A Thread of Years

Patricia Hampl is the author of, most recently, "I Could Tell You Stories" and the memoir, "A Romantic Education."

When Robert Frost was asked about the organization of a collection of poems, he is supposed to have replied that if a book consisted of 29 poems, then the book itself had to be the 30th poem. A collection, in other words, must transmit artistic integrity as eloquently as the individual works within it. No grab bag of hits will do.

Just about any anthology worth its doorstop weight would find it hard to limbo under Frost's severe mandate. But John Updike, assisted by Katrina Kenison, has produced a compendium of prize-winning stories, spanning the century and the continent, that manages to be a page-turner in its own right, beyond the value of the separate fictions gathered here.

The dutiful English major lurking within the heart (or memory) of the reader may be tempted to see this anthology as an essential reference work, not a book to read with absorption from start to finish. That would be a pity--though lugging it around for the better part of a month did evoke my undergraduate years, saddle-bagged with the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Updike makes it clear in his "Introduction" that he did not select stories from each decade "because they illustrated a theme or portion of the national experience." He chose them because they struck him as "lively, beautiful, believable, and in the human news they brought, important."

Yet a fascinating plot runs from story to story that makes reading the book in order, with no jumps or skips, surprisingly rewarding as a meditation on this American century. The plot line is history itself, of course, the evidence year by year, decade to decade, of the life of the imagination contending with the life of the continent as it has unfolded over time, through wars, Depression and consumerism, from a lonely rural experience to a jammed urban consciousness. A wise teacher of 20th-century American history might assign this anthology, story by story, as a kind of choral voice for the interior feeling of the century as it has cycled through the decades.

The annual "Best American Short Stories" series was launched in 1915 as the idea--the impassioned vocation is not too strong a term--of a young editor named Edward J. O'Brien. It was immediately influential and in 1933 was picked up by Houghton Mifflin, which has been its steadfast publisher since then. Shortly after O'Brien's early death in 1941, Martha Foley took over the stewardship of the series, a post she kept until her death in 1977.

Since then, the annual "Best" anthologies have been edited by guest editors, all short story writers themselves, aided by a "series editor." For many years, this position was held by Shannon Ravenel; since 1990, Kenison has had the job. In her "Foreword," Kenison tells, as a tantalizing subplot, the story of the series itself as it developed from O'Brien's evangelical mission on behalf of the short story, through the equally devoted Foley years and beyond. O'Brien and Foley, in particular, emerge as heroic figures whose astonishing labor on behalf of the short story has left an immense legacy.

At a time when the static concept of "the literary canon" has been deconstructed (some hand-wringers would say decimated), the annual sorting and vetting that O'Brien and Foley and their descendants have toiled over has proven a useful marker that has managed to endure through all the culture wars. These annual selections prove not to be about what is "best" in some prescriptive way. Over time, as this anthology of the century evidences, they show themselves to be pulse points down the years, a kind of diary of American short fiction and its readers.

Guest editors of recent years have included such striking talents as Louise Erdrich, Tobias Wolff, Jane Smiley, John Edgar Wideman, Annie Proulx, Garrison Keillor and Gail Godwin. It is worth remembering that it is from all these earlier "Best" collections that Updike has made his own selection, not from his own survey of the vast possibilities of all published work. In order to make the cut for the best of the century, a story had to appear in one of the earlier volumes.

Certain themes emerge from the collection, which Updike glosses in his brisk, helpful "Introduction." By anyone's count, and certainly by Updike's, the single most enduring preoccupation has been, and in some ways remains, immigration and its cruel-kind siren song. The anthology opens with two such stories, one Jewish, the other Irish, first published in 1915 and 1916.

In both stories, the bitter tang of longing for home predominates. "The passion for sailing back to Russia . . . lost but little of its original intensity," Benjamin Rosenblatt writes in "Zelig." "Yet there was something now which by a feeble thread bound him to the New World." And in "Little Selves," by Mary Lerner (who, according to the biographical note on her, "published several short stories in national magazines. Nothing more is known about her"), an old grandmother, dying in America, returns in a kind of proto-magical-realism to her Irish girlhood full of sprites and spirits. At her death-bed, the young priest coos that she must be "a saintly woman." The old woman regards with pity this clueless "American-born" cleric. "He sees nothing, poor man," she thinks.

Hopscotching down the decades, this same taste-of-gall sensation reappears in later emigre and refugee stories. In Bernard Malamud's 1964 "The German Refugee," the narrator is a young American student making extra money by giving English lessons to recently arrived exiles from Hitler's Germany.

But whereas Rosenblatt's and Lerner's immigrants suffer in a bell glass of loneliness, by the time the bitter theme has ripened for Malamud, it is an American boy who must tell the story: The emigre sense of dislocation is emblematic of a peculiarly American ache, not only an immigrant experience. Yet another variation appears as recently as 1997 with Gish Jen's "Birthmates," which shifts the weight of immigrant pain to Asia.

But "themes" are not the point of this anthology. The real pleasure--and instruction--of reading the stories in chronological order is to follow the changing American voice across time. As the century progresses, it seems the stories become more memoir-like--not autobiographical in the sense of the author's life showing up as "material."

Rather, the first-person voice (as well as the intimate third-person point of view) becomes more elegiac, a vehicle for unguarded hurt instead of a persona the reader can wink at knowingly. The power of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Crazy Sunday," from 1933, turns on the fact that we can see how deluded the insecure careerist scriptwriter Joel Coles is: We know, though he so obviously does not, that he lies to himself and that he will drink again. How much more sadly self-aware--and already lost to illusion--is Raymond Carver's drunk in his 1983 "Where I'm Calling From." In fact, he's calling from a treatment center and reminds himself wearily, "I won't say anything about New Year's resolutions."

Updike has chosen with his ear--the stories move through the decades bearing forward the sensation of tape-recorded language patterns from each period. Richard Wright's "Bright and Morning Star" from 1939 (at 32 pages, the longest in the volume) bring to life not only the gruesome terror of a murderous racism, but the earnest moment when black and white urgency and belief met, briefly, in the communist ideal.

The 1940s and even the '50s, interestingly, are not the decades of World War II stories--these seem to await the '60s, when narrators like Philip Roth's in "Defender of the Faith" can speak not from the immediacy of experience but from the authority of history, looking back.

The New Yorker, the century's most influential magazine for short fiction, does not appear with a prize story until 1948 (E.B. White's "The Second Tree from the Corner"), but its stories dominate the second half of the century, with writers as varied as Isaac Bashevis Singer (1970), Donald Barthelme (1973), Cynthia Ozick (1981) and Lorrie Moore (1990).

Masters of the form are here--Flannery O'Connor, represented by a 1957 story, "Greenleaf," with one of those priceless O'Connor deadpan moments: "She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true." She is joined in the same decade by the incomparable J.F. Powers, whose 1951 story "Death of a Favorite" is narrated by the even more deliciously deadpan voice of a cat.

Things become distinctly less witty by the time the '90s come rolling in. As if the end of the century, being itself a kind of death, required special attention to mortality, some of the most recent stories in the collection are deathbed tales. Everyone seems to have cancer or be afraid of cancer, to be lost in blizzards, dying by frozen inches, or otherwise on the way out. Thom Jones' 1993 "I Want to Live" is a postmodern "Death of Ivan Ilych," followed in 1994 by Alice Elliott Dark's lyric "In the Gloaming," a beautifully nuanced story of a mother nursing her son who is dying from AIDS. The end of the century seems to have "a quality of meltdown," as Updike says of the final stories in the collection.

Tennessee Williams' narrator faces the same frustrating inconclusiveness in his 1951 story, "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin." Finally, like all believers in the truth of fiction writers and readers alike, he admits that "however indefinite, there always is some point which serves that need of remembrances and stories."

That point has been found again and again by the writers, celebrated and obscure, whose stories are gathered from the decades in this treasury of our history.

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