It’s probably no surprise that issues of literacy have been important to my family for as long as I can remember. My paternal grandmother, after a career teaching English and Latin to high schoolers, taught English as a Second Language (ESL), which was always very important work to her.
My mother, after a career teaching French to high schoolers, retired and promptly began teaching ESL classes at my church (although, by this time we were calling it ESOL – English for Speakers of Other Languages – for, as my mother points out, many learning English already know more than one language when they begin learning English, so “second” would be a bit of a misnomer).
Although our ESOL program has reached its end, my mother now volunteers as a tutor for the Anne Arundel County Literacy Council. As it happens, her weekly tutoring sessions take place next to the Classics section of one of the Anne Arundel County library branches.
When I started this project, she started noticing how many of the books in the Classics section were written by women, and she wrote them down for me. Reading out the list, there were the familiar names that we both expected to find on any Classics shelf – Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte…but then she got to a name that she was clearly surprised to see there, and I could hear it in her tone of voice when she read it out to me.
I let out a whoop. “They put Katherine Mansfield in the Classics section?!” I responded in what I hope you can tell is delighted disbelief. Yes, she confirmed – The Garden Party. “I never would have expected that from the library, but I’m so proud!”
Now, I can’t take much credit for being cool here, because I myself have only been acquainted with Mansfield’s work for the last two years or so. I discovered a beat-up copy of her Stories from 1956, with an introduction by Elizabeth Bowen, in the Friends of the Montgomery County Public Library and purchased it for, I’m guessing, $1.50 (most of their books are $1.50).
The stories, it turns out, are some of the best from the 20th century. I had never been much of a short fiction consumer – why? I have no good excuse why. But I had some kind of notion that I didn’t think much of short fiction, so I didn’t read much of it post-college. That is, until a few years ago, when I discovered Mansfield’s stories (and also Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Ann Porter).
Mansfield’s personal story is a tragic one – while she is considered one of the finest short story writers of her day and a unique New Zealand ex-pat voice among her British contemporaries, her career was cut short when she died of tuberculosis at age 34, in 1923. I couldn’t read her brilliant work without thinking about the work that was never created due to her early demise.
In any case, once I discovered her, I started consuming short stories in earnest – short story collections by Janet Frame A.S. Byatt, Grace Paley, Willa Cather, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Edwidge Danticat. Having been thrilled by all this short fiction feasting, I embarked on the perhaps ill-advised task of reading Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories.
Now, O’Connor’s stories are worth reading – I’m not saying they aren’t. But…all in one go? That’s something else. You run the very real risk of pathos turning to bathos quicker than perhaps she, even with her slightly sick sense of humor, intended. So while Edith Piaf and I both regret nothing, I perhaps should have read O’Connor’s stories in their original volumes – A Good Man Is Hard to Find with a nice long break, then Everything That Rises Must Converge – then just filled in the gaps with the leftover stories later. That’s what I recommend you do, anyway. Learn from your elders, children – don’t go swimming right after eating a great deal of Flannery O’Connor short fiction. Wait at least an hour. You’ll be glad you did!
But back to Mansfield. I was so happy with the Stories collection that I went online to Powells (I try to shop from Powells online when I can’t meet my book shopping needs locally) and bought her Collected Stories. The next time I was out and about at the used book stores, I found the collected short stories of Edith Wharton. Why not? And then the collected short stories of Eudora Welty made it into the cart one day too, so that’s sitting on the shelf waiting for me to read.
Anyway, I’ve now got a lot of women’s short fiction where there used to be almost none on the shelf. If I had started this project even five years ago, I might have decided to only collect novels. But short fiction is too important to women’s 20th century literature to not be in the library! But it may take more than just one season to read it all…
As Frank Zappa said best: “So many books, so little time.”