This year saw the publication of a revised version of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, successor to the first edition published in 1994. In it Oates endeavors to compile works which, when viewed together, will give some impression of the overall movement and development of fiction across America’s history. But more than that, her “inspiration,” as she says in the Introduction, was to feature “familiar names, unfamiliar titles.” As a result, while she includes such obligatory selections as Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” she foregoes others in favor of bringing her readers new insights on old authors by providing them the opportunity to read those works with which the vast majority of us are woefully unfamiliar. “Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’” says Oates, “has entered our literary consciousness, deservedly, but what of ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’…?” “Henry James’ aesthetic is nowhere more perfectly realized than in ‘The Beast in the Jungle,’ anthologized virtually everywhere; yet what of ‘The Middle Years,’ so much more direct, more human, more personal in its statement of the isolate’s (or the artist’s) life?”
In the end, what Oates has given us is, on one level, a valuable catalog of the history of American fiction. But on another, and more significant, level, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories is an anthology of new and unexpected perceptions on reality from some of our greatest artists. Oates’ collection isn’t perfect. Her prefaces to each work, for example, focus too heavily on historical and biographical concerns. But I, for one, cannot think of anything more priceless or worthwhile than the chance to encounter and engage with the world and human experience in such astonishing, and astonishingly profound, ways as this anthology supplies—stories from the New World, revealing new worlds of imagination and truth.