By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
For a man who died at 40, Anton Chekhov left an astounding legacy. Though he worked full-time as a physician—which in 19th-century Russia meant driving horse-carriages around the frigid countryside to visit badly suffering people in the middle of the night—Chekhov completed an unthinkable 600 short stories and 13 plays in his lifetime. His work inspires adoration from readers, including writers as different as Virginia Woolf and Raymond Carver. When asked about his influences, a representative devotee named Tennessee Williams famously said:
"What writers influenced me as a young man? Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!"
Yet Chekhov's charms are subtle, and some readers find themselves underwhelmed after the first encounter. One contrite member this of this camp is essayist and short-story writer Steven Barthelme, who wrote what he told me is an "Apology to Chekhov": an admission that he initially shrugged at a writer who later became an all-time favorite.
With brothers Frederick and the late Donald, Steven Barthelme is one-third of the most influential literary sibling trio since the Bronte sisters. His latest collection is Hush Hush (Melville House), which brings to its stories of the damaged and downtrodden Chekhov's precision and hugeness of heart. With Frederick, he wrote an unusual memoir of gambling addiction, Double Down, in the first-person plural. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and McSweeney's, and he teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi.