Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Salinger's Stories

In a piece written on the occasion of J. D. Salinger's ninetieth birthday, Charles McGrath makes this point:

“Nine Stories" ... made Mr. Salinger a darling of the critics as well, for the way it dismantled the traditional architecture of the short story and replaced it with one in which a story could turn on a tiny shift of mood or tone.

The description of Salinger's method is accurate enough, but was Salinger really the first to do this? Hemingway does something like this in a story like "Hills Like White Elephants," for example. On the other hand, Salinger is the classic New Yorker fiction writer (along with John Cheever and John Updike and Alice Adams), and McGrath's description of his new "architecture" matches what people mean when they talk about the stereotypical "New Yorker story." 


rfrankly said...

I would distinguish the small shifts in Hemingway from those in Salinger by suggesting that the shifts in Hemingway usually result from some challenges to manhood (think of "Indian Camp" or "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife") while the challenges in Salinger seem more aesthetic than psychological—as if the Salinger protagonist experiences some violating crudeness. But as far as who first used the short story form to register small shifts in tone, it has to be Chekhov. In English, Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, and even Steinbeck came before Salinger. Since the Steinbeck claim seems so absurd, I want to say that I am haunted by a 1938 Steinbeck story called "The Chrysanthemums," which seems an homage to Lawrence story (not so much because its title echoes the title of Lawrence's great story "The Odor of Chysanthemums" as because it focuses on the longing for eros. I haven't ready the story in twenty years, but it has stayed with me. I just now found the story on line to confirm its existence.

framiko said...

I think you're right about Hemingway. "Hills Like White Elephants" is actually kind of an anomalous Hemingway story, isn't it? _The Sun Also Rises_ could work, though, couldn't it?

Great point about Chekhov. I really ought to read more of him. All I've read of his stories is "The Lady with the Little Dog." Maybe I'll choose him for Independent Reading this semester.

In addition to the others you mention, I just now thought of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Sherwood Anderson.

The more I think about McGrath's assertion, the lazier it seems.