The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Volume 6: Courage

“It can never be said…. Because there’s no guide for the search and no definition for the thing found. There’s only the necessity…for man to go beyond himself, to go beyond reason, even beyond truth….” – Dana Burnet

Nicolai Gogol (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Nicolai Gogol (image courtesy Wikimedia)

This, volume 6 of The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, has as its theme courage. I think that it’s the most frustrating volume of this collection that I have yet read. (With the exception of a classic tale by Gogol, none of the stories are memorable.) When I was searching for a quote, for example, to use as sub-heading, I probably spent the better part of two hours fumbling through the volume trying to find any quote that would work as a stand-alone. I had hoped to use a quote from the Gogol classic, “The Cloak” (you likely know it by its more common English translation, “The Overcoat”) mentioned above. No luck – whether it was the translation or the late hour when I was searching, no usable quote appeared from the only canonical author in this volume.

So I find myself using a quote from a popular author of the time, one Dana Burnet.

And here we go. You may, at this point, like those guys in Holden Caulfield’s Oral Expression class, begin yelling “Digression!”- but, as Holden says, “I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”

I couldn’t find a picture of Dana Burnet. Burnet was a highly successful writer who wrote for Broadway and for Hollywood (including at least two screenplays for Jimmy Stewart movies). And so you see a picture of Nicolai Gogol.

Because you can’t find Dana Burnet’s picture. On the freaking Internet.

J. D. Salinger, a writer whose picture you can find on the Internet (image courtesy Wikimedia)

J. D. Salinger, a writer whose picture you can find on the Internet (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Okay, take a look at the picture at the right. This person is J. D. Salinger. As almost any reader who bothers with this kind of essay already knows, Salinger, one of the most famous American writers of the 20th century, decided at around age forty to become a recluse. He kept to his decision for over 50 years. The author of The Catcher in the Rye simply disappeared.

If you spend a little time, however, you can find several pictures of this famously camera shy recluse, even pictures of him with his children.  This despite the fact that Salinger lived in what was basically a bunker in Cornish, New Hampshire and people there were famously protective of his privacy. Ah, the power of the Internet.

Thomas Pynchon, another writer whose picture you can find on the Internet (image courtesy Los Angeles Review of Books)

Thomas Pynchon, another writer whose picture you can find on the Internet (image courtesy Los Angeles Review of Books)

This picture is of another famous American author who is a recluse, a guy by the name of Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon decided to hide out at an even younger age than Salinger; there are no known pictures of him since his college days at Cornell in the 1950’s. But you can still find pictures of him.

Why Salinger decided to become a recluse is well known; he hated being famous. Pynchon’s decision to become a recluse has never been satisfactorily explained. The author of The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow seems to feel that he can only be free to write his (often vast) treatises on American culture by working in relative anonymity. Given Pynchon’s lofty literary reputation, one could certainly argue that the strategy has worked.

And that brings us back to to Dana Burnet. Burnet, who was, as mentioned above, a successful and popular writer in his time, has no pictures on the Internet. Salinger has pictures. Pynchon has pictures. Dana Burnet has no pictures.

So, are we to conclude that Dana Burnet, a middle brow author of faded reputation, felt the need to be a greater recluse than two of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers? I am reminded of my favorite joke by a now nearly forgotten comedian, The Unknown Comic, who became famous according to the Warhol Rule via Chuck Barris’ delightfully demented television program, The Gong Show: “What do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhino? Elephino.”

I digress, as you may have noted by now.

So in this volume, we get such “great” stories as a Mary Roberts Rinehart piece of sentimentality about a thug and his beloved, “The Trumpet Sounds”; a slightly incoherent ramble by Arnold Bennet about a football (soccer) hero who triumphs on the field but suffers off called “The Matador of the Five Towns,” which is – sentimental; “The Substitute,” by French author Francois Coppee, about a kid who never had a chance who grows up to be a guy who gives away his last chance – sentimental; an Emma-Lindsay Squier story, “A Great Rushing of Wings,” about a young widow with a handicapped child who hikes through a blizzard to a small church in search of a miracle on Christmas Eve – sentimental; French author Paul Bourget’s “The Age for Love” about a famous author, a journalist who seeks to write a hit piece on him, and how love changes everything – sentimental; and finally, an Anatole France story about a juggler in medieval France who proves his love for the Virgin Mary by – yep, juggling – (feel free to insert your own word here if you’re tired of reading “sentimental”).

That leaves three stories, one by a canonical stalwart, the above mentioned Gogol, one by the well regarded minor author, Ambrose Bierce, and a story by that reclusive Dana Burnet.

The Ambrose Bierce story “A Horseman in the Sky” is good, but not one of his best. (I much prefer the psychologically richer “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” or the interestingly eerie “The Damned Thing.”) A young man and his father part ways over their allegiances during the Civil War (son – Union; father – Confederate). In one of those twists of fate that happen incredibly rarely in life, but with alarming frequency in late 19th century short fiction, the son, serving as a sentinel, is forced to kill the father, a scout. The story’s saving grace is that the father is sitting on his horse on a mountain cliff looking over a valley where Union troops are gathered. The son, unable to bring himself to shoot his father, shoots the horse instead. Bierce gives us this remarkable description told from the point of view of a Union officer in the valley below who happens to be looking up at the cliff at the right moment:

Lifting his eyes to the dizzy altitude of its summit the officer saw an astonishing sight – a man on horseback riding down into the valley through the air!

Gogol’s great story “The Cloak” explores the life of a minor bureaucrat, the comically named Akakey Akakyevitch. Akakey lives a lonely, unappreciated life and defines himself through his work. When his old cloak becomes too threadbare for further repairs, he scrimps and saves and finally orders a new cloak. The new cloak draws the admiring attention of his co-workers and even leads his boss to invite him to an evening party. The party is held in a fashionable part of town far from Akakey’s humble lodgings, and he makes the fateful decision to walk to and from the event to save the small sum he would have paid for public transport. His success at the party is small at best, but he is given a few glasses of champagne and his cloak is admired. On his way home (his journey has taken him through a dangerous neighborhood), he is accosted by thugs and his cloak stolen. The theft is greater than an item of apparel; obsessed with regaining his cloak, and thus his identity, Akakey eventually ruins his health and dies a broken man. Because this is Gogol, however, the story does not end there. Akakey’s ghost haunts the city and demands cloaks from late night travelers. Finally he gets his man: the boss who had once bullied him and whose party invitation indirectly led to the theft of Akakey’s cloak. Terrified when Akakey’s ghost appears in his carriage, the “prominent personage,” as he is referred to in the story, throws his cloak out the window and has his driver race home instead of going to his mistress’s house. Akakey’s spirit, placated at last, is never seen again:

Evidently the prominent personage’s cloak just fitted his shoulders; at all events, no more instances of his dragging cloaks from people’s shoulders were heard of.

Finally,there’s the elusive Dana Burnet’s story “Mr. Onion,” which appeared in Collier’s in August 1926. Burnet’s tale is best described, I think, as an F. Scott Fitzgerald story with a moralistic twist. A rich young couple is spending time in a cottage on the Maine coast. Both husband and wife are carrying on serious flirtations that look to blossom into full fledged affairs with a tad more provocation. There’s a lot of talk between the couple about being “modern” and how that obliges them to be unhappy – with themselves and with each other though both protest their love. They have a young son who catches a cold that develops into pneumonia. The son’s favorite toy is a clown doll carrying a ladder – named, appropriately, Mr. Onion. Shortly before becoming ill, the child had climbed on top of a sofa and placed the doll on top of a bookcase. When the child’s health crisis is at its gravest, the wife, Marian, finds the husband, John, on his knees in front of the bookcase praying to Mr. Onion:

Listen Mr. Onion, don’t let him die. Save him, save Jackie…, Mr. Onion…He loves you, that makes you alive…. He believes in you, that makes you divine…. You’re his greatest treasure…. I love him, too, but my love isn’t enough…. I’ve never given him magic…. I’ve never given him wonder…. Oh, Mr. Onion…. Oh, God…. Save him….

Leaving aside the shift of the husband’s address from Mr. Onion to God, the scene inspires the wife. She goes to the boy’s room and assures him that Mr. Onion has said he will get well. The child accepts this as truth and recovers. Later the husband and wife have a “meaningful” conversation in which the husband confesses his need for faith and the wife assures him she’s been thinking the same thing. They realize this must be their private experience and that they can’t betray their new religious enlightenment to their crowd of Fitzgeraldean hipsters. Marian concludes:

‘We can never tell anyone,’ said Marian. ‘This is our secret, and this is our…wedding day.’

One is not quite sure what Burnet wants his readers to think. Is he offering a subtle Middle American critique of the Jazz Age weltenschauung? Or is he simply playing to an audience who expects flappers and philosophers to learn their lesson and get right with the Lord?

Ah, that Dana Burnet. Elusive in more than one way….

(See earlier essays on volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

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About Jim Booth

Novelist, college professor, rock musician - are we getting the band back together? Maybe....
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8 Responses to The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Volume 6: Courage

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