- 1 Alice Munro recently forged ahead of Boyle with “Corrie,” her eleventh story to be recognized, whi (...)
1As readers of Kay Boyle know, two of her stories received the O. Henry Award: “The White Horses of Vienna” in 1935 and “Defeat” in 1941. Less well known is the fact that eight other Boyle stories were selected as O. Henry Prize Stories, that is, stories that did not receive the top award but were included in the annual collections of O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories. In a list of authors whose work has been included in the annual collections, Boyle shares seventh place with John Cheever, Nancy Hale, and Jean Stafford, who over the years also had ten stories recognized by the jurors.1 Kay Boyle’s success with the award was so great that The Sacramento Bee in 1942 put her face at the center of its July 2 crossword puzzle with the clue: O. Henry Prize Winner (Mellen 267).
2Like other literary awards, the O. Henry Award invites skepticism from readers who may question the criteria used to select recipients and may wonder how accurately the awards capture the best literary work of the year. All the same, literary awards provide a snapshot of the publishing world, and in the case of the O. Henry Award, the world of short story publishing. Additionally, Boyle’s ten prized stories offer a snapshot of her long career as a short story writer. They invite questions that fall into two categories. The first category involves the relationship of Boyle’s prizewinning stories to other stories honored by the O. Henry Award committee. During her years as a winner, what other stories were also selected for recognition? What do Boyle’s stories have in common with the other stories recognized in those years? Furthermore, how did Boyle’s inclusion in the O. Henry Award collections—indeed, her frequent appearance in this context—shape her career as a short story writer? The second category involves the relationship of Boyle’s prizewinning stories to the body of her short story work. Do Boyle’s two O. Henry Award stories represent the best of her short story work? Are the other eight stories also examples of her finest work? Knowing the history of the O. Henry Award (including criteria for evaluation, series editors, jurors, and winners) and Boyle’s history with the Award helps her readers to understand the nature of her short story publishing history and provides one way of understanding her career in the context of other writers.
3From 1932 until 1981, over the course of nearly fifty years, Boyle’s stories regularly appeared in the Annual Collections of O. Henry Award stories. "The First Lover,” which appeared in Household Magazine, was Boyle’s first story to receive recognition as an O. Henry Prize story, appearing in the 1932 collection edited by Blanche Colton Williams. Three years later, in 1936, the new series editor, Harry Hansen, with the help of that year’s jury, selected "The White Horses of Vienna" as its First–Prize winner. Still three years later began a five-year run for Boyle, with her story “Anschluss” appearing in the 1939 collection, "Poor Monsieur Panalitus" appearing in the 1940 collection, "Defeat" taking First Prize in 1941, "Their Name is Macaroni" appearing in the 1942 collection, and "The Canals of Mars" in the 1943 collection. Herschel Brickell was the series editor during this period, beginning in 1941, and during his tenure as editor, Boyle was recognized two more times, for “Winter Night” in 1946 and “Summer Evening” in 1950. Boyle’s work would appear in an O. Henry Award collection one more time, thirty-one years later, when “St. Stephen’s Green” appeared in 1981, during William Abrahams’ time as series editor.
- 2 Starting in 2013, editors will be able to submit on-line fiction for consideration. See “Publishe (...)
- 3 According to Random House, as of 2012, 203 O. Henry award-winning stories have appeared in The New (...)
4The O. Henry Award and Boyle were in many ways a perfect match during a time when short stories were both valued for their artistry and treated as “disposable products” (Levy 2), both published in fancy editions by small presses for a narrow audience and included in a wide variety of popular magazines. In the 1920s, Boyle was known for her experimental fiction and her support of the Revolution of the Word Manifesto. Sandra Spanier notes that in the 1930s Boyle intentionally sought a wider audience. During this period, she was “writing fast and furiously, and her short stories were beginning to appear in the popular magazines as well as in the ‘artistic’ ones. The transition from high-to middle-to-low brow was not entirely comfortable to one who not long before had called for the Revolution of the Word” (Spanier 93). In this environment, Boyle found publishing opportunities in, as Elizabeth Bell observes, both the “most prestigious and popular magazines” (Bell 4). She did not need to worry that her stories published in popular magazines would be overlooked for accolades. The O. Henry Award was and is inclusive: stories published in any English-language American or Canadian magazine, from the middle brow magazine to the popular women’s magazine to the small press, are eligible for recognition.2 Although The New Yorker magazine has by far published the most O. Henry Award winners over the years, more popular magazines have succeeded, too. Five of Boyle’s O. Henry Award winners first appeared in The New Yorker. All the same, in the list of the top ten magazines whose stories were recognized with O. Henry Awards are both the prestigious Harper’s and the popular Harper’s Bazaar, and Boyle’s stories appeared in both magazines, with “Anschluss” appearing in Harper’s and “Canals of Mars” in Harper’s Bazaar. Her first recognized story, “The First Lover,” was originally published in Household Magazine.3 Lisa Dunick’s overview of the correspondence between Boyle and her agent, Ann Watkins, whom she hired in1932, reveals that Boyle took a great interest in where her stories were placed and carefully negotiated a literary marketplace that often made writers make choices between making money and maintaining a literary reputation. Boyle is of her time in her pattern of short story publishing during these years. Dunick argues that “Boyle’s negotiation of the business of literature situates her even more squarely in the tradition of modernist literary production than, perhaps, even her aesthetics might” (Austenfeld 131). The recognition that she gained as an O. Henry Award winner gave her leverage in the complicated business of placing short stories with magazines like The New Yorker that paid well and enhanced her reputation.
5Helping deserving short story writers to gain recognition was the purpose of the O. Henry Award. From the beginning, the O. Henry Award hoped to promote the art of the short story. Begun in 1919, it was also designed to honor the short story writer O. Henry, who had died in 1910. Born William Sydney Porter in 1864, O. Henry was known for his wit and whimsy and for the surprises and reversals that characterize his stories. In the United States, in his day, some considered him “the greatest living master of the short story” (Smith 6-7). According to Larry Dark, “O. Henry . . . contributed greatly to popularizing the short story as a form of entertainment for a mass audience at the beginning of the twentieth century. Following O. Henry’s success, short stories were published in a slew of weekly, biweekly, and monthly magazines, as well as some daily newspapers.” Boyle might have been grateful to O. Henry not only for the Award that bears his name but also for the role he played in popularizing a genre well suited to her versatile and prolific talents. Nevertheless, like other short story writers of her time, Boyle would have considered O. Henry old-fashioned and formulaic, and it is an irony of the Award that its many winners over the years have mainly in common their rejection of the late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century conventions of popular short stories that he helped define.
6The O. Henry Award continues today with the purpose of celebrating the art of the short story by annually spotlighting noteworthy examples of the form. In fact, the award was in the news in 2009 when its name changed to the PEN/O. Henry Awards, reflecting the newly created collaboration between the O. Henry Award and the Pen American Center (Itzkoff). Discussing this new collaboration, series editor Laura Furman described the distinction of the O. Henry Award:
Having a story included in the O. Henry Prize Stories has always been a mark of distinction, one that’s recognized widely by writers, editors, and readers. Inclusion has probably helped talented new writers attract attention and, one hopes, new readers. Perhaps inclusion also means, for the already well-published writer, an introduction to a new audience and a reminder to readers, a way of saying, “I’m still here.” For all the writers whose work is included, it’s a boost. A cheer for good work well done.
7Boyle’s inclusion in the O. Henry Prize Stories over the years certainly gave her career a boost, and she likely appreciated the “cheer for good work well done,” especially coming as it did from editors and judges who, if the Introductions to the collections are any indication, admired her work and recognized her as a leading practitioner in the short story form. Kay Boyle found a particular champion in series editor Hershel Brickell. The series editor plays an important role in the O. Henry Awards. The selection process has changed some over time, but the role of the series editor has been consistent. He or she selects from all of the short stories published in the year the twenty or so that will be included in the collection. It is only at this point that the Award jury reads the stories, and in Boyle’s time, the jury selected within that group the stories that would be recognized for special distinction.
8Charting Boyle’s success with the O. Henry Awards helps twenty-first-century readers to appreciate the remarkable period in which Boyle published short stories during her heyday in the thirties and particularly the forties. Brickell, writing in his introduction to the O. Henry Award Stories of 1943, describes the moment: “The short story flourishes in America as it does nowhere else, the primary and very practical reason being that our magazines need brief fiction and are willing to pay for it.” He continues, “[T]he simple fact that year after year this book is made up of stories from reasonably popular magazines is all the indication needed that the so-called artistic short story has its market and is profitable to write, as well as agreeable and satisfying to read” (xxi). As Brickell observes, it was a good time to be a talented short story writer in need of making a living through publishing, and it was a good time to be a short story reader. The criteria for the O. Henry Awards were broad. Series editor Harry Hansen, in a collection of the First Prize stories, describes the criteria in this way. The committee emphasized story and plot but also valued originality. According to Hansen, the judges, “although honoring O. Henry, made demands he would have been unable to meet” (xi). Brickell, in the Introduction to the first collection he edited, in 1941, states his criteria: he is, he writes, determined to “keep the flexibility and catholicity of taste that [has] been characteristic of the selections of stories for inclusion in preceding volumes.” He argues that the short story is “a living organism which cannot, except to its detriment, be bound by hard-and-fast rules, and should even be left free of definition, except in . . . loose terms” (viii). Although he appreciates stories that have been “cunningly devised,” he expresses a strong preference for stories that “have been ‘believed into existence,’” a phrase he borrows from Robert Frost.
9Boyle’s dominance during the Herschel Brickell era, the years 1941-1951, is reflected not only in the number of her stories selected but also in the tributes made to her artistry in the Introductions to the collections. His praise for her story “Defeat” is one example. He writes of the story, “One of this story’s most notable virtues is that it shows how fiction, given all the appearance of fact, may actually be much more effective than the best reporting.” He reminds his readers that Somerset Maugham said it would be the death of the short story if it could be beaten at its own game by the naked truth. Brickell concludes, “The short story is in no danger of death from this cause so long as writers like Miss Boyle are alive” (xiii). Boyle found in Brickell an enthusiastic champion.
10One is loath to place writers in competition with each other. However, competition was inherent in the nature of the O. Henry Award during Boyle’s publishing career. This problem has been addressed by the decision of current editor Laura Furman to eliminate the naming of top prize winners. However, such was not the case during Boyle’s day. The Introductions to the collections at the time do little to downplay the competitive nature of the enterprise, detailing as they do the judges’ voting and the rankings individual judges gave stories. If Boyle had one consistent rival in the competition, it was Eudora Welty. Boyle shared space with Welty five of the ten times that Boyle appeared in the O. Henry Award Collections. With ten appearances over the years, Boyle exceeds Welty’s eight appearances. However, Welty’s eight include three First-Prize appearances, and two Second-Prize appearances. The two writers are mentioned often in the same breath in the collections’ introductions. In 1941, when Boyle’s “Defeat” won First Prize and Welty’s “A Worn Path” won Second Prize, the judges were unanimous in placing Boyle’s story ahead of Welty’s. It is curious to read today the judges’ observations about Welty’s now classic and frequently anthologized story. Brickell writes favorably of his fellow Mississippian’s story, praising its “freshly original beauty” and “effective use of the hidden motive for the conflict upon which the story turns” (xiv). Remarkably, one judge describes the story as “slight.” Together as First and Second-Prize winners, Boyle’s “Defeat” and Welty’s “A Worn Path” reflect the extraordinary quality of short fiction appearing in magazines in the 1940s. 1941 was not the only year that Welty and Boyle were recognized together. An entire section of the 1946 Introduction is devoted to a discussion of the two authors, even though neither won the top prizes that year.
11A less well-known female rival to Boyle’s dominance during these years is Nancy Hale, who shares with Boyle the distinction of being seventh in the rankings of authors of O. Henry Prize stories, with ten selections over the years. Like Boyle and Welty, her winning years span decades, her first win occurring in 1933 and her last, like Welty’s, in 1968 (the year Welty’s short story “The Demonstrators” won first prize). According to her New York Times obituary, Nancy Hale “became one of The New Yorker’sbest-known writers,” and once boasted that she sold the magazine more stories, twelve, in a single year, 1961, than any other writer (Barron). According to a biographical note with her Papers at Smith College:
Throughout [a certain period in her life] Hale was plagued by a series of physical ailments and bouts of anxiety severe enough to result in 1938 and again in 1943 in what was called a “nervous breakdown.” Always intensely self-critical, Hale worried that she had squandered a promising career and sold-out artistically by writing to make money. She was fortunate in 1943 to find a psychoanalyst, Beatrice Hinkle, who helped her begin to solve what Hale called “this problem of who to be.” (“Nancy Hale”)
12It was during this same time that she was present year after year in the pages of the O. Henry Award Collections along with Kay Boyle, with both writers appearing in the 1940-1943 collections inclusively. These were, of course, war years, and Brickell points out in his 1941 Introduction that whereas the year before, in 1940, only one story in the collection concerned the war, Boyle’s own “Poor Monsieur Panalitus,” in 1941, six of the stories in the collection concerned the war, including Boyle’s prize-winning “Defeat” and Hale’s “Those Are as Brothers,” which we learn from the Introduction one of the three judges favored for first prize over Boyle’s story.
- 4 One of her stories won the First Prize. “In the Zoo” received First Prize in 1955.
- 5 Stafford’s stories, collected in 1969, would also win her the Pulitzer Prize in 1970.
- 6 Except for an “Early Group,” Boyle’s stories in Thirty Stories are grouped according to a wide var (...)
13If Kay Boyle’s short stories dominated the O. Henry Award in the war years, in the post-war period, Jean Stafford’s stories and John Cheever’s stories prevailed. The other writers who, with Hale, share Boyle’s seventhplace position in the O. Henry Award rankings, Stafford and Cheever, saw their stories included in the O. Henry Award collections throughout the 1950s. Stafford is an especially interesting short story writer to consider in connection to Boyle. Her stories included in the collections of O. Henry Prize Stories were published between 1947 and 1980,4 and all but one were originally published in The New Yorker.5 In American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics and Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford, and Hellman, Thomas Austenfeld explores the connections between Boyle and Stafford, focusing on their experience in Germany and the fiction it inspired. Although Stafford backed away from suggestions that Boyle served as a role model (Austenfeld 63), the connections between them—not only the ones that Austenfeld uncovers but many others—are remarkable. Joyce Carol Oates in her “Introduction” to the Collected Stories praises Stafford’s versatility (ix), and it is this versatility that links Stafford to Boyle. Both writers wrote stories inspired by European and American situations, and both wrote stories of rural and urban life. Like Boyle’s collections Thirty Stories and Fifty Stories, Stafford’s Collected Stories highlights the diverse settings of her stories, with stories categorized by place, including Europe, Manhattan, and the Western United States.6 Both writers wrote about love, animals, and children and often portrayed female protagonists beset by romantic illusions and challenged by loneliness. However, of the two, as Austenfeld observes, Boyle was the more politically sophisticated (71). Together, the two prolific short story writers helped shape the sensibilities that we associate with modern American short fiction, and the O. Henry Awards attest to their force and influence.
14The breadth and depth of Boyle’s success as a short story writer during these years is further evidenced by the stories not included in the O. Henry Award Collections but mentioned with admiration in the Introductions. One rule that did apply in the open and inclusive world of the O. Henry Award was that each year an author could be represented by only one story. During Boyle’s years of great productivity, she published many stories within a twelve-month span. Thus, in the year that Boyle won First Prize for “Defeat,” 1941, editor Brickell bemoans the fact that her story “T’en Fais Pas” could not also be recognized. The next year, 1942, Brickell writes that her story “Let There Be Honour,” which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, was also carefully considered but finally rejected as being too long, a common fault in the fiction of this magazine” (xiii). Again the next year, Brickell extends his compliments beyond the honored story, “The Canals of Mars,” stating, “The editor also admired very much Miss Boyle’s ‘This They Carried with Them,’ from the October 1942 Harper’s Bazaar” (xiii).
- 7 In fact, “Winter’s Night” was Gray’s pick for First-Prize winner (xii).
15Although only one story per author could be included in a collection, the judging process put an author’s stories in competition with each other all the same. A question the judges asked of each story was whether the story represented the finest work of the author. Only work that represented the author’s best would receive the special recognition of a first, second, or third prize within the collection. So, for example, although “Winter Night” was included in the 1946 collection, editor Brickell characterizes the story as not being one of Boyle’s best, an assessment one could certainly debate and one that a judge for that year, James Gray, contests, calling “Winter Night” “as perfect a thing as [Boyle] has ever done” and claiming that it restored his confidence in her art, a confidence he had lost reading her recent novels (xiii).7
16Gray’s praise must have been gratifying during a time period when Boyle’s novels, including Avalanche, were making many critics, including Gray, question the quality of her work. The recognition that she received as an O. Henry Award winner served to remind her and her critics that in the short story form Boyle had few equals. Particularly, Boyle’s much-touted two-time winning of the top prize of the year from the O. Henry Award committee is well-deserved and well-worth celebrating, placing as it does her stories “White Horses of Vienna” and “Defeat” in the outstanding company of other First Prize stories such as Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde,” Stephen Vincent Benet’s
“The Devil and Daniel Webster,” William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” Eudora Welty’s “The Wide Net,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” John Cheever’s
“The Country Husband,” Alice Walker’s “Kindred Spirits,” and John Edgar Wideman’s “Weight.”
17It is hard, however, to argue that these two stories, “White Horses of Vienna” and “Defeat,” stand clearly above Boyle’s many other outstanding stories. In addition, it is worth noting that many of the First-Prize winners have been stories that no doubt are of high quality but have not found a lasting audience, and their authors are little known today. The same is true of the other stories in the annual collections. The first volume in the series, Prize Stories 1919: The O. Henry Memorial Awards, featured First-Prize winner “England to America” by Margaret Prescott Montague and Second-Prize winner Wilbur Daniel Steele’s “For They Know Not What They Do.” Dark muses, “Margaret Prescott Montague never won another O. Henry Award. Wilbur Daniel Steele went on to win ten more O. Henry Awards between 1919 and 1931, placing stories in eleven of the first thirteen volumes of the series. But does anyone still read his work?”
18Dark also notes how many masters of the American short story in the twentieth century have been overlooked by the O. Henry Awards.
When I first started to put together a complete list of O. Henry Award winners, I hoped that the rolls of past honorees would reflect the legacy of the American short story, that the first- and second-prize winners would be by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, and other writers of the early period whose work has since been deemed to be of lasting value. I expected that, over the years, some great stories by great authors would be overlooked, but I believed that most would be represented by the accumulated collections. This didn’t turn out to be the case.
19Dark is right to reject the O. Henry Awards as a reliable year-by-year record of the best work in the short story form in English. Remarkable stories were overlooked. Stories that now feel dated, written by long-forgotten authors, were recognized. However, in some cases, the fact that some winners are now forgotten does not take away from the high quality of writing that the judges identified. The truth is that the collections are a source of surprises and revelations. Fine stories by now unknown authors remind us that the years of phenomenal short story production in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have left many authors unknown to 21st -century audiences. The O. Henry Prize Stories are a good place to go to find the forgotten voices that deserve a chance to be heard, especially by readers interested in broadening their understanding of certain time periods in literary history and understanding more fully the literature that appealed to earlier generations of readers. Dunick, for one, cautions that the reputations of many twentieth-century authors suffered as critics and readers held to the line that had been drawn between popular and high art (134). One value of the collections of O. Henry Prize Stories is their power to counterbalance the forces that over time have assigned value to certain authors and not others and have often used standards that promote a limited idea of artistic quality in the short story form. Looking back at how short stories were judged in their time and rereading stories that received recognition in their own day help us to see not only Boyle but other writers, too, more clearly.
- 8 Boyle’s inclusion in the Best American Short Stories series offers further evidence of her success (...)
20Of course, the O. Henry Awards were not the only source of recognition for short story writers in Boyle’s day. Certainly the most prestigious literary award then and now is the Nobel Prize in Literature, an international prize that honors creative writers regardless of genre. In the United States, the Pulitzer Prize recognizes remarkable writing according to genre but from 1917 to 1947 recognized novels, not short stories. In 1947, the Novel category was changed to the Fiction category. Thus, during the years of Boyle’s greatest success as a short story writer, the Pulitzer Prize was not available to her (“Fiction”). Likewise, the National Book Award, which has a Fiction category for both short and long fiction, began in 1950 (“National”). The National Book Critics Circle began awarding prizes in 1974 (“About”). According to Spanier, forty of Boyle’s stories over the years made Edward O’Brien’s honor rolls in his annual Best American Short Stories (5).8 None of her novels was similarly recognized, and perhaps for this reason Eric Pace in her New York Times obituary observes, “Miss Boyle wrote four dozen books, including many works of fiction, seven books of poetry and four books for children. But it was for her short stories, which were published in The New Yorker, Harper’s and elsewhere, that she was particularly acclaimed.”
21Boyle’s two First-Prize stories and eight other stories recognized by the O. Henry Award judges are a testimony to the thriving career as a short story writer that Boyle enjoyed in her heyday. Although Dark has done the most to articulate the challenges of drawing conclusions from the list of O. Henry Award winners, he also promotes the usefulness, all the same, of studying the list:
Over the years, the consciousness of the O. Henry Awards has evolved in a more literary direction and the record of fiction chosen has come to more closely match the list of stories and authors contemporary readers of literary fiction would expect to be honored by annual roundups of the best stories. Still, editors are fallible, choices are subjective, and great work is not always recognized in its time—all of which makes the record of the series and the lists of O. Henry Award winners interesting to examine and discuss.
22Henry Alley concurs. Writing in 2003, he claims, “Taken together the O. Henry Prize Stories volumes of the last eighty years, under four major editorships, provide a kind of case study—a unique opportunity to look into the form of American short fiction” (36).
23Boyle’s history with the O. Henry Award highlights her range of remarkable stories. Many critics have praised her ability to explore enduring themes in the context of place and history. David Daiches, in his introduction to Thirty Stories, makes a strong case for Boyle’s stories as both a record of her time and timeless stories of the human condition. He writes, after praising “Defeat,” one of Boyle’s two First-Prize stories, for its powerful evocation of the fall of France in World War II,
I must not give the impression… that the power of these stories derives only from the way in which they recapture poignant moments from the past. They exist in their own right as stories, works of the literary imagination in which the skill of the artist has devised the proper patterning of incidents and prompted at each point the appropriate handling of language so as to achieve a special kind of permanence, even finality (xv-xvi).
- 9 “Poor Monsieur Panalitus” was originally published in The New Yorker and “St. Stephen’s Green” in (...)
24Many of the O. Henry Award winning stories by other authors in the list of First-Prize winners mentioned above are better known and more frequently anthologized by far than Boyle’s two First-Prize stories. The brief inclusion of “The White Horses of Vienna” in the seventh edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature gave hope at one point that at least one of the stories would become more widely celebrated (unfortunately, the story was not included in the most recent eighth edition). Part of the challenge Kay Boyle scholars face is the sheer volume of stories that the author produced. It is difficult to generalize about such a large body of work and harder still to identify within it those stories that rise above the rest. The O. Henry collections point to a few Boyle stories that merit further attention, for example, stories like “The First Lover’ and ”The Canals of Mars.” How much stock Boyle placed in the O. Henry Awards is hard to determine. She certainly included her First-Prize Awards in her biographical information. However, it is interesting to note that two of the stories included in collections of O. Henry Prize Stories, 1940’s “Poor Monsieur Panalitus” and 1980’s “St. Stephen’s Green,” were never included in any of Boyle’s own story collections. To read them, one must find them either in their original publications9 or in the O. Henry Award collections, providing one more reason for Kay Boyle scholars to recognize the O. Henry Award collections as a valuable resource for knowledge and understanding of this great American short story writer.