group also includes the contributions by Wharton, Finne and Parker. None of these pieces did I find worthy of resurrection. In fact, “Mr Dooley on the Popularity of Firemen” is the unquestionable winner of The Greatest Trash award. It’s one of those “stories” written in some vague approximation of English (“dhrivin’”, “ivry”, “shtruck”, “dlyrious”, etc.) in vain search of local colour. Now, fortunately for the reader, this is the shortest piece in the book: mere three pages. But they feel like thirty! Mr Crane must have smoked something really strong when he decided to include this drivel.

I understand O. Henry is notorious for his surprise endings out of the blue. “Masters of Arts” lives up to his notoriety. The twist in the end is not just contrived. It contradicts the rest of the story with mathematical precision. This is a pity because otherwise this is an amusing and lively piece, ingeniously constructed and not at all without some depth. But the ending ruins everything. Variations of the same problem are stories that start promisingly but fail to fulfil their promise. “The Damned Thing” by Ambroice Bierce is the perfect example. The beginning is dark, intense, gripping. But then the story starts losing momentum, finally ending with some preposterous excerpts from a diary.

So much for the disappointments. Now a few words about the highlights. Not all of them are of the same quality, of course, but they all have something rather special to offer.

I’m not going to pretend that plotless stories which attempt “revelation of character” are my cup of tea. There are exceptions, though. Irwin Shaw’s “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” may be my favourite in this category. Don’t be put off by the pedestrian title. The story offers keen insight into the most common male obsession and its disastrous effect on human relationships. The economy is marvellous. Just a few pages of dialogue, nothing special at first glance, but they pack quite a punch and it’s frightful to contemplate the future of this couple. “Effie Whittlesy” by George Ade is a similar example of a short, dialogue-based, exquisitely written piece that conceals disturbing depth under its light-hearted surface. Only the main target here is class distinctions. Ernest Hemingway tries hard to break his own record of atrocious writing, but “A Man of the World” is nevertheless an affecting story about a blind beggar who hasn’t lost his sense of humour.

It’s fascinating to compare “The Lost Phoebe” and “The Harness” because both deal with husbands who try to cope with the death of their wives. The writing styles are vastly different and so are the final results. Dreiser’s prose is stilted and over-descriptive, while his story, though moving, borders on the sentimental. Steinbeck’s crisp and concise writing is coupled with a much darker story of marital tensions and repressions; the ending is positively heartrending. I like both stories, but there is no question which I like more. “The Lost Phoebe” is a good piece. “The Harness” is a masterpiece.

This was my first my reading of “To Build a Fire”, Jack London’s most famous short story. It is chilling in every sense of the sense of the word. While reading, I regularly looked if I didn’t have numb fingers or frozen feet. This is evocative storytelling at its absolute best. I can see why some readers find the story boring, but I’m not one of them. On the contrary, it is a brilliantly suspenseful tale. The plot is slight but complete, the pace is slow but not a single word is wasted. Read it!

I do believe I’m in danger of becoming a Hawthorne fan. “Young Goodman Brown” is certainly among the best stories in the volume. Set in Puritan Salem, it gives Nat Hawthorne ample opportunity to expose puritanical hypocrisy. This is his favourite activity. But this time he goes further. He delves deeper and deeper into “the instinct that guides mortal man to evil” until he finally reveals the essential depravity of human nature. It’s all done in his typically allegorical and suggestive way, but the overall effect, at least for me, is extremely powerful. As in The Scarlet Letter, I was surprised by the relatively high amount of serpentine imagery. Then again, serpents have a rich history of symbolising temptation, sin, wickedness and other things Nat Hawthorne was somewhat preoccupied with.

Ring Lardner greatly surprised me. The two stories by him I had read before, “The Golden Honeymoon” and “Haircut”, were horrendously bad. This one is not. “Old Folks’ Christmas” is a deftly executed, humorous yet thought-provoking portrait of a dysfunctional family. The dialogue is flawless, revealing the characters and driving the plot without the abominable slang that so put me off in Lardner’s other stories. There is even a twist in the end that puts a new complexion on the whole story. A minor masterpiece.

By way of conclusion, The Best Ending Award goes to Washington Irving:

“And is this really fact?” said the inquisitive gentleman.
“A fact not to be doubted,” replied the other. “I had it from the best authority. The student told it me himself. I saw him in a mad-house in Paris.”


__________________________________________________​

[1] Introduction to Tellers of Tales (1939).
[2] Cakes and Ale (1930), Chapter XI. These are not words of Maugham but of his character, Edward Driffield. Nevertheless, it is a fairly sure guess, based on his nonfiction writings, that Maugham spoke his own mind here. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Oct 23, 2014 |
Fifty American short stories—indeed, that's what's here. I read this quite a while back, and honestly, there is only one story amongst such great authors as Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Bierce, James, O. Henry, Dreiser, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and 38 others (why is Updike here?), that really stands out in my mind, and which I quite often honor in remembrance.

That story is Fitz-James O'Brien's "What Was It?". The story revolves around two men, which are of the several tenants in the old large and stately residence of Twenty-sixth Street New York. The old house, due to its history and the strange goings-on there, is widely considered haunted by the community.

Harry and Dr. Hammond both smoke opium (in large Meerschaum tobacco pipes—a small ball of opium within a bowl of Turkish tobacco) and digress on such things as opium-induced Arabian fairyland, Shakespeares "The Tempest", and so forth and so on. Eventually the two dragon-chasing friends come one evening to an "unusually metaphysical mood", conversant upon such supernatural literature such as "the calling of the voices in Brockden Brown's novel of 'Wieland'", "the picture of the Dweller of the Threshold, in Bulwer's 'Zanoni'", and a fellow named, apparently synonymous with the macabre, "Hoffman".

The two friends, deciding that "opium and nightmares should never be brought together" each go to their beds. Harry, in the habit of reading before bed, picks up a volume only to find that it is Goudon's 'History of Monsters', "a curious French work". In his current state of mind, reached through the discussion of occult topics and opium, he throws the book down.

I won't ruin the rest of the story! It is one of my all-time favorite shorts. There is a lot more great weirdly stuff in this collection. Also, that which remains strong in my memory is Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing". ( )
  endersreads | Feb 18, 2010 |
Don't miss "A Mother's Tale" by James Agee.
  LadyintheLibrary | Sep 26, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Crane, MiltonEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ade, GeorgeContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Agee, JamesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Aiken, ConradContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Anderson, SherwoodContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bemelmans, LudwigContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Benet, Stephen VincentContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bierce, AmbroseContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Boyle, KayContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Caldwell, ErskineContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cheever, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Coates, Robert M.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Collier, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Crane, StephenContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Day, ClarenceContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dreiser, TheodoreContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dunne, Finley PeterContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Faulkner, WilliamContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Flandrau, Charles M.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Freedgood, SeymourContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Freeman, Mary Eleanor WilkinsContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Harte, BretContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hawthorne, NathanielContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hemingway, ErnestContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Henry, O.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Irving, WashingtonContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
James, HenryContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Jewett, Sarah OrneContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
La Farge, OliverContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lardner, Ring W.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
London, JackContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Maxwell, WilliamContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
McCullers, CarsonContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
McNulty, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Melville, HermanContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mitchell, JosephContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
O'Brien, Fitz-JamesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Parker, DorothyContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Parker, James ReidContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Poe, Edgar AllenContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Russell, Richard P.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Saroyan, WilliamContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Shaw, IrwinContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Stegner, WallaceContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Steinbeck, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Thurber, JamesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Twain, MarkContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Updike, JohnContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wharton, EdithContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
White, E. B.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Williams, William CarlosContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553272942, Mass Market Paperback)

A brilliant, far-reaching collection of stories from Washington Irving to John Updike.

The Classic Stories
Edgar Allan Poe’s Ms. Found in a Bottle, Bret Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat, Sherwood Anderson’s Death in the Woods, Stephen Vincent Benét’s By the Waters of Babylon

The Great Writers
Melville, James, Dreiser, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, McCullers

The Little-Known Masterpieces
Edith Wharton’s The Dilettante, Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley on the Popularity of Fireman, Charles M. Flandrau’s A Dead Issue, James Reid Parker’s The Archimandrite's Niece

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:13 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A brilliant far-reaching anthology of short stories from Washington Irving to the present. Included are Poe's "Ms Found In A Bottle," Harte's "The Outcasts Of Poker Flat," Anderson's "Death In The Woods," and many more.

» see all 2 descriptions

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