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A Thread of Years

THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES OF THE CENTURY;\o7 Edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison; (Houghton Mifflin: 776 pp., $28)\f7

July 18, 1999|PATRICIA HAMPL | 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.

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