The Early Nineteenth Century: 1800-1840 - Short Fiction Analysis

The Tale Tradition

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The tale tradition had by far a longer and more complex history than the essay-sketch tradition. Virtually every anthropologist, linguist, and literary historian would agree that tales in one form or another are approximately as old as language, and if language is the distinguishing feature of human beings, then tales must have originated at almost the same time as human beings. Judging from what is known of human nature, one can assume that the first tales took the form of either lies or gossip, which remain among the most seductive categories of narrative today. People must have soon varied the literary fare with the sort of oral tales which seem to have flourished then and which still flourish today among preliterate peoples in just about every culture on the face of the earth: myths, legends, folktales, jokes, anecdotes, and so on—and subsequently with the sorts of refinements and variations of these forms that develop in diverse guises in various cultures at various times. Among the terms (often overlapping) for specifically oral tales with which Stith Thompson deals in his classic study, The Folktale (1851), are Märchen, fairy tale, household tale, conte populaire, novella, hero tale, Sage, local tradition, local legend, migratory legend, tradition populaire, explanatory tale, etiological tale, Natursage, pourquoi story, animal tale, fable, jest, humorous anecdote, merry tale, Schwank, and so on.

Such genres invariably alter, sometimes quite subtly, sometimes fundamentally, when the means of transmission become not the more or less dramatic human voice (with accompanying facial expressions and physical gestures) of a person immediately present but the impersonal pen and ink. Earlier sections of The...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

Washington Irving

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 2051 words.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s career began in a kind of imitation of the development of the modern short story. His earliest works were rather old-fashioned tales—“The Hollow of the Three Hills” and “Sir William Phipps”—and he also produced an early sketch, “Sights from a Steeple,” which was much vaunted in his day; but these early works are finally insignificant. Hawthorne created the kind of artistic success destined to stand time’s most stringent tests only when he combined the best of these two antecedent traditions in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” Here, on one hand, is a form close to the local New England legends he so loved to read and to compose—he opens with a paragraph of history referring to a real historian, sets the scene in historical Boston, gives a rough time for the event, builds his climax around the kind of episode (tarring and feathering a minor Tory official) which might have earned a brief footnote or inspired some oral tale. To this frame, however, Hawthorne adds the sort of rich imagery, the close psychological analysis, and the compelling specific detail that characterized his many experiments in the essay-sketch tradition. The result is neither essay, sketch, nor tale, but one of the finest modern short stories anyone ever wrote.

Similar patterns dominate “Young Goodman Brown.” Many mistakenly try to read the story as a kind of simplistic parable, but Henry James, among others, emphatically disagreed: “This, it seems to me, is...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Edgar Allan Poe

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

One tends to think of the early nineteenth century as the heyday of the “traditional” short story—that is, the short story dominated by plot—but in fact experimental or innovative or plotless short fiction was at least as popular in the time of Hawthorne and Poe as it was in the twentieth century. Perhaps the most important reason for twentieth century myopia is that in May, 1842, Edgar Allan Poe’s highly laudatory and immensely influential review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales was published; Poe’s essay is almost universally recognized as the very first attempt to develop a cogent formal theory of the modern short story. Most critics today recognize that Poe’s theory applies much more closely to his own...

(The entire section is 1320 words.)

Augustus Baldwin Longstreet

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Irving created the modern short story by combining the inherent narrative interest of incident and plot (which already existed in the tale) with a tendency toward fully developed character, realism, specific detail and vivid imagery, and close psychological analysis (which characterized work in the essay-sketch tradition). Hawthorne brought to the form an intellectual commitment and a profound moral depth, which raised the short story above mere entertainment and endowed it with the high worth associated with the finest poems, novels, and plays. In his criticism, Poe demanded on one hand that readers acknowledge the new form’s right to be considered as true literature and, on the other, insisted that writers must bring the sorts...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Aderman, Ralph M., ed. Critical Essays on Washington Irving. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. A collection of essays on Irving’s art and literary debts, the relationship of his stories to his culture, and his generic heritage.

Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. Discusses Hawthorne’s major short stories in three categories: isolation and community, artists and scientists, and perspective, humility, and joy.

Canby, Henry S. The Short Story in English. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1909. Canby argues that the romantic movement gave birth to...

(The entire section is 425 words.)