By 1840, then, in the modern short story, American literature could boast the triumphs of southwestern literature as well as masterpieces by Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe, even though as an independent country America could measure its existence only in decades. What was being produced in the great European literatures, especially in English literature? Curiously enough, the country with the greatest literary heritage on earth, although it could boast much excellent short fiction, had not yet produced creditable modern short stories. Many of England’s finest writers experimented, often unsuccessfully, with shorter forms: Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who had helped give Irving’s career a great boost, produced some fine ghost stories and an interesting tale, “The Two Drovers,” which develops from an essay framework. Beginning in 1820, Charles Lamb (1775-1834) published his Essays of Elia (1823) in the London Magazine; these were a series of brilliant familiar essays with everything required of a short story—psychologically rich character, sharply imaged setting, at least a minimal narrative flow—everything but a focus on a unique, particular experience meaningful for its own sake (the only likely exception might be “Dream Children,” published in 1822, which is sometimes anthologized as a short story).
“Dream Children,” with its narrative movement and its management of time between present and past, is a precursor to a central nineteenth century short story convention, for it depends on a surprise ending in which what the reader took to be an actual event is ultimately revealed to be mere reverie. As in the eighteenth century essay form generally, no one really exists in “Dream Children” except the teller; characters and events merely serve his rhetorical purpose. The climax comes when the teller sees the dead mother in the face of one of the children and begins to doubt “which of them stood there before me.” Irving’s character Rip Van Winkle has the same ambiguous response when he awakes and sees his own son as himself. Variations of the motif occur throughout the century whenever there is some ambiguity within the narrative as to the psychological or phenomenological status of characters or events.
The best-known example of the literary transformation of the oral folktale in early nineteenth century British literature is Sir Walter Scott’s insert tale in Redgauntlet (1824), often anthologized as “Wandering Willie’s Tale.” Told by the blind fiddler Willie Steenson, “Wandering Willie’s Tale” manifests the typical ambiguity of the nineteenth century short story as to whether the events recounted are supernatural or psychologically realistic. “Wandering Willie’s Tale” forms an interesting bridge between the traditional folk tale, in which supernatural confrontations were the stock-in-trade and the later British mystery story in which the seemingly supernatural encounter is justified in a grotesque but realistic way.
Both the supernatural and the natural are presented side by side in the tale to create a pattern of motifs that mocks the Lord of the manor, Sir Robert, even as it also mocks supernatural explanations for the mysterious disappearance of the rent money and Steenson’s consequent visit to hell to obtain the receipt he needs to prove he paid the rent. Because of the ambiguous tone of the teller, “Wandering Willie’s Tale” marks a transition from the supernatural tale of the folk variety to the modern short story in which the seemingly supernatural events have either realistic or psychological explanations.
Again and again, as T. O. Beachcroft points out, the best English writers seemed inclined to treat the kind of material most appropriate to a short story only as an episode in a novel or as a brief narrative poem. Countless examples of short stories manqué from the early nineteenth century might be drawn from Jane Austen’s novels or from certain...
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