Black short fiction, 1899-1967

A book of 46 stories by as many authors is pretty certain to be uneven. Originally published in 1967 as The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers and retitled The Best Short Stories by Black Writers: The Classic Anthology from 1899-1967 includes some particularly good stories (some of them close to being parables) by more than a Who’s Who of African American writers active before the mid-1960s. It is easier to mention who is conspicuous by their absence than whose work editor Langston Hughes sampled: Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, and Bruce Nugent — the latter two part of the Harlem Renaissance faction whose poet Hughes was. Not that any of those three produced many short stories, but Hughes detached stories from novels by some other writers (including “Fern” from Jean Toomer’s Cane, a highly regarded classic by which I am underwhelmed.

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I also would have chosen different stories by Harlem Renaissance writers Arna Bontemps, Rudolph Fisher, Zora Neale Hurston, and Eric Walrond. Nonetheless, the choice of a story by Hughes himself (“Thank you, ma’me”) is excellent, and there are good representative stories by the two authors of contenders for the title Great African American Novel Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison (“Almos’ a man” from Eight Men and “Flying Home,” respectively), one that much later became the title piece in the collection of short fiction and nonfiction pieces by the youngest Harlem Renaissance writer, Dorothy West (The Richer, the Poorer) and a pointedly ironic story about political machines and getting ahead by Paul Laurence Dunbar from around the turn of the 20th century (The scapegoat). The earliest one by Charles W. Chestnutt (The sheriff’s children) is at least pretty good.

I particularly liked two stories by authors of whom I had not previous heard: Ted Poston (Revolt of the evil fairies) and Cyrus Colter (The beach umbrella). About half the stories are by writers who must have appeared promising around 1965 but whose promise was not fulfilled.

I was underwhelmed by the two longest stories in the volume, both written by celebrated authors: James Baldwin (This morning, this evening, so soon) and Ernest J. Gaines (A long day in November) and one of the weakest of the many stories written by Chester Himes (Marihuana and a pistol).

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I was also disappointed by Hughes’s brief (5-page) and bland introduction, which does little more than say that black writing talent is abundant but support was and is not, particularly from Hollywood. My rating is brought down by the superficial introduction more than by the dubious choices of some now-forgotten authors and of the stories by some authors with whose work I am familiar. There are, nonetheless, a number of interesting stories (tastes will differ on which ones, I realize). The book has some interest as a historical artifact (not least as a survey of African American writers who were little-celebrated than and are forgotten now.)

The bio-blurbs at the back are helpful, but it is annoying that it is impossible to tell when most of the stories were first published (let alone written) and that there is no discernible order to the copyright notice listing of stories.

©2008, Stephen O. Murray

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