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VARIOUS TEXTS: THE CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN SHORT STORY

The United States has stood high in the short story form almost from the birth of the nation. It is doubtful if any other country has produced a more distinguished body of stories or so many artists writing the story. In the pre-modern period the great names include Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and perhaps Bierce. The modern period begins with Henry James and Stephen Crane and may be thought of as flowering in Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. It also flowered in the work of Willa Cather, Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Katherine Anne Porter, Caroline Gordon, Eudora Welty, John Steinbeck, and Robert Penn Warren. These and numerous others had made their names prior to World War II. Since World War II the volume of good short stories has if anything increased. This is not surprising. Strong, virile traditions do not collapse overnight. Although the stories possibly do not measure up to the work of Crane, Anderson, Hemingway, and Faulkner, they do speak with authority for the post-War period. They not only reveal diversity of technical achievement, but they also give us artistic insight into modern man's relationship to an increasingly industrialized society. In fact, so many writers have produced at least several superior stories that it will be possible in this article to consider only a sampling of their work.
In general, the successful writers of the post -War period can be thought of as following in the aesthetic footsteps of their predecessors, but an important minority have sought new forms of aesthetic expression or even rebelled. The period has been marked by a strong university and college influence. Many of our post-War authors have beer trained in creative writing classes taught by teachers who themselves are authors. The stories have often appeared in literary quarterlies supported by universities. Peter Taylor, to cite one example, studied with Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon at South-western at Memphis and with John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt and Kenyon. Since finishing college Mr. Taylor has partly supported himself by teaching creative writing in several colleges and universities.
The academic orientation has been both a strength and a weakness. The strength is that one expects technical competence, and one gets it. In fact, the very volume of good short stories in the post-War period is partly accounted for by the training of the writers. They not only have read their predecessors on their own but they have studied them in the classroom. The weakness is that the writer tends to get caught up in a kind of academic inbreeding. Everybody looks back to Chekhov, to James, to Joyce, and to the other masters. He learns that there is a way to do things and hesitates to find his own way. He is a follower, not a pioneer.
It is a healthy sign then that there has been a reaction against the carefully wrought story, an effort by some writers to break through the old forms. The loudest rebellion has been that of the Beat Generation writers. They have sought complete freedom from form and a completely free expression of language.
But good stories, whatever the theory or lack of theory behind them, have one bond in common: They produce an impact upon the reader. The reader comes frorn them feeling that he has discovered something significant about life. This is true of the carefully wrought story, and it is also true of the so-called "uncooked" story. Anton Chekhov, a pioneer in his own time, speaks well for the conservative position of today "When I write", says Chekhov, "I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story".
Chekhov's point about the story is that the artistic writer should present outward and inward events in the lives of his characters in such a subtle way that the reader makes discoveries about them and about the life they represent. The writer works objectively but with purpose. He leads the reader to a moment, even a shock, of revelation. The artistic reader in turn reads with the intent of achieving discovery or revelation, or, in the language of modern psychological theory, gestalt. In some stories the discovery is experienced by the protagonist, but it comes in such a way as to seern understated. The reader, in the end, pulls things together for himself.
Chekhov's point, which has the backing of Aristotle, of Flaubert, of Henry James, of Joyce, has been perhaps the most adhered to canon of writers of the modern short story. Technically, it has meant close but suggestive (often ironical) specification of physical detail, of physical action, of dialogue, of interior monologue. It has meant the effacing of the author, and eliminating any comment by him upon the story. However, there have always been writers, sometimes ignorant of theory, sometimes indifferent to it, who have stated or explained their themes-Theodore Dreiser, for example. And even when the reader is told what he is to discover, he may be so carried away by the story and the characters, so interested in the theme, so convinced of the author's authority, as to receive a strong impact. By the same token, the reader may come away from a consciously artistic story with such a pinprick of recognition as to feel cheated. This undoubtedly is the reaction of the Beat Generation writers to the stories of the more conservative authors.
Jack Kerouac, foremost among the Beat Generation fiction writers, speaks for the Beat position in the following passage: "Not 'selectivity' of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in a sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of exhalation and expostulated statement, like a fist coming down on a table, bang! (the space dash)."
In the stories of the Beat Generation one gets an almost hysterical emphasis upon emotional impact. The characters developed by the conservative writers usually are people who express little emotion or if they express emotion they seem to do so patho- logically - the emotion of an alcoholic, for example. This is one of the big problems of our age, to express emotion in an adequate, normal way. The Beat writer in a way reflects an effort to solve the problem. He puts so much emphasis on the emotion of his characters that abnormal emotion, even raw sensation, becomes normal to him. He champions the very exaggerations that the conservative writer presents only as symptoms. Moreover the freedom from restraint also carries over into his language.
lt is not always easy to draw a sharp line between those writing in the Chekhovian tradition and those taking a different approach. John O'Hara, John Cheever, Irwin Shaw, J. F. Powers, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Peter Taylor, Flannery O'Connor, and Mary McCarthy show at least some characteristics of the Chekhovian story. Carson McCullers and Truman Capote push toward more personal expression and toward less rigorous attention to form. J. D. Salinger is an extreme individualist and does not hold himself to anyone approach. Jack Kerouac and R.V.Cassill represent the Beat Generation.
1185 words

From: The American Short Story by Danforth Ross, 1964




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