Which short stories do you like? It’s nice to be able to easily dive in and out of a story and still feel like something’s getting done. Naturally, English majors have to read a lot of these kinds of stories, which is fun most of the time, but can also be a pain in the neck (Looking at you, Gertrude Stein).
Since 2020 marks the twentieth year since I got my degree (yikes, I’m getting old), I thought I would revisit my favorite short stories from my college years. So, without further chitchat and in no particular order, here’s my list…
A&P (John Updike)
Brief and satisfying. Sammy, a clerk working at a grocery store in New England sees three girls in bathing suits come in off the beach to buy a jar of herring. One of them, Queenie, is especially intriguing, leading the other two girls through the store, her bare feet padding on the tile as if she’s unaccustomed to kicking off her shoes. In the space of ten minutes, Sammy goes from summer job lethargy to fantasizing about Queenie’s life and contrasting it with his own.
It may not seem like it, but the story is a form of romantic archetype, with Sammy as the squire turned knight, the three girls as princesses, and the store manager as the dragon. Will Sammy vanquish the dragon and win the heart of fair Queenie? That is the big question.
First published in The New Yorker in 1961, “A&P” also appeared in the anthology, Pigeon Feathers. Read the story here.
Story of A Speech (Mark Twain)
Mark Twain was a regular trailblazer, and among other things, he basically invented the celebrity roast decades before the Friars Club skewered Maurice Chevalier. The fateful occasion was John Greenleaf Whittier’s birthday dinner on December 17, 1877, with many auguste personages in attendance, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Twain got up and spouted a yarn about Longfellow, Holmes, and Emerson visiting a miner at his cabin, playing a round of poker with him, and stealing his boots on the way out.
To the assembly’s further horror, Twain’s three heroes almost solely spoke in quotes from their most famous works. This was a time when writers such as these were only discussed in hushed, reverent tones, and Twain’s speech prompted a huge outcry, both within literary circles and without. Twain apologized, but the damage was done, and he didn’t seem to mind too much.
I first read this story in my second semester of American Literature at Sierra College. My prof had us read it aloud in class, which was great for a bunch of English majors because we could hardly get through it without laughing our heads off. We knew what Twain was doing, and we thought it was glorious.
Twain’s account of the speech was written almost thirty years after the fact, and he did take a few liberties for dramatic purposes. Find some more history and read the speech here.
A New England Nun (Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman)
Louisa’s wedding to Joe is in a month. They’ve been engaged for fifteen years, and Joe has spent fourteen of them in Australia making his fortune. Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Well…not always. Louisa’s life is very ordered. She has her own habits and pastimes, with her house kept just so and her dog, Caesar, living in his own little abode in the backyard. When Joe comes over, everything feels ruffled. Louisa doesn’t particularly want to marry Joe anymore, but she doesn’t know how to tell him. It’s not until she suspects Joe is in love with another woman that she spies a possible exit.
I can’t remember how I found this story; I think I just ran across it when I was flipping through one of my giant anthologies, but Freeman’s easy, graceful prose style hooked me. Freeman was what’s known as a regional author, meaning that her works were primarily set in one place, which, in her case, was New England. She was also fond of using religious imagery in her stories; “A New England Nun” compares Louisa’s view of her life to a nun praying a rosary. The story would have been shocking when it was first published in 1891, because the idea of a woman deliberately giving up her chance to be married was considered foolhardy.
Read the story here.
The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
Postpartum depression has only become somewhat better-understood in the last few decades, but during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, people didn’t have a clue how to treat it. Oftentimes, women who suffered from postpartum issues were institutionalized, at least temporarily. That was the plan, anyway, and these stays were called “rest cures.” Problem was, such measures could result in women actually going crazy.
That’s what ‘The Yellow Wallpaper” is about. The unnamed narrator thinks she’s at a resort with her husband for some rest and relaxation, but she can’t understand why there aren’t any other people around. Or why the windows have bars on them. Pretty soon, though, she doesn’t care, because she starts seeing figures in the wallpaper, which follows her around.
Gilman’s story, which was first published in 1899, is creepy as all get-out. She deserves major kudos for drawing attention to a then-neglected aspect of women’s health. Read the story here.
The Fall of the House of Usher (Edgar Allan Poe)
OK, so I’ve talked about this story a couple of times on this blog already (Read the posts here and here), but this story is definitely a favorite from my college days. First published in 1839, it hit all the Victorian feels, because it fed into everything people from that time were scared of. Reading it almost two hundred years later, I found it to be a textbook example of Gothic literature–there’s decay, devolution, and darkness, with a sense of creeping doom.
In a nutshell, the narrator watches helplessly as his childhood friend, Roderick, and his sister, Madeline, slowly die. Or do they? Either way, the House of Usher, both the family and their abode, are doomed to crumble. Roderick and Madeline are good with that, because they know their family is cursed.
Read the story here.
Soldier’s Home (Ernest Hemingway)
Confession time: I’m not a Hemingway fan by any stretch of the imagination. No offense anyone, I know he’s all iconic and everything, but I can’t stand his novels–the similies are weird, the characters are badly drawn, and the stories tend to be clunky. I had to read a couple of his books in high school and college because well-rounded education. Ugh. I prefer Steinbeck.
That’s why “Soldier’s Home” was a pleasant surprise. It follows Harold Krebs, an American soldier who comes back from the First World War to find he has no place in his former life. He’s even too late for the big welcoming party his town hosts for returning soldiers. Krebs has no interest in getting a job or a girlfriend, and he lies about his war experiences. It’s not until he makes the mistake of saying he doesn’t love his mother that he gets the barest hint of an idea that he’s on the wrong track. Still, Krebs lacks any real belief or roots.
While the story is a wee bit depressing, it captures the displacement many soldiers felt; maybe not for the same reasons, but feeling out of place was certainly pretty widespread. Hemingway couldn’t have seen it in 1923, when the story was published. but the 1944 G.I. Bill came about because of the trouble his fellow veterans had at returning to civilian life.
The Bride Comes To Yellow Sky (Stephen Crane)
If you’re like me and only knew Stephen Crane from The Red Badge of Courage, “The Bride Comes To Yellow Sky” seems to have been written by a completely different person. For one thing, it sets the idea of stereotypically formal Victorian dialogue on its ear, even for Crane. Where Badge is dry and tragic, but not always in that order, “Sky” is ironic and hilarious, and a marriage is the cause of it all.
Yellow Sky is a Texas town that’s stuck in the Wild West era, and we know this because a drummer (read: traveling salesman) asks his fellow saloon patrons about local gunslinger and troublemaker Scratchy Wilson. The usual custom in Yellow Sky is that Scratchy gets restless and starts prowling the town, where Jack Potter, the town marshall, finds him and lays down the law. Their gun battles are more sparring than fight-to-the-death, although Jack shot Scratchy in the leg once, and matters always wind up with Scratchy suitably chastened. He’s not a bad guy when he’s sober.
This time, however, the townspeople are seemingly at Scratchy’s mercy because Jack has gone to San Antonio to get married. Where is Jack when Yellow Sky needs him? And what will Jack’s new wife say?
I know I left out several favorites (paging Ray Bradbury), but this is a pretty good snapshot of what College Me liked. For that matter, Present-Day Me still enjoys them, so this was a fun trip down Memory Lane. Again, which stories do you like? Feel free to comment below, and see you Sunday for our first blogathon of the year. Thanks for reading, all…