The fourteen short stories in Oxford’s 1990 collection highlighted the diversity of life in the burgeoning United States. It was not a pretty picture. There was loosely chronological logic applied here:
- 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” was a wonderful story to begin with. It chronicled the tale of the young man, Robin, as he arrived in Boston to try to find work. He witnessed the very devil himself as tried to find the man who had promised him a job. Upon meeting his tarred and feathered Kinsman, he wanted to get the first boat home, before being persuaded to stay and thereby perfectly encapsulating the difficulties of the generations of settlers that came to the US 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” illustrated the inherent dangers of these types of journeys, detailing a mutiny aboard a Spanish slave ship. The brutality meted out to the slaves on board was astonishing. The main conspirator, Babo, had his head placed on a stick after he was burnt alive.
Stephen Crane’s beautifully written “The Open Boat” expressed similar concerns about travelling on the treacherous seas, telling us of an escape from a sinking ship. Four men travelled on a dinghy and saw a lighthouse tantalisingly close in the distance. Eventually they swam to shore and it was the strongest of the four men, the oiler Billie, who wound up dead when they arrived, his limp, lifeless body immune to the force of the lilting waves on the beach.
In Ireland, we knew all too well 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 reared its nasty head in many of the tales here, but none more shockingly than in Faulkner’s “Dry September”, where a lynch mob violently chased down an African American man suspected of raping a white woman. The use of the word “nigger” was rife in many of these stories. Given that the derogatory slur was definitely offensive when at least some of these stories were published, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the US retained the mentality of slavery long after the practice was abolished.
Jack London’s “The Heathen” was also emblematic of the epoch, another story that I found difficult to read in 2017. Charley thinks his “Heathen…gross materialist…friend” Otoo is there to serve him. African Americans existing solely to tend to his every whim. It was a vile story with Otoo dying trying to save his Master. I questioned the very foundation upon which the United States was built after reading it.
Edgar Allan Poe offered some light relief from the harshness of slavery and racism with a thoroughly enjoyable story of a husband murdering his wife.
I did try desperately hard not to let Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber” end up as my favourite story here, but failed, much like Macomber himself. Doubtless it is my own bias but “Macomber” is deliciously opaque yet subtly makes the reader confront some unsettling themes.
The Classic American Short Stories here revealed the real underbelly of life at the time. With the United States still a hegemonic power, it is too facile to fall for their land of the free narrative that they portray. It was nothing of the sort, as the tales here can attest to.