The Late Twentieth Century: 1960-2000 - Short Fiction

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Traditional Modernist Stories: 1960’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Several important American short-story writers of the 1960’s, such as Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, and John Updike, who began their careers in the 1950’s, represent the continuation of the traditional modern short story that originated with Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, and Eudora Welty earlier in the century.

Flannery O’Connor

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Following her influential 1955 story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find, startling readers and critics alike with its unique combination of complex Catholicism and simple southern fundamentalism, Flannery O’Connor’s 1965 collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, continued with similar rural characters and similar religious issues. Two of the most representative stories in this collection are “Greenleaf” and “Revelation,” both of which focus on women who think they are “good country people,” but who must face their true selves in violent religious visions.

“Revelation” focuses on Mrs. Turpin, who, while in a doctor’s office with her husband, thinks of her superiority to those around her. When she shouts, “Thank you, Jesus,” for not making her “a nigger or white-trash or ugly,” one of O’Connor’s physically unattractive but intellectually complex young women throws a book at her and calls her a warthog, telling her to “go back to hell” where she came from. Later, when Mrs. Turpin returns home, she stands by her hog pen asking God, “How am I saved and from hell too?” When she sees a vision of hordes of white trash, Negroes, freaks, and lunatics being led up to Heaven, while people like herself bring up the rear, she realizes the hard Christian truth that the last shall be first and all self-righteous virtue must be burned away by God’s grace.

This final sacramental vision is even more difficult for Mrs. May in “Greenleaf,” another of O’Connor’s white middle-class southerners burdened by shiftless white trash. However, in spite of Mr. Greenleaf’s laziness and Mrs. Greenleaf’s prayer-healing, they hardly age at all, while Mrs. May is exhausted from overwork. Particularly galling to Mrs. May is a Greenleaf bull that is always on her land; she dreams of it devouring everything of hers until there is nothing left. The story ends when the bull comes into her pasture and gores her, not as an act of gratuitous violence, but as a symbol of being struck by the blinding light of revelation. Once again, O’Connor confronts her smug and sanctimonious character with the hard truth of Christian grace—that salvation is not earned nor easy but seizes one with the painful paradox of losing the self to find the self.

John Cheever

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

John Cheever first made his impact as a short-story writer in the 1950’s with The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953). He continued to publish important stories for the next two decades, climaxing his career with his The Stories of John Cheever winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. The best-known story from Cheever’s late collection The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964) is “The Swimmer,” which combines a common theme of earlier Cheever stories—middle-aged men trying to hold on to youth and some meaningful place in life—with his penchant for the fantastic seen in such early stories as “The Enormous Radio.” The complexity of this story of a man’s decision to swim home from a party through his neighbors’ swimming pools derives from its subtle combination of fantasy and reality. Although the action is presented as a real event, clues increasingly point to a distortion of time in the story. Because the protagonist must be allowed to believe that his metaphoric swim through the future and past is an actual swim in the present, the reader is never sure which events in the story are real and which are fantasy. The metaphoric nature of the swim is suggested by Cheever’s presenting the protagonist as a legendary explorer and the pools as a “the river of life.”

Bernard Malamud

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although Bernard Malamud is the best-known...

(The entire section is 11,445 words.)