erik lundegaard

The First Sentence of Every Short Story in 'American Short Stories, 4th Ed.'

In 1982, in one of the first college English courses I took, we were given, or, OK, made to buy, a book called “American Short Stories, 4th ed.,” edited by Eugene Current-Garcia and Walton R. Patrick. It was eye-opening. It made an impression. I kept reading the stories even after the class was over. It made me think, “This is what I want to do.”

I didn't know that this—the centrality of literature to the culture—was already over.

American Short Stories, Fourth EditionI still have the book and I picked it up again recently. For some reason, maybe the editor in me, I began to check out the first sentences of each story. I noticed patterns, the way they changed with the times: now boats, now trains, now cars. Here's a description of nature setting the stage and the mood. Now we're in the South, now we're in New York, now we're a consumerist society buying Camel cigarettes. Characters used to be from Italy, then it was simply a place to visit. We're stiff New Englanders, we're wide-eyed Midwesterners, we're defeated Southerners. We're black, we're Jewish, we're the last of the great WASPs. Metafiction rears its ugly head before we return, perhaps self-consciously, to colloquialism.

I was going to divide these stories by their various categories but decided to just lay them out as I read them—chronologically. Enjoy. In some ways it's the history of America:

  • “Whoever had made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Kaatskill Mountains.” -- Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle” (1819)
  • “Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village; but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife.” -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” (1835)
  • “A young man, named Giovanni Guasconti, came, very long ago, from the more southern region of Italy, to pursue his studies at the University of Padua.” -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Rappaccini's Daughter” (1844)
  • “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” -- Edgar Allen Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846)
  • “True! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” -- Edgar Allen Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843)
  • “A steamboat on the Mississippi, frequently, in making her regular trips, carries beween places varying from one to two thousand miles apart; and, as these boats advertise to land passengers and freight at 'all intermediate landings,' the heterogeneous character of the passengers of one of these up-country boats can scarely be imagined by one who has never seen it with his own eyes.” -- Thomas Bangs Thorpe, “The Big Bear of Arkansas” (1841)
  • “I am a rather elderly man.” -- Herman Melville, “Bartleby” (1853)
  • “In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me frm the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend's friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and i hereunto append the result.” -- Mark Twain, “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865)
  • “As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in the moral atmosphere since the preceding night.” -- Bret Harte, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1869)
  • “The air was thick with the war feeling, like the electricity of a storm which has not yet burst.” -- William Dean Howells, “Editha” (1905)
  • “The fighting has been hard and continuous; that was attested by all the senses.” -- Ambrose Bierce, “The Coup de Grace” (1889)
  • “'Our feeling is, you know, that Becky should go.'” -- Henry James, “Europe” (1899)
  • “When the porter's wife, who used to answer the house-bell, announced, 'A gentleman and a lady, sir,' I had, as I often had in those days—the wish being father to the thought—an immediate vision of sitters.” -- Henry James, “The Real Thing” (1892)
  • “The leaves were so still that even Bibi thought it was going to rain.” -- Kate Chopin, “The Storm” (1898)
  • “It was late in the afternoon, and the light was waning.” --Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, “A New England Nun” (1891)
  • “When it is said that it was done to please a woman, there ought perhaps to be enough said to explain anything; for what a man will not do to please a woman is yet to be discovered.” -- Charles Chesnutt, “The Passing of Grandison” (1899)
  • “The nearer the train drew toward La Crosse, the soberer the little group of 'vets' became.” -- Hamlin Garland, “The Return of a Private” (1892)
  • “The great Pullman was whirling onward with such dignity of motion that a glance from the window seemed simply to prove that the plains of Texas were pouring eastward.” -- Stephen Crane, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” (1898)
  • “None of them knew the color of the sky.” -- Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat” (1897)
  • “To Carson Chalmers, in his apartment near the square, Phillips brought the evening mail.” -- O. Henry, “A Madison Square Arabian Night” (1908, approx.)
  • “From the table at which they had been lunching two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age moved across the lofty terrace of the Roman restaurant and, leaning on its parapet, looked first at each other, and then down on the outspread glores of the Palatine and the Forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval.” -- Edith Wharton, “Roman Fever” (1934)
  • “It was Paul's afternoon to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to account for his various misdemeanours.” -- Willa Cather, “Paul's Case” (1906)
  • “She was an old woman and lived on a farm near the town in which I lived.” -- Sherwood Anderson, “Death in the Woods (1926)
  • ”'I'll tell you what I'm going to do with you, Mr. Bartlett,' said the great man.“ -- Ring Lardner, ”The Love Nest.“
  • ”The grandfather, dead more than thirty years, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow.“ -- Katherine Anne Porter, ”The Grave.“
  • ”Mr. Martin bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded cigar store on Broadway.“ -- James Thurber, ”The Catbird Seat“ (1942)
  • ”'And where's Mr. Campbell?' Charlies asked.“ -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, ”Babylon Revisited (1930)
  • “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.” -- William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily” (1930)
  • “Isaac McCaslin, 'Uncle Ike,” past seventy and nearer eighty than he ever corroborated any more, a widower now and uncle to half a county and father to no one“ -- William Faulkner, ”was“
  • “It was late and every one had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.” -- Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933)
  • “About fiften miles below Monterery, on the wild coast, the Torres family had their farm, a few sloping acres above a cliff that dropped to the brown reefs and to the hissing white waters of the ocean.” -- John Steinbeck, “Flight“ (1938)
  • “She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails.” — Langston Hughes, “Thank You, Ma’am.”
  • “Solomon carried Livvie twenty-one miles away from her home when he married her.” -- Eudora Welty, “Livvie.”
  • “Verna bent over the old-fashioned bath tub—the kind with legs, and the white enamel worn thin in places—to turn the faucet and start the hot water running.” -- Cyrus Colter, “A Man in the House.”
  • “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying: ‘I drank too much last night.’” -- John Cheever, “The Swimmer.”
  • “Fifth Avenue was shining in the sun when they left the Brevoort.” -- Irwin Shaw, “The Girls in the Their Summer Dresses.”
  • “Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student in the Yeshivah University.” -- Bernard Malamud, “The Magic Barrel.”
  • “Whenever someone misunderstood Aunt Munsie’s question, she didn’t bother to clarify it.” -- Peter Taylor, “What You Hear from ‘em?”
  • “Some boys are very tough.” -- Grace Paley, “Samuel.”
  • “Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings.” -- Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People” (1955)
  • “Without discarding what he’d already written he began his story afresh in a somewhat different manner.” — John Barth, “Life-Story” (1968)
  • “Edward was explaining to Carl about margins.” – Donald Barthelme, “Margins” (1964)
  • “right there right there in the middle of the damn field he says he wants to put that thing together him and his buggy ideas and so me I says ‘how the hell you gonna get it down to the water?’ but he just focuses me out sweepin the blue his eyes rollin like they do when he hegs het on some new lunatic notion and he says ...” etc. – Robert Coover, “The Brother“ (1969)
  • “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.” – John Updike, “A&P” (1961)
  • “Go’n be coming in a few minutes.” – Ernest J. Gaines, “The Sky is Gray“ (1963)
  • “‘You’re a real one for opening your mouth in the first place,’ Itzie said.” – Philip Roth, “The Conversion of the Jews” (1959)
  • “Her name was Connie.” – Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966)
  • “She was afraid to look at herself just yet.” – Toni Cade Bambara, “A Girl’s Story” (1977)

Any favorites? To me, as first sentences go, you don't get much better than Bret Harte's from 1869.

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Posted at 07:34 AM on Thu. Sep 26, 2013 in category Books  


Uncle Vinny wrote:

Favorites have to be James Thurber's and Flannery O'Connor's, but I would say that, wouldn't I?

Comment posted on Thu. Sep 26, 2013 at 10:30 AM

Erik wrote:

Thurber's leaps out at you, doesn't it? Writers are writing about the color of the sky, and the waning light, and the old woman and the grandfather, and then, bam!, Mr. Martin buys a pack of Camels. The 20th century has arrived.

Comment posted on Thu. Sep 26, 2013 at 10:49 AM

Bogdan D wrote:

Nice selection, really liked Oates' laconism and Barth's metafictional-onthological kickstart.

Comment posted on Sat. May 03, 2014 at 11:39 AM
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