The Literary Tradition
In 1947, in the second year of the magazine’s existence, Commentary’s editors published two works of fiction by a little-known Odessa Jew named Isaak Babel (who had been shot and killed by Stalin’s henchmen in 1940, though his horrific end would not be known for five decades). One of the two Babel stories was “First Love,” now universally considered among the greatest short works of the 20th century. “First Love” was the first distinguished story to appear in a magazine that has published hundreds—a magazine whose literary and cultural concerns these past 65 years have been no less important than its ideological, sociological, and political missions.
When Commentary was founded in 1945, the short story was a staple of magazines at all levels; there was fiction in the mass-market pages of Good Housekeeping and Redbook and the Saturday Evening Post, just as there was in the middlebrow precincts of the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly, and in the intimidating quarterly Partisan Review. The fiction was not there to please the English majors in the editorial department: it was a selling point. There were bidding wars over rights to the works of popular masters of the medium, like John O’Hara and Damon Runyon.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when American Jewish writers came to occupy a central position in the cultural life of the United States, Commentary played a special role. In July 1952, to take one example, came “The Loan,” Bernard Malamud’s masterpiece, about a baker who finds success when he weeps into his bread dough until his shrewish wife denies his old friend Kobotsky money. Immediately, the story concludes, “The loaves in the trays were blackened bricks—charred corpses. Kobotsky and the baker embraced and sighed over their lost youth. They pressed mouths together and parted forever.”
Philip Roth published his first work here in November 1957. And it was in these pages that the writing of Isaac Bashevis Singer first made its impact in English, particularly his dazzling tale of shtetl greed literally summoning demons, “The Gentleman from Crakow,” which ran in September 1957. Through successive decades, exciting young voices like Cynthia Ozick’s and Allegra Goodman’s found their early audiences here, as did the stories of major Israeli writers like A.?B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz.
Today, Commentary is among the very few non-literary magazines of any real size still dedicated to the regular publication of short fiction—with a particular emphasis on discovering new voices. Of late we have been proud to present the debuts of Andi Arnovitz (“The Watchman of Ephraim Street,” April 2009), Hannah Brown (“The Pimstein Affair,” July 2009), and Peter Lopatin (“Nathan at the Speed of Light,” October 2009), all of which came entirely unsolicited into our offices.
To reaffirm our commitment to the short story and the intellectual, emotional, humorous, and cerebral pleasures it can bring, we decided to center this summer double issue on the form. Here you will find old friends like Joseph Epstein and John J. Clayton; exuberant young talent in the person of Yael Goldstein Love; two vibrant satirical voices in Karl Taro Greenfeld and Adam Langer on the writerly life in New York; and a sharp debut from the journalist and screenwriter Rick Marin, offering a rare glimpse into the hazards of bourgeois domesticity in Los Angeles.
This special issue, which runs about 40 pages longer than usual and features a complete complement of Commentary offerings, is designed as a summer keeper, from your coffee table to your bedside to the beach. The short stories we are presenting here, in very different ways, all pose the question that all enduring short stories do: how can we force ourselves to do the right thing in the face of all the temptations to do otherwise and the weaknesses of character that make it all too easy for us to behave badly?