Brander Matthews and the Handbooks

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In 1901, in the first full-length study of the short story (The Philosophy of the Short-Story), Brander Matthews noted the “strange neglect” of the form in histories of prose fiction and set out to justify Poe’s suggestive comments about the form made sixty years earlier and to establish what he called the “art of the short-story.” However, instead of Matthews’s opinion—that the short story is a unique art form differing from the novel in substantive ways—most critics of the time felt that the short story was a smaller, simpler, easier, and less important form of the novel. Not only did Matthews’s book fail to encourage new and creative artistic work in the short story, but also it had the opposite effect of further popularizing the form in the pejorative sense. As a result, the short story in the early twentieth century came to be considered a question of cold-blooded rules of composition.

The appeal of Matthews’s account, along with the popularity of the formulaic stories of O. Henry, gave rise to a number of books in the first two decades of the twentieth century that proposed anyone could write short stories if they only knew the rules. Joseph Berg Esenwein’s Writing the Short Story: A Practical Handbook on the Rise, Structure, Writing, and Sale of the Modern Short Story (1909), Carl Henry Grabo’s The Art of the Short Story (1913), and Blanche Colton Williams’s A Handbook on Story Writing (1917) are only three of numerous such books. By the 1930’s, serious readers and critics called for an end to it, filling the quality periodicals with articles on the “decline,” the “decay,” and the “senility” of the short story. Even Edward Joseph Harrington O’Brien, probably the greatest champion of the form America has ever had, wrote his book The Dance of the Machines in 1929, censuring the mechanized structure of American society and the machinelike short story that reflected it.