My previous blog took for its topic the genre of autobiography, which will be the subject of Chapter 3 in my forthcoming book, American Literature: A Very Short Introduction. This topic generated less comment than my earlier blogs, which surprised me somewhat. To me, autobiography is an exciting genre for critical exploration. I still welcome comments on autobiography, but for this new blog I am moving on to the subject of my fourth chapter: the short story. And I have come up with a question certain to generate some lively discussion: what are the five greatest short stories in the history of American literature?
Before anyone answers that question, perhaps I should establish one or two ground rules. Were I to answer it myself, the top five short stories in American literature might all be stories by Edgar Allan Poe. No doubt others feel the same way, too. But if all of you submit lists consisting solely of Poe stories, your responses will not really help me very much. Let’s make the following rule: only one story per author allowed in the list.
Top five and top ten lists have been around for a long time. In 1928, as I noted in The Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville, Edward O’Brien made a list of the top fifteen short stories of all time, putting Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” at the top of the list and claiming that it was “the noblest short story in American literature.” Does O’Brien’s claim hold up eighty years later? The short story is a product of the nineteenth century, and many of the best writers of short fiction in American literature emerged then. But what impact did the twentieth century have on the development of short fiction? Have there been any good short stories in the twenty-first century? I look forward to hearing what you have to say.