Precisely when did the modern short story begin? The question is like asking precisely where it is that the blue shades into violet in a rainbow. The more specific and dogmatic the answer, the less reliable it is likely to be. It is known, however, that by the early 1800’s in America and to various degrees throughout the Western world, two distinct traditions existed side by side: one, the tale tradition full of narrative bursting with drama and incident, extraordinary situations and settings, and rather flat characters depicted for the most part externally; the other, the essay-sketch tradition, more subtly developed, largely ignoring striking incidents to focus on the vagaries of character, preferring the more normal and usual (in one sense more realistic) characters, situations, events, and settings, depending more on sharply observed detail, introspection, and thoughtfulness than on drama. The union of these two traditions was to mark the creation of the modern short story—but precisely when did that happen?
Literary historians, although less than unanimous, show a surprising degree of agreement that the modern short story began in America and that the American with whom it began was Washington Irving. The finest scholar of the American short story, Frederick Lewis Pattee, wrote that the form began in October, 1807, with Irving’s publication in the periodical series Salmagundi of “The Little Man in Black.” The piece is short and a story but has decidedly too little sophistication, too little psychological depth, and too little successful imagery really to succeed as a modern short story. At least as good, if not better, a case could be made for “Sketches from Nature” (perhaps by Irving or by his collaborator James Kirke Paulding, although in fact more likely by both), which appeared a month earlier in the same periodical series. Here there is a focus on mood and psychological subtleties, on sharply observed imagery, and on interior states. The problem is that finally the psychic change on which the piece ends does not add up to very much. The solution seems simple now: Merely blend the virtues of “The Little Man in Black” (those of the tale tradition generally) and the virtues of “Sketches from Nature” (those of the essay- sketch tradition); but the evolution which had waited several thousand years after the introduction of writing to the Western world, tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years after the invention of storytelling, was in no hurry to occur.
No one, with any degree of certainty, can point to any given work as indisputably the world’s first modern short story. One can with confidence, however, point out the first truly great modern short story produced in the Western world: “Rip Van Winkle,” which appeared in the May, 1819, debut of Irving’s periodically published book, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Earlier writers had managed various blends of the tale and essay-sketch traditions before Irving, but none managed so brilliantly to blend the best of both traditions as to create from these two an irresistibly successful example of a wholly new form. How did Irving do it?
The most memorable parts of the story, the striking incident pattern involving Rip’s experience with the dwarfish sailors of the Half-Moon and his two-decades-long nap, Irving based on a tale about a goatherd taken from Germanic folklore. In another bow toward the tale tradition, within the text itself, Irving’s narrative persona, Diedrich Knickerbocker, relates that he heard the tale told orally by Rip himself and by other old Dutch settlers in the Catskill Mountains. The supernatural motif of encountering the crew of Henrick Hudson’s Half-Moon, who return every twenty years to tipple and to play ninepins in the mountains, and Rip’s long sleep also derive from the traditions of oral narrative.
In one form or another, however, all these elements existed long before Irving. His genius consisted in the brilliance with which he transmuted the elements that the tale tradition offered to him and to every other writer of his time. Irving transformed those basic elements by treating them as he might have treated the essential matter of a periodical essay or sketch. He developed Rip not as the flat character so common in tales, not as a kind of cardboard marker to be pushed from square to square in a board game but as a rich, full, complete human being. Rather than merely assert certain abstract qualities in his character, Irving shows the reader through rich details a Rip who is good-natured, lovable, feckless, irresponsible, and (inevitably, given the above qualities and a wife, too) terribly henpecked. The details with which Irving develops Rip are realistic, credible, and concrete—precisely the kinds of details with which the contemporary sketch-developed characters descended from Sir Roger de Coverley. Few if any previous prose tales could boast a character so effectively developed in terms of a credible...