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Prize Stories with a Personal Voice

PRIZE STORIES 1961: THE O. HENRY AWARDS, Richard Poirler, Ed., Doubleday & Company, 1961, 332 pp., $3.95.

By Walter L. Goldfrank

In his first year as judge of the O. Henry Awards (for the best stories to appear in periodicals), Richard Poirier, assistant professor of English has selected twelve of English, has selected twelve pieces whose authors each speak with an original voice. All twelve deal in one way or other with the theme of the alienated American, with the idea that American social institutions are insufficient to the task of meaningfully ordering men's lives.

In a brief but perceptive introduction, Poirier correctly blames the generally "dispirited condition of contemporary fiction" for the quality of current magazines--not vice versa. He directs his criticism toward those writers in whom he finds a failure to develop a personal voice and, hence, "a surrender to certain fashionable themes, situations, or characters" or to "some commercially established standards of form and craft." He further notes that the plea in the greatest American fiction has been for an intensely personal view of reality, springing from "a lack of confidence in the solidity of social structures other than the one being created in the work."

Although each of his selections demonstrates an individual (if not always overwhelmingly effective) style, none of them shows any significant departure from literary conventions, such as one finds in recent French fiction or in Beat poetry.

The most striking style is that of Tillie Olsen, whose "Tell Me A Riddle" won first prize. Using an original kind of interior monologue, Miss Olsen chronicles the movement toward death of an immigrant Russian Jewess. Her husband cannot until the final scene sympathize with her, and her children have become sickeningly Americanized. She wants to be free, to live within herself, "and not move to the rhythms of others." Her health is failing, yet she resists medical care ("I need no doctors"). Her husband calls her by epithets that evoke stock characters: but she is not a stereotype; it is he who wants to watch "This Is Your Life" on television, while she contents herself with the soft singing of a long remembered Russian love song.

Her husband persuades her to accompany him across the country to visit their children and grand children, though he does not tell her what she already knows, that she is dying. But she cannot get close to her family; they talk of cars and supermarkets and amusement parks while in her mind she recalls the simpler joys of her youth. She is an uprooted; it is a credit to Miss Olsen's style that one can come to the Jewess' cry--"Where now? Not home yet?... Not home yet? Where is my home?"--and not despair of its baldness. The final scene is, as Poirier notes, "brilliantly timed," a climax of power evoking a grand release of tension in the reader, reminding him of his inescapable wish to recapture the happiness of the past, "that joyous certainty, that sense of moving and being moved, of being one and indivisible with the great of the past, with all mankind."

For second prize, Poirier chose a tragicomic story by Ivan Gold, and made clear how closely it too displays the search by the writer for authentic attitudes, his impatience with conventional social definitions. Called "The Nickel Misery of George Washington Carver Brown," it tells of the death (interestingly, five of the twelve prizewinners deal with dying) of Brown, one of two Negroes in a basic training platoon. Gold satirizes the remaining main characters--the embittered Corporal Cherry, Private Hines, whose inclusion makes it clear that Gold is not particularly concerned with Brown as a member of a minority group, and Private Frazier (a writer who thinks in stereotyped literary images). But his satire betrays a genuine contempt. He clearly identifies with Sergeant Divino--an extremely sympathetic hero: "It was all he (Divino) wanted now or ever from the Cherrys, the knowledge he was limned in spades to know they knew that civilian crazy core of him their souls. Needing no confrontation, no mundane strength... he needed periodic (and mutual) of their polarity: that on a bloody peninsula blasting with no names he could love for, or in a basic-training crapping on people he had and created for eight weeks, was Divino, Cherry was being in the Army changed important, did not shape the a man."

Those who have been in known that it epitomizes all insane in American society Gold's choice of setting the effect of his message. max of this fine piece is al effective as Miss Olsen's flecting backwards over gone before, one sees how lessly Gold foreshadowed it.

My agreement with order of prizewinners stop I found Reynolds Price's "O day in Late July" often dull in comparison of the others in this volume. points out its Faulknerian nature; it seems unfortunately neither an advance in style (hard to imagine) nor so profound.

Of the remaining stoires, two are especially impressive, Jack Ludwig's "Thoreau in California" and Arthur Miller's "I Don't Need You Any More." Ludwig's effort falls a little short because of the difficulty of his endeavor. Consistently amusing without being flip or irrelevant, he introduces an extremely improbable character who worships and lives by the words of an extremely Improbable pair of writers, Thoreau and Wilhelm Reich. But to make music of proper names requires a talent approximating Joyce's, and while Ludwig has done well enough indeed, the strictures of conventional sentence give much of his prose an unintentionally flat sound.

Poirier found Miller's story enigmatic; it is clear to me that Miller has successfully entered the world of a wonderful five-year old boy who reminds one of the hero of The Red Balloon, and has returned to write of its beauty with an appeal to adults that they recognize, any cherish, the visions of their childhoods.

The final story included is John Updike's "Wife-Wooing," a five-page hymn to love. While his predilections for cosmetics, hamburgers, and certain other American specialties seem out of place, his tone is beautifully consistent, his citing and borrowing from Ulysses indeed apt. Most important--and I suppose it's too bad for us--"Wife-Wooing" implies what is dally becoming more and more apparent: in a society which promises as much and fulfills as little as ours, one can honestly avoid hypocrisy only in meaningfully close personal ties

Those who have been in known that it epitomizes all insane in American society Gold's choice of setting the effect of his message. max of this fine piece is al effective as Miss Olsen's flecting backwards over gone before, one sees how lessly Gold foreshadowed it.

My agreement with order of prizewinners stop I found Reynolds Price's "O day in Late July" often dull in comparison of the others in this volume. points out its Faulknerian nature; it seems unfortunately neither an advance in style (hard to imagine) nor so profound.

Of the remaining stoires, two are especially impressive, Jack Ludwig's "Thoreau in California" and Arthur Miller's "I Don't Need You Any More." Ludwig's effort falls a little short because of the difficulty of his endeavor. Consistently amusing without being flip or irrelevant, he introduces an extremely improbable character who worships and lives by the words of an extremely Improbable pair of writers, Thoreau and Wilhelm Reich. But to make music of proper names requires a talent approximating Joyce's, and while Ludwig has done well enough indeed, the strictures of conventional sentence give much of his prose an unintentionally flat sound.

Poirier found Miller's story enigmatic; it is clear to me that Miller has successfully entered the world of a wonderful five-year old boy who reminds one of the hero of The Red Balloon, and has returned to write of its beauty with an appeal to adults that they recognize, any cherish, the visions of their childhoods.

The final story included is John Updike's "Wife-Wooing," a five-page hymn to love. While his predilections for cosmetics, hamburgers, and certain other American specialties seem out of place, his tone is beautifully consistent, his citing and borrowing from Ulysses indeed apt. Most important--and I suppose it's too bad for us--"Wife-Wooing" implies what is dally becoming more and more apparent: in a society which promises as much and fulfills as little as ours, one can honestly avoid hypocrisy only in meaningfully close personal ties

My agreement with order of prizewinners stop I found Reynolds Price's "O day in Late July" often dull in comparison of the others in this volume. points out its Faulknerian nature; it seems unfortunately neither an advance in style (hard to imagine) nor so profound.

Of the remaining stoires, two are especially impressive, Jack Ludwig's "Thoreau in California" and Arthur Miller's "I Don't Need You Any More." Ludwig's effort falls a little short because of the difficulty of his endeavor. Consistently amusing without being flip or irrelevant, he introduces an extremely improbable character who worships and lives by the words of an extremely Improbable pair of writers, Thoreau and Wilhelm Reich. But to make music of proper names requires a talent approximating Joyce's, and while Ludwig has done well enough indeed, the strictures of conventional sentence give much of his prose an unintentionally flat sound.

Poirier found Miller's story enigmatic; it is clear to me that Miller has successfully entered the world of a wonderful five-year old boy who reminds one of the hero of The Red Balloon, and has returned to write of its beauty with an appeal to adults that they recognize, any cherish, the visions of their childhoods.

The final story included is John Updike's "Wife-Wooing," a five-page hymn to love. While his predilections for cosmetics, hamburgers, and certain other American specialties seem out of place, his tone is beautifully consistent, his citing and borrowing from Ulysses indeed apt. Most important--and I suppose it's too bad for us--"Wife-Wooing" implies what is dally becoming more and more apparent: in a society which promises as much and fulfills as little as ours, one can honestly avoid hypocrisy only in meaningfully close personal ties

Of the remaining stoires, two are especially impressive, Jack Ludwig's "Thoreau in California" and Arthur Miller's "I Don't Need You Any More." Ludwig's effort falls a little short because of the difficulty of his endeavor. Consistently amusing without being flip or irrelevant, he introduces an extremely improbable character who worships and lives by the words of an extremely Improbable pair of writers, Thoreau and Wilhelm Reich. But to make music of proper names requires a talent approximating Joyce's, and while Ludwig has done well enough indeed, the strictures of conventional sentence give much of his prose an unintentionally flat sound.

Poirier found Miller's story enigmatic; it is clear to me that Miller has successfully entered the world of a wonderful five-year old boy who reminds one of the hero of The Red Balloon, and has returned to write of its beauty with an appeal to adults that they recognize, any cherish, the visions of their childhoods.

The final story included is John Updike's "Wife-Wooing," a five-page hymn to love. While his predilections for cosmetics, hamburgers, and certain other American specialties seem out of place, his tone is beautifully consistent, his citing and borrowing from Ulysses indeed apt. Most important--and I suppose it's too bad for us--"Wife-Wooing" implies what is dally becoming more and more apparent: in a society which promises as much and fulfills as little as ours, one can honestly avoid hypocrisy only in meaningfully close personal ties

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