Hortense Calisher 20 December 1911 - January 13, 2009
Hortense Calisher...just look at that name. Say it aloud.
I like the way it sounds. I like the ending of her last name “sher”.
Look at that first name. Hortense. I’ve never run across that name before.
I didn’t know much about Hortense. I of course read the introduction she provided to the BASS 1981, but I really needed to know a bit more about her if I was going to get a better sense of what sort of stories I might possibly be reading over the next several weeks.
Quick visits to familiar sites to get an overview of her life proved that nailing her down was going to be a bit of a challenge.
First, I’d like to say that I was pleased that Ravenel picked a women as the editor for this volume. I had enough of males in the 1980 edition. I have faith that Calisher would give me a bit more variety – just because she is a woman, and from her introduction, she clearly states that she will. (unlike Elkin – see final post on BASS 1980)
From the introduction –
“Of the stories that qualified, the 120 that I was sent were garnered from 151 periodicls, of which the selected stories represent 11, the magazine represented by most stories being The New Yorker with 9. Shannon Ravenel further reports: “The American short story abounds. Most of those I read are literate and technically adequate. But filling the 120 slots with outstanding stories is not an easy job as the large numbers above might have us guess. Nevertheless, the overall quality is, I think, high, and I find the state of the American short story in 1980 to be good.”
Calisher goes on later to say – “There are I see ten men and ten women; this was not intentional. About half are from The New Yorker, which publishes fifty-two issues per year and and a major portion of the country’s best short fiction, and will naturally get first look at much of the best of it.”
I would also like to reproduce a page from the introduction where she discusses the “typical” New Yorker story.
Here is the top of the obit that ran after Calisher’s death.
NYT Ran Obit January 15, 2009
Hortense Calisher, the novelist and short-story writer whose unpredictable turns of phrase, intellectually challenging fictional situations and complex plots captivated and puzzled readers for a half-century, died on Tuesday in Manhattan.
Now, a bit about her in relation to literature.
“Among contemporary writers of distinction Hortense Calisher has always been a strangely elusive presence.
Miss Calisher has said of the short story that it is an "apocalypse served in a very small cup."
Joyce Carol Oates
in New York Times Book Review
November 6, 1982
“Miss Calisher has not a logical or intellectual imagination at all, as many critics believe. She is a primitive, a believer in magical powers, fantastic feats of consciousness, the uncanny confusion between inner will and outer history.”
Joyce Carol Oates
“I'm a morning writer. I get up very early, and I don't want to talk to God or man, or husband, and he feels the same. I work until I have to stop--no definite time. You learn your own habits. Having written as long as I have, I know that toward the end of a book I can write longer into the day. Everything begins to fuse and come to its natural resolution; once you have laid down the paths, what was tentative at the beginning has direction. As I finish, I can write eight hours a day. I can work long days revising first drafts of my fiction, but those are exhausting days. I hate them!”
Calisher, Hortense, Peter Marchant, and Gregory Fitz Gerald. "A Conversation with Hortense Calisher." Southwest Review. Ed. Earl Ingersoll and Peter Marchant 1986. 186-193. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 134.
“Many readers first encounter Hortense Calisher through her widely anthologized short stories, then anticipate her novels. After reading them, however, they may come away vaguely unsatisfied though seldom quite dissatisfied. She is too gifted a writer for that.”
“Calisher's short stories and novellas may initially appear to be peopled by fully-rounded characters, but an overview of the stories reveals a high proportion of well-done types: the educated misfit, the eccentric family member, the young innocent, the at-odds mother-daughter (or husband-wife), the displaced southerner, the would-be radical. And type is all they need to be since hers are not primarily stories of character, but of complex situation, the result of long processes of cause and effect told in hints and subtleties. Where the Calisher protagonists have been, are now, and where they are probably going—or not going, depending on their revelations—is their story. Exactly who they are is incidental. Their external descriptions are often vivid, even witty, but their tastes and temperaments are revealed only to the degree that they serve the tale. If we flesh them out ourselves, it is a tribute to their creator's ability to write so that we read creatively.”
“Calisher's long interest in psychology and the supernatural is evident. Her life spans Freudianism and beyond, but psychology—eclectic and non-systematic—as it appears in her work at times is close to fantasy, at other times follows accepted dogma.”
Pehowski, Marian. "Hortense Calisher: Overview." Contemporary Novelists. Susan Windisch Brown. 6th ed.
“But for reasons inexplicable, Calisher is seldom read or taught or explicated by academics. Her stories appear infrequently in college literature anthologies; she has rated only two entries in the PMLA Bibliography since 1951, one a doctoral dissertation, one a very brief appreciation. Perhaps her stories are somehow too simple; they offer the elusive pleasure of fine writing, perfect evocations of human conflict, rather than the allusive problems of interpretation so beloved by academics.”
“Hortense Calisher's fiction may be too demanding to find a wide audience, despite her remarkable perceptions and formidable talent. She marks a dense, elliptical narrative with subtle, verbal humor and penetrating examinations of the heart. The patient reader is always richly rewarded by her wit and her lush writing style. Calisher has been compared to both Edith Wharton and Henry James for her novelistic focus upon upper-class bourgeois experience and the artifice and manners that typify that lifestyle. Like Wharton and James, Calisher uncovers meaning beneath the layers of social decorum, unveiling the complexities of the mind and heart through her evocative writing style. Calisher describes her own prose style as poetic. As she explains in a 1987 interview in the Paris Review, "Prose can have its own strong, profound rhythms. And its own lyric. Both as powerful as poetry."
Kellner, Bruce and Allison Hersh. "Hortense Calisher: Overview." Reference Guide to American Literature. Ed. Jim Kamp. 3rd ed.
And so with that – let’s get to the reading.