This anthology of unabridged short stories represents some of the most significant works from the most influential American authors of the 19th century. Most of these stories, if you’re old enough, you read in eleventh or twelfth grade English Lit. Back then you were maybe annoyed with your teacher for her insistence on intruding upon the narrative with her analysis, a stick to beat the life out of it.
The Best of America: Seven Classic Short Stories
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Just, let’s enjoy it, you wanted to shout but the old gal had a paycheck to earn and the truth is, these stories really do have depth. Enough so it brings to mind the oft-repeated adage from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and most often attributed to Kate Hepburn. (She outlived most all of her contemporaries so she gets the credit.)
We didn’t know how to blow things up in those days so we had to tell a good story.
Included are two scary stories, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The House of Usher is Poe at his unrelenting, uncompromising best.
Horror, back then, was psychological.
Usher and his sister are the last of a dynasty. She’s wasting away from a mysterious disease and with his fear of the body snatchers (common in those days,) Usher does what any rational (or irrational) bro in a horror story would do. He entombs Sis in a place where the snatchers can’t get her but from where she can get him.
Spoiler: Sis ain’t dead.
That’s creepy, that’s Poe.
Goodman Brown is set in the latter half of seventeenth century Puritan New England, a time and place where the devil was much more real than he is today. Folks then could easily imagine meeting him on a dark night in the forest, which is of course what happens to Goodman Brown.
A chance encounter that changes a man’s outlook forever.
Also included are Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle and Louisa May Alcott’s The Mermaid.
Ol’ Rip it was who defined forever our perception of the Catskill Mts as enchanted. Hike those mountains and come down the slopes late afternoon to distant thunder and try to convince yourself the thunder isn’t Henry Hudson and his men playing at nine-pins. Or what’s more fun, go ahead and believe it is them. Enjoy imagining them but if you encounter them, don’t sneak sips of their mead. They won’t like it.
The Little Mermaids is a story that might have been written today and made into a Disney movie. (Or might have skipped book form and gone directly into the theaters.
A young girl yearns to become a mermaid and magically, she does.
With her wish fulfilled and settled in beneath the waves, life isn’t so great. It’s without stress or purpose, and our young protagonist grows bored and then distressed with the aimlessness of it all. Life, she has always been taught, is a striving toward Heaven and she misses the striving and what she doesn’t get is how her underwater life might be a preview of the afterlife she seeks. Once you’ve attained Paradise, what else is there? Heaven, it must be noted, goes on for a very long time.
Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County is here, as is The Gift of the Magi by O Henry.
The Jumping Frog is the 1865 story that leaped Twain to fame. (Leaped, get it?) and O Henry’s The Maji is his most enduring work. The former proves Twain’s genius. It never gets old. The Maji is a slog. If you already know the denouement, which surely you must, what else is there?
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce rounds out this all-star cast.
The Occurrence brings to mind Claude “Curly” Putnam Jr.’s song, The Green Green Grass of Home, and the list of those who have recorded it is an all-star cast of its own. Porter Waggoner, Bobby Bare, Jerry Lee Lewis, Joan Baez, to name a few, oh, and a guy named Elvis.