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Short Stories of the Seventies

ISSUE:  Autumn 1981
The Best American Short Stories 1980. Edited by Stanley Elkin with Shannon Ravenel. Houghton Mifflin. $12.95.

Why do short stories seem more revealingly “contemporary” than other literary forms? Especially when they are collected for an annual anthology like The Best of American Short Stories 1980, they tempt one to study them as an index to the imaginative preoccupations of American writers right now. Novels take longer in gestation and usually attempt syntheses that aim to transcend the “moment” and to reach instead for the “era.” Poetry, particularly the contemporary sort, is often not so much occupied with the external world as with the intensely private transformations of individual vision. This is not to suggest that short stories are the place to go to conduct demographic surveys of “The Five Major Problems that Confront Americans Today.” Obviously, television and movies are the usual creative outlet for such attention to the topical. What short stories promise to reveal are deeper and more subtle imaginative structures, the new dwellings of that large and able group of people who are publishing fiction in current American periodicals.

To question whether Stanley Elkin has chosen the best stories from the 1979 numbers of those periodicals seems ungrateful and pointless when presented with the storehouse of pleasure contained in his collection. Certainly, he has gathered an intriguing representation from the last year of the decade. One by one, these stories make exceptionally good reading; as a group, they have a coherence which suggests an imaginative focus during the closing years of the seventies. Broadly speaking, these stories are concerned with the trials of commitment and authority. How different (one suspects) from the trials which dominated the early seventies! Surely the best way to pursue this suspicion is to gather together all eleven volumes of the Best American from 1970 to 1980 and to ask what changes the stories can document.

When the decade opened, of course, the series was the sole demesne of Martha Foley. It is therefore possible to attribute any large changes in the series to her death in 1977. This possibility becomes less satisfactory when one considers the nature of Foley’s editorial genius. She refused to circumscribe her range of choice with any theory of the short story, nor would she admit to any settled dicta of taste. Her obituary in the New York Times quotes her assertion that she simply picked the stories, “that seemed the best to me.” Though it is hard to decide whether this editorial policy represented diffidence or arrogance, critical consensus has assumed that it made her annual volumes fairly accurate mirrors of the creative impulses producing short fiction during the 35 years of her reign.

After Foley’s death, the publishers decided to invite a different critic or writer to edit the series each year. (All three guest editors have been assisted by Shannon Ravenel, who reads well over 1000 stories yearly and screens them for the 150 or so most likely candidates to be presented for the chief editor’s consideration.) Ted Solataroff, the former editor of American Review, assembled the Best of 1978; in 1979 Joyce Carol Gates made the selection. Although their introductions to these volumes would suggest that Solataroff and Oates have different theories about how the short story should be defined, their selections themselves seem, in fact, fairly homogeneous.

In the present volume Stanley Elkin has written an introduction that makes a joke of the editor’s attempt to justify his taste by defining the short story. Elkin disarms criticism with his funny and frank admission that his editorial job was “simply to lie back and enjoy myself, my sympathy floating the surface of these lives like fat in soup.” As he comically analyzes his taste buds, Elkin does, however, arrive inductively at a general trait which all his selections share: they tend to have a particular kind of ending. “We are dealing, at the end, with a kind of rhetorical sacrament. We are dealing with solace, the idea of solace, art’s and language’s consolation prize.” Interestingly enough, Elkin’s description of his own prejudices turns out to be an accurate summary of a similarity that, in spite of the varying temperaments of the four editors, binds together all the four or five last volumes of the seventies. All show a trend toward summary and consummation in the ending of a story. Foley dedicated the Best of 1976 to Barry Targan, whose story, “Surviving Adverse Seasons,” is the star of that collection. Targan’s story closes as his hero has composed a message of consolation for a dying friend: “If there is comfort anywhere, it is in truth, whatever the truth, and in this, the act of these words.” Reviewing Solataroff’s collection for the New York Times in 1978, John Romano noted “how many of these stories (I count a dozen) locate their meanings entirely in the endings.” Likewise, in 1979 one finds that the summary ending is the most notable structural principle of the “synecdochic method” which Gates claims to prefer. For example, her apparent favorite among the Best, “A Silver Dish” by Saul Bellow, (which was also awarded first prize in the O. Henry Award stories of 1980) ends when the middle-aged hero comes to terms with his father’s death. He is able at last to relive the moment his father died in his arms and to lay his grief to rest.

There is reason, then, to begin an analysis of the imagination of the late seventies with this preference for a resolved ending, which Elkin goes so far as to name “the real . . .morality of fiction.” The obvious first question is whether the stories chosen as Best in the early seventies tended to end differently. After all, the traditional craft of the short story stresses the need for “hooks” in openings and “clinchers” in endings. Nevertheless, a survey of the Best before 1975 suggests something very different from Elkin’s “solace in finality,” In those tumultuous years it is hardly surprising to observe how often stories close with ominous forecasts and unresolved anxiety. The last story in the Best of 1970, “The Ninth Cold Day” by Rosine Weisbrod, ends as a young and destitute mother wearily prepares her child for one more in a debilitating series of moves made necessary by her husband’s unwillingness to find a steady job. “The Dock Witch” by Cynthia Ozick, included in the Best of 1972, leaves the young lawyer-hero asking—”Find out what?”—as his interlocutor disappears into a crowd.

One obvious fact accounts for much of this alteration in styles of ending: in the first years of the seventies the stories’ heroes themselves were predominantly young and therefore unresolved characters. The notices about the series in The Virginia Quarterly Review for these years are revealing: the 1970 volume is chastised for its “concern with adolescent prurience”; the 1971 Best is summarized with the observation that “very nearly all deal with one and the same topic: youth in contemporary America”; the volume for 1973 is judged to have a “kind of unity” in “that a large number of the stories deal with youth.” Almost all the heroes in the collections of Solataroff and Oates are adults past their first youth. But with Elkin’s Best of 1980 the contrast really becomes striking. The decade which began with “adolescence prurience” ends with the problems of late middle-age and often of elderliness. In only four out of 22 stories are the heroes under 35. Three of these four— “The First Clean Fact” by Larry Heinemann, “The Old Forest” by Peter Taylor, and “The Remission” by Mavis Gallant—are historical fictions. Gallant and Taylor evidently tell these stories to explain why characters, whose present ages would range from 40 to 65, come to live the way they do now. (The fourth story counted here is Donald Bartheleme’s “The Emerald,” in which the age of the hero, Mad Moll, is unclear, as she is a witch who has, after a seven-year pregnancy, just given birth to an emerald weighing more than seven thousand carats.)

Hence the stories in the Best of 1980 usually involve some combination of divorce, illness, and death, and they do seem to be the culmination of a trend away from stories about the problems of youth. No wonder they stress, as Elkin puts it, a “grace in resignation.” The characters in these stories are no longer sensitive, rebellious youths; they are aging parents defending their commitments, often justifying their mistakes. The occasion for “Friends”—a moving monologue by Faith, Grace Paley’s recurring main character and apparent alter ego—is the death of a woman whose husband had left her and whose daughter had committed suicide. “But I was right,” Faith asserts, “to invent for my friends and our children a report on these private deaths and the condition of our lifelong attachments.”

Eight of the heroes in Elkin’s collection are college professors; two are doctors. Many more are miscellaneous sorts of philosophers—like the hero of Leon Rooke’s “Mama Tuddi Done Over,” a black woman who stars in a television show and predicts, “pretty soon all the world going to know Mama Tuddi’s name and bow down to her esteem”; or like Norman Waksler’s “Markowitz,” the owner of a delicatessen and an author of jokes. The point is that these heroes are people who represent authority. They are old enough to have become responsible for their decisions, for their various commitments to definite ways of life. One naturally is led to ask whether they, therefore, represent a new imaginative attachment to conventionality and a rejection of the rebellions of the early seventies. Judging from the most effective of these stories, the answer is no. These authorities do not simply dismiss the disruptive sensitivities of earlier years and embrace complacent security. Rather, they acknowledge the tenuousness of their powers. More perhaps than earlier representatives of established authority, they recognize that their orderings of life are not part of an eternal and cosmic order. Their victories over chaos are achieved by putting up jerry-built structures of pure will. The hero of “Dr. Cahn’s Visit” by Richard Stern is actually named “Will.” Will takes his cranky and senile father to visit his dying mother in the hospital, in spite of the objections of others (“he’ll make a scene”), because of his stubborn sense of the appropriate order of things: “It wouldn’t be right,” Will argues, for even this confused and bitter dotard to miss the chance to bid his wife farewell.

“Home” by James Robinson seems meant almost as a realistic fable about the self-conciousness and fragility of these new authorities. The story opens with a literal threat to the survival of this home: on the second day of a blizzard the furnace has broken down. The Flahertys, a 50-ish couple, shiver until the repairman arrives, and they are able to summon their 13-year-old daughter back from their neighbor’s. Dr. Flaherty, the chairman of a university philosophy department, is worried about his daughter, who has been only recently adopted and who is still something of a stranger. Knowing this, one cannot help but begin to worry too, for every time the girl says “Father” or “Mother,” the artificiality of this kindly family is exposed. Near the end, one learns even more about the bold and risky decisions upon which this home has been built: Dr. Flaherty had once been a priest. The reason for the extreme politeness shown by husband, wife, and child is consequently understood as their need to protect their newly constructed society. Nothing in this home has grown from easy, natural circumstance, yet it all vibrates with feeling that is genuine and careful, in every sense of the word. In the end Flaherty reassures his wife that “they” cannot take Delia back, “no matter how we bungle things.” “No,” he said, “She’s ours now.”

Naturally enough, a patriarchal culture usually imagines authority in the specific shape of a father. Problems of fatherhood pervade these stories. Fathers often feel guilty, as does John Updike’s Richard Maple in “Gesturing” because he is divorcing his wife and therefore leaving his children. Harold Stein in T. Gertler’s splendid “In Case of Survival” feels guilty because he did not manage to save the victims of an airplane crash about which he had had a premonition that made him refuse to board the doomed plane. Gradually, one understands that Harold also feels guilty because he cannot really communicate with his wife and two daughters, especially not with his eldest child, a depressed young schoolteacher who lives far away in Colorado. His vision at the end of the story rises with the steam from reheated potatoes: “Questions of guilt and innocence fell away; he contemplated instead his endless, enduring helplessness.” Such compassionate visions of ultimate helplessness set these fathers of the late seventies apart from their heartier and less conscious forebears.

In this context one may read “The Remission” by Mavis Gallant as an imaginative analysis of how these changes in patriarchal authority occurred. The circumstances of the story are deliberately mythic: set in the late 1940’s, the story focuses on the social and psychological disruptions that occur when Alec Webb, a dying Englishman, moves his wife and three children to the Riviera because he wishes to escape the indignities of death (as supervised by the National Health Service) in his own country. The willful egotism of this act is magnified when the father lingers on much longer than anyone expected he could. Consequently, his children become foreigners and his wife falls in love with a parody of Webb, “a foreigner’s Englishman,” a pseudo-father whom the children quite sensibly loathe. Gallant makes it clear that this is a mythic explanation of the way in which the combination of blind egotism and decadence in bourgeois fatherly authority created the rebellious postwar generation. Of Webb, Gallant writes, “It did not occur to him or to anyone else that the removal from England was an act of unusual force that could rend and lacerate his children’s lives as well as his own.”

With similar explanatory intentions, William Gass has a male protagonist tell a story (“The Old Folks”) about having taken his children to visit his distressingly inadequate parents. “My father,” Gass’s speaker declares, “taught me how to be a failure.” That this speaker is a history professor makes his own conciousness of the burden of authority even greater. Interwoven in the narrative are debates about the nature of generational relationship. Gass’s hero rejects his parents as models of authority and asserts that his own children will never visit him, that he has broken “the chain” of begetting by refusing to “become [his] children”: “I spat them out like pits and they grew up as near and yet apart from me as the weeds in a row of beans.”

From such imaginative efforts to explain and to define the new position of authority in our culture, one might expect a predominant mood of regret, a conservative sense of loss caused by a male nostalgia for the days when men were men, and fathers were gods omnipotent. But, as Gass and Gallant show, no one really remembers such a potent model of effective patriarchal authority. Like another splendid explanatory historical fiction collected here—Peter Taylor’s “The Old Forest,” set in the Memphis of the thirties—these stories exist to deny the easy and sentimental comforts of such male nostalgia. They seem to say with a united voice: “Even our fathers were not just and infallible authorities. The imaginative solution to present pain cannot be a simple, conservative wish to regain what they had.”

The most despairing stories in the Best of 1980 present male characters who grow impotent and ugly because they can do nothing but lament their place in this degenerate tradition of male authority. (Significantly, there are no despairing mothers in the Best of 1980.) Gass’s speaker, who characterizes himself as jealous, bigoted, and bitter, is a type of father who recurs in the two ugliest stories about families in this collection— “The Lemon Tree” by Curt Johnson and “The Rags of Time” by Barry Targan. The 46-year-old protagonist in Johnson’s story is a self-pitying, alcoholic adulterer who becomes progressively more morose as he pursues a psychologically damaged 26-year-old room clerk. When he understands that his wife also has a lover, he decides that “none of this matters” and drifts away to Mexico, alone. “The Rags of Time” is Barry Targan’s fourth appearance in the Best American during the seventies. (Also appearing four times are Peter Taylor, Donald Bartheleme, and Joyce Carol Gates; Cynthis Ozick, I.B. Singer, and John Updike each appear three times.) In marked contrast to the admirable male heroes of Targan’s three earlier stories, the English professor in “Rags” is a culpable man and a failed father. In “Surviving Adverse Seasons,” which appeared in the Best of 1976, Targan presented a father whose achievement consists in his ability to continue growing through the shock of terrible losses, like his wife’s death. The male lead in “Rags” is a cautious man, “nearly an anachronistic picture of the professor,” whose trite drama is that he develops a passion for a student who agrees to sleep with him in exchange for being released from writing a term paper and a final examination. Some absurd sense of professorial fairness leads him to give the girl a “C.” Passion does not transform him. His single careless act empties him, and he settles back down into a perpetual changelessness, a state imaged earlier in the story as burial in a snowbank, “the terror of hopelessness: the terror that he would not die and would not change either out of the entombing whiteness.”

Although most of these stories do involve some sort of resignation by the main characters, their various surrenders are not usually so bleak. Instead of resignation to despair, the healthier heroes of 1980 learn to give themselves over to the energy in mutability itself. The points of tension in these stories may be described as moments of recognition that one’s lifetime commitments are only a thin veil drawn over a vast and vital chaos. The orderly definitions that one had been accustomed to perceiving as reality are exposed, their artificiality and illusiveness revealed. For the most attractive characters this perceived incongruity produces humor, an ironic but tender sense of the fictitious nature of their own devices. Norman Waksler’s Makowitz becomes the gullible “mark” in his own joke. John Sayles names the elderly hero of “At the Anarchists’ Convention” Leo Gold, perhaps to lead one straight to the peppery anarchist’s heart. Again and again, Leo laughs at the incongruities in this gathering of geriatric revolutionaries: “Name tags at the Anarchists’ Convention?” Leo rises and gives a generous eulogy for a dead enemy: “Applause, tears, and I sit down. It’s a sentimental moment. Of course it isn’t true.”

It would be incorrect, then, to say that The Best American Short Stories 1980 reveal a conservative desire to repudiate the radicalism of the early seventies. The only truly conservative characters here are frozen in their own bitter despair. Though the imaginative interest of these writers is firmly invested in the trials of embattled authority, the really heroic characters have the flexibility of humor. Like Paley’s Faith or Gertler’s Stein, they do not wish to block the difficult new ways of life their children choose, even though those lives are strange to them. Most often the stories illustrate a process by which the heart is taught to comprehend the inevitability and the necessity in these changing ways. In this sense The Best American Short Stories 1980 lags behind the social sciences which have already recognized the implications of these changes. The mind, however, always acknowledges necessary changes more quickly than does the heart. The processes of imagination, the affective powers of short stories, move slowly but profoundly. As Elkin says of the insights achieved by these characters, “This is epiphany that sticks to the ribs.”


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