Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What is the Best Short Story in English? A 1914 New York Times Article.

Below is a transcription of a 1914 article presented in the New York Times. I corrected several typographical errors. The author of the article made minor mistakes in counting the number of short stories, overlooking one and leaving off the attribution of which author selected which story for others. Stories not originally written in English were variously included or excluded from the final tally. The stories are collected here for purchase.

 What is the Best Short Story in English?
(as presented in the January 25, 1914 edition of The New York Times)

Twenty-four Well-Known Authors Answer This Question for The New York Times and Name Forty-Five Stories

Tales by Stevenson and Bret Harte Get Most Votes—Kipling, Poe and Dickens Are Also Leading Favorites

The Authors Who Voted.
Samuel Hopkins Adams
James Lane Allen
Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
Irving Bacheller
Robert W. Chambers
Irvin S. Cobb
Mary Stewart Cutting
Arthur Conan Doyle
Richard Harding Davis
Edna Ferber
Inez Haynes Gillmore
Montague Glass
Wallace Irwin
W. W. Jacobs
Owen Johnson
Alfred Henry Lewis
Jack London
Leonard Merrick
Gouverneur Morris
Thomas Nelson Page
Mary Roberts Rinehart
Booth Tarkington
Mary E. Wilkins
Owen Wister

The Stories They Name.

 A Lodging for the Night.
 The Merry Men.
 Pavilion on the Links.
 Will o’ the Mill.
 Providence and the Guitar.
 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
 Without Benefit of Clergy.
 The Brushwood Boy.
 The Man Who Would Be King.
 Bread Upon the Waters.
 Beyond the Pale.
 The Maltese Cat.
 The Jungle Book.
 (Any of the first series.)
 A Christmas Carol.
 The Cricket on the Hearth.
 The Story of Richard Doubledick.
 Dr. Marigold.
 The Gold-Bug.
 The Purloined Letter.
 The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
 The Fall of the House of Usher.
 Outcasts of Poker Flat.
 Luck of the Roaring Camp.
 Wolfert Webber.
 Rip Van Winkle.

 Heart of Darkness—Conrad.
 The Belled Buzzard—Cobb.
 A Municipal Report—O. Henry.
 The Bible Story of Ruth and Naomi
 Rebecca and Rowena—Thackeray.
 The Turn of the Screw—James.
 The Man Without a Country—Hale.
 The House and the Brain—Lytton.
 The Ring and the Troth—Doyle.
 The Jumping Frog—Twain.
 Uncle Remus—Harris.
  (Any one of the first series.)
 Marjorie Daw—Aldrich.
 His Wife—Whitman.
 A Journey—Wharton.
 An Incident—Elliott.
 The Claws of the Tiger—Morris.
 The Stolen Story—Williams.
 Love in the Mist—Lyons.
 The Door in the Wall—Wells.

If you were asked point-blank to name the best story you had read in the English language, what would your answer be?

In quest of the best answer, The New York Times presented this question to more than a score of men and women on both sides of the Atlantic—not to those whose business is the criticism of books, not to those who within university walls are trying to teach the young idea how to write, but to the men and women who are writing or have written the short stories of this generation.

The question went as far West as the Pacific slope to find Jack London: it went as far East as the city of Rome to find Thomas Nelson Page. It went to writers whose stories have differed as widely as the poles. It sought out Mary Roberts Rinehart and W.W. Jacobs. It was presented to the creator of Emma McChesney and to the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

On this page you will find the answers, and out of their wealth and diversity several things stand clear.
As to the best short story—there is none. There is no universal, single choice.

"But there isn’t any best short story!" protests Alice Brown, and her protest is the protest that comes in other words from the study at Max Gate, Dorchester. You must first define the varieties of "best," says Thomas Hardy.

“One may be the best tragic short story,” runs the message from the man who wrote "Life’s Little Ironies"; “the other may be the best tranquilly domestic short story, and so on, and unless you decide which is 'best,' tragedy, comedy or tragi-comedy, the question is unanswerable. It seems as impossible to say which is the best of these forms of art as to define which is the best color, or the best taste in food, in which everything depends on the requirement."

"No man may tell you which is the best short story," writes Alfred Henry Lewis, very firmly, and a shrewd prediction is made by Owen Wister when he says:

"You have asked a question to which there is really no answer, and you know as well as I do that if the replies you are going to receive coincide it would be amazing enough to become historic in a small way."

The Two Leaders.

Mr. Wister is quite right—and yet there is no little coincidence in the host of replies that have come to this newspaper in response to the question, enough coincidence to make it worth while pointing out that whereas there may be no best short story there are decidedly some best short stories.

On the basis of these replies two stories—one by a Scotchman and one by an American—lead all the rest, because, for each of them, four writers speak. Here are two and, with each, the writer whose favorite it is:

  Stevenson's "A Lodging for the Night."
  Richard Harding Davis.
  Alfred Henry Lewis.
  Jack London.
  Booth Tarkington.
  Harte's "Outcasts of Poker Flat."
  Mr. Davis.
  Wallace Irwin.
  Owen Johnson.
  Gouverneur Morris.

"Point-blank, as you desire," is the message from Mr. Tarkington, "I should answer Stevenson's 'A Lodging for the Night.' Probably this is a rather 'popular opinion'; certainly, it is an old one."

In all, ten writers name Stevenson stories, but it is on this one that four agree—this tale of Master François Villon seeking shelter on a snowy night in Paris long ago. Strangely enough, the other story is also one of snow that falls, "silent, circuitous, interminable."
Next must come those stories that stand in second place, because, for each of them, three writers speak:

  Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King."
  Kipling's "The Brushwood Boy."
  Kipling's "Without Benefit of Clergy."
  Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."
  O. Henry's "A Municipal Report."

This is the Kipling group. Thirteen writers speak for Rudyard Kipling, but of all his stories the favorites are these three, all of them written long ago.

"In my humble opinion," writes Irvin S. Cobb, "the best short story in the English language is Kipling's 'The Man Who Would Be King.'"

Other Kipling "Fans."

And Mr. Davis and Mr. Morris agree with Mr. Cobb. The other two are favorites of Robert W. Chambers; he names as the two best short stories England has given us. For the wonderful dream story, Mrs. Rinehart and Mr. Morris cast the other votes; for the "Without Benefit of Clergy," Mr. Irwin and Mary Stewart Cutting.

Out of all the wealth of O. Henry, the writers settle on just this one—a favorite with Mr. Morris, Mr. Davis, and Montague Glass. [note: O. Henry wrote two selections] And "Heart of Darkness" is the only Conrad story chosen. Thomas Nelson Page puts it first of all; it is named by Sam Hopkins Adams and by Mr. Davis.

And then we come to those stories mentioned twice in answer to the question. These, the stories of the third place, are:

  Dickens's "A Christmas Carol."
  Poe's "The Gold Bug."
  Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher."
  Harte's "Luck of Roaring Camp."
  Cobb's "The Belled Buzzard."

For all its faults, James Lane Allen puts above all the rest that blessed Dickens story, which in the days just past has been read aloud in countless English and American homes. Owen Johnson concurs in the decision. In fact, this third place list is Owen Johnson’s largely. The Harte story is chosen by him, with Mr. Page assenting. The two Poe tales are his choices, that for "The Gold Bug" indorsed by Mr. Chambers, that for "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Mr. Morris.

These four have long been established favorites, classics: the fifth, a new story, first published not so many months ago, is recorded here as the choice of Mrs. Cutting and of the man who designed Potash and Perlmutter—"The Belled Buzzard," by Irvin S. Cobb.

These stories, then, are the preferred list—the very best of all. But in a sense it is well for us to consider each and every one of the stories named as best, or as of the best, or just as great, great favorites, and we have—what? A list of forty-five. It is a list of the best short stories. It is no list compiled within a public library, nor selected by a professor of English literature, nor chosen by some editor or publisher of a collection with due regard to copyright limitations. It is just a list contributed by successful short-story writers—the list of their favorites from the writings of other men and women.

Forty-five in All.

Of course, they did not all contribute alike. Under the guise of inability to name any story at all, there has been some unblushing stuffing of this literary ballot box. It is pointed out for us that a man can never say a story is best; that he can say only whether he likes it or does not like it. Well, these forty-five are the stories our short-story writers like. In the words of the American Ambassador to Italy, they are the stories "at the top—the very top." This then, is the list published here—the forty-five "best short stories" in the English language.

Attention has already been drawn to the choices of Owen Johnson. As may have been equally apparent, two other writers have come close with their own choices to the preferred list, and we must call Mr. Morris and Mr. Davis discerning. There is this from Mr. Davis:

Crossroads Farm,
Mount Kisco, N.Y.
To the Editor of The New York Times:
Your question is, “If you were asked point-blank to name the best short story you had read in the English language, what would your answer be?” After considering for a week your question, my answer point-blank is "A Lodging for the Night," "The Man Who Would Be King," "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," O. Henry's "A Municipal Report," and Stephen French Whitman's "His Wife."
I am sincerely yours,

To Mr. Davis, Gouverneur Morris takes off his hat, and a Morris story, in turn, appears in the list sent by Mr. Chambers. But here is Mr. Morris's letter:

Westchester County, N.Y.
To the Editor of The New York Times:
Sometimes I think Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" is the greatest short story in English. Sometimes I incline to the "Outcasts of Poker Flat," and again it will be the "Brushwood Boy" that knocks me galley-west, or "The Man Who Would Be King." O. Henry's "A Municipal Report" is perfection. Davis has written perfect stories—one after another for a long time now. And, indeed, I don't like to commit myself in print, because I know by experience that to-morrow I shall be playing some other favorite.
I like my own stories better than anybody else's—until they are written.

It depends, says Mr. Hardy, on what you mean by "best." It depends, says Mr. Glass, on who makes the choice. As to his own choice, he is in no doubt. He makes it here:

To the Editor of The New York Times:
Everything depends upon the point of view. If I were an editor working to increase the circulation of my magazine my judgment might be warped accordingly and I would say that the short story on the front page of my magazine’s current issue was the best I had ever read. If I were a critic who wanted to flout contemporary short story writers I would instance an obscure contribution to Blackwoods for 1861 or The Atlantic Monthly for 1867, or the like. If I were a professor of short story writing in a school of journalism trying to justify my occupation, Heaven alone know what I would do, but in doing it I would write a two-hundred-page book anyway.
But, as I am professional short-story writer when I write and a very average reader when I read, I think that "A Municipal Report" by O. Henry printed in the volume "Strictly Business" (Doubleday, Page & Co., Garden City) is the best short story I have ever read. My second choice is "The Belled Buzzard," by Irvin S. Cobb, printed in a volume with other short stories by same writer (George H. Doran Company, New York.) However, the story I love the most, although I cannot esteem it the best, is "Providence and the Guitar," by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Mr. Glass, the man who puts cloaks and suits into fiction, knows just what he likes, but Edna Ferber, whose fame rests partly on a certain traveling saleswoman in the petticoat line, is never sure. She suffers all the pangs of indecision.

To the Editor of The New York Times:
I’ve a confession to make. Not a plain, ordinary, every-day confession, but the sort of soul-baring which will be hideous even to a Sunday editor. This is it:
I’m the sort of person who, when asked point-blank her choice of ice-cream, says, "Chocolate, I think—no peach! No—chocolate! Oh, I don’t know."
That being true, how can you expect me to name, off-hand, the story which I consider the best short story in the English language? If I had any sense of time value, I’d shunt the whole question by saying, grandly, "Oh, 'The String.' or 'The Necklace,' or 'Master and Man,' or 'The Unfinished Story,'" and then, that being off my mind, I should go calmly on dashing off my own deathless masterpieces.
But I can't. I’ve explained why. It all depends on the mood and the time and the weather, and what I’ve had for dinner and that sort of thing. I only know that when I’ve read a short story (perhaps an old one, perhaps a new) and, having read it, finger the pages a moment and shut my eyes and say to myself, "O Lord, O Lord, WHY couldn’t I have written that!" then for the first time being, that’s the best short story I’ve every read.
I said it of "Love in a Mist," one of A. Neil Lyon’s' stories in "Arthur’s Coffee Stall." I remember having said it years ago, in my cub reporter days, of Jesse Lynch Williams's "Stolen Story." I’ve said it again and again of O. Henry. I’ve said it of—
There I go again—Chocolate, no—peach! No, choc—Oh, I don’t know.

And then comes this “point of view” from the author of "Wolfville:"

  457 West 148th St., New York
To the Editor of The New York Times:
No man may tell you which is the best short story. All he can say of a story is that he likes it or doesn’t like it. He might say as much of onion soup. His answer might place his taste; it would not place the story.
Another matter. There are stories and stories—stories of money, of mystery, of adventure, of sacrifice, of crime—detective stories, land stories, sea stories—the list has no end. You no more compare a story of one sort with a story of another sort than you can compare a horse with a cow. If you want to go riding, the horse should be the better animal. Should your purpose be a dairy purpose, you might succeed better with a cow.

Remembering which, I am quite ready to report that for myself I like best Lytton's "The House and the Brain," Kipling’s "Bread Upon the Waters," Dickens's "Dr. Marigold," Stevenson's "A Lodging for the Night," Poe's “Purloined Letter,” Irving's “Wolfert Webber,” Doyle's "The Ring and the Troth," [correctly, The Ring of Thoth] Thackeray's “Rebecca and Rowena”—but what’s the use? I could go on indefinitely.

P.S.—Whatever of sour impatience tinctures the above is born of my hatred for book critics and book criticism. A critic—book—is one who finds fault with you for doing something he could do in a way he wouldn’t do it if he could. He has the same relation to literature that a flea has to a dog—he infests it, lives off it without either advancing it or adorning it. At best and most he may but make the dog scratch a little—as I do here. A.H.L.

In his diverting letter Mr. Lewis names a story by the man who created the best-known character in contemporary imaginative writing. This man, by the way, was beset by no difficulties in answering the "point-blank" question. His choice is direct:

  Crowborough, Sussex
To the Editor of The New York Times:
On the whole, I think that Stevenson's "Pavilion on the Links" is my ideal of a short story.
   Yours truly,

A Stevenson Contingent.

The Stevenson lovers are apt to be single-hearted like this. They know their minds about him, and the promptest answer to the question—it had to come from New Jersey, to be sure—was a single ballot for "The Merry Men." It was cast by Mary E. Wilkins.

Another Stevenson choice comes from Thrushwood, the home of Irving Bacheller, at Riverside, Conn.
"Off-hand," he writes, “I would say that Stevenson's 'Markheim' is the greatest short story I have ever read in the English language."

And still another vote in honor of the great Scotchman is that cast by the Englishman who has it in him to fashion magnificent horror like "The Monkey's Paw" and magnificent fun like "Borrowed Plumage." Here is his note:

  Feltham House, Loughton, Essex.
To the Editor of The New York Times:
My Dear Sir: I have so many friends writing short stories that I decline to answer. But I will say that, to my mind, one of the best short stories ever written is Robert Louis Stevenson's "Will o' the Mill." Believe me, yours very truly,

The answers supply other contrasts besides those between ease and difficulty of choice. There is real conflict of opinion in the comment by Owen Johnson and the letter by Mary Roberts Rinehart, creator of the ruthless Tish and the tooferless Aggie. First Mrs. Rinehart:

Glen Osborne, Penn.
To the Editor of The New York Times:
I think it is safe to give “The Man Without a Country” as my reply to your interesting question. If any reason is needed, it seems to me that many otherwise perfect stories do not stand the test of time. Some of Poe's already area a bit stilted in form to our modern ears, although they are of course unexcelled in subject matter. "The Man Without a Country" reads like the truth that it is the same yester-day, to-day, and to-morrow. It has heart, drama, and life. A great many people think it is quite true, and that’s the real test, isn't it?
For form and beauty of handling, had I a second choice, it would be Kipling's "Brushwood Boy."

Owen Johnson writes:
The curious thing about the whole curious proposition is the number of American stories that spring to mind as opposed to English. With the exception of Kipling and Dickens—his "Christmas Carol"—everything that springs to mind is American; Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," Bret Harte's "Luck of Roaring Camp," "Outcasts of Poker Flat," &c.; Poe's "Gold Bug," "Fall of the House of Usher," &c.; Mark Twain's "Jumping Frog." "The Man Without a Country," if written by a master would have been my choice. As it is, put me down for the story of Ruth and Naomi. All things considered, it is the greatest love story written.

There might be some slight ground for debate as to the right of Mr. Johnson's ultimate choice to a place in a list of the best “English” short stories, but their can be no objection to the exclusion of Mr. Page's favorite. He excluded it himself at the outset. Here is his letter from Rome:

Embassy of the United States of America
To the Editor of The New York Times:
I think that “Cinderella” is the best story ever written. If your letter, however, refers to a story written in English, I should say that perhaps the best story I know is the "Heart of Darkness," by Conrad, though "The Luck of Roaring Camp," "The Murders of the Rue Morgue," "Rip Van Winkle," "Uncle Remus"—any of the first series—and the Jungle Book stories—any one of the first series—and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" are all at the top, the very top.

Alice Brown can make no single choice. She writes:

But there isn't any "best short story." If you had said the best dozen, there'd be some hope for an answer. And if you’d asked for the best within six months or even more, I should say "Dorothy Canfield's "Gifts of Oblivion," in Harper’s Magazine.

The difficulty of making a choice led Samuel Hopkins Adams to a straightforward casting of two ballots. He tells why here:

"Short story" is so elastic a category that one should, I think, be permitted a double choice.
If the term is to include fiction is not actually a novel, I should put Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" first. In the more rigidly defined form, Kipling's "Beyond the Pale."

Mary Stewart Cutting was driven to a quadruple choice. Here is her letter:

To the Editor of The New York Times:
If I were asked what I thought was the best short story in the English language I'd have to answer that I couldn’t possibly tell! But among the finest I can at least place Dickens's "The Story of Richard Doubledick," and Kipling's perfect "Without Benefit of Clergy," and to come down to the present day, "The Door in the Wall," by H.G. Wells, and Irvin Cobb’s wonderful "Belled Buzzard." I am sorry not to be more definite as to choice.
   17 Evergreen Place, East Orange, N.J.

And here is candid indecision for you:

To the Editor of The New York Times:
If asked point blank, I should probably say Kipling’s "Without Benefit of Clergy"—then I should probably say: "No, make it 'Outcasts of Poker Flat.'" But as point-blank shots seldom hit the bull’s eye, I might think of something still better on reflection.

On the other hand, no one could be more decisive than Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews, who for her answer, needs only three words of the title of Kipling’s matchless polo pony story, "The Maltese Cat."
And there is certainly no indecision in this choice by the author of the Phoebe and Ern Martin stories:

To the Editor of The New York Times:
If I were asked point blank to name the best short story I had read in the English language, my answer would be "The Turn of the Screw," by Henry James.

It is Robert W. Chamberlain who divides his stories into English and American. In the latter division he names Poe’s "Gold Bug," "A Journey," by Edith Wharton, Sarah Barnwell Elliott's "An Incident," and "The Claws of the Tiger," by Gouverneur Morris. The English is just Rudyard Kipling, both Kipling favorites as shown by the balloting—"Without the Benefit of Clergy" and "The Brushwood Boy."
Altogether, there is diversity here and Owen Wister is right. See his letter:

To the Editor of The New York Times:
It is a pleasure to do anything I can for THE NEW YORK TIMES. You have asked a question to which there is really no answer, and you know as well as I do that if the replies you are going to receive coincide it would be amazing enough to become historic in a small way. My own belief, and it must be yours also, is that you will receive about as many selections of the best short story in English as you have asked people to make them. But not transgress upon your time any further, let me say that under the agreeable compulsion to which you put me I will choose, not perhaps on the ground of most perfect skill, but of widest and longest appeal, among the short stories with which I am familiar, the one by Charles Dickens entitled "The Cricket on the Hearth."
   1004 West End Trust Building

Had the question sought the best play there would have been little variance probably. Had there been sought here the name of the best novel there would surely have been no forty-five titles to publish.

Yet there is coincidence of choice even on short stories, and even more coincidence on the great writers of short stories. Of the more than a score of present-day writers from whose letters the list has been compiled thirteen named Rudyard Kipling, ten name Robert Louis Stevenson, five name Charles Dickens, six name Edgar Allan Poe and five name Bret Harte.

Are not these, then, the great short story writers of our language? This certainly is no departure from the academic point of view. The professional short story writers have named them to be sure, but probably your professor of short story writing would have named the same five. And there you are.

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1 comment:

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