Philip Stevick, The American Short Story 1900 – 1945

Stevick, Philip, Ed. The American Short Story 1900 – 1945. Twayne, 1984.

Summary of Work
This collection of essays overviews the evolution of the American short story through the first half of the twentieth century. Starting with a discussion of a moving into an era of technology and mechanical instruments when previously life had been devoid of many things people of today take for granted (like bathtubs), Philip Stevick says that the writers of the first half of the century became fixated on the issues that came with such modernization and invention.

The first essay discusses the work of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather. While writing styles differed slightly as did topics, all of these authors dealt with how to portray the importance of specific morals in light of a more mechanical world. Cather also made the focus of her work the indomitable spirit of the American pioneers. The short stories worked to form a more general identity of what it meant to be an American and what morals should never be relinquished because they would lead to tragic, heartless, mechanical ends. The chapter concludes with an author that the whole rest of the collection will not stop discussing: Sherwood Anderson.

Although Sherwood Anderson insisted that his work Winesberg, Ohio was a novel, it also served very much as a collection or series of short stories that were seemingly formless, although artfully crafted. Dealing with specific individuals seen through the eyes of the journalist George Willard, the stories deal with more than just morals: they deal with individuals and insist on displaying the loneliness and sexuality of the characters. Those last two, loneliness and sexuality, had yet to be talked about so explicitly in American short story writing, and from the moment Anderson started writing about them so openly, the short story would never be the same.

The era of the 1920s saw a more structured and formulaic short story, with earlier writers lamenting the mechanical way that stories were written in order to gain popular acclaim. Fitzgerald was a master of this formulaic story, crafting his stories to sell and so he would have money while he worked on his novels. Hemingway came to start writing at this time, influenced by Anderson, and he wrote in a straight-to-the-point, short-sentenced prose that took Anderson’s formless story a step further: his stories were also pointless, showing only pieces or vignettes of a story that led nowhere. Yet his stories painted complex pictures of his characters and revealed that a story could defy form and still be artful. His work would come to shape the next generation of writers, who would write more like journalists than formulaic popular writers.

Then, in the period of the 1930s, there was a return from realism and social realism to the romanticism of the nineteenth century. The stories told could be considered strange or exotic or highly emotional, as might be seen in some of the stories told by authors such as Richard Wright and William Faulkner. Wright is part of what the authors detail as a revealing of an invisible group of writers, the African American population. The focus for Wright and many of the writers of this period is the creation of the character as an individual and the deconstruction of the notion of a national identity that could apply to every character. One of the ways this featured in writing of the period was an insistent on writing dialects specific to region. William Faulkner, also strongly influenced by Anderson, was first a novelist and then a short story writer, and yet he forever changed the short story and novel in America the way James Joyce did in Great Britain. Many of his short stories were long and prosaic, the exact opposite of Hemingway, and he strove not for brevity and journalism with an iceberg principle, but instead the creation of legend. His short stories very often became chapters in his novel, and he, building off of Anderson’s work, created an intricate set of stories that build the legend of Yoknapatawpha County and the characters living within it. His form of American Gothic shaped writers who came after him, and indeed, no one wanted to try to better his form, as Flannery O’Connor would state in the 1960s.

Overall, the thread that tied all of these authors together despite their disparate styles was regionalism. The American short story came to represent specific regional cultures throughout the nation, and it did so whether the story was formulaic, journalistic, formless, or legend. Anderson, Hemingway, and Faulkner would come to be the lasting names that defined the evolution of the short story for the first half of the twentieth century, and they became the building blocks for the second half of the century.

Discussion of Work
For the most part, this work gives a good, brief but thorough overview of the development of the short story by discussing the careers of the longest-lasting authors of the time period. While it goes by decade, another quality feature of this critical work is that it admits that the decades are perhaps not the best indicators of a switch in style or literary movement, particularly considering that there were wide variations of what people called realism or social realism, and that was because each author had a different life experience that defined what they saw as “real” to write about. This is why Sherwood Anderson plays a major role in the discussion of each of the authors that come to influence the development of the short story.

The major failing I see in this work is the near complete erasure of minority authors who made an impact on the writing of the time period. The whole of the Harlem Renaissance writers are passed over, with only brief mention of Wright and Langston Hughes, and only briefly mentioned names like W.E.B. Du Bois. The criticism is far more focused on the development of the short story in terms of its development through white authors. While such a development is surely important, to claim that it will be a thorough discussion of the development and history of the American short story, it must deal with these authors of color.

The work also brushes over a discussion of modernism, preferring to label the 1930s as an era of a return to romanticism, which simplifies the narrative in order to place someone like Faulkner firmly outside of the movement, whether or not that is in and of itself a true statement. What is said of modernism is that Gertrude Stein was at first accepted for her experimentalism and then later spurned for what seemed to strange and mechanical. Otherwise, the discussion of realism, social realism, and naturalism in the literature of the midwest and the South are well covered in the discussion of the authors’ careers.

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 2007. Riverhead Books, 2008.

Summary of Work
Yunior, the late boyfriend of Lola de León, narrates the story of Lola’s brother Oscar, who is the victim of what Yunior calls a fukú, a curse of death or destruction in the New World. He states that the whole curse is connected directly with the Trujillo regime, particularly Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina. The only way to ward of the curse is to create a zafa, and Yunior, believing the curse has passed to him, wants his storytelling to be his zafa.

When Oscar was little, his family lived in new Jersey, and they were very proud of their beautiful son. He had two girlfriends, a true Dominican boy, but soon the threesome falls apart. From then on, Oscar cannot get a girlfriend, and he descends into eating and becomes morbidly obese. He has two friends, but even they leave him out when they get girlfriends. Despite his sister Lola and his Uncle Rudolfo trying to get him to lose more weight and participate in masculine activities so he can get a girlfriend, Oscar decides to focus on science fiction and writing, and he goes to Santo Domingo to be with his Nena Inca for a time.

When he gets home from his visit, he meets Ana Obregón, a smart girl in his SAT prep class. He immediately falls in love, but they never date. They grow to be good friends, but when her boyfriend Manny gets back from the Army, their relationship ends. Oscar gets into Rutgers, and he hopes that he will be able to turn his life around when he is in college. However, he quickly finds out that since he didn’t change anything about himself, life is still miserable and he is still a loser.

The story then turns to Lola’s past, and she narrates. Lola always felt controlled by her mother and then always made a point to find ways to be defiant, but after her mother Belicia is diagnosed with cancer, Lola feels powerless. To regain a feeling of power, she cuts off her hair and she runs away to be with her boyfriend Aldo, and she loses her virginity to him. She finds that living with Aldo and his father is not any better than her previous situation, and when she calls Oscar to meet with him, he brings the entire family. She is caught, and she is forced to go to Santo Domingo and live with La Inca. There, she is able to feel free and happy after awhile, and she joins the high school track team and starts dating someone. She also gets to learn about her family’s past, and this helps her to find some relief from the bruja feeling that she regularly encounters.

Yunior discusses the history of the de León family, starting with Belicia. La Inca took Beli in after having lived a terrible life with an adoptive family. La Inca strives to give her a better life than what she had experienced as a child, and sends her to a private school. Her behavior causes all the children to be afraid of her, and Beli makes no friends. However, when she becomes a teenager, she starts to develop a body that men go crazy for. She decides that she will use this as a way to attract attention from her crush Jack Pujols, and they have sex in a broom closet and get caught. It comes out that Pujols is already engaged to a girl from a wealthy family, and Beli is crushed when Pujols is sent to the army. Pujols was also closely connected to the Trujillo regime, placing her in a dangerous spot even if she didn’t realize it.

After that affair, she refuses to go to school and she gets a job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. Beli has a couple of men interested in her at that time, but she doesn’t get involved with either of them. Then, out dancing one night, Beli meets the Gangster, another person with direct contact to Trujillo and influence in his regime. She falls in love with him and becomes pregnant, but because the Gangster is married to Trujillo’s sister and Beli is only the mistress, the pregnancy causes his wife to take revenge by beating her near to death and causing a miscarriage. Nearly dead in the cane field she was beaten in, Beli sees a Mongoose with lion’s eyes and it leads her out to the road. When she gets well enough to travel, La Inca sends her to New York City, knowing that if Beli stays, she will most likely be killed by the Trujillos. On the airplane, she meets the man who will be the father of her children.

While at Rutgers, Oscar has tried to commit suicide, and Lola ask Yunior to look after him while at college, and he shares a dorm room with him. At first he has little interest in Oscar because he is far too busy with dating multiple women, but when his girlfriend dumps him over infidelity, he puts a lot of effort into helping Oscar. At first Oscar tries to work out and do what Yunior suggests so he can get fit and get a girlfriend, but because he is constantly made fun of, he quits. Yunior is angry and leaves Oscar alone. But then Oscar falls inlove with a Puerto Rican girl, and they start spending a lot of time together. But when she finds a boyfriend, she stops spending time with her. Oscar gets so angry that he rips things off her walls and yells at her for leaving him, and then he tries to commit suicide again by jumping off a bridge onto the freeway. However, he is saved by the same Golden Mongoose that his mother saw, and he hits the median of the road rather than the road itself. The next year, Yunior leaves, but after he starts dating Lola, he moves back in with Oscar for the Spring semester. Lola left Santo Domingo and in her pain over having to leave, broke contact with her boyfriend and all friends, slept with an older man for $2000, and then when her boyfriend died in an accident, gave the money to his family before she left.

Yunior then tells the story of Abelard Luis Cabral, Belicia’s father. He was a successful doctor, and he had two daughters with his wife. They are rich and socialize with the Trujillos. But when his oldest daughter Jacquelyn hits puberty and becomes a beautiful woman, Abelard worries that Trujillo will want to sleep with her, as he had done that with many other girls from prominent families. He decides they will stop going to parties and social occasions, at least leaving Jacquelyn behind. His wife, his mistress, and his friend all give their opinions, but he doesn’t act on them. Then, when Trujillo asks Abelard to bring Jacquelyn to a party and Abelard outright disobeys the order, Trujillo has Abelard arrested for speaking ill of him. Abelard is sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison, and it is there that he finds out that his wife is pregnant with another daughter. When Beli is born, her mother dies in an accident and she is adopted by her mother’s relatives, only to then be sent to be a slave to another family. Her two other sisters die mysteriously, and her father dies in prison. La Inca, Abelard’s sister, finds Beli living in a chicken coop with a horrible burn on her back, given to her when she disobeyed an order.

All of the de León family goes to visit La Inca in La Capital, and Oscar loves it. He stays a month longer than the rest of his family, and he falls in love with a prostitute. He is good friends with her but never gets to have sex with her, just like all his other relationships. Ybón, the prostitute, has a boyfriend, the head of the police force. When he gets pulled over with Ybón drunk in the car one night, Ybón kisses him in front of her boyfriend; he takes Oscar to a cane field and nearly beats him to death. When Oscar is healing, Ybón, who had been beaten as well, tells him that she will be marrying the Captain, and Beli books a flight for Oscar so he can get out of Santo Domingo. However, when Oscar gets back, he borrows money from Yunior and flies back to the Dominican Republic. He spends another month pursuing Ybón, and he also does research about his family and the Trujillos and writes a book about it. he sends the manuscript off before he is murdered in a cane field by the Captain’s men.

Yunior and Lola break up after Oscar dies, and within a year Beli also dies of cancer. Nearly a year after Oscar’s death, Lola receives a package. It contains a manuscript and a letter: the manuscript is a space opera, and the letter tells Lola that she should expect another manuscript in the mail that will detail how to rid the family of the fukú that forever haunts them. However, the package never arrives in the mail. For Yunior, the only bright note in the end of Oscar’s long and sad life is that he eventually sleeps with Ybón and finally gets the romantic relationship he always wanted before he died.

Brief Note on Themes
This work is a diasporic novel and a work of magical realism. Díaz mixes US pop culture with Latin American pop culture, creating a world that is mixed culturally and through genre: things that might happen only in the world of fiction and pop culture, such as the mongoose episodes, make their way into reality, blurring the line between reality and the mystical, a perfect example of magical realism. Díaz also explicitly references works such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is a work of magical realism. The characters in Díaz’s novel also parallel those in Márquez’s novel, with the children not being able to break free from the curses of the parents. Storytelling to rebuild the past plays a large part of the magical realism, as Yunior makes up events that he does not have information for. It also allows for a larger discussion of the terror of the Trujillo regime during its years of power in the Dominican Republic.

Human sexuality, particularly sexual roles in Dominican culture, runs throughout the book. Dominican men are supposed to be hypermasculine, sleeping with many women and being unfaithful to their wives, always having a mistress or another woman to run after. Trujillo, in a place of power, becomes the most virile Dominican man, sleeping with the most beautiful women in the country whenever he wants to. Women are then characterized as objects of sexual desire, but their sexuality is also a freeing power for them, as when they use their sexuality to defy the societal expectation and standard, they gain freedom and agency. Similarly, love and family life play a large part of this story: love for people seems to bring about the violence of the curse, and the two seem to regularly work against each other, although it might also be argued that it is the combination of the two things that leads to a zafa to ward off the family curse by the end of the novel.

The novel itself, representing diaspora, shows the embodiment of immigration: Belicia is the first generation, Beli doubly so because she is first placed in a school where she doesn’t fit in with the culture, and then again when she moves to New York City and must remake herself again. She is outside of her home country, and has escaped from death, and yet has lost a space to belong. Similarly, Oscar is an outsider because he does not fit cultural standards from either culture he belongs to, US or Dominican culture. He stands in a liminal space between cultures and also stands as an intermediary between family members, and he regularly fails at achieving any success in either sphere. Lola experiences similar troubles, especially as she is torn from the US, only to not long later be torn from the Dominican Republic, where she feels much more at home, back to the US, where she feels less connected to an identity or culture.

Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Viking P, 1949.

Summary of Work
Salesman Willy Loman comes back to his home after struggling to drive to Boston. He tells his wife Linda that he is just too distracted on the road and cannot go to Boston that evening, and that he will try again tomorrow. He inquires after his boys, who are visiting. Linda says they went out together and are now asleep in their old room. Linda asks him if he is hungry or would like to go to bed, but he says he will go downstairs himself and take care of it. He starts talking to himself downstairs, and it wakes his boys, Happy and Biff. Happy tells Biff it has been going on for a long time, and that it gets worse when Biff comes into town. Biff is worried his father is going crazy.

Willy’s neighbor Charley is also awoken, and comes over to play cards with him. Willy, however, is still talking to his dead brother Ben, who struck riches in Africa, so Charley leaves. When the boys come down and start making worried comments and say things against their father, Linda tells the boys that Willie has lost his salary and works solely on commission, and hasn’t been making any money, but actually borrowing it from Charley. Biff determines that evening that he will stick around in New York City even though he doesn’t want to (he’s a bum who goes from job to job out West), and he talks with Happy about meeting an old boss to invest in a sports company they have an idea for. Willie gets very excited, getting more delusions in his head about the grandiose things his eldest sone will do. When they finally get Willie up into bed, Linda tells her sons that their father has been trying to kill himself for some time now by crashing his car, and he has a rubber pipe in the cellar that he’s used to try and kill himself. Biff is so furious that he goes down to the cellar and gets the rubber pipe, putting it in his pocket.

The next morning the boys leave early, and Willie determines he will go to the office and demand a job in New York City rather than having to travel for work. And Linda tells Willie that the boys are planning on having him at a restaurant for a fancy dinner. Upon going into the office, he is made to listen to a dictation device recording that his boss, Howard, has used the night previously with his family. When he finally gets around to having the job change discussion with Howard, he fires him despite the over three decades Willie has spent with the company. This throws Willie into another fit of delusion, and he remembers back to the football game his son Biff played and all the colleges that were after him. He wanders over to Charley’s office and talks to Charley’s son Bernard about the past, asking why his son never made anything of himself. Bernard talks about Biff flunking math and not making it up in summer school, and asks him about what happened when Biff went to see him in Boston. This throws Willie into even deeper fits of delusion and he fights with Bernard, saying that nothing happened and he can’t help that his boy just rolled over and failed.

Bernard leaves when his father Charley comes in to talk with Willie. Charley tells him that his son is now leaving to go try a court case before the Supreme Court, and Willie is sick with jealousy. He asks Charley for another hundred or so dollars to make the insurance payments, and Charley asks him why he doesn’t just take the job he offered him for 50 a week. Willie gets mad and admits that he lost his job but he just can’t work for Charley. Charley angrily hands him the money, and as Willie is leaving, he admits to Charley that he’s the only friend he has. He meets his sons for dinner, and Biff tries and fails to tell his father that he didn’t get in to see Oliver and did not get the money. Upon several failed attempts, Biff leaves the restaurant in a fury. Happy, the whole time, has been courting two women and trying to sweep the family drama under the rug. Willie wanders into the interior of the restaurant toward the stairs, and Happy states that Willie isn’t his father, pays the check, and leaves with the women.

Willie goes into another flashback where he is in Boston with his mistress and Biff unexpectedly comes knocking at the door. He hides her in the bathroom and opens the door, talking with Biff about the failed math class. While he is talking with his son, his mistress comes out and Biff is horrified and will not do anything his dad says after that, calling him a phony and a fake. The waiter Stanley helps him out of the restaurant and gets him on his way home. When the boys return home, their mother is furious, stating that they should get out and never come back because they left their father in the restaurant. Biff goes out to his father, who is planting a garden in the middle of the night and talking to his dead brother Ben about killing himself to give his family the insurance money. Biff tells his father that he’s never been anyone and that no one in the family ever has; they’ve all lied about themselves and their goings on their entire lives. He explains that over the last few months he’s been in jail for stealing a suit, and he stole his way out of every single job he ever worked. He determines he will leave and never come back because it will be better for everyone involved, especially his Dad. He grabs his father and starts crying, and his father comes to realize that his son does love him, but Willie is unable to get rid of his delusions of grandeur about his son. With the reassurance that his son loves him and the thoughts that he will one day be a great man, Willie goes through with his suicide plan and crashes his car.

The family goes to his funeral, but no one else attends. Linda doesn’t understand why she can’t cry about her husband’s death. Biff feels like his father never knew who he really was, which is why he ended up killing himself. And Charley feels that he died the true death of a salesman.

 

Brief Note on Themes
This play goes a long way in exploring the heart of the American Dream and what its real value is, as well as what a failure to reach that dream does to people as they age. The structure of the play experiments with the idea of life as a series of memories, and what happens when there is no growth or improvement: people live in the past to live with themselves, and when it brings regrets, brings bitterness. In order for these people to live with themselves, they create mythologies or legends surrounding their family members and themselves; it is hard to know if Ben actually struck rich or if it is a story that Willie made up to feel better about his family.  The whole of their family’s identity is based on performance, on presenting a likable image to the world with the idea that image alone will get you ahead. The American West is an escape for Biff, although Biff realizes that the dreams of making it big in the frontier are far flung.