A wise and wonderful editor I once knew was fond of exclaiming, when the subject came up, “God save me from anthologies!” He was referring to the committee-nightmare procedure of selection and rejection, I’m fairly certain, not to marketing them (they do well – always have, always will – hardly ever spectacularly, but well) – and certainly not to the reading of them, for one simple reason: anthologies are a lot of fun.
Even bad anthologies are, and good ones can be revelations of juxtaposition and personal interpretation. If strong, well-read editors (rather than boards, joylessly checking off boxes of demographic representation) are at the helm, anthologies can scarcely help but entertain and often enlighten, and some of them become legends in their own rights, like Palgrave or the mighty Oxford Book of English Verse, or even more recent volumes. Let’s add a few more of those recent ones, shall we, on the general assumption that we can never have too many such recommendations?
You’d expect Oxford University Press to show up on a list like this, and you wouldn’t be wrong: they have an age-old knack for putting together good volumes. In this case the task falls to the delightful Patricia Craig, who writes in her Introduction:
Inevitably, at least half of the stories selected for this volume have been written during the last thirty or forty years, and come right up to the present to give some sense of the astonishing developments which have taken place as the genre has become full-fledged – in spit of predictions that it would never attain maturity because of in-built defects such as a formulaic framework and otiose assumptions. In fact, it has proved immeasurably resilient.
Craig includes the usual suspects – “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is the Sherlock Holmes piece, and there’s Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, and Raymond Chandler (a good taut number of his called “No Crime in the Mountains”), but like all the best anthology editors, she also throws in the less well-known (three cheers for Judge Dee!) and the unexpected (Borges and Skvorecky make appearances). There’s even a rare foray into detective fiction by Georges Simenon. Hee.
Some anthologies do more than assemble a group photo – some of them actually break new ground, gathering things that had never been gathered before. Pages Passed from Hand to Hand is a stunning example of that latter function, as its sub-title suggests: “The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914.” The book pulls together scraps (often heavily encoded) from Herman Melville, Owen Wister (!), Henry James, Willa Cather, E.M. Forster, and an extremely well-chosen group of people you’ve never heard of, often by arduous means, as our editors attest in their Introduction:
Today the study of pre-1914 homosexual literature is still a matter of pages passed from hand to hand. To assemble this anthology, we asked friends. We read photocopies of photocopies that scholars and antiquarians sent to us; books of which only one copy existed in one “special collection.” We did our time at the British Library in London and at the Clarke Library in Los Angeles, mentally translated the F-shaped S’s in Charlotte Clarke’s Henry Dumont, an edition so old and frail that specially weighted velvet bags had to be used to hold it open.
The result of all that labor is a memorably stunning work, a clearing and re-setting of the stage.
This fat collection pulled off the rare feat of becoming an almost instant ‘classic’ when it was published in 1998, with Library Journal summing up the consensus by rightly declaring that the book should be in everybody’s personal library. Writing New York contains over 100 snippets from the writings of such New York-associated writers as Washington Irving, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, George Templeton Strong, Henry James, Edmund Wilson, and Dawn Powell. Damon Runyon is here, and A.J. Liebling (his sublime “Apology for Breathing,” what else?), and Robert Moses’ freezing portrait of Fiorello LaGuardia. There’s something from Louis Auchincloss, a selection from Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City,” a selection from Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, and something from Tom Wolfe. There is, like a sad, beautiful rainbow over the whole thing, “The Day Lady Died” by the great Frank O’Hara. And there’s Lopate himself, in his quick, lackluster Introduction, reminding us that “There is a characteristic tone as well in New York writing, of skeptical humor, sardonic wit, disenchanted realism. A famously hard environment, New York inspires both stoic pride and chagrin.” Pretty much the only thing missing to make the whole thing the perfect pre-9/11 monument to the Big Apple is a YouTube clip of Simon & Garfunkel singing “American Tune” at the Concert in Central Park.
The choice of an editor is crucial for any anthology that hopes to be great, and sometimes that choice is so unorthodox it either has to succeed wildly or fail completely – case in point the choice of pretty, elfin young Adrienne Miller to edit a collection of the best fiction from the famously brawling, testosterone-soaked 70-year history of Esquire magazine. A reader unfamiliar with Miller’s steel-trap mind might have expected the big-bellied earth-pawing specimens in her Table of Contents – names like Ernest Hemingay, John Steinbeck, Richard Russo (here represented by his particularly poignant “Monhegan Light”), Norman Mailer, John Gardner – to overwhelm her, but there was never any chance of that, and besides, Miller is aided by such compensating thinkers as Barry Hannah, Pete Dexter, Russell Banks – and Flannery O’Connor, writing all the gentlemen under the table. In typically direct fashion, Miller lays out her simple criteria:
There is a short story called “Porcupines at the University,” by Donald Barthelme, and in it there are three questions: “Are these porcupines wonderful? Are they significant? Are they what I need?” That’s how I chose these stories: They’re the ones that got a yes, a yes, and a YES.
Some themes are more narrow than others, but no less yielding – like this compact, powerful 1991 volume from horror wonk Leslie Shepard. The book combines the earlier Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories and Dracula Book of Great Horror Stories and features virtually every pillar of undead lit any beginner (or connoisseur) could want, from “Dracula’s Guest” to Algernon Blackwood, E.F. Benson, and Sheridan Le Fanu – plus an anachronistically sexy cover and an almost de rigueur mixture of haughtiness and looniness in Shepard’s Introduction:
The older stories of vampirism have a certain melancholy dignity … and do not present this grim tradition as something for trendy kicks. There is an underlying morality in these tales which symbolizes ancient mysteries of life beyond the grave, the decay of the body, the strange passions of the blood, and the age-old struggle between the forces of good and evil in the human soul. The protective power of the cross is an ancient theme, for it was a pagan talisman long before Christianity gave it new emphasis. But the real conflict with vampires is in that twilight zone between waking and sleeping, when the will and the moral senses are bemused, and that is why the classics of vampire literature are more subtly meaningful than the contrived sensationalism of modern horror movies, where the mind and emotions are deadened by violence for its own sake.
As we began with an Oxford anthology, so too we’ll end with one, as a kind of quiet acknowledgement that we could have run through a list twice this long consisting only of great Oxford anthologies (some houses just have the knack) – and every time I take this one – the 1992 Oxford Book of American Short Stories down from the shelf, I’m newly amazed that I even own a copy, much less return to it as regularly as I do. Joyce Carol Oates and I have never been on the same aesthetic wavelength, as it were – except for this volume, in which she gives full rein to all her various stubborn idiosyncrasies and yet somehow manages to cohere them in a way that’s not only not irritating but is movingly beautiful. She gives readers only the barest handful of expected items – “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Things They Carried” – and she fills the rest of her space with less-trafficked pieces like Hawthorne’s “The Wives of the Dead,” or Mark Twain’s “Cannibalism in the Cars,” or a neat little stack of crap from Sandra Cisneros, and all of it guided by her enthusiasm, which for once is neither falsified nor frittery:
We must assume that storytelling is as old as mankind, at least as old as spoken language. Reality is not enough for us – we crave the imagination’s embellishments upon it. In the beginning. Once upon a time. A long time ago there lived a princess who. How the pulse quickens, hearing such beginnings! such promises of something new, strange unexpected!
That last part is crucial, as Oates points out: great anthologies can reprint all the familiar stuff they want, but somehow, by the alchemy of their alignments, they manage always to make that stuff new and strange and unexpected. Must be why I have a couple of shelves of them, well-thumbed. We’ll do six more in a bit!