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Monday, June 6, 2011

The “Best” Short Stories? Two lists—one recent and one from 1914—show their strengths and limitations

“Best of” lists often make us wonder if they exist solely to goad us into generating new and better lists. Many of us love lists, and indeed in only two months we’ll be announcing here the sure-to-be-controversial “Fifty Funniest American Writers” selected by Andy Borowitz for an upcoming Library of America volume.

Along these lines, we noticed the “Best Short Stories of All Time,” a recent list bravely compiled by the fifteen staff members of One Story, who posted a “long list” on their blog and featured the top ten, plus a few runners-up, on Flavorwire. Among the excellent stories on the long list were entries by three Library of America authors: Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and Flannery O’Connor. Still, it’s notable that a mere two stories (by Kafka and Garcia Marquez) were originally written in a language other than English—and only two others (by Joyce and Gallant) were written by non-Americans. And, except for the selections by Kafka and Joyce, all the stories were published since World War II.

While pondering whether every “best of” list inevitably reflects the prejudices of the time, we stumbled upon “What is the Best Short Story in English?,” a survey The New York Times conducted in 1914. The Times sought out the opinions of “a score of men and women on both sides of the Atlantic . . . who are writing or have written the short stories of this generation.” And, sure enough, we found that even a century ago the distinguished jurors did not reach much beyond their contemporaries or the previous generation for their favorites.

Among those who participated in the survey were writers who are still familiar to readers today: Richard Harding Davis, Edna Ferber, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, Jack London, Booth Tarkington, Owen Wister. We are also gratified to see among the jurors several less well-known authors whose works have been revisited in recent Library of America anthologies: Robert W. Chambers (author of the chilling “The Repairer of Reputations”), Irvin S. Cobb (“Cobb Fights It Over Again”), Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (“Luella Miller,”), and Owen Johnson (“The Great Pancake Record”).

Thomas Hardy echoed his fellow writers when he rejected the concept of “best”:
One may be the best tragic short story, the other may be the best tranquilly domestic short story, and so on, and unless you decide which is "best," tragedy, comedy, or tragi-comedy, the question is unanswerable. It seems as impossible to say which is the best of these forms of art as to define which is the best color, or the best taste in food.
Owen Wister adds, “You have asked a question to which there really is no answer, and you know as well as I do that if the replies you are going to receive coincide it would be amazing enough to become historic in a small way.”

Like One Story’s list, most of the 1914 selections were written during the previous half-century—and a good number were written by the jurors’ contemporaries. Half of the forty-five stories were written by just four authors: Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe. Although the list includes many stories and authors still read and loved by readers today, there are notable omissions for a survey conducted in 1914: Scott, Hawthorne, Disraeli, Trollope, and Gissing (all of whom were featured in a best-selling story anthology published the same year by Oxford University Press). Missing, too, is “Désireé’s Baby,” by Kate Chopin, which was called “one of the most perfect stories” and “well nigh perfect” by anthologists in 1906 and 1915, respectively. And, of course, readers and critics wouldn’t rediscover poor, neglected Herman Melville until the 1920s.

Without further ado, then, here are the “Best Stories in English” from 1914:

Chosen by four jurors
Bret HarteThe Outcasts of Poker Flat
Robert Louis StevensonA Lodging for the Night

Chosen by three jurors
Joseph ConradHeart of Darkness
O. HenryA Municipal Report
Rudyard KiplingWithout Benefit of Clergy
The Brushwood Boy
The Man Who Would Be King

Chosen by two jurors
Irvin S. CobbThe Belled Buzzard
Charles DickensA Christmas Carol
Bret HarteThe Luck of Roaring Camp
Edgar Allan PoeThe Fall of the House of Usher
The Gold Bug

The rest of the list
Thomas Bailey AldrichMarjorie Daw
The BibleRuth and Naomi
Edward Bulwer-LyttonThe House and the Brain
Arthur Conan DoyleThe Ring of Thoth
Charles DickensThe Cricket on the Hearth
Dr. Marigold
The Story of Richard Doubledick
Sarah Barnwell ElliottAn Incident
Edward Everett HaleThe Man Without a Country
Joel Chandler HarrisUncle Remus
Washington IrvingRip Van Winkle
Wolfert Webber
Henry JamesThe Turn of the Screw
Rudyard KiplingBeyond the Pale
Bread Upon the Waters
The Jungle Book
The Maltese Cat
A. Neil LyonLove in the Mist
Gouverneur MorrisThe Claws of the Tiger
Edgar Allan PoeThe Murders of the Rue Morgue
The Purloined Letter
Robert Louis StevensonDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The Merry Men
Pavilion on the Links
Providence and the Guitar
Will o' the Mill
William Makepeace ThackerayRebecca and Rowena
Mark TwainThe Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
H. G. WellsThe Door in the Wall
Edith WhartonA Journey
Stephen French WhitmanHis Wife
Jesse Lynch WilliamsThe Stolen Story

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:


  1. I currently have 26 of the short stories on the 1914 Times list, most in collections published by The Folio Society.

    By the way, "A Lodging for the Night" is the correct title for the RLS story and "The Ring of Thoth" is the correct title for the Conan Doyle story.

  2. Thanks, Sean! We've corrected both errors.

  3. Well, where is the modern list?

  4. Patwin 55: There are two links to the "modern list" in the post (in the second paragraph). The One Story link is the the long list and the Flavorwire link is to the short list.


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