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The Cream of the Crop

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

No More Trumpets and Other Stories. By George Milburn. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. Winner Take Nothing. By Ernest Hemingway. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.00. The First Wife and Other Stories. By Pearl S. Buck. New York: John Day Company. $2.50. After Such Pleasures. By Dorothy Parker. New York: The Viking Press. $2.25. The Best British Short Stories of 1933. Edited by Edward J. O’Brien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.50. A Footnote to Youth. By Jose Garcia Villa. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50.

The medium of the short story has become something

of a racket in our time, with the chief racketeer be-

ing Mr. Edward J. O’Brien, tireless editor of those fat annual anthologies, The Best American, The Best British, Short Stories. Now, in “Story,” a magazine of the short story, Mr. O’Brien has launched a monthly edition of his volumes—also of which and already has appeared a “Story” Anthology. Mr. O’Brien’s racket is of course a labor of love, but after noting how many short stories he has read, to say nothing of his faithful compiling of exhaustive glosses and yearbooks of the short story, one can only wonder whether or not the short story is some curious form of drug, a piqure, a shot-in-the-arm of effective limited sensation to be collected for its technical graces like examples of postage stamps or the graphic arts.

There are of course some good short stories. How good the really good ones are seems more monumentally evident the more one reads the results of Mr. O’Brien’s selective energies. The trouble with most short stories is, either the length, or lack of it, acts as such a limit, while so many quick clues have to be inserted to make it seem plausible, that the climax is more a corroboration than a conviction. Then, the use of surprise in the next to last paragraph followed by an atmospheric final phrase,—”He turned and walked back to the house”—”She stared looking out, down into the street. The door closed,” etc., etc.—is a formula of the most impatient irritation, and has O. Henry to blame for a lot of it. The only really good short stories of our time are those in which either the atmosphere is so rich or the emotional tension so bold as to deny the imposition of the spatial limit. Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Sean O’Faolain never write short shorts, the logical end of the form. Nor, when they are at their best, do they submit rejected fragments from novels, which is what so many of the English efforts appear to be. As a bid for intensity, the mechanism of the use of the first person singular as voice, is hard to avoid and often harder to read. The short story has an insulting overtone of catering to people who aren’t strong enough to take much more, written by writers who aren’t strong enough to work without these limits, printed in magazines which depend on quickies to bring them out once a month.

“Winner Take Nothing” is the latest anthology of stories by Ernest Hemingway. The first story is about a diver who sees a lady drowned with her hair floating behind a sunken porthole. The second is about an old man on the verge of suicide. The third is a quarrel of whores. The fourth is about an adolescent who castrates himself. The fifth is about a man who is jealous of his girl’s Lesbian friend. The sixth might have been included in “A Farewell to Arms.” The seventh is about two vaguely homosexual bullfighters. The eighth, a short-short, about a woman who writes for two pages inquiring about the possibilities of syphilis. The ninth is a very clever story of three men on the same railroad line in Switzerland, perhaps the only story in the collection which neither imitates Hemingway nor has been written by him before. He has reprinted the parts of tenderest necrophilia from “Death in the Afternoon,” and concludes with three more tales, the last two of which afford some pages of apologia for the writer, corroborating, unsurprisingly, what one is bound increasingly to regret in this wonderful talent.

Mr. Hemingway has become automatically the slave of a convention of diction which he created, and from which he cannot seem to free himself. He is interested only in a segmental subject-matter which he discovered, an occupation with pre-adolescent, subhuman, or deathly matters which deadens and limits the scope of his writing and the interest of his readers. In “Fathers and Sons,” Nick’s father is found to be as sound on fishing and shooting as he is unsound on sex.

George Milburn’s new volume of stories, “No More Trumpets,” has many admirable qualities. It illuminates that mysterious, trenchant, and anonymous America which is best illustrated in one paragraph of the first story:

The road led through summer-resort towns with their concrete, wire-fenced bathing-pools, past tall-stacked canning factories, along the base of high, sheer stone bluffs, with Bible texts, sets of gums and teeth advertising dental parlors, and short Holy Roller exhortations stenciled on the rock. By noon, however, these encroachments vanished. We were deep in the hill country. We came to the town of the postmark.

Out of eighteen stories in the book six can be reread with pleasure, and this is a very high average of reward. The second story, “Heel, Toe and a 1, 2, 3, 4,” is the best, and a most vivid condensation of a classic short story theme which one has read often in the collections of American short story writers. The types of a hobo in passing, a stray murder, a frustrate farmer, a rocking-chair tragedy are as familiar as the components of still life, but like other excellent artists Mr. Milburn endows his nature-morte with real vitality.

Mrs. Dorothy Parker’s latest bouquet of prickly pear and mustard is called “After Such Pleasures.” Lately, over the radio, Mr. Alexander Woollcott called this book a mixture of “pure gold and prussic acid.” For pure gold read lemon-juice; for prussic acid read mercurochrome.

Mrs. Pearl Buck is also a short story writer. In “The First Wife” the touching quality of her missionary manners renders her work safe reading to even those who objected to her extra-missionary activities within her church.

Jose Garcia Villa’s short stories, “A Footnote to Youth,” have a fulsome introduction by Mr. O’Brien, who finds in the young Filipino another rung in the ladder of Caldwell, Kay Boyle, Hemingway, etc., etc. One sees what Mr. O’Brien means: This is what Mr, Villa means:

He wanted to be wise about many things.

One of them was why Life did not fulfill all of Youth’s dreams. Why it must be so. Why one was forsaken . . . after Love.

Dodong could not find the answer. Maybe the question was not to be answered. It must be so to make Youth Youth. Youth must be dreamfully sweet. Dreamfully sweet.

Dodong returned to the house humiliated by himself. He had wanted to know a little wisdom but was denied it.

Mr. O’Brien has also gathered his vintage of “The Best British Short Stories of 1933.” The year’s not yet out, but we can assume that within these covers there’s the cream of the crop. It’s the same crop with the same exception for the last ten years. No word of mine could recommend or prevent the purchase of a copy.


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