The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher

Why, you may wonder, did I choose The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher for the first of six essays about neglected American women writers?  Short stories are not usually my métier.   They often seem abrupt and vertiginous:  just as I resign myself to fifteen or twenty minutes with characters I won’t have time to love,  the story ends and I must get acquainted with new people – unless the author indulges the reader’s affinity for sameness in the form of linked stories.

The Collected Stories of Hortense is perhaps more suited to the needs of a keen novel reader like me than, say, the average story in The New Yorker (if there is such a thing).  Calisher’s short stories have a density of detail and the long, convoluted sentences I love. Of course, many of her stories were published in The New Yorker, which seems to cancel my assertion that her stories are somehow other.  But her range – from a group of linked autobiographical stories about the Elkins, a wealthy Jewish family in New York, to a delineation of a rebellion organized by “Johnny One” against the patronizing summer people in the inbred village of Hillsborough – is rivaled by very few American writers of short stories.  Calisher had a devastating sympathy, curiosity, and understanding of class and psychology in America in the twentieth century.  After graduation from Barnard in 1932 and employment as a social worker before her marriage , she became a writer and chronicled the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, unfazed by cultural differences that put off writers nowadays.

And she indulges our curiosity about the quirks of family in linked stories she originally meant to turn into a novel, she writes in the introduction. In “Time, Gentlemen,” which is narrated by Hester Elskin, the daughter of the family, we first encounter the mellowness of Father and the tension and drive of Mother. The irony of the title is that Hester’s father, a Southern gentleman born in the 19th century, has no sense of time – and his wife, who is 22 years younger, thinks of little else. Mother is a fan off 20th century efficiency, while Father believes in leisure.

Hortense Calisher

The following passage, contrasting Hester’s mother’s work ethic with her father’s charm and popularity, is typical of Calisher’s dazzling disclosures about  the mores and manners of different times.

My mother, however, although she had never been in the business world, had certain convictions about it which would have done her credit in a later era.  She believed that a business run with such unpressurized ease, even enjoyment, must be well on its way to ruin….  She was a woman who would have felt much safer   breathing hard  and fast in the wake of one of those lunchless men whose race with their calendar ends only with death.  And she was never to comprehend the real truth:  that people loved to do business with my father because, in an already accelerating age, his dandified air of the coffeehouse, his relaxed and charmingly circuitous tongue – which dwelt much on anecdotes but only lightly on orders or due dates – and above all, his trust in the “plenty” of time, made them feel participants in a commercial romance, gentlemen met by chance on the Rialto, who had decided to nurture a little affair.

What a find!  I believe these short stories are her best work, or at least my favorite. It is one of those forgotten books by a neglected American woman writer who was once celebrated and compared to Henry James. Calisher was the president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1987 and elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997. She died in 2009.

The Fate of Dead American Women Writers

This weekend, as I searched the house for The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, I noted with surprise the paucity of books by American women writers on our shelves. Anglophilia dominates the collection: one cannot apparently have too many copies of Middlemarch(my least favorite book by George Eliot); Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (my favorite Bronte Gothic); or Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, the experimental masterpiece of the ’60s. As for American literature, I do know a few titles. I have repeatedly read The House of Mirth (Lily Bart and laudanum!) and Cornelia Otis Skinner’s humor pieces in Soap Behind the Ears… but, one wonders humbly, is that enough?

Well, I felt a little low, thinking about being an American who doesn’t much care for American literature. It’s a gap, I’ve always said cheerfully, but is it just a gap? No, really, I’ve read the American women’s canon, but what does it say that I’d rather drink cups of tea with Barbara Pym than watch Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier walk into the sea again (though I like Kate Chopin very much!)? Why are we Americans so intense?

Well, at least I have a Hortense Calisher collection, i comforted myself. Calisher (1911-2009) was a brilliant, prolific American writer, with a powerful, eclectic imagination and a wide literary range. In her novel The Bobby-Soxer, the most fascinating character, Aunt Leo, is a hermaphrodite; in Calisher’s slim novel, In the Slammer with Carol Smith, she chronicles the harrowing experiences of a woman who did jail time for peripheral activity with a bombing in the ’70s and now lives on the streets; and Sunday Jews, Calisher’s last novel, is a vast, unputdownable family saga. All three of these books, however, have vanished from my shelves: I practiced read-and-weed skills unwisely here. I did, however, find The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, published in 1975 – and have discovered she is a master of the short story.

That isn’t really the point of this post, though. (I will write about Calisher’s stories later.) The point is that I wonder how often the fame of even the most lauded of American women writers outlasts their lifetime. Philip Roth’s work (deservedly) will never die, nor will the Rabbit books of John Updike, but no one talks about Calisher any more, and the fate of Elizabeth Spencer (1921-2019) was hanging by a thread until Library of America took her under their wing and revived her work recently. (N.B. I once attended a reading by Spencer at a book festival and got my copy of The Southern Woman autographed. I felt a kinship with her because she had a cat tote bag!)

In the U.S., Library of America and NYRB classics have picked up some of the slack with forgotten women writers: LOA is publishing more women these days, though NYRB Classics seems shaky on the gender question.

Well, we don’t have Virago here. And that’s a shame. We could do with an American women’s press. There is the Feminist Press, but alas! they publish only a limited number of titles. A limited budget, no doubt.

And so I must turn to my shelves for neglected writers. I guarantee, you will be hearing about women writers whom, well, you’ve never heard of.

I am still a confirmed Anglophile… but really, Kat, enough is enough!

Who are your favorite neglected American women writers?