Stories from chicken pluckers
New York — In 1931, Whit Burnett, then a young American journalist posted in Vienna, decided the literary world needed a new market for the short story. To provide one, he began his own magazine.
When he retired 40 years later he could boast that his magazine, Story, had for four decades collected, published, and encouraged material from some of the best of contemporary writers.
J. D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, William Saroyan, Norman Mailer, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Carson McCullers were among the young writers who found their first paying market in Story.
Norman Mailer, a young writer when Story was at its best and most influential , remembers Whit Burnett as "a legend."
"And his magazine, Story," Mailer writes, "was its own legend, and young writers in the late '30s and the years of the Second World War used to dream of appearing in its pages about the way a young rock group might feel transcendent in these hours with the promise of a spread in Rolling Stone."
At the same time, Burnett taught a creative writing course at Columbia University. His class rosters included such names as J. D. Salinger, Carson McCullers, and Mary O'Hara.
Recently, Whit Burnett's widow, Hallie Burnett, who served as co-editor of Story for 30 years and is a writer herself, published "The Fiction Writer's Handbook" (Harper & Row), taken from her husband's classroom notes. This handbook, intended as a guide to would-be writers, is full of reminiscences, notes on the experiences of various authors, comments on writing by writers of all eras and genres, and examples from the working lives of Hallie and Whit themselves.
"No one knows exactly what makes a writer," Hallie Burnett comments. "But often an editor or someone with experience in the field can help. A quality of belief is important, a sense that what one is doing is important. That's why writers' conferences can be useful. They can give the young writer confidence.
"I taught at Sarah Lawrence for four years, and it was interesting to watch some of the young women develop as writers. Sometimes a writer would appear quite talented when actually she was just very imitative. One can't go too far on that. And then once there was a girl who seemed to have no talent at all -- until she fell in love. After that she began writing beautiful things."
It seems that the world is full of would-be writers. "While editing Story we would get about 1,000 manuscripts a week," Hallie Burnett recollects. "Maybe a third would be really worth reading."
There was a teen-ager from Louisiana who would send Story a manuscript almost every week. Although none of these quite succeeded, Mrs. Burnett felt there was something fresh and promising about the writing, and she encouraged the boy to go on trying. Finally, he produced "This Side of the Matter," a story that Hallie liked and published, the boy's first published work. His name was Truman Capote.
"It's the infinite pains that make an author," she says. "We would see things by young people who had much talent, but were unwilling to accept criticism. They were afraid of losing their 'gem' by making changes. A writer should be tough enough to hear suggestions."
Whit Burnett never failed to confront writers with his candid reactions to their works. "Whit's total honesty made him the great editor he was," his widow and co-editor recalls. "Once I heard him critiquing something of Mary O'Hara's [author of "My Friend Flicka"], and I reprimanded him for being so harsh. Mary instantly turned around and reprimanded me,m saying that Whit's frankness was the reason she trusted him as an editor."
When J. D. Salinger, reclusive author of "Catcher in the Rye," was a student of Burnett's at Columbia, he spent most of the class time gazing out the window, but apparently heard enough to come to like and respect Burnett. He wrote Whit Burnett 65 letters while overseas as a serviceman, and sent him many stories as well.
Burnett once received from Salinger a manuscript that Burnett thought would appeal to The Saturday Evening Post. He forwarded it to them, and they bought it. They offered Salinger their standard pay -- $2,500 -- instead of the $25 he would have received from Story. Grateful, Salinger sent $250 to Whit, telling him to use it to help a young writer. The money was offered as first prize in a serviceman's contest.
The winner, a young soldier-writer named Joseph Heller, had never been published before. He went on to write more war stories, and finally the famous novel "Catch-22."
"We received many good stories by servicemen," Mrs. Burnett says. "It was interesting about getting the stories -- they always told so much about the mood of the country. We often found a certain story being repeated over and again at a certain time. With the soldiers, I can't tell you how many of them wrote about a lonely soldier meeting a girl overseas, and then pretending for an evening that she's his wife or girlfriend."
The depression was also a fertile time for good stories. Hallie especially remembers those that came from a young chicken-plucker named Tennessee Williams.
"Story's greatest contribution to literature was that it provided a market for short stories, and an example of what a good short story should be. There really is no publication doing that now, which may explain why one doesn't see the same quality stories anymore."
Hallie Burnett herself is another successful product of Whit's writing course at Columbia. She went on, not only to marry the professor, but also to produce many stories and several novels, including "Watch on the Wall," "This Heart, This Hunter," and "Boarders in the Rue Madame."
In addition to co-editing Story, and teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, Mrs. Burnett worked for a while as an editor at Prentice Hall, and with Whit raised two children -- John, now a journalist and novelist himself, and Whitney, a poet and opera singer.
Story also operated as a press for a while, putting out anthologies of short stories. Financing was always a problem for Story, as there are more short story writers than readers in the world. Different sponsors helped keep the magazine financially afloat.
For a time, when subscriptions were dangerously low and the number of proffered manuscripts was remarkably high, Hallie Burnett tried enclosing little notes with all the rejection slips she sent out, suggesting that the would-be author subscribe to and read Story magazine, and perhaps profit from the example of stories the magazine had purchased.
The notes didn't raise the subscription level.
Outside financing helped with the annual College Contests, whose winners included Elizabeth Janeway and Norman Mailer.
Mailer, who was a sophomore at Harvard at the time, remembers receiving Story's prize as "the first powerful and happy event of my career."
He also recalls the lunch which he, as the winner, was treated to by Whit Burnett as "one of the more luminous meals of my life," -- despite the fact, Mailer claims, that "I was 18 and wholly embarrassed by my inability to speak a single interesting word to him."
The current paucity of "really good short stories" troubles Mrs. Burnett, and at least in part she blames the lack of a good market, such as Story. Encouraging the short story, she points out, means encouragement for literature of all kinds.
"Where else but in the short story does a novelist or a playwright first try out his infatuation with words, and his own unique view of human experience?" Mrs. Burnett asks.
In praise of the short story, she quotes Whit: "It is short, it's to the point, it is an essence of life distilled, selected, and presented, of infinite variety in shape and style."
Having spent much of a lifetime reading and editing stories of various shapes and styles, Hallie Burnett radiates enthusiasm as she discusses the short story.
And, she claims, it was the same with Whit. The real secret of his success? "He couldn't resist a good short story!"