Selected Modern Short Stories, edited by Alan Steele (1937)

Selected Modern Short Stories–the first of several collections that editor Alan Steele compiled for Penguin in the late 1930s–offers a good illustration of the random nature of literary fate. Let’s take at look at the authors listed on the cover:

John Hampson

Hampson’s first-published novel, Saturday Night at the Greyhound (1931) was a surprise best-seller for Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and is back in print now, thanks to the ever-diligent Valancourt Books. It’s considerably harder to find his short stories, however. Only two were ever published i book form, and this in the very scarce Two Stories: The Mare’s Nest and The Long Shadow (1931), hand-printed in an edition of 250 by radical publisher Charles Lahr.

Helen Simpson

Simpson’s historical romances, such as Under Capricorn, were very popular during their time, but are now out of print outside her native Australia. You can, however, find her novel, Saraband for Dead Lovers (1935), available on the Internet Archive. She published just one collection, The Baseless Fabric (1925), well before this anthology. The one copy I could find for sale goes for $1000. When this was published, one reviewer wrote of it, “… eleven profoundly imagined creations here contained, each one, perfect in the exact balance and unfailing accuracy of its veiled suggestion, concerned with the potencies for good or evil latent in the invisible realm which separates the conscious senses from the surrounding world.”

H. E. Bates

Bates enjoyed a pretty consistent and happy balance of critical and popular esteem throughout his career and it has held on to this day. A good share of his novels and short story collections are in print, but you can also find his collection, The Enchantress (1961), for free on the Internet Archive.

Martin Armstrong

Armstrong’s work is long out of print, which is one reason why I wrote about his Selected Stories (1951) a few months ago. You can find a snippet of his work online in a throw-away compilation titled, What is Happiness? (1939), in which he and other English writers such as J. B. Priestley and Storm Jameson offered their answers to this question. I like Armstrong’s sly approach to avoiding an actual answer:

Before we can be truly happy we must gain control of our minds. How am I to do so?

The answer is simple: by obeying the Greek maxim, ‘Know thyself.’ Good! We are almost, it seems, at the end of our inquiry. Only one question remains: how am I to get to know myself? Ah! Now you’re asking. Saints and philosophers have been engaged on this simple question for some thousands of years but, unhappily, the answer is not yet to hand.

H. A. Manhood

H. A. Manhood was considered one of the best short story writers of the 1930s, but in the mid-1950s he gave up writing entirely and retired to an abandoned railway carriage in a field in West Sussex, where he spent the next decades brewing his own cider and attempting to get by as much as possible on a subsistence basis. Thanks to the Sundial Press, a collection of his stories, Life Be Still!, is now available, but you can also find his Selected Stories (1947)

T. O. Beachcroft

Reviewing Beachcroft’s second story collection, Graham Greene wrote that “Mr. Beachcroft is likely to become, after Mr. H. E. Bates, the most distinguished short-story writer in this country,” but unlike Bates, his work has disappeared without a trace. He didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry until I wrote one earlier today. Reviewing one of his later collections in The Spectator, Stevie Smith wrote:

Mr. Beachcroft’s talent is disarming. One thinks: thank heavens just a simple tale, with people one knows and bits of scenery and a bit of human feeling, not much more, but very agreeable. It is not difficult to put the reader in this pleasantly superior frame of mind, and having got the donkey where You want him, the creature is in your power…. Simplicity is the word for Mr. Beachcroft’s stories, but it is a poet’s simplicity, the most subtle in the world.

Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can enjoy The Collected Stories of T. O. Beachcroft (1946), which I will cover in more depth soon.

Liam O’Flaherty

Liam O’Flaherty will probably always have at least his classic novel, The Informer, in print, and his collection, The Wounded Cormorant was a feature of high school reading lists for decades. You can also find The Informer online at the Internet Archive, but for his stories, look for the exemplary collection, The Stories of Liam O’Flaherty (1956), at the Open Library.

L. A. G. Strong

Several of Strong’s novels are back in print thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing’s fine series of solid middlebrow novels and story collections from the 1930s-1960s. None of his numerous short story books are in print, but you can enjoy a healthy sample in his Travellers: Thirty-One Selected Stories (147), available from the Internet Archive.

Malachi Whitaker

As Malachi Whitaker, Yorkshire housewife Marjorie Whitaker became known as the “Bradford Chekhov” and was considered perhaps the finest woman writer of short stories between Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen, but her work felt out of print for several decades until her collection, The Crystal Fountain, and autobiography, And So Did I, were released by Paladin Press in the 1990s. Unfortunately, they dropped from sight again after than. Just recently, however, Persephone Books added to their growing list of rediscovered by releasing Journey Home and Other Stories.

Frank O’Connor

O’Connor is safely ensconced as the leading Irish short story writer to follow Joyce–as demonstrated by the fact that the introduction to his Collected Stories (1981) was written by none other than famed Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann.

William Plomer

Plomer’s is one of those names that fans of neglected books will recognize, as one or other of his books–whether his South African novel Turbott Wolfe or his English novel Museum Pieces or his eccentric family memoir, Curious Relations–often shows up on lists such as those from Antaeus or Tin House. His short stories, however, vanished decades ago. Luckily, you can find a worthy sample on the Internet Archive in his collection Four Countries (1949), which includes stories set in Africa, Japan, Greece, and England. In his introduction, Plomer put himself solidly in the traditionalist camp when it came to short stories:

We rightly expect a story to have a point, and this generally means that we expect it to be dramatic. A short story must let us into the secrets of other people’s lives, and unless it lets us into their lives at a moment of crisis, it is unlikely to have much point or to be dramatic. The crisis may be a small one, but a crisis there must be. This crisis must engage the reader’s imagination, and it must illuminate some new or unfamiliar aspect of the human predicament, or some familiar aspect in a new way. As for the manner in which this is done, there are infinite possibilities, but it must be adroit.

Rhys Davies

Welsh writer Rhys Davies is still popular among his fellow countrymen thanks to the Library of Wales series, but mostly overlooked elsewhere. A large sample of his work can be found online, however, in The Collected Stories of Rhys Davies on the Internet Archive. Davies took a measured view of the lot of the short story writer:

Short stories are a luxury which only those writers who fall in love with them can afford to cultivate. To such a writer they yield the purest enjoyment; they become a privately elegant craft allowing, within very strict confines, a wealth of idiosyncrasies. Compared with the novel, that great public park so often complete with draughty spaces, noisy brass band and unsightly litter, the enclosed and quiet short story garden is of small importance, and never has been much more…. The short story gives the release of a day off, when something happened which one remembers with a smile or a start of interest, with a pang or a pause of fear.

One thought on “Selected Modern Short Stories, edited by Alan Steele (1937)

  1. What a fascinating list!

    I routinely discover old short story anthologies in used bookstores, yet rarely do I encounter one like this where not a single name is recognizable; although, William Plomer’s name did seem vaguely familiar. Alas, often the “nature of literary fate,” as you say, does indeed seem “random.”

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