The fourteen short stories in Oxford’s 1990 collection highlight the diversity of life in the burgeoning United States. It is not a pretty picture. The stories contained within are loosely chronological from mid nineteenth to twentieth century:
- Nathaniel Hawthorne “My Kinsman: Major Molineux” 1851
- Edgar Allan Poe “The Black Cat” 1845
- Herman Melville “Benito Cereno” 1856
- Mark Twain “Baker’s Bluejay Yarn” 1880
- Ambrose Bierce “The Coup de Grace” 1892
- Hamlin Garland “The return of a private” 1891
- Edith Wharton “Roman Fever” 1936
- Stephen Crane “The Open Boat” 1898
- Jack London “The Heathen” 1911
- Sherwood Anderson “I Want to Know Why” 1921
- Katharine Anne Porter “A Day’s Work” 1944
- William Faulkner “Dry September” 1931
- Ernest Hemingway “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” 1938
Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman: Major Molineux” is a wonderful story to begin with. It chronicles the tale of the young man Robin as he arrives in Boston trying to find work. He witnesses the very devil himself as tries to find the man who promised him a job. Upon meeting his tarred and feathered Kinsman, he wants to get the first boat back out, before being persuaded to stay, thereby perfectly encapsulating the difficulties of the generations of settlers that came to America in their droves, in search of work.
One theme that struck me throughout was water. Living at the beginning of the Twenty First Century, it is difficult to appreciate the amount of time that people spent on boats getting to and from their destinations. Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno” illustrates the inherent dangers of the journey, detailing a mutiny aboard a Spanish slave ship. The brutality meted out to the slaves on board for the mutiny was astonishing – the main conspirator Babo’s head was placed on a stick and his body burnt alive. The narrative in “Beneto Cereno” is distorting and choppy.
Stephen Crane’s beautifully written “The Open Boat” expresses similar concerns about travelling on the treacherous seas, telling us of an escape from a sinking ship. Four men travel on a dinghy and see a lighthouse tantalisingly close in the distance. Eventually they try to swim for shore and it is the strongest of the four men, the oiler Billie, who winds up dead when they arrive, his limp, lifeless body immune against the force of the lilting waves on the beach.
In Ireland, we know all too well of the dangers of travelling by coffin ship to build a new life in America. Yet, a lot of these stories of travel were to bring slaves to America. This horrible practice rears its horrid head in many of the tales within, but none more shockingly than in Faulkner’s “Dry September” where a lynch mob violently chase down an African American man suspected of raping a white woman. It is a thoroughly difficult read. The use of the word “nigger” is rife throughout many of these stories, rendering them problematic for the modern reader. Given the derogatory slur was definitely offensive when at least some of these stories were published, these artefacts leave an indelible memory on the brain of a time when America was not at all tolerant.
It is the same with the stories detailing slavery throughout. Jack London’s “The Heathen” is also emblematic of the epoch, another story that I could not read in 2017 without being grossly offended. Charley thinks his “Heathen…gross materialist…friend” Otoo is there to serve him. He saw African Americans as existing solely to tend to his every whim. It is a vile story, with Otoo dying trying to save his Master. The story made me question the very foundation upon which the United States was built.
Edgar Allan Poe offers some light relief from the harshness of slavery and racism with a story about a thoroughly enjoyable story of a husband murdering his wife.
I did try desperately to not let Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” end up as my favourite story here, but failed, much like Macomber himself. Maybe it is my own bias added to the fact that by the 1930’s, the English used is easier to read, but “The short…” is deliciously opaque, forcing the reader to confront some unsettling themes.
The classic American short stories here reveal the real underbelly of life at the time. With the United States being the overarching hegemonic power in the time during which I write this, it is too facile to fall for their land of the free guff that they write about their past. It was nothing of the sort, as the tales here can attest to.