The Best Short Stories of 1915 and the Yearbook of the American Short Story is the first of the series that eventually became the Best American set of series of books. It’s in the public domain and available on Google Books. I grabbed it because I wanted to see what was considered the best way back then. I did not get or appreciate a few of the stories in the 1969 edition, but they were well-crafted. 1915 is another thing though. Several of the stories appear to be selected not for the quality of the story, but for the political content. I’m quite a fan of stories being explicitly political, but in at least a couple of cases in this collection, the entries had little else going for them. They were mostly ham-handed in their treatment of the politics as well.
Some craft things I noticed. Lots of stories were of the form where one person in the story tells another person a story. Today we’d see this done with a flashback or other method. In addition, three of those were of the form where the person tells a story about themself, but doesn’t reveal that until the end of the story.
The themes fit a couple of political and moral notes: respect for veterans, America is the land of the free, immigrants are good for our country, and most of all, right living will get a person ahead.
Did not enjoy this collection, and I probably won’t read the subsequent editions edited by Edward O’Brien even though a bunch of them are public domain and free.
- Maxwell Struthers Burt
- Back from a stint in Arizona, a man gets into a discussion with his drinking buddies about the nature of bravery. Is it instinctual or is it conditioning? To illustrate, the Arizona man tells a story of love, where a woman’s husband and another who loves her trek out to the desert in search of gold. The husband is a boor, and jeopardizes their lives as well. And yet, the other man saves his life (instinctively!). And in a preview of many other stories, at the end his buddies figure out the Arizona man is telling a story about himself.
- Donn Byrne
- Wealthy farmer marries a girl, because
her father had given her to him. Only thing was, she was in love with another named Kennedy, and he with her. After the marriage, she wastes away in the farmer’s house in quick order, and Kennedy vows revenge. The farmer has an interesting reaction. Other than the ugly morals of the time, this was a good story until the end, where it kind of falls apart.
- Will Levington Comfort
- Russian generals hire a folk singer, Chautonville, to inspire the men on the front lines to fight. Despite his fear of dying, he sings to them.
- W. A. Dwiggins
- Kind of a cool story about soldiers mobilizing at the end of a battle. Very short.
- James Francis Dwyer
- At the swearing in ceremony where he takes on U.S. citizenship, a Russian immigrant remembers back to his days in Russia when he found his Dream (capital D) of freedom in America. Very didactic.
- Young boys torment a homeless guy at the dock, where his life isn’t very valuable. Depressing.
- Ben Hecht
- A young playwright comes across a living metaphor, and the metaphor is him. And it’s ugly.
- Fannie Hurst
- Young woman works in a basement sale department under arc-lights. At night she goes to dance halls with a beau. Her roommate constantly chastises her. Then she happens on a tuberculosis exhibit and clinic and begins to think she has it because bad air and dancing gives you T.B. Also, men at dance halls are jerks who will drop you at the slightest hint of trouble.
- Ghost story that I didn’t quite understand. Visitor to the Eberdeen house has visions that put him in place of a ghost he sees.
- An Allied pilot is assigned to check out the battlefield before the troops engage with the enemy. There’s no sign of the Germans, so the pilot lands, and can’t take off again for ugly reasons.
- Harris Merton Lyon
- A parable about finding contentment in one’s Work, even if it won’t last but the moment (as the work of a sculptor or painter would). Also, another story where the speaker tells a story to another listener in the story, and at the end the speaker says,
and it was about me!
- A young farming family is faced with moving west to a place with dryer air for the health of the family’s mother. The young son wrestles with whether to stay behind and work the old farm on his own so that the family won’t have to sell it. Prepare yourself for the maudlin touching moment at the end.
- Two young lovers are separated when the woman suddenly becomes enamored of her religion and joins a convent. Feeling particularly put upon, the young man enters the chapel and stabs a statue of the Virgin Mary to express how the church torments him. At that exact same moment in the convent, his former betrothed falls dead! Yet another story within a story where the storyteller exclaims
and it’s about me!
- Decency as explained by a whale and a grasshopper. Parables. I need them explained to me.
- Short short. Woman on train behaves oddly. Girls on train giggle at her behavior, thinking her worth a laugh. Man on trains explains to chagrined girls why woman behaves oddly. It has to do with the war.
- Unrequited, and very very creepy, love. Different standards from day. I get it. But reading about a man of 24 lusting after a girl of 15 is off-putting. Particularly because the man doesn’t think of the girl as a woman, which I would sorta get under the standards of the day even though I have a hard time thinking of a 15 year old as a woman. But he keeps calling her a child, and expressing his desire for her, though he’s willing to wait for her to reach adulthood first. Squick!
- A Russian Jew comes to America for his grandson’s Bar Mitsva to keep his wife happy. He’s cranky and crabby and wants to go back to Russia, and bring the grandson back as well, even though in Russia he could not go to college because he’s Jewish. I’m missing the message in the story.
- A stubborn ex-Confederate soldier spends the rest of his life trying to ruin the Memorial Day parades populated by the Union ex-soliders in his hometown by dressing in his Confederate uniform, despite his pre-war friendship with the men of the town. Another very didactic story.
- Wilbur Daniel Steele
- This was actually a pretty interesting story, though hard to follow at times. A sailing vessel is discovered unmanned at sea, and the sailor who boards it to bring it home starts thinking there’s a ghost on the ship that turns into a yellow cat when he’s not looking.
- One man’s shame at having been a bounty jumper during the Civil War, not because of greed but because of cowardice, and his vow to atone for his wrong.
Title: The Best Short Stories of 1915 and Yearbook of the American Short Story
Editor: Edward J. O’Brien
Series: Best American Short Stories; 1915
Imprint / publisher: Small, Maynard & Company (scanned to Google Books)
Format: ePub electronic book
Length: 274 p. (not including supplementary materials)
Publication date: 2009 (originally 1916)