In her 1927 New Yorker review of Ernest Hemingway’s Men Without Women, Dorothy Parker gave the highest praise to one of the included short stories, ”The Killers,” saying it was one of the four great American short stories, and adding that the others were Wilbur Daniel Steele’s “Blue Murder,” Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool,” and Ring Lardner’s “Some Like Them Cold.” When I read the Parker review in a collection of her Constant Reader pieces, I felt I had to see how these stories held up.
The Hemingway entry was the only one I had read before this project. Generations of anthologists have seconded Parker’s opinion by including “The Killers” in their collections, but I tried reading it again with a fresh eye. Hemingway’s story was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927 and collected in Men Without Women that same year.
The two scenes of “The Killers” are constructed to show not only the situation of two hired killers who’ve come to a small town outside Chicago to kill an ex-prizefighter, but also a contrast in the way the characters react to it: the cook who wants nothing to do with it and Nick Adams who wants to alert the intended victim, notify the police, do something. Hemingway makes his killers comic, a pair dressed up alike in overcoats that are too tight, “like a vaudeville team.” But their intentions are not comic, and, although they fail, everyone in the story knows they will eventually succeed. This inevitability and the fatalism that meets it—except for Nick Adams—is the main impact of the story.
Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” was published in The Dial in 1922 and collected the next year in Horses and Men. With irony that recalls Henry James, but very much in the American vernacular, Anderson lets his nineteen-year-old narrator make a fool of himself indeed, not for the reasons he states, but for much deeper reasons of self-loathing. The boy, who doesn’t know how to do anything but groom horses because of the choices he’s made, says it’s an honest and worthwhile endeavor, but his actions show how much he would rather be among the college kids and the horse-owners he affects to despise. William Faulkner confirms Parker’s judgment about this one: “next to Heart of Darkness…the best short story I ever read.”
Wilbur Daniel Steele’s “Blue Murder” was published in Harper’s in 1925 and collected in The Man Who Saw Through Heaven in 1927. “Blue Murder” is a mystery story; Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler included it in The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century in 2000. Blue Murder is the name of a horse who is the only sympathetic character in the story aside from the man who brings him home, who is also the first victim. Three brothers named Bluedge—the blood and bludgeon suggestion is apt if obvious—a simple farmer, an avaricious merchant, and a vindictive, jealous simpleton, are the main characters, along with a nymphette named Blossom who had been courted by all three brothers and married the wrong one for the wrong reason.
Ring Lardner’s “Some Like Them Cold” was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1921 and collected in How to Write Short Stories in 1924. Lardner’s story is the only one of the four that doesn’t stand up very well to the passage of almost a century since it was written. Charlie Lewis, Lardner’s swaggering Chicagoan, convinced he’ll conquer New York, already spending the twenty-five grand he’s convinced he’ll be paid for his first song, ends up settling for a $60 piano-playing gig and the girl even her brother describes as cold. Lewis is corresponding with a girl he met as he left Chicago—Mabelle Lewis, the frugal, pie-making, ingenuous and natural girl he left behind. Lardner could create characters out of the vernacular, but here those characters amount to no more than the clichés they use.
So what do these choices say about Parker herself and her critical chops? Except for the Lardner, these stories are still delighting readers and reappearing in anthologies. Something about the Mabelle character in the Lardner may have appealed to her, and in fact Mabelle has a little in common with Parker’s “Big Blonde.” The other three stories constitute a clinic in the use of language to construct character, and in Hemingway’s case the restraint of language to the point of a minimalist limit. Each of these stories moves with an inevitability: in Hemingway’s story it comes from the threat of the mob that has been enabled by Prohibition America, which then seems powerless to undo its enabling. In the other stories the inevitability comes from character. The appeal for Parker, I’m guessing, is this darkness, with only the slight glimmers of Mabelle’s decency, the fact that Sherwood Anderson’s character can make choices, and Nick Adams’s naïve resistance.