Study Guide

James Salter

James Salter Essay - Salter, James (Short Story Criticism)

Salter, James (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

James Salter 1925-

(Born James Horowitz) American short story writer, novelist, memoirist, and travel writer.

The following entry provides information on Salter's short fiction career from 1988 through 1998.

Published in 1988, Dusk and Other Stories is Salter's only collection of short fiction. In these stories, he combines personal experience and imagination to explore the nature of desire while illuminating the dynamics of human relationships. Utilizing elements of literary impressionism, a technique derived from painting in which atmosphere and mood are evoked through subjective observation, Salter depicts tensions within his characters' psyches, focusing particularly on obsession, sexuality, ambition, and failure. In his prose, which has been compared to that of Ernest Hemingway for its staccato rhythms and direct tone, Salter employs such devices as repetition, imagery, and episodic narration to construct adventurous plots that probe aspects of human perception and motivation.

Biographical Information

Salter was born on June 10, 1925, and grew up in New York City. As a child, he was interested in painting and writing poetry. In high school, Salter worked on his school's literary magazine, won mention in a national poetry contest, and had poems published in Poetry magazine. After graduating in 1945, he joined the Air Force, earning an appointment to West Point, and served as a pilot for twelve years. During this time, he began to write under the pseudonym James Salter. In 1950 Salter received an M.A. in international affairs from Georgetown University. In 1951 he served in Korea for six months, flying one hundred combat missions. Salter was then assigned to duty in Germany and the United States, and spent extensive time in Europe, particularly Paris. These experiences abroad would provide material for his fictional work. After Salter's first novel, The Hunters (1956), was published, he resigned from the air force, moved to New York, and became a full-time writer. He continues to write novels and short fiction and has taught writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the University of Houston, and Vassar. Salter lives in Aspen, Colorado, and Long Island, New York.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Salter's only short story collection, Dusk and Other Stories, assembles previously published and unpublished fiction from throughout his career. Displaying various styles, settings, and subjects, these pieces focus on many themes explored in his novels, including sexuality, desire, failure, exile, and death, while featuring shifting points of view and evocative imagery. “Am Strand von Tanger” chronicles the story of a young American artist named Malcolm living in Barcelona. Malcolm is involved with Nico, a young German woman. When Nico's friend Inge visits, Nico senses the growing attraction between the two and realizes that her life is about to change. In “American Express,” two successful and bored American lawyers on vacation in Italy try to pick up an Italian schoolgirl. Jane Vare, in “Twenty Minutes,” has been crushed by her horse falling on her. Waiting for death, she reflects on her life and lost loves. In “Foreign Shores,” a woman beset by personal problems discovers that her child's au pair has been receiving lewd letters from a pornographer. She fires the young lady, only to discover years later that the girl has attained a prominent place in society.

Critical Reception

Critics have deemed Salter one of the more underrated writers of his time. However, Dusk and Other Stories has garnered overwhelmingly critical praise. The collection was awarded the prestigious PEN/Faulkner award in 1988. Reviewers of Dusk and Other Stories have commended Salter's spare, economic prose, finding parallels between his narrative style and the genres of painting, music, and film. A few critics have detected a French sensibility in his work. Commentators have also noted the range of setting and subject matter in the stories comprising the collection. Salter's short fiction has been compared to that of John Cheever, and the influence of such short story writers such as Anton Chekhov and Isaac Babel has been identified in his work.

Principal Works

Dusk and Other Stories 1988

The Hunters (novel) 1956

The Arm of Flesh (novel) 1961

A Sport and a Pastime (novel) 1967

Light Years (novel) 1975

Solo Faces (novel) 1988

Tasting Paris: An Intimate Guide: The Streets, the Bistros, and the Louvre [with Kay Eldredge] (travel essay) 1996

Burning the Days: Recollection (memoirs) 1997

Cassada (novel) 2000

Life Is Meals [with Kay Eldredge] (nonfiction) 2003

Criticism

Richard Eder (review date 17 February 1988)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Short Stories That Ignite When Struck.” Los Angeles Times (17 February 1988): 1.

[In the following review, Eder provides a favorable assessment of the stories comprising Dusk and Other Stories.]

To say that James Salter's short stories are terse, expertly written and able to command a range of moods with the most economical of gestures is to tell the truth and deceive.

Because the next adjective ought to be cool, and you would have one more specimen of the accomplished and distanced mode that has marked the strongest American short story fiction until recently, though I think it is being overtaken.

But that has nothing to do with Salter. The missing word is not cool but resplendent. That is not a Salterian adjective, not because it is a hot word but because it is rather general. Salter, in his carefully laid gunpowder train, drops a white hot phrase that ignites the whole thing, but it is as precise as a match flare. It is the single sudden crescendo in a Renaissance motet, and it will blow your heart out.

What can be said about a Salter short story? It is very short, for one thing, four of the 11 stories in this collection [Dusk and Other Stories] are 1,000 words or less. …

HORSEBACK ACCIDENT

The five pages of “20 Minutes” use a horseback accident, an unfaithful and departed husband, two would be affairs, a desert landscape and an air of wealth—each of these conveyed in a sentence or two—to sum up the barren and painful life of a woman who lies on the ground, her bones crushed. She screams as she begins to die; later, those who come upon her body find dirt in her ears.

The scream, the dirt; these are the match points I was speaking of. They set fire to our carefully catalogued sensations.

Except for “Foreign Shores,” which seems loaded against the rich divorcee who dismisses her German nursemaid when she finds a packet of pornographic letters in her belongings, Salter's intention is entirely absorbed by...

(The entire section is 885 words.)

Ned Rorem (review date 6 March 1988)

SOURCE: Rorem, Ned. “The Artistry of James Salter.” Washington Post Book World (6 March 1988): 1-2.

[In the following positive assessment of Dusk and Other Stories, Rorem describes Salter's work as having a French sensibility.]

Although still something of a cult figure, James Salter, because of his short fiction, inhabits the same rarefied heights as such establishment idols as Flannery O'Connor, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams (whose stories are much superior to his plays) and John Cheever. Like that of the first three, his style is opulent and his content excruciating; like Cheever's, his characters are mostly well off, youngish, suburban American WASPs...

(The entire section is 1329 words.)

Peter Wild (review date winter 1989)

SOURCE: Wild, Peter. Review of Dusk and Other Stories, by James Salter. Western American Literature 23, no. 4 (winter 1989): 375.

[In the following review, Wild offers a mixed assessment of Dusk and Other Stories.]

Thrown from her horse and badly crushed, a lone rider remembers her past lovers. Bored by success, two American lawyers try to expunge their world-weariness on their tour of Italy by picking up a schoolgirl. A well-off divorcée learns to her sadness that a lover has betrayed her. Such are the pangs in James Salter's first collection of short stories [Dusk]. People fixate on love as life's antidote, only to end up rejected or victorious in the...

(The entire section is 315 words.)

Freddie Baveystock (review date 25 May 1990)

SOURCE: Baveystock, Freddie. “Fading out and Flaring up.” Times Literary Supplement (25 May 1990): 558.

[In the following positive review, Baveystock commends Salter's clear and uncluttered prose in Dusk and Other Stories.]

The eleven stories in James Salter's first collection of short fiction [Dusk] are curiously timeless, yet unerringly evocative of a time not long past. This edition fudges the question as to when they were written by declaring some to be new while “others were published individually over a span of years”. Salter himself omits anything which might date his fiction: there are no references to current events, no brand names, and meals...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

Richard Burgin (review date 1990)

SOURCE: Burgin, Richard. “Beyond Minimalism.” Partisan Review 57, no. 1 (1990): 160-62.

[In the following laudatory assessment of Dusk and Other Stories, Burgin argues that Salter should not be considered a minimalist.]

A plethora of articles in literary journals and mass-circulation newspapers alike have recently railed against the perfidious influence of something called minimalism on the American short story. At the same time there've been an approximately equal number of articles celebrating the quantity of fine stories being published, articles which refer to our time as a veritable renaissance of the short story. I side more with the second position,...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

James Salter and Edward Hirsch (interview date summer 1993)

SOURCE: Salter, James and Edward Hirsch. “James Salter: The Art of Fiction 133.” Paris Review 35, no. 127 (summer 1993): 55-100.

[In the following interview, Salter discusses his creative process, the influences on his work, and his favorite authors.]

James Salter is a consummate storyteller. His manners are precise and elegant; he has a splendid New York accent; he runs his hands through his gray hair and laughs boyishly. At sixty-seven he has the fitness of an ex-military man. He tells anecdotes easily, dramatically, but he also carries an aura of reserve about him. There is a privacy one doesn't breach.

Salter was born in 1925 and raised in New...

(The entire section is 12376 words.)

William Dowie (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Dowie, William. “Short Story Writer (Dusk and Other Stories).” In James Salter, pp. 94-109. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

[In the following essay, Dowie considers the main thematic concerns of Salter's short stories.]

More than a decade after the publication of his initial novel, Salter's short story “Am Strand von Tanger” appeared in the pages of the Paris Review (Fall 1968). He had written a few stories before, but this was admittedly his first one of any merit, and it was the first to be accepted in print. George Plimpton, editor of the review since its founding in 1953 by young Americans Peter Matthiessen and Harold Humes, had...

(The entire section is 7224 words.)