On June 6, Sheila Liming, an assistant professor of literature at the University of North Dakota, tweeted this report: “Editing my book manuscript while, next door at the library, thousands of books are being hauled away in a dump truck.”
Atop the stack at my left hand are ex-library copies of two anthologies, both published by Doubleday: Fiction of the Fifties: A Decade of American Writing (1959), edited by Herbert Gold; and Stories from the Sixties (1971), edited by Stanley Elkin. Copies of these books may well have been scooped into that dump truck at UND. (My copy of Fiction of the Fifties shows signs of heavy circulation; Stories from the Sixties appears not to have been checked out nearly as often.)
Each of the anthologies includes fifteen stories, but though the pagecounts are about equal (383 in the first volume, 400 in the second), there are far more words in the volume from the Sixties—the type is tiny, not reader-friendly. The first volume begins with an introductory essay by Gold, followed by a “Note on Choice” (why, for instance, Philip Roth isn’t included) and a section titled “A Word from Writer Directly to Reader,” in which the writers whose work is represented answer a question about writing fiction in the Fifties: “Do you believe this age makes special demands on you as a writer?” (Some of the answers are exceedingly brief, while others are more substantial.) The front matter for the volume from the Sixties is minimal by comparison: a preface by Elkin.
Both Gold and Elkin take the opportunity to outline their convictions as writers of fiction; they differ sharply. Gold ruminates:
[W]hat has been the special mission of the writer of fiction in the 1950’s? Not absolutely different from the mission of the writer of any time, of course. One role did not leave off in 1949 when automobiles were just beginning to grow like postwar tumors and television aerials sprouted like wild asparagus on the roof tops of America. But a special kind of light has been focused, a direction marked out, and when we look at the contemporary writers who mean much to us at this end of the decade, we may see how they have responded as a group to the particular disasters and challenges of our time. …
Writers of fiction have been taking on the role traditionally played by religious leaders, philosophers, metaphysicians. They have returned in deep need to the most primitive poetic purpose: to know; to try to know even when they know not; to invoke knowledge; to ransom the god within by peeling off their skin. They have been driven to asking the ultimate questions. And those who love fiction must nowadays love it partly because it concerns itself with final matters.
If you are old enough to remember the Fifties and the Sixties, as I am (if only from the vantage-point of a boy, a kid, a teenager, and finally, at the end of the Sixties, officially an adult), you will feel a certain frisson as you read Gold’s manifesto, so redolent is it of one influential current of thought from those days. Someone—the writer, the artist, the scientist, the psychiatrist—was said over and over again to be taking on (taking over) a quasi-religious role, because of course “we” all knew that “religion” was dying. You may feel a bit cheated when you read the actual stories Gold has assembled to flesh out his claims. But we’ll return to that in a moment. First we need to look at Elkin’s preface. Here I’m quoting the last half of its remarkable concluding paragraph:
[A]ll stories drive out all other stories as surely as all music drives out all other music, or all consciousness drives out all other consciousness. The individual fiction precludes fiction (the very concept of this anthology is a paradox), precludes the world, precludes time (the apparent gift of fiction, its essential trait, the thing it has that no other form has, is tense, yet in great fiction it is always the present), and, watch it, even the reality of your own existence. I’m your uncle, I like you, come home and I’ll take you to the ballgame and get you a hot dog. Listen. Don’t read if you would retain a sense of your life. Or read for meaning, quibble with a story’s issues and themes and ideas. Those are its least important aspects anyway, there only as technique, integument, art’s artificial gum base. All writers have only one of two things to say. They say yes or they say no, or shades of yes or shades of no—the binary substructure of vision. Stick to that, venture beyond and I promise you envy like the toothache.
Wow. There’s hubris here, of course (of a flavor very different from Gold’s). You can understand why John Gardner fundamentally disagreed with Elkin about what fiction is for, but also why Gardner said that Elkin was such a good writer (and it was Gardner who first directed me to Elkin).
So we have these two volumes, assembled by two editors with very different criteria. Nevertheless, two writers appear in both anthologies: Saul Bellow and Flannery O’Connor. Of the fifteen writers represented in Gold’s selection, O’Connor is the only woman; in the Elkin volume, she’s joined by Hortense Calisher and Tillie Olsen. Almost all of the contributors in both volumes are white men, many of them Jewish (which complicates that category a bit); the leadoff spot in the Gold volume is filled by James Baldwin (with “Sonny’s Blues”). In other respects, the writers are exceedingly “diverse.” They all write in English, but their voices differ greatly. (You won’t confuse J. F. Powers with Bernard Malamud, say, in the Gold volume.) Many of the stories I found a chore to read, but then there were others, like Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle” and William Gass’s brilliant, nasty “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (both chosen by Elkin), well worth reading again after many years. I am grateful to Gold and Elkin both.
Of the thirty stories collected in the two volumes, the one that stood out the most was George P. Elliott’s “Among the Dangs,” included in the Gold volume. If you were in college in the Sixties, there’s a fair chance you encountered this story in a classroom, as I did, circa 1966–67; it was widely anthologized. If you came along later, the odds aren’t so good. I don’t want to say too much about it here; I hope you’ll track it down, whether you’ve never read it or first encountered it fifty years ago.
I will say this much. Both of these volumes are haunted by an absence. They are, with a few exceptions, radically secular. Elliott’s story addresses this absence from an ambiguous standpoint. The protagonist of “Among the Dangs” is an anthropologist (at the time the story appeared, anthropology was at the height of its prestige), and Elliott’s appropriation of the discipline’s idiom is brilliant. (There are other acts of appropriation in the story too, as you’ll discover if you do in fact read it.)
Finally, to my friends who teach lit, please consider putting “Among the Dangs” into the rotation. And if you do, I’d love to hear how it’s received.
John Wilson was the editor of Books & Culture from its first issue (in 1995) to its last (in 2016).