The Short Story
We love historic articles here at EWR. We love writing and love the history of writing just a little less. I feel that by looking at the history of where our forms and genres have been, it gives us great insight into the evolution. There are many times that we ask ourselves, if you write with any frequency and study, why are things this way? Looking at the history and trends of writing lets us spy into the window of convention. Knowing conventions, especially in short story writing and poetry, allows us to write something new. If you take a convention and change it, that work is something new. It might be one of the only ways to create something new in writing, new from old. Knowing the rules, what is expected helps.
For instance in the 1980s the great short story writing Raymond Carver bent and changed the conventions of the great intruder story. He was able, in many ways, to illustrate how we all intrude on each others lives. That may be a very old concept, but he did it in a new way. Of course, that is Raymond Carver, and there isn’t much that he did that wasn’t brilliant. I like to think he read old articles and texts about writing.
Anyway, today I wanted to present for your consideration what is really the introduction to a high school text book written in 1916 by a man named Patterson Atkinson. He was the vice principle of Lincoln High School in Jersey City. Boy they had very high standards for educators back then.
The intro to the book is a classic (the book is too of course), and it is filled with insights into the contemporary authors of that time, Poe, Hawthorne, Stevenson, and the like. It is good reading. You can usually pick up a free copy of the book on kindle. The title is simply The Short Story.
Either way, I hope you enjoy this historic look at the the short story. It is insightful, and real geeky stuff that most writers I know love, I do. For Atkinson, the latest development in the short story is due to the writings of Rudyard Kipling. Kind of neat, eh?
The Short Story (1916)
Mankind has always loved to tell stories and to listen to them. The most primitive and unlettered peoples and tribes have always shown and still show this universal characteristic. As far back as written records go we find stories; even before that time, they were handed down from remote generations by oral tradition. The wandering minstrel followed a very ancient profession. Before him was his prototype—the man with the gift of telling stories over the fire at night, perhaps at the mouth of a cave. The Greeks, who ever loved to hear some new thing, were merely typical of the ready listeners.
In the course of time the story passed through many forms and many phases—the myth, e.g. The Labors of Hercules; the legend, e.g. St. George and the Dragon; the fairy tale, e.g. Cinderella; the fable, e.g. The Fox and the Grapes; the allegory, e.g. Addison’s The Vision of Mirza; the parable, e.g. The Prodigal Son. Sometimes it was merely to amuse, sometimes to instruct. With this process are intimately connected famous books, such as “The Gesta Romanorum” (which, by the way, has nothing to do with the Romans) and famous writers like Boccaccio.
Gradually there grew a body of rules and a technique, and men began to write about the way stories should be composed, as is seen in Aristotle’s statement that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Definitions were made and the elements named. In the fullness of time story-telling became an art.
Similar stories are to be found in many different literatures because human nature is fundamentally the same the world over; that is, people are swayed by the same motives, such as love, hate, fear, and the like. Another reason for this similarity is the fact that nations borrowed stories from other nations, changing the names and circumstances. Writers of power took old and crude stories and made of them matchless tales which endure in their new form, e.g. Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter. Finally the present day dawned and with it what we call the short-story.
The short-story—Prof. Brander Matthews has suggested the hyphen to differentiate it from the story which is merely short and to indicate that it is a new species—is a narrative which is short and has unity, compression, originality, and ingenuity, each in a high degree. The notion of shortness as used in this definition may be inexactly though easily grasped by considering the length of the average magazine story. Compression means that nothing must be included that can be left out. Clayton Hamilton expresses this idea by the convenient phrase “economy of means.” By originality is meant something new in plot, point, outcome, or character. Ingenuity suggests cleverness in handling the theme. The short-story also is impressionistic because it leaves to the reader the reconstruction from hints of much of the setting and details.
Mr. Hamilton has also constructed another useful definition. He says: “The aim of a short-story is to produce a single narrative effect with the greatest economy of means that is consistent with the utmost emphasis.”
However, years before, in 1842, in his celebrated review of Hawthorne’s Tales Edgar Allan Poe had laid down the same theory, in which he emphasizes what he elsewhere calls, after Schlegel, the unity or totality of interest, i.e. unity of impression, effect, and economy. Stevenson, too, has written critically of the short-story, laying stress on this essential unity, pointing out how each effect leads to the next, and how the end is part of the beginning.
America may justly lay claim to this new species of short narrative. Beginning in the early part of the nineteenth century there had begun to appear in this country stories showing variations from the English type of story which “still bore upon it marks of its origin; it was either a hard, formal, didactic treatise, derived from the moral apologue or fable; or it was a sentimental love-tale derived from the artificial love-romance that followed the romance of chivalry.” The first one to stand out prominently is Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, which was published in 1820. This story, while more leisurely and less condensed than the completely developed form of the short-story, had the important element of humor, as well as freshness, grace, and restraint, nothing being said that should not be said.
The next writer in the order of development is Edgar Allan Poe, whose Berenice appeared in 1835. With it the short-story took definite form. Poe’s contribution is structure and technique; that is, he definitely introduced the characteristics noted in the definition—unity, compression, originality, and ingenuity. With almost mathematical precision he sets out to obtain an effect. To quote from his before-mentioned review of Hawthorne his own words which are so definite as almost to compose a formula of his way of writing a short-story and are so thoughtful as to be nearly the summary of any discussion of the subject: “A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events—as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the out-bringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one preëstablished design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel.” It is to be noted that Poe roused interest in his effect by the method of suspense, that is, by holding back the solution of the plot, by putting off telling what the reader wants to know, though he continually aggravates the desire to know by constant hints, the full significance of which is only realized when the story is done. His stories are of two main classes: what have been called stories of “impressionistic terror,” that is, stories of great fear induced in a character by a mass of rather vague and unusual incidents, such as The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1843); and stories of “ratiocination,” that is, of the ingenious thinking out of a problem, as The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1843). In the latter type he is the originator of the detective story.
The writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne exhibit the next stage of development. While lacking some of the technical excellence of Poe by often not knowing how to begin or how to end a story, by sacrificing economy or compression, yet he presented something new in making a story of situation, that is, by putting a character in certain circumstances and working out the results, as The Birthmark (1843). His stories also fall into two groups, the imaginative, like Howe’s Masquerade (1838), and the moralizing introspective, or, as they have been called, the “moral-philosophic,” that is, stories which look within the human mind and soul and deal with great questions of conduct, such as The Ambitious Guest (1837). Hawthorne was the descendant of Puritans, men given to serious thought and sternly religious. It is this strain of his inheritance which is evidenced in the second group. In all his writing there is some outward symbol of the circumstances or the state of mind. It is seen, for example, in The Minister’s Black Veil (1835).
In 1868 was published Luck of Roaring Camp, by Bret Harte. In this story and those that immediately followed, the author advanced the development of the short-story yet another step by introducing local color. Local color means the peculiar customs, scenery, or surroundings of any kind, which mark off one place from another. In a literary sense he discovered California of the days of the early rush for gold. Furthermore, he made the story more definite. He confined it to one situation and one effect, thus approaching more to what may be considered the normal form.
With the form of the short-story fairly worked out, the next development is to be noted in the tone and subject matter. Local color became particularly evident, humor became constantly more prominent, and then the analysis of the working of the human mind, psychologic analysis, held the interest of some foremost writers. Stories of these various kinds came to the front about the third quarter of the last century. “Mark Twain” (Samuel Langhorne Clemens), Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and Frank R. Stockton preëminently and admirably present the humor so peculiarly an American trait. Local color had its exponents in George W. Cable, who presented Louisiana; “Charles Egbert Craddock” (Miss M. N. Murfree), who wrote of Tennessee; Thomas Nelson Page, who gave us Virginia; and Miss M. E. Wilkins (Mrs. Charles M. Freeman), who wrote of New England, to mention only the most notable. With psychologic analysis the name of Henry James is indissolubly linked. The Passionate Pilgrim (1875) may be taken as an excellent example of his work.
By this time the American short-story had crossed to England and found in Robert Louis Stevenson an artist who could handle it with consummate skill. He passed it on a more finished and polished article than when he received it, because by a long course of self-training he had become a master in the use of words. His stories remind one of Hawthorne because there is generally in them some underlying moral question, some question of human action, something concerning right and wrong. But they also have another characteristic which is more obvious to the average reader—their frank romance. By romance is meant happenings either out of the usual course of events, such as the climax of Lochinvar, or events that cannot occur.
The latest stage in the development of the short-story is due to Rudyard Kipling, who has made it generally more terse, has filled it with interest in the highest degree, has found new local color, chiefly in India, and has given it virility and power. His subject matter is, in the main, interesting to all kinds of readers. His stories likewise fulfill all the requirements of the definition. Being a living genius he is constantly showing new sides of his ability, his later stories being psychologic. His writings fall into numerous groups—soldier tales; tales of machinery; of animals; of the supernatural; of native Indian life; of history; of adventure;—the list could be prolonged. Sometimes they are frankly tracts, sometimes acute analyses of the working of the human mind.
So in the course of a little less than a century there has grown to maturity a new kind of short narrative identified with American Literature and the American people, exhibiting the foremost traits of the American character, and written by a large number of authors of different rank whose work, of a surprisingly high average of technical excellence, appears chiefly in the magazines.