From the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1997.

Michael M. Rea and
The Rea Award for the Short Story
George Garrett
University of Virginia

Michael M. Rea established the Rea Award for the Short Story in 1986, at that time the only literary award in the United States focusing exclusively on that genre. Aware that the short story was a long-neglected art form in the world of literature and publishing, he felt that it needed revitalizing. As he said in an interview with Connecticut’s Litchfield County Times, “the basic thrust of the award is to foster a literary cause – to ennoble the form, to give it prestige.” The recipient of the Rea Award is nominated and selected by a jury of three, each a notable literary figure.

To administer the annual award, Michael Rea established the Dungannon Foundation. The prize originally was $25,000 and is now $30,000. The Rea Award for the Short Story is not given for a specific title, but rather for literary power, originality, and influence on the genre, to honor a writer who has made a significant contribution to the short story form. To qualify, a candidate must be a U.S. or Canadian citizen. Michael Rea traced his love of the short story back to his Irish forebears. “The Irish were great storytellers,” he said. The Dungannon Foundation is named for his paternal hometown in Northern Ireland.

Born on 19 January 1927, he was the son of Henry Oliver Rea and Margaret Moorhead of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From 1948 to 1952 he attended the University of Virginia, graduating with a B.A. in English. From 1952 to 1969 he was vice president of Oliver Tyrone Corporation, a family real estate firm in Pittsburgh. From 1970 to 1979 he was active in real estate in the Washington, D.C. area. There he later founded Harrea Broadcasting, which owned and operated radio stations in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 1980 he moved to New York City and subsequently bought a home in Washington, Connecticut, which became his primary residence. From that time on, he immersed himself in art and rare-book collecting and publishing. His library includes several hundred volumes of first-edition short story collections.

In 1986, the first recipient of the Rea Award for the Short Story was Cynthia Ozick. Since then, the following writers, each nominated by a different panel of panel of jurors, have won the Rea Award: Robert Coover (1987), Donald Barthelme (1988), Tobias Wolff (1989), Joyce Carol Oates (1990), Paul Bowles (1991), Eudora Welty (1992), Grace Paley (1993), Tillie Olsen (1994), Richard Ford (1995), Andre Dubus (1996), and Gina Berriault (1997).

The jurors meet annually in New York City to select the winner. Except for the goal of excellence and the most general guidelines, Rea gave his jurors independence and, in fact, did not participate in the meetings and was not present at the judging process.When they had chosen a winner and notified Michael Rea, he joined them for a private luncheon celebration. During that luncheon, he would telephone the winner so he could personally break the news.

In July of 1996 Michael Rea died of a heart attack at his country home in Washington, Connecticut. In the obituary published in The New York Times on 3 August (“Michael M. Rea, 69, A Collector of Art and First Editions,” by Lawrence Van Gelder) we learned a little more about his life: that he had joined the U.S. Marine Corps at seventeen and served in North China at the end of World War II; that he was a collector of American paintings and sculpture and served as a trustee of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach; and that through his publishing company, Sweetwater Editions, he published many books, including an edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Satan In Goray with engravings by Ira Moskowitz and Early Stone Sculpture, a book about New England tombstone art. Rea also edited an anthology, The American Short Story: Stories from the Rea Award (Ecco Press, 1994). This book consists of twenty-one stories by Rea Award winners and nominees selected by seven Rea Award jurors….

After his death, it was announced that, under the guidance of his widow, Elizabeth Richbourg Rea, the Rea Award will continue, as will other activities of the Dungannon Foundation, which include support for writers-in-residence at various colleges and universities. Dedicating the 1997 Rea Award, the first following his death, as a tribute to Michael Rea, Mrs. Rea selected a special jury composed of three previous winners of the award – Cynthia Ozick, Tobias Wolff, and Andre Dubus.

The jury offered the following citation:

The 1997 Rea Award for the Short Story stands as a superlative tribute and memorial to its founder, Michael M. Rea, and continues as his splendid legacy. In honoring the American short story, and in establishing a significant award for its most distinguished contemporary representatives, Michael Rea sought to celebrate a consummate art with consummately generous devotion. Constituting the highest form of national recognition accorded exclusively to the short story, the Rea Award embodies its creator’s passionate homage to literary achievement.

The jury selected Gina Berriault (1926-1999), a native Californian of Russian Jewish immigrant parents. She is the author of four novels and three collections of short stories, including, most recently Women in Their Beds: New and Selected Stories (Counterpoint), a book that in 1996 also won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Bay Area Reviewers Award. Her stories have won several O. Henry prizes and have appeared in such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Mademoiselle, Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and Ploughshares.

The recent recognition given to Gina Berriault was of special significance in bringing her to the awareness of the American reading public. In the citation honoring Berriault, the judges wrote: “Her stories astonish – not only in their range of character and incident, but in their worldliness, their swift and surprising turns, their penetration into palpable love and grief and hope. Her sentences are excitingly, startlingly juxtaposed; and though her language is plain, the complexity of her knowing leads one into mysteries deeper than tears. To discover Berriault is to voyage into uncharted amazements.”

Cynthia Ozick

The cost of founding the Nobel Prize for Literature was dynamite and war. The Michael M. Rea Award for the Short Story was established by a man of letters whose life, both before and after the invention of his prize, was fixed on the explosive power of small-scale art. The Rea Award seems to me to be the purest of all prizes – an act of homage and love and gratitude for the protean short story, for its narrow deeps and alpine glimpses. The short story is the art of the glimpse: the whole of life seized in the brilliant blink of a sovereign eye. And a short story is a more difficult form than a novel, just as a novel is more difficult than an epic, and a haiku more demanding than a sonnet. The smaller the form, the greater pressure for perfection. That is why Michael himself, and the spirit of his prize, are on the side of the consummate.

It was my privilege and honor – and I confess I was stupefied – to be the first recipient of the Rea Award for the Short Story. I remember the annunciatory phone call: I expected Michael Rea to be an intimidating, even a fearsome philanthropist. Instead I heard the shy and modest voice of a man who was himself a striving writer of stories, though I did not learn that until much later. When, soon after the astonishment of that call, I finally met Michael and Elizabeth Rea, I read in the eyes of both of them all the imperatives of what was unashamedly called Beauty, meaning, as Keats meant it, Truth. Nowadays we try to veil that word, and sometimes say Insight instead. But both words are appropriate to Michael and Elizabeth Rea: Beauty and Insight.

By now the Rea Award is an indispensable American institution and a coveted American prize. It is our little Nobel – little only in the sense that it addresses the short form. But it is as large as Michael Rea’s heart, and no recipient of the Rea Award has ever encountered anything larger, or more capaciously literary, than that.

Andre Dubus

On Good Friday of 1996 I woke with a mild stomach illness, and went back to sleep. Sometime that morning I heard a man’s voice on my answering machine in the dining room, down the hall from where I slept. I did not know his voice and did not pick up the phone. I slept, and woke at noon, worrying about money. I had a little over two thousand dollars left in the account I live on. To get through the next twelve months I needed another twenty-two thousand, though I receive fifteen hundred a month in retirement and social security checks. This is absurd; it even feels immoral, though usually my only luxuries are music, books, movies, and sometimes a pipe. I remember when a thousand a and month paid for everything, and I remember many years when I did not earn a thousand a month. I think of Haiti; I think of other places.

After making the bed and dressing I played the answering machine. The man whose voice was on it was Michael Rea. I knew of the Rea Award, had hoped for a few years to receive it, but I did not know that it came from a man named Rea. He called me Andre and said he would call me again. I did not want him to, this stranger. I wanted to rest and heal and find some money without plundering from the mutual fund in Texas, emergency money I pretend is not there. At one o’clock I got saltines and Coca-Cola and turned on the television for a Red Sox game. In the early innings the phone rang and I answered.

“Andre? This is Michael Rea. Do you know me?”

He sounded happy. I was not in the mood for a happy stranger, calling an unlisted number during a ball game when I was tired and nauseated.

“No. Am I supposed to?”

“I’m sitting here with George Garrett and Jayne Anne Phillips and Barry Hannah. Do you know them?”

“I know George and Jayne Anne. I’ve never met Barry. Where are you? In a bar?”

“We’re in my living room. I’m calling to give you the Rea Award.”

“Oh my God.”

“It used to be twenty-five thousand, but I’ve raised it to thirty-thousand this year.”

Tears were on my cheeks. I said, “You can’t believe how much I need thirty thousand dollars.”

“I know you do.”

Then he told me he had been a marine at the end of World War II, stationed in China. I asked him what outfit he had been in.

“Eleventh Marines.”

“So was I,” I said.“At Camp Pendleton.”

The next week I got the check and took my family to a Japanese restaurant to celebrate. I lived on the money for over a year, after Michael was dead, and I was grateful for it, month after month, thinking of him as my brother marine who loved stories. Semper fidelis, Michael, and thank you.

Bill Henderson

I will remember Michael always as a guy who saw something in me nobody else did. What was that? I was bone poor but I didn’t know how to ask for money and I was too proud to apply for a grant (and depend on some fool committee to approve or disapprove of my plans) and I was far too lazy to do any of the paperwork involved in any of the above in any case. Michael sensed that, I think. Or maybe it was just my laziness he sensed. In any case, he had a way of coming up to me at a party and saying, “Bill, how can I help you?” At that I’d manage to blurt out, “Well, I can always use some money.” And sure enough he would send a little something (the first time) and a lot of something (the last time, only months before his death). Michael never knew it, but that last time bailed me out. I had spent the evening at his apartment, an evening for the Rea Award and I talked with Dan Halpern, mostly about how miserable the lit. pub. biz. was (returns were devastating that year, averaging almost 80 percent for some titles industry wide). I didn’t know it then, but Dan was in as bad shape as I was. Michael didn’t hear us crying the blues to each other, but as I walked to the door – that last time – he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Bill, how can I help?”

We will all remember him for his vision, for his love of the short story, and for the terrific parties that he and Elizabeth gave for the Rea Award winners, but for me those words linger. “How can I help?”

And he did. And that’s why Pushcart lived to celebrate its twenty-fifth year. Without Michael, nada.

I, and hundreds of authors, praise you, Michael.

Frank Conroy

When Michael Rea, who was at that time a stranger to me, called to ask if I would serve on the panel for the Rea Award for excellence in the short story, I asked what the award was all about. (This was many years ago, when the program had just started.) He described himself as a friend of the arts who had established a small foundation to support the arts with the help of advice from practicing artists, all of which sounded fine to me. “But why the short story?” I asked, genuinely curious. There was a pause. “During the war they more or less kept me sane” (I paraphrase). “In a combat zone you didn’t have time to read anything long.” That was World War II he was talking about. I’m sure others have remembered his words, but I must mention them. There was something in his voice, something completely straightforward in his manner, and I instantly believed him. Why wouldn’t you, you ask. Well, life and a good deal of experience with philanthropy had taught me to take the professed goals and motivations of various organizations and individuals with a large grain of salt. Vanity, politics, narcissism, and a relish in the exercise of power had been the rule rather than the exception, sadly enough, as the late Gerald Freund – who would know better? – pointed out in many occasions.

My first meeting with Mike Rea confirmed what I’d sensed in his voice. He looked at me with his intense blue eyes as we shook hands and I had the spooky feeling that he was looking past my appearance and into what I will call for want of a better word my character. He had a calmness, did Mike, a gravitas – and intuitively I trusted him.This turned out to be the right direction.

In New York, and later when he came for a short visit to Iowa City, we had wonderful talks. What can I say? There was no bullshit to the man, no hidden agendas, no role playing. He was exactly what he appeared to be – a generous and very smart man who knew that doing good required thought and effort, and was in fact much harder to accomplish than might appear at first glance. (In this regard he resembled James Michener.) He seemed not particularly interested in talking about himself, and yet did, in a collapsed fashion, when he sensed he should, simply to get it out of the way. He had done very well in business; the arts had tangibly enriched his life; and now that he was in the last stretch he wanted to be of service. I believe he was unaware of what I take to be the rare purity of his position – to him it was simply common sense.

To know Mike was to take a tonic against cynicism. I’ve known very few people about whom that can be said. A true American gentleman.

Daniel Halpern

Michael invited me to a party in 1989 for Tobias Wolff, winner of that year’s Rea Award for the Short Story. As it turned out, I had just edited a collection of short stories which Michael had picked up. When he introduced himself, he said, “I just read your anthology – you like the form?” Michael was always quick to the point. “Does a rock sink?” I believe I replied, coming immediately under the influence of his keep-it-brief, spirit-of-the-thing approach. “Good,” he said. “You want to be a judge of the Rea Award?” “Sure,” I said, keeping things fast and simple between us.

His love for the short story never flagged, nor did his belief in focused and intense brevity, which may be one of the reasons he favored the genre. The short story was his cause and – along with art – his great love in life. It was Jorge Luis Borges, a favorite of Michael’s, who wrote, “Unlike the novel, a short story may be, for all purposes, essential.”

I have known few people in the literary world who felt as strongly as Michael did about the short story – perhaps only Borges and Ray Carver (I didn’t know Anton Chekov) – but certainly very few others.

In 1993 we published The American Short Story, an important collection of stories, edited by Michael, to acknowledge the contribution of the Rea Award. His anthology included the winners of the prize as well as the finalists. It represented, in effect, the American canon of postwar writers, with work by every major American practitioner of the short story.

The Rea Award for the Short Story has been given annually to celebrate those writers who have made “a significant contribution to the short story.” Michael’s award has been a significant encouragement to writers. You may think writers such as Donald Barthelme, Eudora Welty, and Paul Bowles don’t need acknowledgement of this sorry – but if you believe this, you’d be wrong. To be honored by your peers – in the tasteful way that was always Michael’s way – matters . . . has made a difference to every writer singled out by the Rea Award. It was how Michael acknowledged – and honored!—those writers he loved most.

Stuart Dybek

With Michael Rea’s passing, American arts and culture lost a tremendous friend.

I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to meet him. I served as one of the judges for the Rea Award in short fiction. The award reflected both Michael Rea’s special affection for and deep knowledge of the short story form. He wasn’t a man who did things in half-measures; his great enthusiasm and vitality wouldn’t allow for that. He was engaged in the award process, and that process reflected his balance of seriousness of purpose and high-spirited good humor. Here was a benefactor who acted not out of noblesse oblige, but out of joy.

The judging process also reflected Michael Rea’s fair-minded, straightforward personality. I came away from the experience with an enormous amount of respect for him. He possessed the intelligence and energy to fully participate in the extensive reading that was required and in the give-and-take discussions, and he had the wisdom to allow the judges he had selected to finally arrive at their own decisions.

I had breakfast with him one morning and it wasn’t long before I realized I was in the company of one good storyteller. I remember the writers we talked about and the stories we traded about fishing and life in Florida. His observations, whether about fishing or writing, were shrewd and grounded in experience.

The Rea Award remains the premier award for short fiction in the United States. Michael Rea saw to it that the award was conducted at a level that properly honored a great American art form. It is fitting that the Rea Award now also serves to honor the memory of Michael Rea.

Joyce Carol Oates

There are works which wait, and which one does not understand for a long time; the reason is that they bring answers to questions which have not yet been raised; for the question often arrives a terribly long time after the answer.

These striking words of Oscar Wilde are as applicable to certain individuals as to works of art. Michael Rea, with his generous and judicious commitment to the short story, and his presence in the literary community, is one of these individuals.

Michael Rea has been a model of generosity, largeness of spirit, and literary taste; his intense interest in and support of the short story has been enormously appreciated by practitioners of this difficult art. One of the most prestigious literary awards in American is the Rea Award for Short Story, initiated by Michael Rea in 1986. Since its inauguration, the Rea Award has acquired a distinguished reputation. I was greatly honored to be a recipient of the award several years ago; I felt it to be immensely encouraging.

At Princeton University, I’ve been using Michael Rea’s excellent The American Story, a gathering of strikingly diverse and engaging short stories assembled by winners of the Rea Award, and edited by Michael Rea. I believe Michael would be pleased, and stimulated, if he could overhear student discussions arising from this provocative anthology.

George Garrett

I want to add a brief personal note to this gathering of tributes to the late Michael Rea. I served as one of the judges for the award, and, because of his great enthusiasm and his integrity, it was an altogether pleasant experience. Later he pointed out to me a favorite quotation of his from Guy de Maupassant’s introduction to Flaubert-Etude sur Flaubert, which, I think, is appropriate to end here:

he profound and delicious joy which leaps to the heart before certain pages, before certain phrases, does not come only from those who have written them; they come from an absolute compatibility of expression and idea, from a sensation of harmony, of secret beauty, eluding for the most part the judgment of the many.

Tobias Wolff

When I heard of Michael Rea’s death, I felt a sorrow out of all proportion to the time I had actually known him: a few meetings over a period of seven or eight years. Yet I counted him a friend. We all now and then recognize a comrade from the first encounter, and in Michael’s case that recognition was especially vivid because of his directness and honesty. He did not hide himself in detachment, banter, or irony; he was present – there to be known, if you cared to know him.

Michael was not an uncomplicated man (no one with his history and intelligence could be), but he had something of the boy about him in his curiosity and enthusiasm. He knew a lot, yet he was less interested in what he knew than in knowing more, discovering some new passion. I remember his account of his time in China as a marine; what really stayed with him, he said, was the memory of Maupassant’s short stories for the first time.

He loved stories. I’ve known people who loved them as much as Michael did, but no one who loved them more. He seemed to have read everyone with any claim to distinction in the form, and could call up the smallest details from his reading. His largesse with writers was both legendary and a matter a fact, but he was equally generous in the quality of his attention to their work. When he talked about stories, you could see they were as real a world to him as this world, and as essential.

Even as our stories became his stories, some of his became mine. When I think of him now, I think of a young man, far from home, alone in his barracks, his spirit suddenly roused by a French prostitute’s defiance of all the oppressions of circumstance and power. That young man was my friend, and I miss him.

Reprinted from the Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1997