Elements of modern literature and the theme of initiation in Canadian and American short fiction

Raymond Knister’s "Mist-Green Oats" and Sherwood Anderson’s "I want to know why"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0


1.1 Introduction

Raymond Knister and Sherwood Anderson are important representatives of the modernist literary movement in North America during the first half of the 20th century - Raymond Knister as both a writer and an editor of Canadian short fiction[1], Sherwood Anderson as an uncompromising example of the modernist American writer, leaving “his wife and family, his whole respectable middle-class life, in order to become a writer” (Geismar ix). This essay tries to show in which way the literary work of these authors contributed to what is now generalized as ‘modernist literature’ by pointing out the genuine modernist elements in their works of short fiction - in each case also regarding their specific national background . For that purpose Raymond Knister’s story Mist-Green Oats (1922) is going to be analyzed and compared to Sherwood Anderson’s I want to know why (1921) in order to point out both the similarities but also the differences of their literary work in the context of modernism, trying to show in form and content how their vision of literature formed and still represents the benchmarks of what is generally referred to as ‘modernism’, whose starting point is often set with the beginning of the 1st World War (Hoffman, Murphy 1).

Since both stories can be referred to as so called ‘initiation stories’, a popular narrative strategy in modernist short fiction[2] focusing on different aspects of the often complicated passage between childhood and adulthood (or in this case rather manhood), the selected stories are also to be compared with regards to the specific mode of initiation represented.

1.2 Raymond Knister and the modernist Canadian short story

The development of the modernist Canadian short story is closely connected with the person of Raymond Knister. Beside Morley Callaghan’s important efforts in modernist Canadian short fiction, it was particularly Raymond Knister who contributed both as a writer and editor to establish the short story as “a distinct literary genre” in Canada (Nischik 5) which was until the 1920s still strongly bound to the conventions of literary representation established in the 19th century[3]. Knister also wrote down his personal perception on short fiction[4] where he challenges the contemporary forms of Canadian short fiction to turn away from the formulaic and commercialized plot story towards an innovation of the genre by means of “individuality and originality as a well as pronounced consciousness of technique and form in order to achieve technical versatility and variation […]” (Nischik 6). For Knister, a good writer of short fiction had to “care more for emotional authenticity than for ingenuity of plot, or for too explicit realism” (Knister 148).

Unlike Morley Callaghan, Knister did not so much use the popular modernist urban setting[5] and set many of his stories – like the ones to be examined in this essay – in rural areas of Canada (Ontario) where he grew up himself. This setting of his so called “farm stories”, combined with the multi-layered display of the protagonists’ inner struggles and their view on the world is also conform with one important dictum of modernist writers which is to draw their inspiration from familiar and personal sources: “The world, already imaginatively dissolved, anatomized, and reconstituted, must now be felt through experience, and experienced through feeling” (Bogan 81). This expression of subjective feelings is achieved by means of depicting rather the inner world of his protagonists than focusing on a well structured plot with a determined dramatic frame by using techniques like “precise observation, narrative economy, stylistic succinctness, as well as concise, ‘objectifying’ images to indirectly convey feelings and emotions” (Nischik 195). These ‘objectifying’ images can also be found in the selected stories and are to be analyzed later in this essay in order to show Knister’s relevancy for modernist short fiction. Knister’s expression of ‘objectified pictures’ can be seen as a reference to the theory of “Objective Correlative” by T.S. Eliot who claims that

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” (7)

This technique is intended to prevent literature from an overflow of emotional verbalization and is later on to be applied on Knister’s story.

1.3 Sherwood Anderson and the American short story

When Sherwood Anderson wrote Winesburg, Ohio in 1919, the short story was already an important and widely developed literary genre in the United States. Authors like Irving, Hawthorne, Melville and Poe opened the short story already to a wide range of themes and settings during the first half of the 19th century which other writers like Henry James and Mark Twain continued to develop during its second half (Abraham 1).

Yet it was Anderson with his “idea of plotnessness or loose structure” which incorporated “major changes in the American short story in the 1920s” (2) and overturned former conventions by “liberating the short story from the determinants of time and incident” (2). With Anderson abandoning his family for a life as a writer, he can be seen as “the rebellious, anti-bourgeois writer” (Scofield 129) who chronicled the modern existence of life by focusing on “obscure and misshapen small-town lives, and particularly on sexuality, [which] was undoubtedly new in American fiction and shocked many contemporaries” (130).

Like Knister, Anderson also prefers to set many of his stories in his familiar surroundings – “the Midwestern towns of his youth which he had both hated and loved” (Geismar xiii).

The fact that many of his stories are based on his experiences in the American Midwest, Anderson’s work (of short fiction) as a whole is yet not to be reduced as a mere literary chronic of American small-town life but rather as “a critique in depth of the primary values of contemporary American civilization” (x) and can furthermore be seen as a description of “the process of social change – the transformation of our nineteenth-century Western towns into the bustling, mechanized and industrialized twentieth-century business cities” (xi).

2.1 Raymond Knister: Mist-Green Oats (1922)

Mist-Green Oats tells the story of a young teenager named Len Brinder. He lives on a farm in rural Canada which his mother leaves at the beginning of the story in order to visit Len’s sister in the “remote city” (42) and leaves Len in company of his father and a seasonal aid named Syd. Len had finished high school one year ago and is working on his father’s farm since then. Tired of the daily routine of numbing hard work, frustrated by “the feeling of being ill-used” (45), Len’s mind circles around fantasies about leaving his father’s farm for good and settling in the city which attracts him with its “ice-cream parlors and movie theatres” (46). Len gets more and more frustrated by his father’s authoritarian behaviour and the intensity of the physical work, which discharges as a result in sporadic aggressive actions towards his favourite horse and leads temporarily to Len’s decision to “pack his suitcase and walk down the road” (61). Yet, after every outburst of frustration, his daily duties clear his mind almost instantly and Len seems to forget or dismiss his former plans of leaving and the story ends with Len apparently giving up his plans of a life away from the farm when stating: “What’s the use? What’s the weary use?” (65).[6]

2.1.1 Analysis of Mist-Green Oats

Mist-Green Oats is narrated by a 3rd person narrator focalized on the main protagonist Len Brinder who is the only person in the story whose feelings and thoughts the narrator is able to display. MGO can surely not be described to have a casually linked plot, yet there is to be found a balanced proportion of internal and external actions which often complement each other in order to become one coherent image. The story is set in spring on the Brinders’ farm somewhere in Canada and narrates the time duration of two days. The parental farm is a place surrounded by beautiful nature which Len can only experience and appreciate in his short moments of leisure: “Yes, one could see the beauty of it distantly, but when the time came he would be numbed with toil” (57).

Because of Knister’s biography and his rural upbringing, the setting itself can already be seen as an ‘objectified image’ because “on the one hand, it provided the author with his major themes and characteristic setting and inspired the development of a modern-realist style, in defiance of the popular romance/adventure tradition. On the other hand, the numbing hardship of farming infuses many of these stories [Knister’s farm stories] with a sense of futility, if not tragedy” (Breitenbach 67). This contributes to Knister’s importance for modernist modes of representation because “Modernism can be defined as the articulation of the subject trying to speak of real personal experience” (Hunter 2).

The central themes of the story are Len’s conflict with his father, his weariness of the hard farm life and his desire for a life in the big city which his sister had chosen. With his mother’s departure for the city, the conflict between father and son develops during the story by depicting variantly Len’s duties on the farm, his frustration about them and his emerging thoughts about leaving. The conflict between father and son (which is also an important element in The first Day of Spring) spreads throughout the whole story and can also be seen as a content-related symbol for the whole “radical adventure of modernism” (Rulandt, Bradbury 204) where not only the literary forms of the preceding generation are questioned and challenged but also their ways of live and therefore the parental authority and authorities in general are negotiated: “[…] modernism challenges the idea of ultimate, verifiable truths located in the past” (Regan 112).


[1] Knister edited the first anthology of Canadian short fiction: Canadian Short Stories, Macmillan, 1928.

[2] See for example Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories Indian Camp (1924) or Fathers and Sons (1924).

[3] Like for example the humorous sketches by authors like Stephen Leacock or the “animal stories” of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton.

[4] Knister, Raymond: Democracy and the Short Story [1921] in: Journal of Canadian Fiction IV, 2 (1975): 146-148.

[5] Although he did locate some of his stories in Chicago where he lived for a while in 1924, e.g. Hackman’s Night or Innocent Man.

[6] Knister, Raymond: Mist-Green Oats [1922] in: Gnarowski, Michael (ed.): Selected Stories of Raymond Knister. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1972, p. 41-68.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Elements of modern literature and the theme of initiation in Canadian and American short fiction
Raymond Knister’s "Mist-Green Oats" and Sherwood Anderson’s "I want to know why"
University of Constance
The Modernist North American Short Story
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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elements, canadian, american, raymond, knister’s, mist-green, oats, sherwood, anderson’s
Quote paper
Christoph Hurka (Author), 2011, Elements of modern literature and the theme of initiation in Canadian and American short fiction , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/197996


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