Light your lamp

My bedtime reading lately has been this collection of short stories that my father gave me shortly before his death.  

The stories were selected by John Updike, a man whose writing always seemed aimed at my father’s generation … but he did win a Pulitzer and so what the heck do I know?  It was edited by Katrina Kennison who now lives up in Northern New Hampshire where she focuses on “celebrating the gift of each ordinary day.”  One can only surmise that editing the likes of John Updike for a publishing giant like Houghton Mifflin would make anyone long for an ordinary day.  

Here is the list of authors whose work was selected as the best of the last century.

How many names do you recognize? I recognized 29. Many, to be honest,  because the author is better known for his or her novels. But as I navigate these disparate voices, I  find myself most intrigued by those “lost literary gems,” so called because the author’s name, once written in sand, has been washed out to sea.

Last night I read “Wild Plums” by Grace Stone Coates, published originally in 1929 in The Frontier: a Magazine of the West.  It’s the story of a young girl forbidden to go on a plum-picking campout with a family her immigrant father considers vulgar and untrustworthy.

Grace Stone Coates

As the family returns home with a wagon full of wild plums, they throw a few to the young girl as they pass her home.  She takes them inside to her mother who tells her they’re not worth eating.  This is the unforgettable ending to the story:

“I went out quietly, knowing I would never tell her that they were strange on my tongue as wild honey, holding the warmth of sand that sun had fingered, and the mystery of water under leaning boughs.

For I had eaten one at the road.” 

From “Wild Plums”

From her two sentence bio in the appendix I learnt that Grace Stone Coates was an editor for The Frontier: a Magazine of the West who spent most of her life in Montana.  Well, that wasn’t enough for me so I went to the google machine.

As to what forces and events actually created this splendid writer, well, it depends the source.  According to Wikipedia, her father was a well educated German forced by circumstances to live in the rural midwest where she was born in 1881. She attended three different universities without taking a degree and then moved to Butte Montana where she managed to get a teaching certificate.  In 1910 she married and moved to Martinsdale, described as a “tiny ranching community” where her husband ran the general store and she began writing. She was encouraged by H.G. Merriam an academician who promoted regionalism (writing focused on “linguistic features peculiar to a specific region”) to publish a few books of poems which led to the novel “Dark Cherries,” published by Knopf in 1929.

The most recent edition, published by Bison

However, after her husband’s death in 1930 she gave up “serious writing” and focused on maintaining correspondence with fellow writers William Saroyan and Frank Bird Linderman.   She also began to hallucinate and wander the streets late at night. Finally in 1963 the townsfolk intervened and moved her to a retirement home in Bozeman Montana. The Wikipedia article implies that, after her husband’s death Coates went into a steady decline and gave up writing.  However, the real reason for her decline is more complicated according to Elaine Showalter who studied women writers of that time and place.     

To summarize Ms. Showalter’s theory, Coates had a miserable childhood with a father who was either overbearing or never around.  She lived most of her adult life in what she described as “an alien world” of isolation with a husband who more than likely frowned on her writing.  She went into a decline after her second novel was declined by Knopf as being “unsellable.”  That second novel, said to be auto-biographical, did not survive.  Fortunately her letters were saved by a young woman (Lee Rostad) who came to know her in the 1950s.  Rostad used those letters to write a biography of “the brilliant, passionate woman behind the demure housewife who wrote the local news for the county newspapers.” Unfortunately that book is out of print.  

Anyway, now you know more than you probably wanted (if you stuck with me) about an obscure, little-known writer.  It all brings me back to this firefly by R. Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore

So, go ahead and light your lamp. You never know who it will reach or when.

24 thoughts on “Light your lamp

      1. If you’ve never liked Updike, then you must read “Gesturing,” a heartbreaking and gorgeous story that he published in Playboy of all places. Reason I suspect is that The New Yorker where virtually all his other stories appeared was a for a long time seriously prudish and he uses one word in this story, and not in any way a crude way, that in those days when this story appeared would have been cut by New Yorker editors. If you do read it, let me know what you think. xo Mary

      2. Luckily that story is one he included in the anthology! I’m old enough to remember when Playboy would publish stories and articles that other magazines were squeamish about. They also used to have the best cartoonists.

  1. Just the name “Montana” evokes a passion for the wilds and the wilders, even more so than Alaska. My father was born 40 miles from the Canadian border, my sister twenty miles west. My toddler days were spent in that harsh climate with a grandmother who was kinder than she should have been.
    That Coates had a miserable childhood in that place is no surprise.

    1. In Dark Cherries (which is written from a child’s point of view) the characters based on her father and mother have a pretty sick relationship. The darkness refers to her father’s secret past. I’m going to try to get my hands on a copy of the book because I’m very curious!

  2. Hi, JT,

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  3. Coates sounds pitiful. I’m glad she had the creative outlet of writing for herself, for better or worse.

    I recognized Dorothy Parker and immediately started to chuckle.

  4. You’re only pitiful if you can’t create meaning from pain. Perhaps she liked her hallucinations and nightly romps through town and her letters to other esteemed writers of her time. Artists in the end always howl in rags at the moon.

  5. V interesting Jan. The rabbit holes we go down can be addictive, can’t they!? I will have look at the list on a bigger screen and see who I know.

    1. It’s interesting to me because I hate writing bios but the first thing I do after reading an intriguing story is want to know more about the author.

  6. Most of these are American writers, not surprisingly, I think short stories are a good introduction to new works.

  7. I’ve heard of 26 of the authors, but haven’t read anything by some of them. I don’t have any collections of short stories and feel like I’m missing something because of it. Thanks for giving me a good ides for my reading. I like the idea of letting your light shine. I try to do that, but find that no matter what I say or do someone is willing to throw shade on it. More so lately.

    1. Me too. A lot of the writers are better known as celebrities and I doubt many people have read their fiction. So far I’ve been more impressed by the unknown writers than say, Hemingway’s addition.

  8. I was an English major and I only recognize 24 of those writers and read only 20 of them.
    Also, Updike’s A&P is one of my favorite short stories. The descriptions.
    I have become more interested in biography with age, and I find I’m just so curious about how people lived — no matter who, but writers especially.

    1. My focus was on the Victorian writers (99% British) so aside from the biggies – Hemingway, Williams, Fitzgerald and a few others – I might recognize the names but couldn’t tell you what they wrote about!

  9. Hi Jan,

    Damn, I finally beat you at something: I know 31 of the writers. My question is how could Graham Green not be on the list? Maybe too Catholic or to bigoted, still “The Heart of the Matter”, “The Comedians”, “The End of the Affair”, and “The Honorary Counsel”, along with a slew of others, are great books. Also, where is John le Carre? If the guy had only written “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, I’d put him on the list, but there are so many more from him that were good, if not great. As for Updike, the Rabbit series has forever iced his name as a great one for me. I felt the first Rabbit was about me. Always the mark of a great writer, “You see, I know who you are.” With the short story called “The Swimmer”, Cheever took his place in my mind. Oh well, writers talking about other writers is sort of like talking about our dreams or medical condition. It is necessary, but very personal and we might lose the listener after a while. Thanks for this post. It jogged a few memories. Love. Duke

    1. Duke, The reason Graham Greene, whose works I also love, is not in the list is that he was British! All these are stories that were from BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. –MARY

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