All Posts By Michael Kahn

Reality Check for an Aging “Hipster”

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{Originally published in the St. Louis Jewish Light.}

This happened several years ago: I was gripping the phone, trying to come to come to terms with what I had just heard and, even worse, what it meant. The man on the other end of the phone–a financial officer on the cusp of retirement–had shattered my illusions. A 68-year-old man had just exposed as myth my proud self-image as Mr. Hipster.

He chuckled. “It’s the truth, Mike.”

Before we face that truth, let’s understand how we got here. The answer is twofold: demographics and music.

The demographics are obvious. We are part of the Baby Boomer generation. As far back as 1974, New York Times columnist Russell Baker predicted that our generation would “continue to dominate society as it passes through the decades like a pig through a python.” And to the utter exasperation of the generations that have followed us, that pig–now more than two-thirds of the way through the python–is just as big and undigested and irritatingly dominant as ever. It’s simple economics: our whims are society’s musts, even as we age. When recently asked for the secret of his successful marriage to the much younger Catherine Zeta-Jones, elder Boomer Michael Douglas gave a shout out to Viagra. Yes, we have no shame or, apparently, bananas.

Even more to blame than then the numbers, however, is the music. Rock n’ roll created the great divide between the Baby Boomers and our parents. That crack began to widen in February of 1964 with three performances by the Beatles on consecutive Ed Sullivan shows. Then came The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton and Cream. By 1969–the year of Woodstock, Abbey Road and Led Zeppelin–the disconnect was complete. Our parents had Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Nat King Cole. We had Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock Festival (1969)

The problem for us, though, is that there has been no similar great divide for the generations that followed. The music of our youth remains popular today. Steve Miller is a quintessential Boomer musician. My wife Margi and I took our son Zack to a Steve Miller Band concert at Riverport several years ago when he was home from college that summer. (Yes, we Boomers still call it Riverport.) As we sat out on the lawn that night, I counted far more people Zack’s age than our age.

So, too, the music of our youth has had such an influence on musicians of today that we can still relate to it. You’ll find us in decent numbers at Wilco and Dave Matthews concerts. Try to imagine your mom and her Hadassah friends at a Grateful Dead concert. Or your dad in the shower playing air guitar and singing to the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post.”

The demographics and the music thus combined to create the myth that we Baby Boomers are hip. We have gone from Dr. Kildare to Dr. Dre, from a dog named Lassie to a Dogg named Snoop. Yes, we’re the ones who turned the Electric Slide into the dance of our people, dashing out of our chairs at bar mitzvah parties and wedding receptions to form dance lines that squeeze everyone younger off the dance floor. Wazzup, my homies? WTF. LOL.

Until . . . That Phone Call.

I was doing a product review for an apparel company, examining a new baseball-style hat for intellectual property issues. The tag described it as a “stash hat.” It was a clever design with a small Velcro pocket on the inside of the front panel of the hat. I could imagine a jogger, such as myself, “stashing” his house key in that pocket before setting off on a run. Clever.

But there was one odd feature: the number. While many baseball-style hats I’d reviewed had a number on the front – typical baseball player numbers, such as 7 or 21 – every sample of the “stash hat” had the same number: 420. Because I’d never seen a ballplayer with a three-digit number, I mentioned it to the elderly CFO when I called to discuss the results of my product review.

“That’s not a sports number,” he said with a chuckle.

“Then what is it?” I asked.

“Marijuana.”

“Huh?”

“Four-twenty, Mike. It’s the symbol for marijuana.”

“For who?”

“For everyone, I guess,” he said. “Especially young people. I never saw that Pulp Fiction movie, but I understand all the clocks in the movie are set to 4:20.”

My memory gets a little fuzzy here. I somehow ended the call. I sat alone in my office trying to come to grasp the implications. Could I really be so out of it? Such a dork?

In disbelief, I finally tapped out an email to my five children, who at the time ranged in age from 19 to 27. “Hey, guys,” I wrote. “Did you know that 420 is the symbol for marijuana?”

The responses ranged from “Well, duh!” to my daughter Hanna, who replied, “Dad, why did you think they paid me overtime at Wild Oats to work on April 20th?”

Sigh. So here we are, edging toward the lower intestine of that bulging python but immune to whatever societal Ex-Lax our country may dream up to flush us out of the social security system, still wearing faded jeans on weekends, still listening to “Gimme Shelter” on our iPod, still trying to avoid dealing with the possibility that we aren’t as cool as we thought we were.

But then again, we’re Boomers. Like Michael Douglas, we’ll find a way.

Wait. What’s that on the radio? “Nothing But a G Thang.” Sweet. Give me the mike. Altogether now:

One, two three and to the fo’

Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the do’

Ready to make an entrance, so back on up

‘Cause you know about to rip shit up.

And if you’d like to own one of those 420 hats, you can find them at Positive Party on Etsy.com.

Awesome Role Models for Rachel Gold–and All Women

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As I would imagine is true for most authors, by the time we write that very first paragraph of our very first novel, our brains have absorbed massive amounts of fiction in the form of novels, comic books, fairy tales, short stories, motion pictures, and television shows. And this huge warehouse of information will impact our own works in ways we that may never fully–or even partially–understand.

Back when I wrote Grave Designs, my first Rachel Gold mystery, if you would have asked me how I created that savvy young female attorney, I would have shrugged and told you I didn’t know. And I certainly wouldn’t have known the origins of her unflappable persona, as best exemplified by a favorite scene early in that novel. It takes place while she and a female colleague are waiting for the subway train late at night in downtown Chicago. They are approached on the platform by two drunk college guys, and the following encounter takes place:

The one in front grinned, raised his can of beer, and belched.
“Good evening, girls. How are we tonight?”
“Take a hike, you clowns,” Cindi said.
The guy in front winked and turned back toward his buddy.
“Sure, girls. But first we’d like you to meet Red. Go ahead, Pete.
Let these girls meet him.”
Pete stepped out from behind his buddy, wagging his half-erect
penis in his right fist. “Say hello to Red, girls.”
“Ignore these bozos,” Cindi mumbled as she grasped my
elbow to pull me away.
I didn’t budge. Instead, I stared at Pete’s crotch, and then
glanced at Cindi. “Look at that,” I said to her, nodding at the
display. “It looks just like a penis, only smaller.”
Pete’s face dropped, followed by his penis. He looked down
at his crotch, then back at me, then back at his crotch.

Well, thanks to a wonderful post by Hannah Chamberlain (on Redbubble.com) entitled “12 Female Literary Characters Who Are Total Role Model Material,” I have at last discovered at least part of the origin story for Rachel Gold–and no doubt for many other formidable female characters in modern fiction. As Ms. Chamberlain writes in her introduction, “Check out these kickass female characters and the important lessons they have to teach us.”

Which is precisely what I did–and you should as well. These are twelve remarkable women–role models for fictional characters and, frankly, for the rest of us.

Beatrice (Emma Thompson) and Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) in Much Ado About Nothing

So spend some time with Ms. Chamberlain’s piece and see which of those dozen fictional character resonate the most with you. And see if you can spot any traces of those characters in some of your favorite contemporary stories. Enjoy!

As for Rachel Gold, yes, there’s a little Scarlett O’Hara in her. Some Elizabeth Bennett, too. And, as I discovered, a few dashes of one of my favorite literary characters of all time: Beatrice from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Just Published: My Latest Book

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I am delighted to announce that my latest book, The Art of Conflict: Tales from the Courtroom, has now been published.

Co-authored with Alan C. Kohn, the godfather of St. Louis litigators and the veteran of more than 100 trials, our book provides a unique set of perspectives on the trials and tribulations of the courtroom lawyer. It does so by pairing each of five of my courtroom stories with one of Alan’s essays on legal advice on the same topic.

What are the magical powers of the courtroom clerk? Is the “ethical lawyer” an oxymoron. What’s the real art of cross-examination? These are just some of the topics covered by the book.

As the Honorable Michael Wolf, retired Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and Dean of the St. Louis University Law School, writes in his review of the book:

Alan Kohn’s exemplary life as a lawyer shines through every other chapter of this fine book, with helpful insights on how law is and should be practiced, and a marvelous memoir of his days as a law clerk in the late 1950s at the United States Supreme Court, the highest honor a young lawyer can get. Every other chapter?  Yes, because the book has a clever twist —  Alan’s musings, instructions, and inspirations are interspersed with chapters of fiction by Michael Kahn, the remarkable lawyer-by-day, novelist-by-night (or vice versa), whose fictional lawyer Rachel Gold makes guest appearances in some of her best roles and, as a prelude to Alan’s essay on judicial activism, a chapter on the fictional Judge Howard Flinch, the worst judge in the history of Missouri (remember it’s fiction) and title character of The Flinch Factor, one of Kahn’s 12 excellent mystery novels.  This book is an enjoyable and enlightening read.

Fellow lawyer Mitch Margo, author of the brilliant historical legal thriller Black Hearts White Minds, wrote the following:

The Art of Conflict is a lively dance of legal dramas told in alternating fictional and non-fiction vignettes between lawyer/novelist Michael Kahn and trial attorney Alan Kohn. You don’t need to be a lawyer to love these reminisces (mostly Kohn’s) and legal page-turners (mostly Kahn’s). You can read this book in an afternoon, and you’ll want to do just that.

Hope you enjoy the book!

Most Important Books of All Time? Let the Debate Begin!

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Last summer I wrote a post about a cool web page that had created road maps for your favorite road-trip novels, from Jack Kerouac’s cross-country trip in On the Road to The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of the journey he took with his wife Zelda from Connecticut to Alabama in a old automobile he called the “Rolling Junk.”

Keilah Keiser, one of the creators of that post, teamed up with Jennifer Jones to put together another blog post on an equally alluring website, largest.org. As its name indicates, that website curates lists of anything and everything that could be labeled “largest,” from the largest baseball stadiums to, I swear, “the 7 largest catfish ever caught.”

But in addition to the largest pzzas ever made (and largest toy museums and largest sinkholes), Keilah, Jennifer, and the website team have compiled a list of 25 of what they claim to be “The Books that Made the Largest Impact in the World.” As the creators explained to me:

“Books will continue to introduce everyone to fresh and revolutionary ideas, as they’ve done throughout the past. Only a select few titles are held up around the world as international staples — most of which are known for going against the grain. Each masterpiece exposes a writer’s thoughts through their words.”

That list of 25 begins more than 1,000 B.C.E. with the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), includes other great religious works (such as the King James Bible and the Qu’ran), and several significant pre-20th-century works that range from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species to The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

But where the list (and the reactions) get interesting–and controversial–is when we enter the 20th Century. More than half of the books on the list were published after 1900, and the final one, published in 2003, is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

I confess that I did the reader’s version of a spit-take when I saw that book on the list. Huh?? Dan Brown’s potboiler on the same shelf as the King James Bible and The Origin of the Species? To their credit, the website creators offer the following justification for ending their list with The Da Vinci Code:

It made a huge impact on the world, because it was strongly criticized by the Christian faith, and more specifically by the Roman Catholic Church, for its implications that the original story of Jesus Christ was mistold. However, many readers became enthralled in the story, and it sold 80 million copies worldwide. It was also translated into 44 languages and adapted into a motion picture film.

Well, maybe.

I can think of at least three other books I’d add to that list–four if you could include Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but that masterpiece, as vibrant as ever and performed every year in scores of venues around the world, is a play, not a book. In chronological order, my three additions are:

  • The Odyssey. by Homer. This epic poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon. It mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses, as he was known in Roman myths) and his long journey home following the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. In his absence, it is assumed he has died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must deal with a group of unruly suitors. The cultural impact of this epic is widespread in both time and place, ranging from a key scene in Dante’s Inferno to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” to the Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother Where Art Thou? (which even inspired a flash card comparison of the movie to the original).
  • Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, was published in two parts (part 1, 1605, and part 2, 1615). The novel is one of the most widely read and widely celebrated classics of Western literature. By way of example, The Guardian placed it #1 on its list of the greatest novels of all time.
  • War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Epic in scale, this novel delineates in graphic detail events leading up to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families. It is regarded as a central work of world literature and one of Tolstoy’s finest literary achievements
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

So read though that list of 25 on Largest.org. Is there a book you think should be included? If so, let me know.

A Tip of the Hat to the Genius of Parody Romance Novel Covers

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My last post opened with a discussion of the evolution of romance novel covers from the chaste era of the 1950s to the soft-core porn covers of later decades. But as I moved on to the more general topic of the history of all book covers, I became so focused on their role–from the original 1884 cover of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to more contemporary examples such as Jurassic Park–that I left no space for a salute to Mark Longmire.

Who, you may ask, is Mark Longmire and why is he relevant? Longmore is a brilliant and witty graphic artist whose  quirky website–The Wonderful World of Longmire–includes a clever and funny group of his creations. My favorite is the display of his collection of parody romance novel covers, which include the one at the top of this post and the one to the right of this paragraph.

Warning: Do NOT click on this link to Mark’s website until and unless you are prepared to get lost in there, to wander around like a giggly kid at an amusement park, and to emerge far later than you had imagined you would when you entered. Enjoy!

Maybe You Can’t Tell a Book by Its Cover, But You Can Sure Sell It That Way

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I read a fascinating post on the Jezebel website by Kelly Faircloth  in which she recounted the history–or, per the title of her post, the “steaming, throbbing history”–of the covers of romance novels, from the sweet innocent covers of the 1950s to the soft-porn bodice-rippers of later decades, many of which featured the male model Fabio, such as the cover shown on the right for Johanna Lindsay’s Gentle Rogue. Some of those later covers edged even closer to hard-core porn, including the one at the top of this post for Tender is the Storm, which, as Ms. Faircloth writes, “features a frankly shocking amount of naked, manly haunch and appears to depict a man outright thrusting his penis between a woman’s abundant breasts.”

And thus while many of us invoke that old platitude that you can’t tell a book by its cover, those in the marketing departments of the major publishers roll their eyes and chuckle at our naiveté. And those marketing department chucklers, along with their insights, far predate the romance novel era of the final decades of the 20th century. Many of the most strikingly original covers date back to novels published before World War II–novels that can be found today not in the Romance section of your local bookstore but in the snootier Literature section.

For example, one of my favorite covers is, not coincidentally, the cover of one of my favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, which was published more than a half-century before Fabio and his ilk starting ripping bodices off of pretty young women.

Or let us go back a full century before Gentle Rogue to the top contender for the title of the Great American Novel, the first edition of which had a cover that was not too shabby.

To browse through a striking collection of book covers from that earlier era, check out “The Art of Book Covers (1820-1914) at the Public Domain Review, which includes these beauties:

 

And while design fashions change over time, a simple image is often the most powerful one to reel in your potential reader, as the covers of these two two mega-bestseller show:

 

My own novels have had a wide variety of covers, but the most interesting contrast is between the original hardback version of my first novel, published under the title The Canaan Legacy, and the paperback edition published under the title Grave Designs. (The change in title is a subject for another post.) At the heart of the novel is a mystery over the contents of a grave at a pet cemetery–and thus each of the designers chose to depict that mystery on the cover in their own way, as shown below:

So what’s my favorite cover? I confess my aesthetics may have been influenced by reading aloud a particular story dozens and dozens of times to each of my five children and now to several of my grandchildren. It also happens to be the cover of one of my favorite books as well. And for those of you with children or who have fond memories of your own childhood, you may have already guessed the title and the cover. If not, here it is:

Now We Can All Take That Road Not Taken! The Copyright Freeze Has Melted

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Once again my dual lives as a lawyer by day and an author at night have intersected in what is unquestionably a happy new year for all of us–including even Mickey Mouse. Two decades ago the Congress passed an amendment to the Copyright Act that added an additional twenty years to lives of the copyrights in all original works created on and after 1923. Had Congress not acted, hundreds of original works–books, songs, plays, photographs, paintings, poems, and the like–would have fallen into the public domain on January 1, 1999.

And once a work falls into the public domain, it is free for you to use anyway you want. You can make copies (and even sell copies), create derivative works (such as a movie from the novel), market t-shirts with your favorite lines from a poem, or otherwise exploit a work that, if still under copyright, would constitute infringement and expose you to the risk of a lawsuit and financial loss. For example, William Shakespeare’s plays and Jane Austen’s novels and Mark Twain’s novels are all in the public domain. And that means that you don’t need to pay anyone for the right to stage “Hamlet” (or make a movie version) or to download a free copy of Huckleberry Finn or to add zombies to your sequel to Pride and Prejudice.

The copyright laws, which date back to the enactment of the U.S. Constitution, are premised on the belief that you will enrich the culture if you give creators a financial incentive, and that incentive would be a monopoly over all rights in their creations for a limited time. Back then, that limited time was 28 years after creation. By 1978, that “limited time” had grown to the life of the author plus 50 years or 75 years total for a work of corporate authorship (such as a motion picture). And then, in 1998, pursuant to “The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act” (also derisively labeled “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act” by critics who viewed the extension as a money-grubbing attempt by The Walt Disney Company to maintain their monopoly over Mickey Mouse), Congress added another 20-year term to all works made during or after 1923. In other words, copyrighted works created in 1923, which would have fallen into the public domain on January 1, 1999, would now remain under copyright until January 1, 2019.

But now the freeze has ended. If you’d like to see the lists of creative works that fell into the public domain shortly after we all uncorked champagne bottles on New Year’s Eve, you can go here or here. And if you’d like to read my legal blog post on the topic, you can go here.

As for the title of this post, many (or perhaps all) of you recognize that line from one of Robert Frost’s most powerful poems. That particular poem had actually fallen into the public domain seven years before the 1998 extension. But another powerful–indeed, magical–Frost poem is among the hundred of works that fell into the public domain, free to all, on January 1, 2019. If you’d like to put that poem on t-shirts or greeting cards or use it as lyrics for a song, go for it. And, if like me, you love that poem so much that you want to end your blog post with it, have at it! Enjoy:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

By Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Beers, Brands, Books, and Brawls

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My bio describes me as a lawyer by day and an author at night–and I generally try to keep those two identities separate. But a recent trademark brawl over the word SCHLAFLY–a name associated with both the late conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly and her nephew Tom’s brewery–inspired me to write a post on that lawsuit for my law firm’s blog, and in the process got me to mull over the many examples of men and women who turned their last names into trademarks associated with the companies they founded.

The Simon and Schuster of Simon & Schuster

In particular, I thought about the publishing world, and quickly realized that the names of the big publishing houses are so established that it’s easy to forget that those names were, once upon a time, the names of the founders. Just as, say, many of us may not realize that Goodyear Tire’s founder was Charles Goodyear and Bird’s Eye Frozen Foods owes its name to Charles Birdseye, I didn’t realize that Doubleday, the publisher of my novel The Mourning Sexton (under the pen name Michael Baron), was founded by Frank Nelson Doubleday, whose image is displayed at the top of this post.

Richard Simon and M. Lincoln Schuster combined their efforts to create Simon & Schuster. James and John Harper and William Collins created HarperCollins. Louis Hachette founded Hachette. MacMillan got its name from its founders, Alexander and Daniel.

So if you’re thinking about naming a company after yourself or you’re just curious to learn more about the family brawl over the name SCHLAFLY, you can find my blog post here. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud’s famous (and perhaps defensive) remark about cigars, sometimes a beer is just a beer. But sometimes that beer can trigger a brawl that may yet end up in the United States Supreme Court.

 

Guess What? Now There’s an Awesome Map for Your Favorite Road Trip Novel

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As I have mentioned more than once on this blog, among my favorite opening lines in all of literature is Hunter Thompson’s in his bizarre road trip tale, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. (You can read that amazing sentence at the end of my post entitled “The Magical Lure of the Intimate Voice.”)

Thompson’s vivid account of a drug-infused weekend road trip has earned its place in American pop culture as one of the strangest journeys ever undertaken. The only trip that comes close in weirdness is “Kubla Khan,” the opium-induced road-trip-to-Xanadu poem by Samuel Coleridge. But that was a trip to a fantasy world while Thompson’s was a trip to, well, the semi-fantasy world of Las Vegas

Fans of road trip novels–and there a many of you out there–can debate for hours which one deserves the crown as the Great American Road Trip novel. And while you could try to include sub-genres, such as “road trips” on water (Huckleberry Finn) and “road trips” on hiking trails (Bill Bryce’s A Walk in the Woods), there is something uniquely American about the great road trip story.

My short list of nominees, in addition to Fear and Loathing, would include Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Thus imagine my delight when I discovered another American road trip fan out there whose tastes not only matched my own but who has created a beautiful and captivating set of “travel guide” maps for the routes of some of the the most famous road trips in American literature, including the Fear and Loathing map displayed at the top of this post.

The concept for these enchanting maps can be traced back to Keilah Keiser. By day, Keilah is a Content Marketing Specialist based in San Diego. In her free time, she focuses on curating travel content. As she told me:

“Growing up as a bookworm I’ve always had a passion for literature. Pair that with my love for travel and the open road, and it made sense to create a guide to literary road trips across the country.”

Keilah worked on this concept with CarRentals, who mapped out their guide to literary road trips across America so that the rest of us could set off on an adventure of our own that follows a narrative arc.

“Pick from six legendary routes,” Keilah explained. “You can recreate that author’s experience and, along the way, write your own story”

So if you share my love of American road trip novels, get ready to experience a true delight and then click here. Have fun!! And thanks for sharing, Keilah.

Opening Passages to Greatness

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The other day I stumbled upon The Heart, a wonderful series in the online version of The Atlantic in which authors discuss their favorite passages in literature. Browsing through the collection, I came upon John Rechy’s discussion of his favorite, which is the opening sentence of William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” which also happens to be on my list of greatest short stories, although I confess I had never before focused on that opening sentence, which is as follow:

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant—a combination gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.

William Faulkner

Read it again, and you will start to see how much is going in that sentence, from the formal reference to “Miss Emily Grierson” (thus an unmarried woman) to the fact that no one but an elderly man-servant had seen the inside of her house for at least a decade (thus she died a recluse). As Rechy states:

Everyone goes to Miss Emily’s funeral, a ritual not to be missed. Clearly, this lady who died unmarried was of importance to everyone. And yet the town itself is eventually divided, and we see that division here in the first line. The men attend her funeral “through a sort of respectful attention for a fallen monument,” but that “sort of” tells us it’s qualified admiration. And there’s the subtle, metaphoric symbolism of “a fallen monument,” which is thematic—the fall of the South after the Civil War— which Faulkner often lamented, at times too much.

By contrast, the women go there to see what is inside that mysterious house.

And all gleaned from that first sentence, which ends with a hint of suspense. What might be hidden in that house? As with any great opener, I was intrigued–so intrigued, in fact, that I had to re-read that short story, which was even better than I remembered.

Which got me thinking about the opening passages in other great short stories. So I browsed through some of my favorite stories and found several intriguing and well-crafted openers–sometimes just a sentence, other times more than one. I will confess that I also discovered that some of my favorite short stories–including ones by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anton Chekhov, and James Joyce–do not start with a bang, although most do end with one.

Set forth below are examples of great opening passages from some of my favorite short stories. Enjoy!

  1. “The Swimmer” by John Cheever. “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’ You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover.
  2. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry: “One dollar and eighty–seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty–seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.”
  3. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe: “TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
  4. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce: “A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees.”

    Ernest Hemingway
  5. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway: “‘The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,’ he said. ‘That’s how you know when it starts.’”
  6. “Barnaby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville: “I am a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written:—I mean the law-copyists or scriveners. I have known very many of them, professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep. But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of.”