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Delve Seminar Summaries: The American Short Story

[by Acacia Blackwell]

SEPTEMBER 13: For the first meeting of “The American Short Story” seminar, we tackled four stories that collectively demonstrate the stylistic variations and juxtapositions that we see across the genre. We first discussed Ann Beattie’s very short story, “Snow,” which, in its brevity and preoccupation with the act of storytelling, both asks and demonstrates what the short story can do. And, furthermore, what does a modern reader look for in short fiction?

Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” offered a resounding answer: among other things, the contemporary reader can relate to Carver’s brand of straightforward realism. Of Carver’s accessibility, our Delve Guide novelist Pauls Toutonghi said: “The attraction of Carver is, in my opinion, based on his clear, simple prose. His sentences are easy to read—and their rhythm pulls you into the story, almost unbearably so.”

In dealing with Nathanial Hawthorne’s 1835 story, “Young Goodman Brown”, the discussion centered on the historical subgenre of the fable. The story seeks to both entertain, but also to instruct, in a way that a 20th century fiction writer just might not get away with.

Finally we talked about Kate Chopin’s 1891 story, “The Story of an Hour.” Of Chopin’s work, Pauls noted that, “In her time, Chopin was a controversial author, writing against the predominant modes of an inequality-plagued society.” “The Story of an Hour” deals with the internal conflict of a woman who, upon the death of her husband, confronts both immense tragedy, and the possibility of liberation.

SEPTEMBER 20: If the stories of the first week of “The American Short Story” seminar were linked in their demonstrative aspects, the stories of week two are lumped together for their collective preoccupation with childhood. To start off the discussion of Margaret Atwood’s short story “Death by Landscape” Pauls posed the question: What does the story’s setting of a girls’ summer camp accomplish? This question sparked an energetic debate about the effect of the setting on each reader’s interpretation of the story. Among the group’s conclusions on this issue were: first, that for many, summer camp evokes a certain innocent sentimentality drawing the reader into the story by way of familiarity with the nuances of the setting; second, that the camp setting evokes a tension between a highly routinized environment, within the untamed natural wilderness; finally, the setting reminds the reader of the vulnerability of a child separated from his or her parents, and how this separation engenders both a sense of freedom and liability.

Furthering our discussion of childhood, we turned to Willa Cather’s story, “Paul’s Case.” Opinion of the was enormously divided among group members’ reactions to the story’s protagonist, a young, male aesthete, who is cripplingly dissatisfied with his ordinary life, and makes a series of grand gestures to escape it. This debate somewhat paralleled our conversation about John Updike’s controversial narrator in “A & P,” with whom some identified, and many found objectionable in his transparent misogyny.

A discussion of the role of the teachers in “Paul’s Case” provided a transition to Philip Roth’s hilarious yet deeply troubling story, “The Conversion of the Jews” in which a young Jewish boy confronts the limitations of his belief system and his education system. Of this story, Pauls commented: For me Philip Roth’s ”The Conversion of the Jews,” is the most successful of all the stories we read last week. It just has such a funny tone—one that also has, at its center, a deeply serious message. “You shouldn’t ever hit anyone about God,” the child protagonist of the story makes everyone promise, as he stands on a roof, threatening to jump off. The innocence and nobility of this statement is a contrast to the fallen world that surrounds him.

September 27: This week our Delve group discussed four stories which are linked in their iterations of the binding forces of family. Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” tells the story of the moment when an ungrateful son’s life is forever altered. We talked about the story’s treatment of racism, and the tension created by Julian’s antagonism towards his mother; Julian’s pronounced antipathy draws the reader’s sympathies away from Julian and toward the more conventionally racist character: his mother. This story presents two highly unlikeable characters and forces the reader to ally themselves with the lesser of two evils. Of this story, Pauls commented: “There’s a real darkness at the center of the story that isn’t alleviated by anything.”

Our consideration of parent/child relationships offered a neat transition into Am Tan’s story, “The Rules of the Game” which investigates the role of pride and how it changes between cultures and generations, through a story about a young chess prodigy and her mother’s appropriation of her success. This story raises difficult questions about how individuals often exercise a certain degree of ownership over the actions or public perceptions of family members.

Continuing on this thread, we talked about James Baldwin’s  “Sonny’s Blues”, a story written in stunningly lyrical prose, and dealing directly with questions of community, family and a sense of filial responsibility. This story, which portrays a man coming to terms with his brother’s drug addiction, subsequent imprisonment  and his commitment to music, more than almost any story I’ve ever read, reminds us of the importance of taking care of family, of listening, of stepping outside oneself to try and really understand another person.

Finally we talked about a story that depicts another kind of family: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Pauls noted that, “The men of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” become a family of sorts, facing death together in the jungles of Vietnam. The formal device that characterizes this story is what makes it so incredible, to me. O’Brien writes a story quite unlike any other I’ve read in the English language—a not-too-small feat, in my opinion.”

October 4: As last week’s stories were bound together by their characterizations of family, this week’s stories are related in their being set outside the U.S. We talked first about Ursula Le Guin’s story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. This story, which contains both strikingly beautiful and strikingly brutal imagery, portrays an idyllic society, but ones whose freedoms and luxuries come at a dear cost. Several people were reminded of Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery”, in the way that Le Guin’s story deals with an entire community knowingly sacrificing an individual, in the name of maintaining their social system.

In addition to foreign settings, these stories seemed, to me, to be linked by their mutual exploration of happiness: what it entails, and what it costs. We focused next on Katherine Mansfield’s story, “Bliss”, which deals with this question. Bertha, the story’s protagonist, is overcome by a kind of expansive uncontrollable bliss which, it seems is threatened by a sobering realization. But the end of he story seems to suggest that true happiness can be sustained, even in the face of tragedy.   Edwidge Danticat’s “A Wall of Fire Rising” was less popular with the group, perhaps because it feels a little bit instructive: it has an axe to grind, so to speak. Even so, the story presented a parallel to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” in its depiction of a character who walks away from a system that he sees as infected with injustice.

Finally we discussed Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” and were transported not only outside of America, but off of dry land. This story raised the question about the role of fate in human life. The story’s primary antagonist, Nature, doesn’t seem to care about the mens’ survival. Solidarity is a potent theme in the story, as the presence of God is conspicuously absent, thus forcing the characters to rely on themselves and one another for survival.

October 11: This week we started our conversation with one of my personal favorite writers: Virginia Woolf. To kick off the discussion of Woolf’s short story “Kew Gardens,” Pauls posed the question: What is the plot of this story? The answer to this question was a unanimous silence. Participants were hesitant to say that they strictly disliked this story—everyone found some image that resonated with them—but the consensus of the group was that the story was somewhat inaccessible, that this story indicates an extreme in the genre, prioritizing the poetry of the prose and the strength of the imagery over the action.

Following our conversation about Woolf, we talked about another seminal piece by a female author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a shocking and disturbing depiction of a female artist coping with post-partum depression and the culture’s lack of understanding of the condition. Our discussion centered first on the character of the husband and how Gilman subtly but tellingly reveals his complete ignorance of his wife’s needs, and then moved to the consequences of a woman not having a voice, a means of expressing herself.

This theme brought us into a discussion of Bobbie Ann Mason’s story “Shiloh,” about a young couple trying to redefine their relationship after a transition. The lack of communication between husband and wife reminded some readers of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” which we read earlier in the seminar. This story epitomized the tension between what is best for the family and what is best for the individual, and the often tricky process of negotiating between them.

Finally, having stored with Virginia Woolf, we ended with Tobias Wolff, and his short story “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” another story about one’s voice. This story engendered the liveliest discussion, perhaps because it felt the most contemporary, but also because it reveals its characters’ most baser instincts: their competitiveness, their jealousy, their capacity for manipulation. We see Wolff’s characters clearly, but still find room to deeply empathize with them.

October 25: This week we started out by discussing another one of my favorite modernists: James Joyce. We read “Araby,” a short story from Joyce’s collection, Dubliners. The discussion focused on Joyce’s use of the word “vanity” to express the central character’s crippling flaw. “Where is the vanity?” many people asked. Was it vain for the boy to think he could succeed, or to believe he could overcome his circumstances? Or did the vanity arise from the humiliation of an imagined but unfulfilled romance? What everyone agreed on was that the story, with its descriptive language and religious undertones, created a palpable sense of the boy’s home life, as well as the greater society. The experience of reading the story was best described in the discussion as, “being in search of a feeling.”

Then we moved on to a discussion of Eudora Welty’s story, “A Worn Path.” Pauls informed the group that Welty herself said of this story, “this is a story about the way a writer works” eliciting a debate about that metaphor. One group member commented that she often likes having written, more than actually writing. That the path full of challenges and obstacles is only justified by the reward of accomplishment. But this story is also shocking, and violent, which seemed to convey, for some participants, that only in the face of adversity are we capable of surprising ourselves, as people and as writers.

Finally we entered the genre of magical realism with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ short story, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” For some, this genre can be difficult to get used to; it doesn’t always feel natural to suspend your disbelief about the boundaries between reality and fantasy. But for others, stories grounded in realism but enhanced by magic create an experience of reading that is perfectly poised between the familiarities of realism and the strangeness of magic. Pauls described his experience of reading this story as, “being in love with the feeling of something not being understandable and living by its own internal logic.”

Sadly, this was the final week of our Delve seminar. It was a wonderful experience for me and I hope for everyone who participated. Thanks so much to Pauls Toutonghi, our fantastic guide through the genre of short story, and to Jen Fejta for working so hard to coordinate these fun, enlightening, informative seminars. I hope I get the chance to take another seminar!

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