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Using Short Stories to Gauge the Nation’s Mood

An SPU communication professor finds rich insight in wartime tales


Posted May 21, 2010


Professor William Purcell's new book, The Rhetorical Short Story.

By Hope McPherson [hmcpherson@spu.edu]


The Rhetorical Short Story: Best American Short Stories on War and the Military, 1915–2006
William M. Purcell
University Press of America, 2009


In 2001, William Purcell was searching for short stories to use in his freshmen class, University Core 1000. The SPU associate professor of communication turned to the well-known Best American Short Stories series and began to notice several short stories about war and the military. As a rhetorician, he was intrigued, and soon he began collecting war stories.


Nine years later — and after hundreds of hours of combing libraries and bookstores for war stories — Purcell released the results of his research: The Rhetorical Short Story: Best American Short Stories on War and the Military, 1915–2006. “I wanted this book to be about the writers and how they dealt with the issues of the time,” he explains. “The war stories have to be seen in their context, and they don’t always appear as great literature outside of that.”

A snapshot of the country’s mood

Purcell cast a wide net for wartime tales, and his book includes every war from World War I to the Iraq conflict. The Rhetorical Short Story includes excerpts from nearly 100 short stories gleaned from decades of the Best American Short Stories series. Many focused on women’s issues (both on the home front and in the military). Others looked at racial integration (both on the home front and in the military). Others grappled with injustice (Japanese internment on U.S. soil and German concentration camps).


Purcell found himself intrigued by how short stories reflected the mood of the nation during wartime — even as that mood changed over the years. “I was writing The Rhetorical Short Story for cultural and literary historians,” he says. “What these short stories can give us is what the people were feeling at the time.”


Before the United States had entered World War I, Purcell discovered, short fiction distinguished between the European war and American concerns. Once America entered the war, short stories included tales about patriotism during a noble struggle.

Injustice delayed

Purcell discovered that it often took decades before an injustice was addressed in story. “Nobody mentions the Japanese internment at the time it occurred,” he says. “But then in the 1970s, writers began writing about it.” Likewise, he found the tragedy of concentration camps only hinted at by the mid 1940s.


The Rhetorical Short Story combines excerpts of dozens of short stories with Purcell’s academic observations to provide context. “I also spent a great deal of time in Spring 2009 trying to get a hold of authors,” he says. “I initially contacted them to secure permission to quote from their works.” He ultimately tracked down nearly 80 writers, and many were curious about his project. “I had correspondence with six or seven, including awarding-winner authors Benjamin Percy, John Bart Gerald, and Larry Heinemann.”


Although Purcell found and included award-winning short stories, he says he wasn’t necessarily searching for a “great American short story.” Rather, he explains in the book’s introduction, “It is the various contexts in which the stories were written that tweak my academic curiosity as a rhetorician.”





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