4th of July: Eileen Battersby’s best short stories for Independence Day

From Cheever to Ron Rash, Carver to Eudora Welty, O’Connor to Richard Ford, some of the finest American writing is to be found in the short form

Among the best short story writers (top row): John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver; (Bottom row): Ron Rash, Flannery O’Connor and Richard Ford

Among the best short story writers (top row): John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver; (Bottom row): Ron Rash, Flannery O’Connor and Richard Ford

 

And the rocket’s red glare. The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there

From The Star Spangled Banner (1814), by Francis Scott Key

On this day in 1776 a famous document was signed – although it may have been adopted if not formally signed, historians have various theories and have suggested that the declaration was in fact actually signed a month later . . . however, for the rest of us, the interested laymen, it is held that the Declaration of Independence, by which the United States announced its separation from Great Britain, happened on the 4th of July.

It is a special date – fireworks will illuminate skies across the US, from backyards to public parks. There will be parades and it is always interesting to see exactly how many Disney characters come out in force. God, they are patriotic. Flags will be waved and the national anthem will be sung, but exactly how many singers will attempt the entire four stanzas?

The Star Spangled Banner is a powerful anthem but it is also very difficult to sing, requiring the range of an opera singer and the lung capacity of a superman or superwoman – or so it is maintained. But hold on there: there is another way of looking at it. It is not that it is difficult to sing, it is simply that many singers are not as good as they think they are, or that they start out warbling so ambitiously that they quickly run out of voice. It is also quite long, and a full performance takes about five minutes. Even at the Super Bowl, we only ever get to hear the first verse.

In the absence of a sufficiently talented performer, there is always the privilege of listening to a recording of Kate Smith’s magnificent contralto paying full honour to The Star Spangled Banner. She has vocal clarity, dignity and emotion. Her version is impossible to surpass.

If you’re not brave enough to take on the anthem, don’t let the day pass without reading at least one great American short story, of which there is an immense selection and the one certainty about offering a tiny, tiny selection is that there will always be complaints about the ones that were left out, but here goes . . .

John Cheever
Be kind to yourself, why read one John Cheever short story when you could read an entire collection? Reunion, which would subsequently inspire Richard Ford, is a fine choice, as is O City of Broken Dreams or The Death of Justina or The Enormous Room . . . impossible decision . . . It makes total sense to acquire a complete collection and keep it by your side at all times.

Richard Ford

Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Richard Ford. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Considering that one of his novels is called Independence Day and he also had the audacity to write a masterpiece called Canada, Ford is a constant. Rock Springs (1988) remains one of the finest collections of short stories published anywhere, at anytime. Also impressive is A Multitude of Sins (2001), which includes Ford’s homage to Cheever’s Reunion.

Annie Proulx
If she wrote nothing else, the poignant love story, Brokeback Mountain, would assure her place in any great American literary line up.

Flannery O’Connor

‘To Flannery O’Connor, faith was fragile and thinking you had lost your faith was “an experience that in the long run belongs to faith”.’ Photograph: APIC/Getty Images
Flannery O’Connor.’ Photograph: APIC/Getty Images

Try A Late Encounter with the Enemy or Good Country People . . . no, hang on – Flannery O’Connor’s entire oeuvre is essential reading.

Tobias Wolff
“Tub had been waiting for an hour in the falling snow. He paced the sidewalk to keep warm and stuck his head out over the curb whenever he saw lights approaching. One driver stopped for him, but before Tub could wave the man on he saw the rifle on Tub’s back and hit the gas. The tires spun on the ice. The fall of snow thickened. Tub stood below the overhang of a building. Across the road the clouds whitened just above the roof-tops, and the street lights went out. He shifted the rifle strap to the other shoulder. The whiteness seeped up the sky.”

This passage is from Hunters in the Snow, in which Wolff encapsulates the American experience as the main characters move from their urban world to that of the rural. It is one of the strong contenders for the Great American short story – this is a wonder, but Wolff has written many fine stories including Firelight.

Grace Paley

American author Grace Paley, 1959. Photograph: Authenticated News/Getty Images
Grace Paley, 1959. Photograph: Authenticated News/Getty Images

Friends (from Later the Same Day, 1985) is a fine choice but again with Paley, an artist of the ordinary small gestures and tiny hurts, best read everything. Her stories speak to us with the wisdom of life’s experience and a defined sense of fair play.

Eudora Welty
One of her best short stories is Where is the Voice Coming From? Welty was the first writer Richard Ford ever saw, never mind met. Her work is sublime. No Place For You, My Love is another wonderful story and once you read the stories, it becomes impossible not to read her novels, such as The Robber Bridegroom (1942) and most particularly The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), in which a caring daughter fears for her widower father who foolishly weds a scheming younger woman and the hostility intensifies after his death.

Saul Bellow
In this his centenary year, the mighty Canadian-born Chicago Jewish American writer of complex eastern European ancestry did things, including life, his way. Revered for his novels, dominated by Herzog (1964), Bellow also wrote long short stories and they are very good. His genius is an insistent one, so it seems apt to suggest Something to Remember Me By (1990), as he really should not be forgotten.

Paul Bowles
Bowles was born in New York in 1910 and set off for Tangiers, with his wife, the writer Jane Bowles, in 1948. They lived there more or less for the rest of their lives. Jane died in 1973 and her short novel, Two Serious Ladies, is included here today, while for Paul, who lived on until 1999, it is impossible not to suggest the Sheltering Sky, for its devastating juxtaposing of the desert landscape and an equally arid psychological inner world, and another of his great stories, A Distant Episode.

Ron Hansen
Best-known for his terrific novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hansen’s story, Nebraska, from the 1989 collection of the same title, quietly informs us that he is an unsung literary master and one of the best.

Russell Banks
Best-known as a novelist, yet Banks has written fine short stories. His collection, The Angel on the Roof (2000), is no less than astonishing for its assured nuances. More recently is the unsung collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, in which every story is even better than the one which preceded it.

James Salter
In person he was far warmer than his chill narratives. Salter, who died last month, was funny and charming and hurt about not being fully celebrated. I remember being struck by his casually mentioning that he took his driving test on the day Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese. His short novel, A Sport and a Pastime, describing a coldly passionate sexual alliance, has many admirers, yet for the very best of Salter explore his two outstanding collections, Dust and Other Stories (1988) and Last Night – Stories (2005).

John Updike

Author: John Updike. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters
John Updike. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

A novelist who also wrote fine short stories, the best of which is the surprisingly tender A Sandstone Farmhouse, from The Afterlife collection, published in 1994 – and may well be his finest. A man recalls his mother, her solitary old age and lonely death, as well as, most vividly, the young woman she once was.

Peter Taylor
Rain in the Heart is a true love story from a southern master. Taylor, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning short novel A Summons to Memphis (1986), was from Tennessee. Anyone interested in the art of the short story need look no further than his collected stories and yes, he is shamefully neglected but so worth discovering. Another one of his most anthologised works is Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time – but with Taylor, read one and you will want to read everything; he is that good.

Daniel Woodrell
The Outlaw Album is as strong a collection as you are likely to encounter, so it is best to advise to read them all. Woodrell hails from the Missouri Ozarks and the landscape, with its particular whiff of menace informs, his genius. Finally if belatedly “discovered” through the success of the film version of his eighth novel, Winter’s Bone, Woodrell’s most towering achievement to date (which is saying a great deal) is his majestic short novel, The Maid’s Version, one of the marvels of US writing. Based on a real-life tragedy caused when a dance hall was deliberately set on fire, Woodrell’s story is about the sister of one of the victims and how the crime continued to haunt her and others because no one would listen.

Raymond Carver
Carver deified in his lifetime and beyond. Widely anthologised, he has many landmark stories, such as Are These Actual Miles? or So Much Water So Close to Home and his stories delve into the disintegrating relationships and sad lives endured among blue-collar workers in the Pacific Northwest. Yet his greatest may well be his final work, a story set not in the US but at a spa in Badenweiler, Germany. Errand is inspired by the final hours of Chekhov; from one master to another.

Ron Rash

Winner of the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for Burning Bright, this collection suggests a deference to William Faulkner and the tradition of the American South, as well as having a feel for the America of the now. He is a gifted storyteller and his taut, short novel, The Cove, is rooted in the layers concealed within the rarest of stories.

Richard Bausch
Author of Peace, one of the most perfect stories written about the second World War, draws on his father’s wartime experiences in Italy. Bausch is a supreme short story writer – and as under-celebrated as they tend to be in our dismal current epoch of publishers’ hype. Ancient History is a good Bausch choice for today, and not merely for its geographical setting: “In the car on the way south, after hours of quiet between them, of only the rattle and static of the radio, she began to talk about growing up so close to Washington: how it was to have all the shrines of Democracy as a part of one’s daily idea of home; she had taken it all for granted, of course. ‘But your father was always a tourist in his own city,’ she said. ‘It really excited him. That’s why we spent our honeymoon there . . . We checked into the Lafayette Hotel, right across from the White House. The nicest old hotel. I was eighteen years old, and all my heroes were folksingers. Jack Kennedy was president. Lord, it seems so much closer than it is’ . . .”

Did someone utter “God Bless America”?

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