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.