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.
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.