The Best American
The Best American Short Stories was first published in 1915. Edward J. O'Brien was the first series editor; he was twenty-three when he began work on it, and already a published poet and playwright. O'Brien sensed that the short story was about to come into its own as a particularly American genre, and he presciently set out, as he explained, "to trace its development and changing standards from year to year as the field of its interest widens and its technique becomes more and more assured."
The results of O'Brien's labors over the next twenty years are revealed in the roster of writers who found early recognition and support in his anthology, including Ring Lardner, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, Erskine Caldwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, Irwin Shaw, Kay Boyle and Richard Wright.
An ardent Anglophile, O'Brien spent most of his adult life in England. When the war broke out, he chose not to return to the safety of America. He died in London on February 24, 1941, at age fifty-one. In the midst of all the blitzkrieg coverage, newspapers all over Europe paid extensive homage to this man who was considered a vital representative of American literature.
O'Brien's death coincided with the end of Martha Foley's marriage to the writer and publisher Whit Burnett. Together they had founded the influential literary magazine Story and had presided over its publication for ten years.
Once, while visiting O'Brien in London, Martha Foley had asked him what would ever become of The Best American Short Stories if something should happen to him. As it turned out, Houghton Mifflin turned immediately to the editors of Story after O'Brien's death and offered them both the job. According to Foley, "Whit said he didn't want to read all those damn magazines." So, in 1941, Foley left both Burnett and Story behind to "take care of" The Best American Short Stories. It was a job she would perform tenaciously for the next thirty-seven years.
Foley set out to find stories of literary value that might otherwise remain unknown and forgotten, and to give them permanence in book form. "Against the tragic backdrop of world events today a collection of short stories may appear very unimportant," she wrote in her first introduction in 1941. "Nevertheless, since the short story has always been America's own typical form of literary expression, from Washington Irving to Edgar Allan Poe onward, and since American is defending today what is her own, the short story has a right to be considered as among the cultural institutions the country now is fighting to save."
During her reign as series editor, she was among the first to recognize the talents of dozens of writers who would go on to receive wide acclaim, including Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Stanley Elkin, Delmore Schwartz, Flannery O'Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty, Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury, Lionel Trilling, Shirley Jackson, Jack Kerouac, James Agee, John Updike, Robert Coover, and Jean Stafford. She died at the age of eighty, on September 5, 1977.
For only the second time in the series' sixty-two year history, Houghton Mifflin had to find someone willing to carry it on. The publishers turned first to Ted Solotaroff, a distinguished editor and critic. Solotaroff declined the position but countered with an idea of his own. Rather than try to replace Martha Foley, he suggested, why not invite a different writer or critic to edit each volume? Houghton Mifflin agreed, noting that "a variety of fresh points of view should add liveliness to the series and provide a new dimension to the title." With Solotaroff's agreement to serve as the first guest editor, a new editorial direction was established. Shannon Ravenel, a young literary editor at Houghton Mifflin, had tried to bolster Martha Foley's work during her last years, even offering to scout stories for her. She seemed an obvious choice for the role of series editor.
In the process of reading 120 or more stories and selecting those that will appear in the book, all guest editors must, at some point, articulate their own criteria. What do they expect from a good short story? How do they judge elements of style, subject, and characterization? "Abjure carelessness in writing, just as you would in life," Raymond Carver advised in 1986. "I want stories in which the author shows frank concern, not self-protective, 'sensible' detachment," John Gardner wrote in 1982.
In 1990, Katrina Kenison, another young editor at Houghton Mifflin/Ticknor and Fields, took over the job of series editor. Ravenel passed along to her these words of wisdom: "Read everything without regard for who wrote it or how you've felt about that author's work in the past." Kenison oversaw the book's publication until 2007, and worked with such varied talents as Robert Stone, Alice Adams, Louise Erdrich, Garrison Keillor and Jane Smiley. Kenison was an early champion of such writers as Amy Bloom, Robert Olen Butler, Andrea Barrett, Pam Houston, and Aleksandar Hemon. In Kenison's final foreword, she writes, "The joy of discovery never does grow old, and it goes a long way toward explaining why all four of the editors of this ninety-one-year-old anthology have ended up doing lengthy tours of duty—we became captivated by the thrill of the hunt."
2007 ushered in a new series editor, Heidi Pitlor, a former senior editor at Houghton Mifflin and author of the novel, The Birthdays.