Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Oxford Book of American Short Stories

I've been dipping every so often into the new Oxford Book of American Short Stories (second edition) ever since I got my hands on an early copy a few weeks ago, and I continue to find one gem after the other.  This is a massive paperback of 873 pages and 60 short stories written by the early masters of the genre and those who have carried the tradition on into this century.  Lovecraft, Poe, Twain, Faulkner, and Hemingway are in the mix alongside writers like Updike, Malamud, Cheever, and Joyce Carol Oates.  Throw in writers like King, Erdrich, Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Junot Diaz and you can watch the American short story evolve over more than two centuries.

Fans of Joyce Carol Oates, among whom I count myself, will be pleased to see that Ms. Oates has contributed both a short story and an introduction to this edition of the collection.  And, as she puts it in that introduction:
"Though it is hardly necessary, I suggest that the reader read this volume as it is assembled, more or less chronologically.  A tale will unfold, by way of numerous tales, that is uniquely and wonderfully American."
Mostly because I've so much enjoyed reading the writers in the collection least familiar to me, I haven't followed her advice so far.  However, a quick look at the table of contents makes it easier to understand what Oates is saying.  The stories are presented in the order of each author's birth year, from oldest to most contemporary - in this instance, from Washington Irving in 1783 through Junot Diaz in 1968.   Readers making their way through all sixty stories in near-chronological order this way will gain a new perspective on the evolution of American culture over the last two centuries.

This evening I read Junot Diaz's "Edison, New Jersey" and Bernard Malamud's "My Son the Murderer," two very different voices from different eras whose stories happened not all that far from each other.    I have no idea where I'll go next...and, for me, that's half the fun.  It is obvious that Oates put a lot of thought into choosing these stories, none of which will be found in the first edition of American Short Stories.  Some are familiar "classics," some have largely been forgotten for decades, and others are being introduced for the first time to the larger audience they deserve.
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