The Short Story

Read this introduction to the short story in general and to Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville's particular roles in developing the form and what would later become known as its conventions.

Short works of prose narrative have arguably existed almost as long as humans have. In fact, some scholars, such as Mark Turner, drawing on insights from cognitive science, have argued that "small spatial stories" are the basis of almost all human thinking. The basic narratives we tell ourselves when a rock falls or liquid flows from one space to another, for example, help us to build a conceptualization of the world. Turner calls these parables, and the parables of Jesus, the moral fables of Aesop, and numerous other oral and written traditions from almost every human culture bespeak this apparently universal interest in short narratives about human life and the world. The short story – as a modern form – is usually seen as a very recent invention, a genre that only truly emerges at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Washington Irving's collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Esq. provides one of the touchstones for the history of the short story. One of the first American books to receive popular and critical acclaim overseas, The Sketch Book features the stories "Rip van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", stories that thematize the economic, social, and political development of the United States that would be central to the emergence of the form. In the story given his name, the henpecked Rip van Winkle falls asleep for twenty years, missing out entirely on the American Revolution. When he returns to his hometown, not only has he escaped the tyranny of his wife but he discovers a community, in many respects, distinctly different: "The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility". "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is set in a quiet Dutch town in the Hudson Valley that time seems to have passed by, a town that remains the same "while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved". Into the village comes Ichabod Crane, representing those forces of migration and improvement with his visions of marrying the young Katrina Van Tassel, quickly converting her inheritance into cash and moving westward to speculate in land. While Irving's stories seem ambivalent at best about the "busy, bustling" nation of "incessant changes" that emerged following the Revolutionary War, those changes – and the changes to American culture – provided the foundation for the growth and development of the short story as a form.

Unlike Irving's two famous tales, many of the stories that would come to establish the genre in the United States first appeared in the growing periodical press. As described earlier in this course, significant demographic (specifically urbanization), technological, and economic changes helped to fuel the growth of magazines and newspapers in the first half of the nineteenth century. Looking for concise, accessible, and interesting material to attract and keep readers, editors and publishers drew on writers attempting to carve out a space for themselves, financially and culturally, in the upheaval of the market revolution. Their readership, largely made up of the middle-class, looked for both information and entertainment, profundity and excitement, in their reading material, and periodicals supplied them with a variety of kinds of writings, from supposedly factual accounts of natural and national history, economic and political news, to more philosophical essays and reviews, to diverse fictive forms, described as parables, tales, sketches, and stories. The vast array of materials and publishing vehicles helped to make the short story a distinctly democratic form over the course of the nineteenth century. While many of the anonymous writers of the thousands of tales published over the century have not been identified, it is clear that the form enabled a wide-range of Americans to be published, including many who would otherwise have had little opportunity to enter public discourse, such as women, African Americans, members of the working classes, and writers from the rural peripheries of the nation. With the development of local color fiction, often traced in the antebellum period to versions of "southwest humor", the late-nineteenth-century short story became a venue for Americans to offer snapshots of the variety of life in the country in what was increasingly a national literary marketplace.

While numerous writers practiced and developed the form in the antebellum period, helping to establish the grounds for its fuller growth later in the century, three writers are usually cited for their influence and importance: Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. As we have seen, Washington Irving provided one of the first important American explorations of the form. English and, to a greater extent, German writers had begun using shorter fictive forms in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, but it was truly in the 1830s and 1840s, with the explosion in the literary marketplace that the short story began to come into its own in the United States. Poe is perhaps most revealing of these developments. In his various critical pieces, especially his reviews of Hawthorne's collections, Poe articulates one of the first accounts of the formal and aesthetic possibilities and strengths of the short story. For Poe, every artwork depends on its ability to create a unified effect. Because of its compactness, its limited scope and length, the tale, or short story, according to Poe, "affords unquestionably the fairest field for the exercise of the loftiest talent, which can be afforded by the wide domains of mere prose". Unlike longer prose works, such as the novel, the short story can be read in one sitting, and thus the world does not necessarily interpose in the experience of the story, so that "During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer's control". The brief nature of the short story also forces or, at least, encourages the writer to maintain a tighter focus on his material; Poe avers that "there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design". As much as Poe lauds the short story for its artistic possibilities, he also recognizes its commercial importance. Unlike poetry, which, according to Poe, should be limited to "the idea of the Beautiful", the short story has a vastly greater "domain", which enables it to be "more appreciable by the mass of mankind". The short story, then, in Poe's eyes combines the aesthetic potential of unified effect that the poem epitomizes with the financial benefits of reaching a wider audience.

Poe's stories have at times been read as – and dismissed as being – mere ploys for financial remuneration. Poe began his short story writing career by submitting manuscripts to various contests arranged by newspapers and magazines in the late 1830s. These tales often parodied already popular genres, and many of his tales have a satiric edge. In the mid-1830s, he published his first story in Godey's Lady's Book , one of the most popular magazines of the era, and began his relationship with the Southern Literary Messenger and its publisher Thomas White. Poe would edit the Southern Literary Messenger for over a year, and during his period with the periodical, he would begin to establish himself as one of the most important literary critics in the nation. But the stories he published – and his defense of them – remind us economic motivations were intertwined with artistic concerns. In particular, in a letter to White defending his story "Berenice", Poe remarked that "all Magazines" that "have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles similar in nature – to Berenice " "the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical". Such fare, Poe acknowledges, "approaches the very verge of bad taste", but, he insists, "to be appreciated you must be read , and these things are invariably sought after with avidity". While here Poe speaks of his gothic tales, his other short stories – his parodies and hoaxes as well as his ratiocinative tales that gave rise to detective fiction – similarly attempt to maintain a balance between attracting a readership through heightened sensational effects, mystery, and action and a serious engagement with philosophical and artistic questions.

It was the achievement of this balance that Herman Melville lauded in Nathaniel Hawthorne's work in his review "Hawthorne and His Mosses". Posing as a Virginian vacationing in New England, Melville, who had just met Hawthorne, narrates his encounter with Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse . What he discovers is that while Hawthorne has been able to achieve popularity through his short stories he simultaneously has plumbed the deepest philosophical questions concerning human nature. As with Twice-Told Tales , Hawthorne's earlier short story collection, most of the tales in Mosses from an Old Manse had previously appeared in the popular periodical press, primarily in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review but also in Graham's Monthly Magazine (which Poe edited for a time) and Godey's Lady's Book . Melville suggests that their appearance in such places has led most readers to imagine Hawthorne "a pleasant writer, with a pleasant style, – a sequestered, harmless man, from whom any deep and weighty thing would hardly be anticipated: – a man who means no meanings". As Melville goes on to argue, however, Hawthorne is, in fact, "too deserving of popularity to be popular". In particular, Melville discovers that behind the "bright gildings in the skies he builds over you" Hawthorne explores "the blackness of darkness beyond", "a blackness, ten times black". It is this blackness that Melville associates with a "Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin" and that links Hawthorne to Shakespeare's insight that "in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself". With these comments, Melville echoes Poe's outline of the short story as situated between appealing to popular taste and exploring weightier issues, its achievement depending on appearing to be light reading material while actually offering keen insights into human nature. These comments further delineate the true artist as being alienated from the majority of his audience, who merely wish to be amused or entertained for a short time, and thus position the artist in a duplicitous position, as attempting to hoodwink the public into believing his tales are such light fare even as he explores the questions – aesthetics, philosophical, social – with which he is most concerned.

This kind of layering has been seen as characterizing Melville's most famous short stories, stories he produced in the mid-1850s following the popular, critical, and financial failures of his novels Moby-Dick and Pierre . Where his earlier largely autobiographical sea novels had achieved great success, Melville's movement into more experimental and philosophical fiction all but destroyed his reputation. Attempting to maintain a career as a writer, he created a series of stories – most notably "Bartleby the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno" – which, while, on the surface, seeming to confirm Victorian American moral values and truths, offered, on another level, troubling and disconcerting pictures of the failure of apparently "good" Americans to deal with fundamental ethical problems manifest in the central social issues of the age, a wage economy in the North and slavery in the South. Like Poe and Hawthorne, then, Melville indicates the ways that a popular, commercial form could simultaneously become a high work of art concerned with the most important issues of human life. As such, these three authors helped to establish the ground on which future writers of the short story would work.

Source: Saylor Academy
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Last modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2019, 12:09 PM