Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 1: Sherwood Anderson, The Egg (#158)

For a long time I've been subscribed to the Library of America's "Story of the Week" email list; but I have not always been good about reading those stories. Until now. (I hope.) There are 172 entries at the moment, though this number includes non-fiction/memoir and poetry, which I may or may not include in this read-through.

I'm not sure how many I will read a week or how much I will analyze or complain about them; but until Goodreads has a short story section, I need to record this somewhere (to ensure I don't accidentally read the same story twice).

First up:

Sherwood Anderson, "The Egg" (1920) from Sherwood Anderson
Available many places online (such as here), this is a plot-light and character-heavy story that is dark and sad and very funny. The story is told from the POV of an older man remembering and philosophizing about his childhood; and it boils down to "my dad was never successful at raising chickens or running a restaurant that was supposed to be a hub of good cheer" with a sub-theme, I would say, of the disappointments of ambition. But you don't come to this story for the plot, but for the hilariously dark comedy:
In later life I have seen how a literature has been built up on the subject of fortunes to be made out of the raising of chickens. It is intended to be read by the gods who have just eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is a hopeful literature and declares that much may be done by simple ambitious people who own a few hens. Do not be led astray by it. It was not written for you. Go hunt for gold on the frozen hills of Alaska, put your faith in the honesty of a politician, believe if you will that the world is daily growing better and that good will triumph over evil, but do not read and believe the literature that is written concerning the hen. It was not written for you. 
Much of the dark comedy of this piece comes from the mix of no-nonsense prose with these insights into the nature of things. Or rather, into the nature of people with their wants and inexplicable growths. Let's be clear: the child is the POV because the story is about how things grow and fail to grow, how certain things spring from other things, like eggs coming from chickens--or is it the other way around.

For instance, check out the narrator's description of his mother: "She was a tall silent woman with a long nose and troubled gray eyes.  For herself she wanted nothing.  For father and myself she was incurably ambitious." What is the nature of that ambition? The story hints that it comes from reading books about the world, but why isn't mom ambitious for herself?

For 11 pages, this story read remarkably fast, possibly because the prose is so straight-forward and the action so clear; though considering the bulk of the plot--dad's failure to impress a young gentleman--takes up only the last four pages or so, I wonder if a modern publisher would take it.

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