Short stories are so much fun. We engage the story in medias res (English major term for “in the midst of things”) and get a quick and intense view of people in the middle of life’s problems.
As an English Major my favorite classroom course was a six week winter class on Southern short stories – what an eye-opening parade of poverty, death, despair and disfunction. Class discussions were raucous and thought provoking. My professor and advisor, Richard Widmayer, is on Facebook and I tried to “friend” him and ask him for the syllabus. He never responded so I built my own list.I imagine he figured he’d not have to deal with me again when I graduated in 1974. I rounded out the collection with some other stories.
If you read only one short story in your life, make it Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live At the P.O.” Welty deftly captures snotty sister rivalry. If you look a little deeper there is a hint of serious disfunction.
If you like short stories even a little bit I highly recommend Short Story Masterpieces (1954) edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine (Dell Publishing). I’m on my third copy; unfortunately it isn’t available in e-book format. Open up and read anywhere and you’ll be entranced. A copy of “Why I Live at the P.O.” is in this volume – reason enough to buy it.
I used these collections for Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. Both can be purchased as e-books.
- The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty – (1936-1980). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
- The Complete Stories. Flannery O’Connor (1946 – 1962). Farrah, Strauss and Giroux.
Southern Short Stories
Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Conner quote references are from the respective collected works; others from Short Story Masterpieces.
- Why I Live at the P.O. – Eudora Welty: I read this at least once a year. The narrator, Sister; postmistress of a very small Mississippi town, moves to the PO after a blow up with her sister Stella Rondo who returns with a child from a long absence and turns the family against Sister. Hilarious but serious! Papa-Daddy “didn’t see how in the world I ever got the mail put up at the P.O., much less read it all.” (p48) I’ve always wondered why does Stella-Rondo’s child, Shirley-T “is the spit-image of Papa-Daddy if he’d cut off his beard…” (p46).
- A Worn Path – Eudora Welty. An old, nearly blind black woman, Phoenix Jackson, has to make a long, perilous trip to town to get medicine for her grandson.
- The Hitch-Hikers – Eudora Welty. A traveling salesman picks up a couple of hitch-hikers: a guitar player and a quiet man. Things happen.
- The Whistle – Eudora Welty. A poor share-cropping couple, Jason and Sara Morton, are awakened by the town whistle announcing a coming freeze. They are challenged to keep their crops from dying. “The darkness was thin, like some sleazy dress that has been worn and worn for many winters and always lets the cold through to the bones.” (p. 57)
- The Bride of the Innisfallen – Eudora Welty. A train compartment of travelers on their way to catch a ship.
- A Good Man Is Hard To Find – Flannery O’Connor. “The Grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida” (p 117) and did what she could to stop or delay it. They end up on the wrong road. “… at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” (p118)
- Everything That Rises Must Converge – Flannery O’Connor. Julian’s mother required him to accompany her on the bus to the reducing class at the Y. “She would not ride the buses by herself at night since they had been integrated” (p405). They have a long running disagreement during the trip.
- A Late Encounter With the Enemy – Flannery O’Connor. “General Sash was a hundred and four years old… Living had got to be such a habit with him that he couldn’t conceive of any other condition.” (p134) He had never been a Confederate general – just an infantryman – but had a uniform that he loved to wear in parades. He is cantankerous but was happy to attend his granddaughters graduation if he could sit on the stage. He isn’t happy with his treatment and engages in silent battle.
- You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead – Flannery O’Connor. A boy lives with his uncle on a remote farm / moonshine cabin. The uncle dies leaving the boy on his own. In the midst of burying the old man the boy gets drunk and considers his situation. “‘The dead are poor,’Tarter said in the voice of the stranger. ‘You can’t be any poorer than dead. He’ll have to take what he gets.’”(p298)
- Flowering Judas – Katherine Ann Porter. The Mexican revolutionary Braggioni sings to Laura though she’d rather he not. She cooling moves through the revolution hiding her one true emotion.
- Barn Burning – William Faulkner. A domineering father deals with interpersonal problems by burning people’s barns. Will his youngest son stop him or stand with the family?
Non Southern Short Stories
Quote references are from Short Story Masterpieces
- Open Winter – H.L. Davis. Old Apling had contracted with a worthless man to deliver a herd of horses across the open desert in eastern Oregon to town. Young Beech thinks it’s ridiculous for Apling to keep his end of the bargain which has already been broken. But Beech joins in the quest and learns about becoming a man.
- Soldier’s Home – Ernest Hemingway. Krebs comes back home from the war. His mother worries about him.
- The Sojourner – Carson McCullers. John Ferris is in New York on a business trip and happens to see his ex-wife who is now married with kids. Ferris is a wanderer who yearns for family life.
- A Bottle of Milk for Mother – Nelson Algren. Bruno Lefty Bicek is interrogated about a street crime. This story has a personal connection: it occurs in Chicago and mentions a church where my Daughter-In-Law sometimes sings: “I’m just a neighborhood kid. I belonged to the Keep-Our-City-Clean Club at St. John Cant’us.” (p20).
- The Egg – Sherwood Anderson. A content man gets married and strives for more. First he tries his had at raising chickens Late as the owner of a diner he tries a trick with eggs to entertain a customer.