Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Easy Come, Easy Go: Who Was in the 1949 Best American Short Stories?

I’ve been cleaning out some bookshelves, culling and rearranging and rediscovering, and one book that I rediscovered in a dusty corner is an old edition of The Best American Short Stories…old as in the 1949 edition. I bought it at a used book store a zillion years ago because it contains a story by J.D. Salinger (“A Girl I Knew,” originally published in Good Housekeeping).

The editor is Martha Foley (one of the founders of Story magazine) and while the introduction doesn’t outline the selection process, the gist seems to be about the same:  the “best” short stories are selected from among all those published in lit journals and magazines, with lists in the back of the book, a “Roll of Honor” and a longer “Distinctive Short Stories in American Magazines.”  Foley writes in her intro of a new generation of writers rising to the surface: 

“…this country may be entering the richest and most productive literary period it yet has known.  Generations of writers, it would appear, do not follow one another in regular chronological order, so many years to each generation. Instead they seem to follow a pattern of social upheaval, with all its soul-searching and questioning of life and people. The financial crash of 1929 was one such dividing line and the two world wars another. The travail they caused has conditioned the kind of writing that followed.”

So, while it doesn’t seem as though her selections were made solely to showcase up-and-coming writers, I get the sense that’s her pitch:  here are the new writers for the new post-war world….here are the “best” writers right now and into the future.

Here are the featured writers:

George Albee
Livingston Biddle, Jr.
Elizabeth Bishop*
Paul Bowles*
Frank Brookhouser
Borden Deal
Adele Dolokhov
Ward Dorrance
Henry Gregor Felsen
Robert Gibbons
Beatrice Grifffith
Elizabeth Hardwick*
Joseph Heller*
Ruth Herschberger
Laura Hunter
Jim Kjelgaard**
Roderick Lull
T.D. Mabry
Agnes Macdonald
Jane Mayhall
Patrick Morgan
Irving Pfeffer
John Rogers
J.D. Salinger*
Alfredo Segre
Madelon Shapiro
Jean Stafford*
Jessamyn West*

*  = a writer I’ve heard of (not to say I’m the most sophisticated, knowledgeable reader ever, but I like to think I’ve been around the literary block a time or two)

** = a distant memory of a children’s dog book came to me while I was typing this list, so while I guess I remember him, I didn’t the first few times I studied the list

I don’t provide this list to chastise Martha Foley for choosing 11 women out of 28 or to research possible writers of color and their presence/absence on this list.  Nor do I want to poke fun at her for her lame prognostication skills:  after all, she did catch both J.D. Salinger and Joseph Heller at early points in their careers.

What I do want to point out is that NO ONE KNOWS what the test of time will do.  NO ONE KNOWS.  Nothing is guaranteed in the long-term. What’s up can be down, what’s down can be up—and we simply have to write our stories and let time sort it out for us in the end.  That’s what we should do—and, honestly, don’t ever forget that’s the only thing we can do.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.