Short Story (American History Through Literature)
In a sketch by Washington Irving (1783859) titled "The Mutability of Literature" (from the 1819820 Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.), the narrator converses with a cranky talking quarto, a small book embittered by two centuries of neglect in the library of Westminster Abbey. By way of consolation, the narrator explains to the volume that in the age of modern printing "the stream of literature has swollen into a torrentugmented into a riverxpanded into a sea." At this rate of growth, he says, in spite of the best efforts of critics, "it will soon be the employment of a lifetime merely to learn [the] names" of the world's good books (p. 134). While fearing for the fate of any writer's posterity in the face of increasingly numerous and prolific authors, the narrator concedes that at least a few writers will continue to find longevity in the minds of readers. Though speaking about writing of all kinds, the narrator may as well be discussing the American short story, for in Irving's era the waters of short fiction began to quickly rise. From the widening river of published sketches, tales, and stories in the mid-nineteenth century, critics have identified Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864), Edgar Allan Poe (1809849), and Herman Melville (1819891) as among the major authors of the period's short fiction. While there is undoubtedly consensus as to the makeup of this canonized group, the ranks of remembered names have begun to grow. Renewed attention to formerly neglected texts has allowed more nineteenth-century short story authorsegionalists and women writers, among otherso be heard again.
BEGINNINGS AND THE IDEA OF A DISTINCTLY AMERICAN GENRE
Given the importance of beginnings and endings to the short story form, it might seem unfitting to simply bracket this discussion by the round-numbered years of 1820 and 1870. Auspiciously for this volume, however, the story that critics tell about the American short story very often begins precisely in 1819820 with the publication of Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The collection, which contains such famous tales as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" alongside sketches like "The Mutability of Literature," garnered wide critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, a truly exceptional feat for a work by an American author at the time. In the mid-nineteenth century the terms "sketch," "tale," and "story" were often used interchangeably. Beginning in the twentieth century, short-fiction critics, who are rarely uninterested in the taxonomy of short prose works, have tended to identify an evolutionary lineage from the brief descriptive sketch to the more plot-driven tale to the modern short story. In histories of American short fiction dating back to the 1920s, Irving secures his position as literary pioneer for penning among the very first examples of the modern short story and engagingo an unprecedented degreeith decidedly American topics and themes. In short, Irving's short stories inaugurate what many scholars call a distinctly American genre. Objections to this description have been emphatic and numerous, but the question of the genre's Americanness is rarely absent from critical debate. Andrew Levy notes that "it is difficult to find a period or venue in the past one hundred years in which the belief that the short story is an American art form was not widespread" (pp. 278). That American writers were the first to fully develop the short story form, that the short story gives a record of American life, and that the genre is particularly adaptable to American life are all reasons for the distinct Americanness of the short story given by critics dating back to William Dean Howells (1837920). To begin this discussion in 1820, then, not only affords a useful point of entry to the slate of major American short-fiction writers of the nineteenth century but also prompts an awareness of the literary nationalism that lies at the center of so many critical responses to the American short story.
During a twenty-year sleep that passes as quickly as but one night, a young nation appears before Rip Van Winkle fully formed, replete with new citizens, new fashions, and of course new government, signified by a portrait of General George Washington in place of King George. The American short story, however, did not spring up as if out of a dream. Stories had been published in the United States as early as the late eighteenth century; most were reproductions of, adaptations of, or tales written in the style of British and continental pieces. Short fiction of this period, like its longer incarnations, often weathered criticism for fostering immorality. In this climate, stories frequently offered a moral lesson, though in imparting such lessons they sometimes delighted readers by describing various threats to virtue in vivid detail. Many criticsspecially those most invested in the distinctly American nature of the short storyescribe a steady evolution from stories merely copied from overseas sources to stories that contain only the remnants of borrowed elements and rely more heavily on new plots specific to the United States. "Rip Van Winkle," which draws its most basic premise from German folklore but dramatically pivots upon life before and after American independence, is sometimes offered as an example of a piece on the American end of such a spectrum. Employing the transatlantic approach to early American literature, however, leads to no shortage of examples of ongoing cross-pollination between short fiction in England and America during the early decades of U.S. history. The Sketch Book itself, which was published almost concurrently in England and America and which frequently portrays the flow of people and information across the Atlantic, begins to demonstrate the porous national boundaries of the literary marketplace.
The Sketch Book made Irving's reputation, but it was not his first literary effort. Irving, a New York native, began publishing in magazines and newspapers while earning his living in law and business. Writing under the pen name Diedrich Knickerbockerrom whose papers several pieces from The Sketch Book are purportedly borrowedrving published in 1809 A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, a popular mock history. In the years following the 1819820 serial publication of The Sketch Book, Irving produced two more volumes of "Geoffrey Crayon's" obser vations: Bracebridge Hall (1822) and Tales of a Traveller (1824). Irving, who would go on to publish more nonfiction, released the bulk of his short fiction during the 1820s, reaching his audiences not only through these book collections but also in periodicals.
AMERICAN PERIODICALS AND MAJOR SHORT STORY WRITERS OF THE PERIOD
It is impossible to talk about the nineteenth-century American short story or sketch without highlighting the history of American magazines; the popularity of each fostered the rise of the other. Some scholars even question whether the American short story would have thrived in the absence of these publishing outlets. Dramatic increase in periodical circulation during the nineteenth century was part and parcel of the advent of mass culture. Under the new conditions of the literary marketplace, writers, for the first time, could live as professional authors. Magazines had begun to appear in the colonies in the 1740s. Andrew Bradford's American Magazine and Benjamin Franklin's General Magazine were first issued within three days of each other in 1741. In the years following the American Revolutionary War, the number of successful titles rose. By 1820, Eugene Current-García recounts, despite the existence of only the most basic publishing facilities in the United States, "more than a hundred magazines had come into being, flourished for a time, and then disappeared, leaving behind in their files many hundreds of pieces of short fiction" (p. 3). The number of periodicals only rose from there. The 1830s saw the first issues of several magazines that would enjoy lengthy runs, including Godey's Lady's Book (founded in 1830) and the Southern Literary Messenger (1834). "Gift books," annual collections of short pieces, were also popular. The number of available American magazines climbed steadily until the Civil War and proliferated dramatically toward the end of the century, when the rise of print advertising and the drop in postal fees lowered issue prices sufficiently to allow mass circulation. For the better part of the nineteenth century, magazines remained a primary venue for the publication of short stories. Already in the 1820s to the 1850s, major writers such as Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe, along with scores of now-forgotten short story authors, filled the pages of numerous magazines in response to the great demand for new short fiction.
It is in the pages of Graham's Magazine (founded 1841) that Poe published perhaps the most importantr at least the most frequently citedocument in the early development of the American short story, his April and May 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story collection Twice-Told Tales (1842 edition). If many critics deem Irving the earliest writer of the American short story, as many if not more scholars ascribe to Poe the title of founder of the genre, largely on account of the self-conscious consideration of the form that he offers in this review. For Poe, "the unity of effect or impression" (Great Short Works, p. 521) is the most important element of a composition, and this unity may be accomplished only in pieces short enough for a reader to absorb in one sitting. "Without a certain continuity of effort Poe writes, "without a certain duration or repetition of purposehe soul is never deeply moved" (p. 521). Conceding that the short rhymed poem affords an author the greatest opportunity to produce his best and most important work, Poe declares the "short prose narrative" to be the next best form, the prose piece that "should best fulfil the demands of high genius" (p. 521). He selects for celebration the tale and not the novel, for the latter, because of its length, "deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality" (p. 522). And if the rhythms of the short poem are particularly useful for expressions of beauty, Poe writes, the tale surpasses the poem when its goal is "Truth," or "terror, or passion, or horror, or a multitude of such other points" (p. 523). From the first to the last, each word and every sentence of a short story needs be in the service of the story's preconceived single effect, Poe states in his review. Only then can a tale give its reader the fullest possible satisfaction.
According to Poe's essay, the only American authors who had so far excelled in this most important of genres were Irving and Hawthorne. The Massachusetts-born Hawthorne graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825 and right away began the uphill climb toward professional authorship, a summit yet reached by few, if any, American fiction writers besides Irving. After self-publishing a gothic romance called Fanshawe (1828)hich he would later disavowawthorne set to work writing tales. He had in mind three separate collections, each with its own design. But finding no publisher willing to put out his work in book form, Hawthorne placed the stories separately. By 1837 around thirty such pieces had been publishedften anonymouslyn gift books, newspapers, and magazines. Finally, backed by his friend Horatio Bridge, Hawthorne published his first collection of short fiction, Twice-Told Tales, in 1837. The book contained eighteen tales, sketches, and essays, most of which had been previously "told" in periodicals. A two-volume edition, expanded to include twenty-one additional tales, followed in 1842. Four years after that, Hawthorne published Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), which featured new stories such as "The Birth-mark" and "Rappaccini's Daughter" alongside the older but yet uncollected standouts "Young Goodman Brown" and "Roger Malvin's Burial." Released the same year as Hawthorne's third edition of Twice-Told Tales was The Snow Image and Other Tales (1851), a miscellaneous grouping of pieces written during the span of Hawthorne's career to date. "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" is among the better-known stories included in this, Hawthorne's final collection of short fiction. Like Irving and other nineteenth-century authors, Hawthorne displays in much of his work a keen interest in the gothic and the supernatural. Stories like "Young Goodman Brown," which describes a man's journey into a dark and evil wood, delve into the moral and spiritual lives of its characters. "The Birth-mark," the tale of a scientist's tragic obsession with removing a blemish from his wife's otherwise perfect visage, is but one story that employs the symbolism and allegory so central to Hawthorne's literary project. And as he would later do in The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne also turned to New England history for inspiration in his short fiction. In the last sentence of his Graham's review, Poe praises Hawthorne for his originality and style, calling him "one of the few men of indisputable genius to whom our country has as yet given birth."
Poe, who worked at Graham's in 1841 and 1842, supported himself throughout his career with editorial positions on several other American periodicals, including the Southern Literary Messenger, Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, and the Broadway Journal. Aware even then of the importance of magazines to the early development of short fiction and to American literary culture more generally, Poe aspired to found, edit, and publish his own cutting-edge literary journal, a project that never quite came to fruition. The poet, literary critic, and fiction writer followed through on his high regard for the short prose form and earned his reputation as a master of the short story, publishing in total about seventy tales, mostly in the 1840s, many of which appeared in his two short-fiction collections Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) and Tales (1845). Critics have long been interested in Poe's biography and its relationship to the bent of his fiction; orphaned at three and later witness to his tubercular wife's painful death, he was well acquainted with sickness and losss well as addictionong before his own death at age forty. The uncanny and the gruesome, the ghostly and the ghastly, are all key features of Poe's work, much of which, like that of his predecessors and contemporaries, is gothic in nature. The plots of "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Pit and the Pendulum," for example, hinge upon characters' imprisonment in crypts or dungeons. Poe is frequently deemed the originator of detective fiction for tales such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Purloined Letter," in which his character C. Auguste Dupin, a mastermind of perception and reason, effortlessly solves crimes of violence and extortion. Hoaxing was also one of Poe's favored modesnd even when not directly hoaxing, the author frequently took in his tales a comic or satirical turn.
Like Poe, Herman Melville offered high praise of Hawthorne's short fiction. His 1850 review of Mosses was published in the Literary World soon after Hawthorne and Melville became friends. Melville had earned only limited recognition for his novelsi>Moby-Dick (1851), which he dedicated to Hawthorne, was a commercial failurehen he somewhat reluctantly turned to short stories in a relatively unsuccessful attempt to avoid fading into obscurity and insolvency. It was not until the 1920s that a Melville renaissance launched that author into the literary canon, bringing to readers' attention not only the now-famous novel of the white whale but also Melville's small but distinctive body of short stories. Melville published more than a dozen tales in Putnam's Monthly and Harper's New Monthly Magazine during the period 1852856, some of which were included in his only short-fiction collection, The Piazza Tales (1856). "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno" are perhaps the most-anthologized titles from the six-story volume.
A DEMOCRATIC FORM AND NINETEENTH-CENTURY LOCAL COLOR WRITERS
Melville's belated canonization demonstrates how the reputations of short story writers of the nineteenth century, like authors of all genres and periods, have waxed and waned. It is a commonly voiced claimlearly not unconnected to the idea of a distinctly
As readership of periodicals grew rapidly, the market for sketches was opened to writers who might otherwise have been unable to gain access to a national audience (Euro-American women, African Americans, Westerners, Southerners), and these authors recognized in the sketch the opportunity for revision of its heretofore dominant voicehe disinterested (white, urban, Northeastern) gentleman. (P. 16)
Some of these authors, often under the auspices of a critical interest in local color or women's writing, have earned increased attention in recent scholarship. Short stories that capture the peculiar customs, dialects, and landscapes of various regions filled periodicals in record numbers during the mid-nineteenth century. In singling out for mention only a few local color writers of this time, however, it is important not to overlook the great number of authors who, responding to the demand for this genre, translated knowledge of the country's various regions into numerous sketches and tales. Several writers, however, have received a greater degree of attention, especially those penning southern and western "frontier humor" writing, a popular sub-genre. William Gilmore Simms's (1806870) tales of the South are among the earliest popular examples of writing in this tradition. Bret Harte's (1836902) local color fiction about Californian addition to southern localesombines humor with sentiment. Also writing in this vein was the Missouri-born author of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Mark Twain (1835910), whose satirical sketches employ folklore in a manner characteristic of local color.
Women published short stories throughout this period, especially in such female-targeted venues as ladies' magazines. And the number of published women writers began to grow after mid-century as local color gained momentum. Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse have been leading voices in a surge of scholarship since the late twentieth century about women regionalist writers, for whom the short story or sketch was the primary form. Women regionalists, according to these critics, tend to undermine stereotypical depictions of the region that local color sometimes advances. Short fiction by Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) author Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896), Alice Cary (1820871), and Rose Terry Cooke (1827892) are among those from the period singled out by Fetterley and Pryse for renewed attention. Local color from the period aims to capture in writing the variegated landscape of the United States, often preserving scenes that were fading rapidly with modernization. And stories of local color, like much nineteenth-century short fiction, are deeply indebted to an oral, folkloric tradition.
Short-fiction authors of the nineteenth centuryanonized, recovered, or infrequently rememberedho wrote updated folklore, gothic tales, didactic allegories, humorous satires, and local color sketches, began a rich tradition of short story writing that has thrived, unabated, right up into the twenty-first century.
See also "Bartleby, the Scrivener"; "Benito Cereno"; "The Birth-mark"; "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"; "The Fall of the House of Usher"; Literary Marketplace; Literary Nationalism; Periodicals; "Young Goodman Brown"
Fetterley, Judith, and Marjorie Pryse, eds. American Women Regionalists 1850910. New York: Norton, 1992.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Twice-Told Tales. 1837. Expanded ed. 1842. New York: Modern Library, 2001.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Young Goodman Brown and Other Short Stories. New York: Dover, 1992.
Irving, Washington. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. 1819820. Reprinted as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and Other Stories in "The Sketch Book." New York: Signet, 1981.
Melville, Herman. The Piazza Tales. 1856. Northwestern-Newberry edition. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Poems, Tales, Criticism. Introduction by G. R. Thompson. New York: Perennial, 2004.
Current-García, Eugene. The American Short Story before 1850: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
Hamilton, Kristie. America's Sketchbook: The Cultural Life of a Nineteenth-Century Literary Genre. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998.
Lee, A. Robert, ed. The Nineteenth-Century American Short Story. London: Vision Press, 1985.
Levy, Andrew. The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story. New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Pattee, Fred Lewis. The Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey. New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1923.
Tallack, Douglas. The Nineteenth-Century American Short Story: Language, Form, and Ideology. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
Voss, Arthur. The American Short Story: A Critical Survey. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.