Sometimes we look to the canon for context: the depression era philosophies and legacies of John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Pearl S. Buck. Would an American imagination have been materially different absent James Hilton, Sinclair Lewis, Edna Ferber? What if the novels of A.J. Cronin or William Faulkner remained galleys buried on the literary cutting room floor? I approached my reading of this issue of The Gettysburg Review with the canon as context; that is, does the literature in a climate of economic downturn answer similarly situated voices from the dustbowl terror of the mid 1930s? Not exactly. The truth may lie in other comparisons—perhaps an awareness of the hysterical faith-based tomes that characterized the literature of the climax of the Roman Empire, the deoxyribonucleic acid of other revolutions, a monk’s blood. In sum, I found The Gettysburg Review to stand on its own, neither an answer nor echo of the past but rather a collection of talented men and women who have unique stories to tell.
The expert opening of the journal was Clint McCown’s fiction “Mary Jean McKinney.” The story of a pregnant woman who wakes and emerges from a well parallels her future of giving birth: both the protagonist and her issue will have emerged from storm through a canal into an uncertain world. Her husband is missing abroad in war, and her home town in Tennessee has just been ravaged by a tornado—a desperate climate for a woman seeking any kind of security. The strength of the storytelling moves the reader through this woman’s journey effortlessly, as if there were no structural elements to secure the story. You finish it wanting to hear more.
Rebecca Gummere’s essay “The Departure” presents an ending of a lifetime in measured detail. Gummere paces the narrative with classical breaks, such as the section titled “Con Amore—With Love,” that begins “Nothing seems real. We are weeping; we are like lost children.” Gummere portrays the loss in ordered segments, but toward the end of the essay, you are so emotionally involved with the snapshots of loss that her essay becomes a mastery of continuity.
I really wanted to hate Hope Maxwell Snyder’s poem “Napping with Steve Orlen,” because it departs dramatically from the kinds of elements I have thought to seek in a poem. But I could not; the poem made me happy. Try an internal stanza:
Let’s go back to the garden at the Bavarian Inn,
drink vodka, read poems. Let’s take a walk on the towpath
in early fall, slow, while you light cigarettes and smoke.
You taught me to mind the diction in my poems,
choose words to fit my context. I loved you.
I have likewise been victimized by Yeats.
I enjoyed the diversity of voices and the way that the creative work spanned essential life stages. Paula Whyman’s short fiction, “You May See a Stranger,” had the essential pacing and characterization and emotional control that one might expect of Pam Houston. It braves a voice of a young woman who might not typically be granted voice—her life balanced between filing during the day and enjoying the buffoonery of an egomaniac at night might appear ordinary, but Whyman’s use of telling detail transforms the quotidian to the magnificent. Her concluding paragraph connects the entire story in one fell passage:
. . . Pogo leans over and kisses me on the mouth. I sit and look at my plate. My lobster is an empty shell; they’ve all taken parts of it, like I said they could. I put my hand in Pogo’s lap and find the place where he’s still warm.
Like I said they could. I found those smallest five words to be amazing.
You see the stylistic pattern if you read Charles Antin’s short fiction “Shooting the Moon,” where the dreams of an old man are couched in his narration. We have a wildly imaginative unreliable narrator, but the unreliability is character, not because he’s suffering from cognitive decline. Not at all: he’s wily and headstrong and funny. I love the frame of a game of hearts that governs the story. In fact, as it reoccurs, it becomes richer. Take this expert twist halfway through: “There are things in this world I’ll never understand. Calculus. Mandarin. Why Jean insists on losing to me at hearts.”
People I know like to prognosticate about the American Novel or the Short Story Recession; they will make statements to the effect that “The great American novel will not take place in America.” But these are folks who have evidently not been to Gettysburg. I’ll wager that the next best American short story happens here, that the best American poem starts out in these pages. If this issue is any harbinger, I’m betting on Gettysburg.