The selection of stories in this volume is based on the stories found in high-school and college literature anthologies that ranked them as not only the best of Hemingway's short story output but also as the ones taught most frequently in high-school and college American Literature courses, as well as in Introduction to Literature courses.
The importance of including Hemingway in American Literature anthologies cannot be overestimated. Hemingway's style and subject matter are archetypal of American writing. Hemingway broke new literary ground when he began publishing his short stories. Furthermore, not only was he an American writer, but he was not an ivory-tower esthete; he was a man's man. He hunted in grand style, deep-sea fished, covered both World War I and World War II for national news services, and was married as many times as Hollywood celebrities — and yet he found time to write novels and stories that feature men and women facing both death and emotional crises with grit, gumption, and grand tenacity.
Hemingway's heroes are characterized by their unflinching integrity. They do not compromise. They are vulnerable but are not defined by their vulnerability. Hemingway's men and women are often defiant of what society expects of them: They eat with gusto, devour adventure, and have sex — simply and directly.
In the beginning, Hemingway wrote about himself, and he would continue to write himself into all, or most, of his characters until his death. His first persona was Nick Adams, a young boy who accompanies a doctor to an American Indian camp and watches the doctor use a jackknife to slice into a woman's abdomen and deliver a baby boy.
At that early age, Nick vows never to die. Later, he defies death and the sanity-threatening wounds that he receives in Italy during World War I. He rotely repeats, in blind faith, the knee-bending exercises for his stiff, battle-scarred knee. Instinctively, he returns to the north woods of Michigan to heal his soul of the trauma of war. Hemingway himself suffered a bad knee wound during the war and returned to hunting and fishing in Michigan's northern woods.
In his more mature stories, such as "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," Hemingway creates far more complex characters and situations for his characters. "Snows" is a stylistic tour de force, a perfect dovetailing of intense, invigorating, interior-monologue flashbacks as contrasts to sections of present-time narratives, during which the main character, a writer named Harry, is slowly dying of gangrene. Symbolically, Harry is also rotting away because of the poisonous nature of his wife's money. As his life ebbs away, he realizes that his writing talent has been ebbing away for years, as surely as his life is, symbolized by the hyena and the buzzards who wait to feast on his carcass.
"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" and "Hills Like White Elephants" are examples of Hemingway's most pared-down style, in which he removes himself from the role of narrator. The stories are almost wholly composed of dialogue. One must engage him or herself in the narratives and ignite his or her imagination to understand the emotional core of each of these stories. Hemingway expects us to.
Hemingway's genius as an American original was evident long before he produced his novels that are today considered masterpieces of American literature. Both critics and readers have hailed his short stories as proof that a pure, true American literature was finally possible. American literature was no longer merely watered-down British reading fare. American literature had at last come into its own. Hemingway set the standard — and the writers who came after him honored his achievement.