The Evolution of the Short-Story to 1910
by W. J. Dawson
The short-story commenced its career as a verbal utterance, or, as Robert Louis Stevenson puts it, with “the first men who told their stories round the savage camp-fire.”
It bears the mark of its origin, for even to-day it is true that the more it creates the illusion of the speaking-voice, causing the reader to listen and to see, so that he forgets the printed page, the better does it accomplish its literary purpose. It is probably an instinctive appreciation of this fact which has led so many latter-day writers to narrate their short-stories in dialect. In a story which is communicated by the living voice our attention is held primarily not by the excellent deposition of adjectives and poise of style, but by the striding progress of the plot; it is the plot, and action in the plot, alone which we remember when the combination of words which conveyed and made the story real to us has been lost to mind. “Crusoe recoiling from the foot-print, Achilles shouting over against the Trojans, Ulysses bending the great bow, Christian running with his fingers in his ears; these are each culminating moments, and each has been printed on the mind’s eye for ever.”
The secondary importance of the detailed language in which an incident is narrated, when compared with the total impression made by the naked action contained in the incident, is seen in the case of ballad poetry, where a man may retain a vivid mental picture of the localities, atmosphere, and dramatic moments created by Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, or Rossetti’s White Ship, and yet be quite incapable of repeating two consecutive lines of the verse. In literature of narration, whether prose or verse, the dramatic worth of the action related must be the first consideration.
In earlier days, when much of the current fiction was not written down, but travelled from mouth to mouth, as it does in the Orient to-day, this fact must have been realized—that, in the short-story, plot is superior to style. Among modern writers, however, there has been a growing tendency to make up for scantiness of plot by high literary workmanship; the result has been in reality not a short-story, but a descriptive sketch or vignette, dealing chiefly with moods and landscapes. So much has this been the case that the writer of a recent Practical Treatise on the Art of the Short-Story has found it necessary to make the bald statement that “the first requisite of a short-story is that the writer have a story to tell.”
However lacking the stories which have come down to us from ancient times may be in technique, they invariably narrate action—they have something to tell. If they had not done so, they would not have been interesting to the men who first heard them, and, had they not been interesting, they would not have survived. Their paramount worth in this respect of action is proved by the constant borrowings which modern writers have made from them. Take one case in illustration. In the twenty-eighth chapter of Aristotle’s Secretum Secretorum appears a story in which “a queen of India is said to have treacherously sent to Alexander, among other costly presents, the pretended testimonies of friendship, a girl of exquisite beauty, who, having been fed with serpents from her infancy, partook of their nature.” It comes to light again, in an altered and expanded form, in the Gesta Romanorum, as the eleventh tale, being entitled Of the Poison of Sin.
“Alexander was a prince of great power, and a disciple of Aristotle, who instructed him in every branch of learning. The Queen of the North, having heard of his proficiency, nourished her daughter from the cradle upon a certain kind of deadly poison; and when she grew up, she was considered so beautiful, that the sight of her alone affected many to madness. The queen sent her to Alexander to espouse. He had no sooner beheld her than he became violently enamoured, and with much eagerness desired to possess her; but Aristotle, observing his weakness, said: ‘Do not touch her, for if you do, you will certainly perish. She has been nurtured upon the most deleterious food, which I will prove to you immediately. Here is a malefactor who is already condemned to death. He shall be united to her, and you shall soon see the truth of what I advance.’
“Accordingly the culprit was brought without delay to the girl; and scarcely had he touched her lips, before his whole frame was impregnated with poison, and he expired. Alexander, glad at his escape from such imminent destruction, bestowed all thanks on his instructor, and returned the girl to her mother.”
After which follows the monkish application of the moral, as long as the entire story: Alexander being made to stand for a good Christian; the Queen of the North for “a superfluity of the things of life, which sometimes destroys the spirit, and generally the body”; the Poison Maid for luxury and gluttony, “which feed men with delicacies that are poison to the soul”; Aristotle for conscience and reason, which reprove and oppose any union which would undo the soul; and the malefactor for the evil man, disobedient unto his God.
There have been at least three writers of English fiction who, borrowing this germ-plot from the Gesta Romanorum, have handled it with distinction and originality. Nathaniel Hawthorne, having changed its period and given it an Italian setting, wove about it one of the finest and most imaginative of his short-stories, Rappaccini’s Daughter. Oliver Wendell Holmes, with a freshness and vigor all his own, developed out of it his fictional biography of Elsie Venner. And so recent a writer as Mr. Richard Garnett, attracted by the subtle and magic possibilities of the conception, has given us yet another rendering, restoring to the story its classic setting, in The Poison Maid. Thus, within the space of a hundred years, three master-craftsmen have found their inspiration in the slender anecdote which Aristotle, in the opulence of his genius, was content to hurry into a few sentences and bury beneath the mass of his material.
Probably the first stories of mankind were true stories, but the true story is rarely good art. It is perhaps for this reason that few true stories of early times have come down to us. Mr. Cable, in his Strange True Stories of Louisiana, explains the difference between the fabricated tale and the incident as it occurs in life. “The relations and experiences of real men and women,” he writes, “rarely fall in such symmetrical order as to make an artistic whole. Until they have had such treatment as we give stone in the quarry or gems in the rough, they seldom group themselves with that harmony of values and brilliant unity of interest that result when art comes in—not so much to transcend nature as to make nature transcend herself.” In other words, it is not until the true story has been converted into fiction by the suppression of whatever is discursive or ungainly, and the addition of a stroke of fantasy, that it becomes integral, balanced in all its parts, and worthy of literary remembrance.
In the fragments of fiction which have come down to us from the days when books were not, odd chapters from the Fieldings and Smollets of the age of Noah, remnants of the verbal libraries which men repeated one to the other, squatting round “the savage camp-fire,” when the hunt was over and night had gathered, the stroke of fantasy predominates and tends to comprise the whole. Men spun their fictions from the materials with which their minds were stored, much as we do to-day, and the result was a cycle of beast-fables—an Odyssey of the brute creation. Of these the tales of Aesop are the best examples. The beast-fable has never quite gone out of fashion, and never will so long as men retain their world-wonder, and childishness of mind. A large part of Gulliver’s adventures belong to this class of literature. It was only the other day that Mr. Kipling gave us his Just-so Stories, and his Jungle-Book, each of which found an immediate and secure place in the popular memory.
Mr. Chandler Harris, in his introduction to Uncle Remus, warns us that however humorous his book may appear, “its intention is perfectly serious.” He goes on to insist on its historic value, as a revelation of primitive modes of thought. At the outset, when he wrote his stories serially for publication in The Atlanta Constitution, he believed that he was narrating plantation legends peculiar to the South. He was quickly undeceived. Prof. J.W. Powell, who was engaged in an investigation of the mythology of the North American Indians, informed him that some of Uncle Remus’s stories appear “in a number of different languages, and in various modified forms among the Indians.” Mr. Herbert H. Smith had “met with some of these stories among tribes of South American Indians, and one in particular he had traced to India, and as far east as Siam.” “When did the negro or North American Indian ever come in contact with the tribes of South America?” Mr. Harris asks. And he quotes Mr. Smith’s reply in answer to the question: “I am not prepared to form a theory about these stories. There can be no doubt that some of them, found among the negroes and the Indians, had a common origin. The most natural solution would be to suppose that they originated in Africa, and were carried to South America by the negro slaves. They are certainly found among the Red Negroes; but, unfortunately for the African theory, it is equally certain that they are told by savage Indians of the Amazon’s Valley, away up on the Tapajos, Red Negro, and Tapura. These Indians hardly ever see a negro…. It is interesting to find a story from Upper Egypt (that of the fox who pretended to be dead) identical with an Amazonian story, and strongly resembling one found by you among the negroes…. One thing is certain. The animal stories told by the negroes in our Southern States and in Brazil were brought by them from Africa. Whether they originated there, or with the Arabs, or Egyptians, or with yet more ancient nations, must still be an open question. Whether the Indians got them from the negroes or from some earlier source is equally uncertain.” Whatever be the final solution to this problem, enough has been said to show that the beast-fable is, in all probability, the most primitive form of short-story which we possess.
For our purpose, that of tracing the evolution of the English short-story, its history commences with the Gesta Romanorum. At the authorship of this collection of mediaeval tales, many guesses have been made. Nothing is known with certainty; it seems probable, however, judging from the idioms which occur, that it took its present form in England, about the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century, and thence passed to the Continent. The work is written in Latin, and was evidently compiled by a man in holy orders, for its guiding purpose is to edify. In this we can trace the influence of Aesop’s beast-fables, which were moral lessons drawn from the animal creation for the instruction of mankind. Every chapter of the Gesta Romanorum consists of a moral tale; so much so that in many cases the application of the moral is as long as the tale itself.
The title of the collection, The Deeds of the Romans, is scarcely justified; in the main it is a garnering of all the deathless plots and dramatic motives which we find scattered up and down the ages, in the legend and folklore of whatsoever nation. The themes of many of its stories were being told, their characters passing under other names, when Romulus and Remus were suckled by their wolf-mother, before there was a Roman nation or a city named Rome.
In the Bible we have many admirable specimens of the short-story. Jotham’s parable of the trees of the wood choosing a king is as good an instance of the nature-fable, touched with fine irony and humor, as could be found. The Hebrew prophet himself was often a story-teller. Thus, when Nathan would bring home the nature of his guilt to David, he does it by a story of the most dramatic character, which loses nothing, and indeed gains all its terrific impact, by being strongly impregnated with moral passion. Many such instances will occur to the student of the Bible. In the absence of a written or printed literature the story-teller had a distinct vocation, as he still has among the peoples of the East. Every visitor to Tangier has seen in the market-place the professional story-teller, surrounded from morn till night with his groups of attentive listeners, whose kindling eyes, whose faces moved by every emotion of wonder, anger, tenderness, and sympathy, whose murmured applause and absorbed silence, are the witnesses and the reward of his art. Through such a scene we recover the atmosphere of the Arabian Nights, and indeed look back into almost limitless antiquity. Possibly, could we follow the story which is thus related, we might discover that this also drew its elemental incidents from sources as old as the times of Jotham and Nathan.
The most that can be said for the Latin origin of the Gesta Romanorum is that the nucleus is made up of extracts, frequently of glaring inaccuracy, from Roman writers and historians. The Cologne edition comprises one hundred and eighty-one chapters, each consisting of a tale or anecdote followed by a moral application, commencing formally with the words, “My beloved, the prince is intended to represent any good Christian,” or, “My beloved, the emperor is Christ; the soldier is any sinner.” They are not so much short-stories as illustrated homilies. In the literary armory of the lazy parish priest of the fourteenth century, the Gesta Romanorum must have held the place which volumes of sermon-outlines occupy upon the book-shelves of certain of his brethren to-day.
“The method of instructing by fables is a practice of remote antiquity; and has always been attended with very considerable benefit. Its great popularity encouraged the monks to adopt this medium, not only for the sake of illustrating their discourses, but of making a more durable impression upon the minds of their illiterate auditors. An abstract argument, or logical deduction (had they been capable of supplying it), would operate but faintly upon intellects rendered even more obtuse by the rude nature of their customary employments; while, on the other hand, an apposite story would arouse attention and stimulate that blind and unenquiring devotion which is so remarkably characteristic of the Middle Ages.”
The influence of the Gesta Romanorum is most conspicuously to be traced in the work of Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate; but it has served as a source of inspiration to the flagging ingenuity of each succeeding generation. It would be tedious to enter on an enumeration of the various indebtednesses of English literature to these early tales. A few instances will serve as illustration.
It seems a far cry from The Ingoldsby Legends to The Deeds of the Romans, nevertheless The Leech of Folk-stone was directly taken from the hundred and second tale, Of the Transgressions and Wounds of the Soul. Shakespeare himself was a frequent borrower, and planned his entire play of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, upon the hundred and fifty-third tale, Of Temporal Tribulation. In some cases the language is almost identical, as for instance in the fifth tale, where the king warns his son, saying, “Son, I tell thee that thou canst not confide in her, and consequently ought not to espouse her. She deceived her own father when she liberated thee from prison; for this did her father lose the price of thy ransom.” Compare with this:
But the ethical treatment of the short-story, as exemplified in these monkish fables, handicapped its progress and circumscribed its field of endeavor. Morality necessitated the twisting of incidents, so that they might harmonize with the sermonic summing-up that was in view. Life is not always moral; it is more often perplexing, boisterous, unjust, and flippant. The wicked dwell in prosperity. “There are no pangs in their death; their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued as other men. They have more than heart could wish.” But the art of the teller of tales “is occupied, and bound to be occupied not so much in making stories true as in making them typical.”
The ethical method of handling fiction falls between two stools; it not only fails in portraying that which is true for the individual, but it incurs the graver error of ceasing to be true to the race, i.e., typical.
It would be interesting, had we space, to follow Shakespeare in his borrowings, noticing what he adopts and incorporates in his work as artistically true, and what he rejects. Like a water-color landscape-painter, he pauses above the box of crude materials which others have made, takes a dab here and a dab there with his brush, rarely takes all of one color, blends them, eyes the result judicially, and flashes in the combination with swiftness and certainty of touch.
For instance, from the lengthy story which appears as the hundred and first tale in Mr. Douce’s edition of the Gesta, he selects but one scene of action, yet it is the making of Macbeth—one would almost suppose that this was the germ-thought which kindled his furious fancy, preceding his discovery of the Macbeth tradition as related in Holinshed’s Chronicle.
The Emperor Manelay has set forth to the Holy Land, leaving his empress and kingdom in his brother’s care. No sooner has he gone than the regent commences to make love to his brother’s wife. She rejects him scornfully. Angered by her indignation, he leads her into a forest and hangs her by the hair upon a tree, leaving her there to starve. As good-fortune will have it, on the third day a noble earl comes by, and, finding her in that condition, releases her, takes her home with him, and makes her governess to his only daughter. A feeling of shame causes her to conceal her noble rank, and so it comes about that the earl’s steward aspires to her affection. Her steadfast refusal of all his advances turns his love to hatred, so that he plans to bring about her downfall. Then comes the passage which Shakespeare seized upon as vital: “It befell upon a night that the earl’s chamber door was forgotten and left unshut, which the steward had anon perceived; and when they were all asleep he went and espied the light of the lamp where the empress and the young maid lay together, and with that he drew out his knife and cut the throat of the earl’s daughter and put the knife into the empress’s hand, she being asleep, and nothing knowing thereof, to the intent that when the earl awakened he should think that she had cut his daughter’s throat, and so would she be put to a shameful death for his mischievous deed.”
The laws of immediateness and concentration, which govern the short-story, are common also to the drama; by reason of their brevity both demand a directness of approach which leads up, without break of sequence or any waste of words, through a dependent series of actions to a climax which is final. It will usually be found in studying the borrowings which the masters have made from such sources as the Gesta Romanorum that the portions which they have discriminated as worth taking from any one tale have been the only artistically essential elements which the narrative contains; the remainder, which they have rejected, is either untrue to art or unnecessary to the plot’s development.
These tales, as told by their monkish compiler, lack “that harmony of values and brilliant unity of interest that results when art comes in”—they are splendid jewels badly cut.
As has been already stated, a short-story theme, however fine, can only be converted into good art by the suppression of whatever is discursive or ungainly, so that it becomes integral and balanced in all its parts; and by the addition of a stroke of fantasy, so that it becomes vast, despite its brevity, implying a wider horizon than it actually describes; but, in excess of these qualities, there is a last of still greater importance, without which it fails—the power to create the impression of having been possible.
Now the beast-fable, as handled by Aesop, falls short of being high art by reason of its overwhelming fantasy, which annihilates all chance of its possibility. The best short-stories represent a struggle between fantasy and fact. And the mediaeval monkish tale fails by reason of the discursiveness and huddling together of incidents, without regard to their dramatic values, which the moral application necessitates. In a word, both are deficient in technique—the concealed art which, when it has combined its materials so that they may accomplish their most impressive effect, causes the total result to command our credulity because it seems typical of human experience.
The technique of the English prose short-story had a tardy evolution. That there were any definite laws, such as obtain in poetry, by which it must abide was not generally realized until Edgar Allan Poe formulated them in his criticism of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
As he states them, they are five in number, as follows: Firstly, that the short-story must be short, i.e., capable of being read at one sitting, in order that it may gain “the immense force derivable from totality.” Secondly, that the short-story must possess immediateness; it should aim at a single or unique effect—”if the very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then it has failed in its first step.” Thirdly, that the short-story must be subjected to compression; “in the whole composition there should not be one word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” Fourthly, that it must assume the aspect of verisimilitude; “truth is often, and in very great degree, the aim of the tale—some of the finest tales are tales of ratiocination.” Fifthly, that it must give the impression of finality; the story, and the interest in the characters which it introduces, must begin with the opening sentence and end with the last.
These laws, and the technique which they formulate, were first discovered and worked out for the short-story in the medium of poetry. The ballad and narrative poem must be, by reason of their highly artificial form, comparatively short, possessing totality, immediateness, compression, verisimilitude, and finality. The old ballad which commemorates the battle of Otterbourne, fought on August 10, 1388, is a fine example of the short-story method. Its opening stanza speaks the last word in immediateness of narration:
Thomas Hood’s poem of The Dream of Eugene Aram, written at a time when the prose short-story, under the guidance of Hawthorne and Poe, was just beginning to take its place as a separate species of literary art, has never been surpassed for short-story technique by any of the practitioners of prose. Prof. Brander Matthews has pointed out that “there were nine muses in Greece of old, and no one of these daughters of Apollo was expected to inspire the writer of prose-fiction.”
He argues from this that “prose seemed to the Greeks, and even to the Latins who followed in their footsteps, as fit only for pedestrian purposes.” It is more probable that, as regards prose-fiction, they did not realize that they were called upon to explain the omission of the tenth muse. Her exclusion was based on no reasoned principle, but was due to a sensuous art-instinct: the Greeks felt that the unnatural limitations of the poetic medium were more in keeping with the unnatural brevity of a story which must be short. The exquisite prose tales which have been handed down to us belong to the age of their decadence as a nation; in their great period their tellers of brief tales unconsciously cast their rendering in the poetic mould. In natures of the highest genius the most arduous is instinctively the favorite task.
Chaucer, by reason of his intimate acquaintance with both the poetry and prose-fiction of Boccaccio, had the opportunity to choose between these two mediums of short-story narration; and he chose the former. He was as familiar with Boccaccio’s poetic method, as exemplified in the Teseide, as with his prose, as exemplified at much greater length in the Decameron, for he borrowed from them both. Yet in only two instances in the Canterbury Tales does he relapse into prose.
The Teseide in Chaucer’s hands, retaining its poetic medium, is converted into the Knight’s Tale; while the Reeve’s Tale, the Franklin’s, and the Shipman’s, each borrowed from the prose version of the Decameron, are given by him a poetic setting. This preference for poetry over prose as a medium for short-story narration cannot have been accidental or unreasoned on his part; nor can it be altogether accounted for by the explanation that “he was by nature a poet,” for he did experiment with the prose medium to the extent of using it twice. He had the brilliant and innovating precedent of the Decameron, and yet, while adopting some of its materials, he abandoned its medium. He was given the opportunity of ante-dating the introduction of technique into the English prose short-story by four hundred and fifty years, and he disregarded it almost cavalierly. How is such wilful neglect to be accounted for? Only by his instinctive feeling that the technique, which Boccaccio had applied in the Decameron, belonged by right to the realm of poetry, had been learned in the practising of the poetic art, and could arrive at its highest level of achievement only in that medium.
That in Chaucer’s case this choice was justified cannot be disputed; the inferiority of the short-story technique contained in his two prose efforts, when compared with that displayed in the remainder of the Canterbury Tales, is very marked. Take, for instance, the Prioress’ Tale and apply to it the five short-story tests established by Poe, as a personal discovery, four and a half centuries later; it survives them all. It attains, in addition, the crowning glory, coveted by Stevenson, of appearing typical. There may never have been a Christian child who was martyred by the Jews in the particularly gruesome way described—probably there never was; but, in listening to the Prioress, it does not enter into our heads to doubt her word—the picture which she leaves with us of how the Christian regarded the Jew in the Middle Ages is too vivid to allow any breathing-space for incredulity. No knowledge of mediaeval anti-Jewish legislation, however scholarly, can bring us to realize the fury of race-hatred which then existed more keenly than this story of a little over two thousand words. By its perusal we gain an illuminating insight into that ill-directed religious enthusiasm which led men on frenzied quests for the destruction of the heretic in their own land and of the Saracen abroad, causing them to become at one and the same time unjust and heroic. In a word, within the compass of three hundred lines of verse, Chaucer contrives to body forth his age—to give us something which is typical.
The Morte D’Arthur of Malory is again a collection of traditional stories, as is the Gesta Romanorum, and not the creative work of a single intellect. As might be expected, it straggles, and overlays its climax with a too-lavish abundance of incidents; it lacks the harmony of values which results from the introduction of a unifying purpose—i.e., of art. Imaginative and full of action though the books of the Morte D’Arthur are, it remained for the latter-day artist to exhaust their individual incidents of their full dramatic possibilities. From the eyes of the majority of modern men the brilliant quality of their magic was concealed, until it had been disciplined and refashioned by the severe technique of the short-story.
By the eighteenth century the influence of Malory was scarcely felt at all; but his imaginativeness, as interpreted by Tennyson, in The Idylls of the King, and by William Morris, in his Defence of Guinevere, has given to the Anglo-Saxon world a new romantic background for its thoughts. The Idylls of the King are not Tennyson’s most successful interpretation. The finest example of his superior short-story craftsmanship is seen in the triumphant use which he makes of the theme contained in The Book of Elaine, in his poem of The Lady of Shalott. Not only has he remodelled and added fantasy to the story, but he has threaded it through with atmosphere—an entirely modern attribute, of which more must be said hereafter.
So much for our contention that the laws and technique of the prose short-story, as formulated by Poe, were first instinctively discovered and worked out in the medium of poetry.
“The Golden Ass of Apuleius is, so to say, a beginning of modern literature. From this brilliant medley of reality and romance, of wit and pathos, of fantasy and observation, was born that new art, complex in thought, various in expression, which gives a semblance of frigidity to perfection itself. An indefatigable youthfulness is its distinction.”
An indefatigable youthfulness was also the prime distinction of the Elizabethan era’s writings and doings; it was fitting that such a period should have witnessed the first translation into the English language of this Benjamin of a classic literature’s old age.
Apuleius was an unconventional cosmopolitan in that ancient world which he so vividly portrays; he was a barbarian by birth, a Greek by education, and wrote his book in the Romans’ language. In his use of luminous slang for literary purposes he was Rudyard Kipling’s prototype.
“He would twist the vulgar words of every-day into quaint unheard-of meanings, nor did he deny shelter to those loafers and footpads of speech which inspire the grammarian with horror. On every page you encounter a proverb, a catchword, a literary allusion, a flagrant redundancy. One quality only was distasteful to him—the commonplace.”
There are other respects in which we can trace Mr. Kipling’s likeness: in his youthful precocity—he was twenty-five when he wrote his Metamorphoses; in his daring as an innovator; in his manly stalwartness in dealing with the calamities of life; in his adventurous note of world-wideness and realistic method of handling the improbable and uncanny.
Like all great artists, he was a skilful borrower from the literary achievements of a bygone age; and so successfully does he borrow that we prefer his copy to the original. The germ-idea of Kipling’s Finest Story in the World is to be found in Poe’s Tale of the Ragged Mountains; Apuleius’s germ-plot, of the man who was changed by enchantment into an ass, and could only recover his human shape by eating rose-leaves, was taken either from Lucian or from Lucius of Patrae. In at least three of his interpolations he remarkably foreshadows the prose short-story method, upon which we are wont to pride ourselves as being a unique discovery of the past eight decades: these are Bellepheron’s Story; The Story of Cupid and Psyche, one of the most exquisite both in form and matter in any language or age; and the story of The Deceitful Woman and the Tub, which Boccaccio made use of in his Decameron as the second novel for the seventh day.
In the intense and visual quality of the atmosphere with which he pervades his narrative he has no equal among the writers of English prose-fiction until Sir Walter Scott appears. “Apuleius has enveloped his world of marvels in a heavy air of witchery and romance. You wander with Lucius across the hills and through the dales of Thessaly. With all the delight of a fresh curiosity you approach its far-seen towns. You journey at midnight under the stars, listening in terror for the howling of the wolves or the stealthy ambush. At other whiles you sit in the robbers’ cave and hear the ancient legends of Greece retold. The spring comes on, and ‘the little birds chirp and sing their steven melodiously.’ Secret raids, ravished brides, valiant rescues, the gayest intrigues—these are the diverse matters of this many-colored book.”
But as a short-story writer he shares the failing of all his English brothers in that art, until James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, penned his tales—namely, that his short-stories do not stand apart, as things total in themselves, but are woven into a larger narrative by whose proportions they are dwarfed, so that their true completeness is disguised. “He cares not how he loiters by the way; he is always ready to beguile his reader with a Milesian story—one of those quaint and witty interludes which have travelled the world over and become part, not merely of every literature, but of every life.” It is to three of these chance loiterings of this Kipling of Rome in its decadence that we owe the famous stories alluded to above.
To the Elizabethan period belong the most masterly translations of which the English language is possessed; and this not by virtue of their accuracy and scholarship, but because, to use Doctor Johnson’s words, the translator “exhibits his author’s thoughts in such a dress as the author would have given them had his language been English.” That same “indefatigable youthfulness” which converted courtiers into sailors and despatched them into unknown seas to ransack new worlds, urged men of the pen to seek out and to pillage, with an equal ardor of adventure, the intellectual wealth of their contemporaries in other lands and the buried and forgotten stores of the ancients upon their own neighboring book-shelves. A universal and contagious curiosity was abroad. To this age belong William Paynter’s version of the Decameron, entitled The Palace of Pleasure, 1566, from which Shakespeare borrowed; Geoffrey Fenton’s translation of Bandello’s Tragical Discourses, 1567; Sir Thomas North’s rendering of Plutarch’s Lives, 1579; Thomas Underdowne’s Heliodorus, 1587; Thomas Shelton’s Don Quixote, 1612; and others too numerous to mention. It seems extraordinary at first sight that when such models of advanced technique were set before them, Englishmen were so slow to follow; for though Professor Baldwin is probably correct in his analysis of the Decameron when he states that, of the hundred tales, over fifty are not much more than anecdotes, about forty are but outlined plots, three follow the modern short-story method only part way, and, of the hundred, two alone are perfect examples, yet those two perfect examples remained and were capable of imitation. The explanation of this neglect is, perhaps, that the Elizabethans were too busy originating to find time for copying; they were very willing to borrow ideas, but must be allowed to develop them in their own way—usually along dramatic lines for stage purposes, because this was at that time the most financially profitable.
The blighting influence of constitutional strife and intestine war which followed in the Stuarts’ reigns turned the serious artist’s thoughts aside to grave and prophetic forms of literary utterance, while writers of the frivolous sort devoted their talent to a lighter and less sincere art than that of the short-story—namely, court-poetry. It was an age of extremes which bred despair and religious fervor in men of the Puritan party, as represented by Bunyan and Milton, and conscious artificiality and mock heroics in those of the Cavalier faction, as represented by Herrick and the Earl of Rochester.
The examples of semi-fictional prose which can be gathered from this period serve only to illustrate how the short-story instinct, though stifled, was still present. Isaak Walton as a diarist had it; Thomas Fuller as an historian had it; John Bunyan as an ethical writer had it. Each one was possessed of the short-story faculty, but only manifested it, as it were, by accident. Not until Daniel Defoe and the rise of the newspaper do we note any advance in technique. Defoe’s main contribution was the short-story essay, which stands midway between the anecdote, or germ-plot, buried in a mass of extraneous material, and the short-story proper. The growth of this form, as developed by Swift, Steel, Addison, Goldsmith, and Lamb, has been traced and criticised elsewhere. It had this one great advantage that, whatever its departures from the strict technique of the modern short-story, it was capable of being read at one sitting, stood by itself, and gained “the immense force derivable from totality.”
In the True Revelation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal, Defoe is again strangely in advance of his time, as he is in so many other ways. Here is an almost perfect example of the most modern method of handling a ghost-tale. Surely, in whatever department of literature we seek, we shall find nothing to surpass it in the quality of verisimilitude. The way in which Drelincourt’s Book on Death is introduced and subsequently twice referred to is a master-stroke of genius. In days gone by, before they were parted, we are told, Mrs. Veal and Mrs. Bargrave “would often console each other’s adverse fortunes, and read together Drelincourt On Death and other good books.” At the time when the story opens Mrs. Bargrave has gone to live in Canterbury, and Mrs. Veal is in Dover. To Mrs. Bargrave in Canterbury the apparition appears, though she does not know that it is an apparition, for there is nothing to denote that it is not her old friend still alive. One of the first things the apparition does is “to remind Mrs. Bargrave of the many friendly offices she did her in former days, and much of the conversation they had with each other in the times of their adversity; what books they read, and what comfort in particular they received from Drelincourt’s Book on Death. Drelincourt, she said, had the clearest notions of death and of the future state of any who had handled that subject. Then she asked Mrs. Bargrave whether she had Drelincourt. She said, ‘Yes,’ Says Mrs. Veal, ‘Fetch it.’ Some days after, when Mrs. Bargrave, having discovered that the visitor was a ghost, has gone about telling her neighbors, Defoe observes, ‘Drelincourt’s Book on Death is, since this happened, bought up strangely,'”
This masterpiece of Defoe is before its time by a hundred years; nothing can be found in the realm of the English prose short-story to approach it in symmetry until the Ettrick Shepherd commenced to write.
Of all the models of prose-fiction which the Tudor translations had given to English literature, the first to be copied was that of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, rendered into English by Thomas Shelton in 1612. Swift must have had the rambling method of Cervantes well in mind when he wrote his Gulliver; and Smollett confessedly took it as his pattern and set out to imitate. The most that was required by such a method in the way of initial construction was to select a hero, give some account of his early history, from the day of his birth up to the point where the true narrative commences, and then send him upon his travels. Usually it was thought necessary to have a Sancho to act as background to Don Quixote; thus Crusoe is given his Man Friday, Tom Jones his Mr. Partridge, and Roderick Random his Strap; but this was not always done, for both Gulliver and the hero of the Sentimental Journey set out on their journeyings unaccompanied. The story which grew out of such a method usually consisted of a series of plots, anecdotes, and incidents linked together only by the characters, and governed by no unifying purpose which made each one a necessary and ascending step toward a prearranged climax. These early novels are often books of descriptive travel rather than novels in the modern sense; the sole connection between their first incident and their last being the long road which lies between them, and has been traversed in the continual company of the same leading characters. Many of the chapters, taken apart from their context, are short-story themes badly handled. Some of them are mere interpolations introduced on the flimsiest of excuses, which arrest the progress of the main narrative—i.e., the travel—and give the author an opportunity to use up some spare material which he does not know what to do with. Such are “The Man of the Hill,” in Tom Jones; “The History of Melopoyn the Playwright” in Roderick Random; the “Memoirs of a Lady of Quality,” occupying fifty-three thousand words, in Peregrine Pickle; “The Philosophic Vagabond,” in the Vicar of Wakefield; and “Wandering Willie’s Tale,” in Redgauntlet. The reason why the eighteenth-century novelist did not know what to do with these materials was, in certain cases, that he had discovered a true short-story theme and was perplexed by it. He knew that it was good—his artist’s instinct made him aware of that; but somehow, to his great bewilderment and annoyance, it refused to be expanded. So, in order that it might not be entirely lost to him, he tied the little boat on behind the great schooner of his main narration, and set them afloat together.
By the modern reader, whether of the short-story or the novel, the lack of atmosphere and of immediateness in eighteenth-century prose-fiction is particularly felt. There is no use made of landscapes, moods, and the phenomena of nature; the story happens at almost any season of the year. Of these things and their use the modern short-story writer is meticulously careful. By how much would the worth of Hardy’s The Three Strangers be diminished if the description of the March rain driving across the Wessex moorland were left out? Before he commences the story contained in A Lodging for the Night, Stevenson occupies three hundred words in painting the picture of Paris under snow. In the same way, in his story of The Man Who Would Be King, Kipling is at great pains to make us burn with the scorching heat which, in the popular mind, is associated with India. For such effects you will search the prose-fiction of the eighteenth century in vain; whereas the use of atmosphere has been carried to such extremes to-day by certain writers that the short-story in their hands is in danger of becoming all atmosphere and no story.
The impression created by the old technique, such as it was, when contrasted with the new, when legitimately handled, is the difference between reading a play and seeing it staged.
As regards immediateness of narration, Laurence Sterne may, perhaps, be pointed out as an example. But he is not immediate in the true sense; he is abrupt, and this too frequently for his own sly purposes—which have nothing to do with either technique or the short-story.
Most of the English short-stories, previous to those written by James Hogg, are either prefaced with a biography of their main characters or else the biography is made to do service as though it were a plot—nothing is left to the imagination. Even in the next century, when the short-story had come to be recognized in America, through the example set by Hawthorne and Poe, as a distinct species of literary art, the productions of British writers were too often nothing more than compressed novels. In fact, it is true to say that there is more of short-story technique in the short-story essays of Goldsmith and Lamb than can be found in many of the brief tales of Dickens and Anthony Trollope, which in their day passed muster unchallenged as short-stories.
But between the irrelevant brief story, interpolated in a larger narrative, and the perfect short-story, which could not be expanded and is total in itself, of Hawthorne and Poe, there stands the work of a man who is little known in America, and by no means popular in England, that of the Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg. He was born in Scotland, among the mountains of Ettrick and Yarrow, the son of a shepherd. When he was but six years old he commenced to earn his living as a cowherd, and by his seventh year had received all the schooling which he was destined to have—two separate periods of three months. Matthew Arnold, when accounting for the sterility of Gray as a poet, says that throughout the first nine decades of the eighteenth century, until the French Revolution roused men to generosity, “a spiritual east wind was blowing.” Hogg’s early ignorance of letters had at least this advantage, that it saved him from the blighting intellectual influences of his age—left him unsophisticated, free to find in all things matter for wonder, and to work out his mental processes unprejudiced by a restraining knowledge of other men’s past achievements. In his eighteenth year he taught himself to read, choosing as his text-books Henry the Minstrel’s Life and Adventures of Sir William Wallace and the Gentle Shepherd of Allan Ramsay. Not until his twenty-sixth year did he acquire the art of penmanship, which he learned “upon the hillside by copying the Italian alphabet, using his knee as his desk, and having the ink-bottle suspended from his button.” During the next fourteen years he followed his shepherd’s calling, making it romantic with sundry more or less successful attempts at authorship. He had reached his fortieth year before he abandoned sheep-raising and journeyed to Edinburgh, there definitely to adopt the literary career. He was by this time firm in his philosophy of life and established in his modes of thought; whatever else he might not be, among townsmen and persons of artificial training, his very simplicity was sure to make him original. In his forty-seventh year, having so far cast his most important work into the poetic form, he contributed to Blackwood’s Magazine his Shepherd’s Calendar, followed in the same year by the publishing of The Brownie of Bodsbeck; these were his first two serious excursions into the realm of prose-fiction. From then on until his death, in 1835, he continued his efforts in this direction, pouring out a mass of country-side tradition and fairy-folklore, amazing in its fantasy and wealth of drama.
For the imparting of atmosphere to his stories, a talent so conspicuously lacking not only in his predecessors, but also in many of his contemporaries, he had a native faculty. The author of Bonny Kilmeny could scarcely fail in this respect, when he turned his attention from poetry to prose. He had lived too close to nature to be able ever to keep the green and silver of woods and rivers far from his thoughts; they were the mirrors in which his fancy saw itself. Professor Wilson, who had known him as a friend, writing of him in Blackwood’s after his death, says: “Living for years in solitude, he unconsciously formed friendships with the springs, the brooks, the caves, the hills, and with all the more fleeting and faithless pageantry of the sky, that to him came in place of those human affections from whose indulgence he was debarred by the necessities that kept him aloof from the cottage fire and up among the mists of the mountain-top. The still green beauty of the pastoral hills and vales where he passed his youth inspired him with ever-brooding visions of fairyland, till, as he lay musing in his lonely shieling, the world of fantasy seemed, in the clear depths of his imagination, a lovelier reflection of that of nature, like the hills and heavens more softly shining in the water of his native lake.”
His taste is often defective, as is that of Burns on occasions. This is a fault which might be expected in a man of his training; but the vigor and essential worth of the matters which he relates are beyond all question. He did not always know where to begin his short-story, or where to terminate. Some of his tales, if edited with blue-pencil erasures, would be found to contain a nucleus-technique which, though far from perfect, is more than equal to that of Washington Irving, who, like Apuleius, “cared not how he loitered by the way,” and very superior to that of most of his immediate successors in the art. His story here included, of The Mysterious Bride, could scarcely be bettered in its method. To tell it in fewer words would be to obscure it; to tell it at greater length would be to rob it of its mystery and to make it obvious. Moreover, by employing atmosphere he tells it in such a way as to leave the reader with the impression that this occurrence, for all its magic, might not only be possible, but even probable—which achievement is the greatest triumph of the short-story writer’s art.
As this history of the evolution of the English short-story commenced with a poet, Chaucer, who wrote all save two of his short-stories in poetry, so it fittingly closes with a poet, the Ettrick Shepherd, who wrote most of his short-stories in prose. It remained for yet another poet, Edgar Allan Poe, who may never have heard the name or have read a line from the writings of James Hogg, to bring to perfection the task on which he had spent his labor.