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The American Short Story

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

Short Story Hits, 1932. An Interpretative Anthology. By Thomas H. Uzzcll. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. The Best Short Stories, 1933. And the Yearbook of the American Short Story. By Edward J. O’Brien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.50.

To the twentieth century, annual collections of short stories are as familiar as “Keepsakes” or “Tokens” were to the nineteenth. At first sight of still another year-book of the American short story, Thomas H. Uzzell’s “Short Story Hits, 1932,” readers generally might echo the question posed by the book’s editor in his introduction—why a new entry into a field already crowded? Examination of this first volume of a projected series, however, answers the question and answers it favorably. Under the handicap of an unattractive title and of a table of contents divided by headings for which the only excuse is that they are borrowed ones, Mr. Uzzell has, none the less, compiled a volume original in plan and distinctly interesting.

The table of contents presents its titles in three groups, divided according to classification of the magazine from which the story is taken, All-Fiction, Big Circulation, and Literary—a classification, it need hardly be said, which results in strange separations and still stranger companionships. When “all-fiction” fails to include Story, when The Atlantic Monthly and Contempo are lumped together as “literary,” it is evident that the editor has spent no large amount of time in considering the nominal suitability of the framework he is to use.

Inside the frame, however, the stories chosen prove to be both individually interesting and collectively enlightening. Consecutive reading of them emphasizes first the expected— that “all-fiction” stories lean heavily on external action; that “big circulation” stories are awash with emotions widely experienced and easily sympathized with, love of girl and man the predominant one; that “literary” stories concern themselves less with the give-and-take of human relations than with the unraveling of an individual mind. But since few people read habitually from more than one group of magazines, there is interest in store for nearly any reader in discovering at first hand the effect produced by a series of stories of one kind placed in immediate contrast with the stories of another. Perhaps a chief effect is that of impressing upon the reader’s mind the wholly different reasons for telling which seem to move the different authors. The “all-fiction” story has for its base the unchanging foundation of tale-telling through the centuries — the celebration of struggle against tangible difficulties for the sake of life or home or freedom or job. Stories of this group are of the kind which have always been told and which, printed or not, will continue to be told; they are not tied to any special habitation in time or space. The second group, on the other hand, are as clearly answers to the special audience demands of twentieth-century America, stories fundamentally sentimental, lightly surfaced with cynicism, busy with the adventures of prosperous, middle-class people, fixed in a circle of luxurious living. Stories in the third group are, in this one matter of reason for telling at least, more like the first set than the second. Lacking audience, these third-group stories might, indeed, not have been written, but they could not well have avoided being thought, for each one is an expression of the writer’s intricate curiosity and puzzlement.

Within the third group, Mr. Uzzell’s choices have been happy ones. Of the ten stories selected, six may fairly be called unusual. Two—”A Sick Call,” by Morley Callaghan, and “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” by Conrad Aiken—have genuine distinction. The second of these especially, an analysis of a boy’s mind, simple, exact, terrible, does with cool quiet and beauty something that has not before been achieved in a short story. An earlier story by Conrad Aiken, “The Dark City,” has stayed alive in anthologies and in the memories of readers for already more than a decade; the present one gives promise of no less vitality.

Following the stories come notes on their substance, a technical analysis of each, and some comments, not notably original, on the what and why of present-day story writing.

Mr. O’Brien’s “The Best Short Stories, 1933” is the latest volume in a series now thoroughly familiar to Anierican readers. The collection for the last year follows the plan of its predecessors. Thirty-eight pages are devoted to “equipment” for the student of the short story—lists of articles on stories, of magazine addresses, of stories starred once or twice or three times according to the degree of their excellence in the editor’s eyes. Twelve pages of introduction discuss the post and present of the American story. Between appendices and introduction stand twenty-nine stories, nearly half of them of a weary mediocrity.

Among the better half are several notable inclusions. “A Sick Call” is as good here, in its simplicity and solid honesty, as it was in “Short Story Hits”; “Elmer,” by Albert Tru-man Boyd, “A Little Walk,” by Alvah C. Bessie, “Going to Market,” by Albert Halper, “Simple Aveu,” by Nancy Hale—each of these, in its own fashion, carries a sense of conviction. But even with these and with other exceptions, there remains a disappointing number of stories for which the reason for reproduction is hard to find. It is somewhat disappointing too to discover by reference to the tables at the back of the book that all of the stories in it arc, without distinction, allotted three stars. So far as the editor is concerned, every one of the twenty-nine is of highest excellence,

But if Mr. O’Brien’s judgments in fiction seem this time open to the reproach of flatness, that flatness has not yet found its way into his critical pronouncements. These possess all of their accustomed tang and certitude. “The American scene is dusty and colorless. Its beauty and meaning depend on line and mass.” “Now for the first time [since 1914] we have a considerable group of short story writers in America who arc not provincial English writers.” “Before the war the American writer . . . did not wish to grasp life but to flee from life.” “The most important short-story magazine in the world to-day is a ‘little magazine’.”

It is “To the future of Story,” the “little magazine” in question, that the 1933 volume of the O’Brien series is dedicated.


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