One Hundred Years Ago at the Typewriter…

Does the name Fanny Hurst mean anything to you? Between 1910 and the mid-1930’s, Hurst was one of the most popular, influential and highly paid writers in the United States. Her name on a magazine cover virtually guaranteed a sell-out of the issue. Today, she is remembered, if at all, for the 30 movies of her works, including “Imitation of Life,” “Back Street” and “Humoresque.”

Hurst was a celebrity whose daily life made headlines, and she used that celebrity to support racial equality and rights for women. When it was far from fashionable, her writings were soapboxes from which to decry anti- Semitism, racism, sexual harassment, denial of worker rights and the urban poverty she personally explored.

Few writers today can match Hurst’s eventual output: 17 novels and over 250 short stories, most now out of print and only sporadically available in libraries. The Feminist Press has given us the welcome gift of a representative collection of 18 Hurst short stories. The Stories of Fanny Hurst ($16.95), edited and with an edifying introduction by Susan Koppelman, an authority on the women’s short story in the U.S. A new generation of readers can judge for themselves whether, as many scholars have argued, Hurst is entitled to her place in the canon.

In many ways, the stories Koppelman has assembled reflect the trajectory of Hurst’s own life. Born in St. Louis to assimilated (and, some say, anti-Semitic) German Jews, Hurst attended Washington University and then moved to New York in 1909. Both St. Louis and New York City serve as settings for the stories in the collection. Thanks to Hurst’s diligent research in the airless sweatshops and crowded tenements of New York’s Lower East Side, her work portrays with photographic accuracy the minute details of life’s daily struggles for the working poor, especially women.

On the surface, Hurst’s stories have problems: labyrinthine sentences whose syntax is befuddling, florid figures of speech that cry out for a stern editor, and dialect and slang that feel as outdated as the hula hoop. And to some tastes, the stories will feel overwrought, but passion should not be mistaken for mere sentimentality Hurst’s abiding empathy for common people thrown back on their own resources still feels fresh and powerful.

Hurst’s plots pay homage to Saki, O. Henry and de Maupassant, moving forward with a compelling momentum that is often stunning. In “The Story of Life” a faithful husband destroys himself and his wife by his obsession for their young ward. “Forty-five” tells of a beautiful daughter who blithely usurps her fading mother’s place in a romantic relationship. In “The Brinkerhoff Brothers” the symbiotic relationship between two brothers, limned in haunting detail by Hurst, is forever altered when one of them marries late in life.

The collection will help you remember why the short story once laid such claim on the imagination. Here are tales of Jews attempting to assimilate by bobbing their names; the scourge of TB that echoes the AIDS epidemic of our own time, and women’s precarious balance of home and career. Always there are fresh surprises to take away: an unexpected twist at a story’s end, a perfect detail that brings a moment in the past to life, a poignant encounter between mother and daughter or lover and lover. These are stories rich with the stuff of life. They still have lessons to teach us about the glories and mysteries of the human heart. 

Faye Moskowitz, professor and chair of the George Washington University English Department, is the author of four books and the editor of a collection of writing by Jewish women.