Friday, April 10, 2009

Forgotten Short Stories: Main Currents of American Thought - Irwin Shaw

I believe I’ve mentioned here before that Irwin Shaw’s “Main Currents of American Thought” is my favorite short story. I’ll get to the reasons for that in a minute. I think it qualifies as a forgotten short story because, like a lot of other former bestsellers, pretty much all of Shaw’s work seems to be forgotten today. A few of his novels may still be in print, and I’m sure some people remember the Seventies TV mini-series “Rich Man, Poor Man”, based on Shaw’s excellent novel of the same name. But check your local used book store, and you probably won’t find many – or any – of his books. Which is a shame, because he was as good as anybody at writing about America during the middle of the Twentieth Century, from the Thirties to the Sixties.

“Main Currents of American Thought” was first published in the August 5, 1939 issue of THE NEW YORKER and later reprinted in several places, including the massive collection of Shaw’s short stories, FIVE DECADES. Because of its subject matter, I’m admittedly biased when I say it’s my favorite short story. I think it’s the best story about being a freelance writer that I’ve ever read. The protagonist, a young man named Andrew, writes scripts for a couple of daily radio dramas, and in a few thousand words, Shaw perfectly captures what it’s like to deal with all the pressures of trying to write for a living. Some of the lines, which I can’t quote without ruining their impact, are just devastating. And there are other little details, like figuring expenses in terms of how much writing you’ll have to do in order to pay for them, that are utterly true. I don’t know how many times I’ve said things like, “We can afford that. It’s only half a Longarm.” There’s a lot packed into this story, and it’s dated a little, but its core is still true. And if you’re a writer, it’ll break your heart.

Shaw’s best-known short stories are “The Eighty Yard Run” and “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses”, and both of those are fine stories. In fact, everything I’ve read by him has been very good to excellent. FIVE DECADES is a great collection, and I recommend it highly. But “Main Currents of American Thought” is a story I reread at least once a year (I picked it up to glance at it before writing this post and wound up rereading the whole thing), and it’s the only story of which that’s true.

9 comments:

David Cranmer said...

“Main Currents of American Thought” sounds like an engaging short. Other than the mini-series you mentioned, I’m unfamiliar with his work.

Unknown said...

I love all three of the stories you mentioned. Hard to believe Shaw's become a forgotten writer.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My favorite Shaw story is "Girls in Their Summer Dresses."

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful recommendation.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Incredible story - I had never read it before, but thanks for pointing it out. Seems more timely than ever these days.

Also, you can read the story online here:

http://books.google.com/books?id=J4NQXsxeackC&pg=PA20&lpg=PA20&dq=%22main+currents+of+american+thought%22&source=bl&ots=lbYk4KvQ0j&sig=Rd6lxqfQD7B4kpZxDUPO5tGD_ss&hl=en&ei=bUrfSd7IL9zqlQe5_uDgDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6#PPA20,M1

James Reasoner said...

Thanks, Cullen. I didn't know the story was available on-line.

Dominic Fox said...

I picked up a book called 'The Young Lions' at a charity shop recently. A couple of years back I read 'Two Weeks In Another Town' because my dad said that Irwin Shaw was one of best American writers.

bear said...

thanks man. what a treat to re-read "girls in their summer dresses" after all these years. i remember being like the husband and then finding contentment with my partner. while i consciously, happily leave off "almost breaking my neck", irwin shaw's words bring back the painfulness for both him and her who are us. what a writer!

Unknown said...

This is 2015 and I have just finished reading this short story. All the mind flows irwin had wrote in the lines when Andrew was not concentrating at his figuring are vivid and pretty good displaying a struggling writer. And I can't google out anything that related to this story's reviews.