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Touchstones

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 and Auspiciously for this volume, however, the story that critics tell about the American short story very often begins precisely in — 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 s, Irving secures his position as literary pioneer for penning among the very first examples of the modern short story and engaging—to an unprecedented degree—with 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. 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 — To begin this discussion in , 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 critics—especially those most invested in the distinctly American nature of the short story—describe 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.

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. 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. In the years following the — serial publication of The Sketch Book, Irving produced two more volumes of "Geoffrey Crayon's" obser vations: Bracebridge Hall and Tales of a Traveller Irving, who would go on to publish more nonfiction, released the bulk of his short fiction during the s, reaching his audiences not only through these book collections but also in periodicals.

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 s.

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Andrew Bradford's American Magazine and Benjamin Franklin 's General Magazine were first issued within three days of each other in In the years following the American Revolutionary War, the number of successful titles rose. The number of periodicals only rose from there. The s saw the first issues of several magazines that would enjoy lengthy runs, including Godey's Lady's Book founded in and the Southern Literary Messenger 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 s to the s, 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 that Poe published perhaps the most important—or at least the most frequently cited—document in the early development of the American short story, his April and May review of Nathaniel Hawthorne 's short story collection Twice-Told Tales 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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

Cyclopaedia of Ghost Story Writers

Below are the final paragraphs of this dark tale of murder and guilt. The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears; but still they sat, and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct : I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definitiveness—until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.

No doubt I now grew very pale; but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath, and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly, more vehemently but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men, but the noise steadily increased.

O God! I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!

They heard! But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision!

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I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! I admit the deed! 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 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 —which he would later disavow—Hawthorne 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 around thirty such pieces had been published—often anonymously—in gift books, newspapers, and magazines.

Finally, backed by his friend Horatio Bridge, Hawthorne published his first collection of short fiction, Twice-Told Tales, in 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 Four years after that, Hawthorne published Mosses from an Old Manse , 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.

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. And as he would later do in The Scarlet Letter , 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. One of the earliest critical pieces about the American short story, Edgar Allan Poe's review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales is cited often in discussions of the development of the genre. It was originally published in the April and May issues of Graham's Magazine.

Were we called upon, however, to designate that class of composition which, next to such a poem as we have suggested, should best fulfil the demands of high genius—should offer it the most advantageous field of exertion—we should unhesitatingly speak of the prose tale, as Mr. Hawthorne has here exemplified it. We allude to the short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal. The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length, for reasons already stated in substance.

As it cannot be read at one sitting, it deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality. Worldly interests intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book. But simple cessation in reading would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fulness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer's control.

There are no external or extrinsic influences—resulting from weariness or interruption. A skilful 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 outbringing 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 pre-established 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. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided. Poe, who worked at Graham's in and , 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 s, many of which appeared in his two short-fiction collections Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and Tales 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 loss—as well as addiction—long 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. Auguste Dupin, a mastermind of perception and reason, effortlessly solves crimes of violence and extortion. Hoaxing was also one of Poe's favored modes—and 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 review of Mosses was published in the Literary World soon after Hawthorne and Melville became friends. Melville had earned only limited recognition for his novels— Moby-Dick , which he dedicated to Hawthorne, was a commercial failure—when he somewhat reluctantly turned to short stories in a relatively unsuccessful attempt to avoid fading into obscurity and insolvency.

It was not until the s 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 —, some of which were included in his only short-fiction collection, The Piazza Tales 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 claim—clearly not unconnected to the idea of a distinctly American form—that the American short story is a uniquely democratic genre, an idea invoked in examinations of both celebrated and lesser-known story writers. The form is said to be democratic for clearing less traditional paths between obscurity and lasting renown.

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The literary careers of the authors discussed above, for example, show how, in the nineteenth century, one did not need to be an established writer to publish short stories but could instead publish stories in order to become known or earn a living as a fiction writer. The short story is also called democratic for facilitating the publication of work by writers from demographics less likely to find an audience. If Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville, all white males from the Northeast, are the short-fiction writers to have earned a place in the eyes of critics as major figures of the period, they are but a tiny sampling of those whose tales and sketches were released widely during the years to Indeed, the American magazine made publishing short fiction a much easier prospect for writers of many backgrounds and levels of literary experience.

Kristie Hamilton explains:. 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 voice—the disinterested white, urban, Northeastern gentleman. 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 — tales of the South are among the earliest popular examples of writing in this tradition. Bret Harte 's — local color fiction about California—in addition to southern locales—combines humor with sentiment. Also writing in this vein was the Missouri-born author of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , Mark Twain — , 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.

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 century—canonized, recovered, or infrequently remembered—who 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. Fetterley, Judith, and Marjorie Pryse, eds.

American Women Regionalists — New York: Norton, Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Twice-Told Tales. Expanded ed. New York: Modern Library, Irving, Washington.

Related books and articles

Melville, Herman. The Piazza Tales. Northwestern-Newberry edition. Evanston, Ill. Poe, Edgar Allan. Introduction by G. New York: Perennial, Boston: Twayne, Hamilton, Kristie. Athens: Ohio University Press, Lee, A. Robert, ed. London: Vision Press, Levy, Andrew. Pattee, Fred Lewis. Tallack, Douglas. London and New York: Routledge, Voss, Arthur. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, The latter half of the nineteenth century marked a period of maturity for the American short story.

The Diamond Lens by Fitz-James O'Brien Part 1

Its growth was due largely to the influence of the realist movement, which professionalized the literary arts, putting them to the service of aesthetic protocols designed to elevate fiction to the cultural status of science, politics, and the law. Emphasizing representational accuracy, tonal objectivity, and the taxonomic organization of fictional modes and styles into distinct categories, realists approached the short story with the intent of formalizing what had to date been at best an amorphous classification.

There were short stories before the term "short story" entered the critical vocabulary in the s, of course, but they varied so widely in technique and effect that the consanguinity among them was difficult to specify Marler, pp. The lack of generic unity explains why short fiction was broadly dismissed as a minor form, one suitable for novices needing to "prepare themselves for future and nobler exertions.

The imperatives of realism redeemed the short story from this animadversion, giving it a critical currency that, despite Edgar Allan Poe 's efforts on its and his own behalf in the s, and despite the memorable work of Nathaniel Hawthorne , Herman Melville , and others, it had not previously enjoyed. By the mids it would come to be celebrated as a "uniquely" American art form, one whose "supremacy," in Brander Matthews's estimation, "any competent critic could not but acknowledge" p. That legitimization process was neither uniform nor easy. Initially it involved issues of content and style.

Only after would realists focus upon form to determine how short fiction differed from other literary modes. At the heart of these inquiries lay a basic question: Did the circumscribed space of the short story impinge upon the natural shape of a plot, effectively molding its drama to fit a predetermined structure? Poe had certainly thought so, claiming that "the tale. Yet for many realists, such a prescription smacked of prefabrication, implying that "form" was merely a synonym for "formula.

Not every story with a twist was, in the strictest sense, a "trick ending" story: the term typically denotes only those texts that locate the surprise in the final sentence Gerlach, p. Yet the prevalence of ironic conclusions perpetuated the notion that the short story was "end-driven," thereby challenging more literary-minded writers to develop methods for undermining what seemed its determining form.

For many other writers, however, particularly those drawing from oral and folkloric traditions of storytelling, a dramatic conclusion was comparable to the punch line of joke and was thus a vital narrative element. Still other writers deployed twists to comment on racial and gender issues, using reversals to debunk cultural stereotypes and undermine social hierarchies. The aesthetics of the short story might not even have become a matter of debate had it not been for the Atlantic Monthly, the Boston-based periodical whose founding editor, James Russell Lowell — , discouraged contributors from the romanticized stories popularized by the leading mid-nineteenth-century mass-market fiction outlet, the New York Ledger.

According to Fred Lewis Pattee, Lowell "was attracted by the genuineness and truth of life in a tale, be it high life or low, and he rejected without hesitation the mechanically literary, the artificially romantic, and the merely sentimental. With the advent of the Atlantic Monthly a healthy realism for the first time decisively entered American fiction" p. Under his tutelage, a range of writers, including Rose Terry Cooke, Rebecca Harding Davis, Fitz-James O'Brien, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Edward Everett Hale , explored previously taboo subject matter, flouted the obligation to moralize, drew denser psychological portraits, eschewed fantasy for familiar settings, and enjoyed greater stylistic leeway in reproducing the nuances of everyday speech dialect.

Two early Atlantic stories in particular, "Life in the Iron Mills" by Davis — and "The Man without a Country" , by Hale — infused short fiction with social urgency by examining labor abuse and the responsibilities of patriotism, respectively. Lowell's influence is perhaps most marked on Harriet Beecher Stowe — , who curbed the didacticism of Uncle Tom 's Cabin — to produce the tales gathered in Sam Lawson's Oldtown Fireside Stories , which, along with those in Cooke's Somebody's Neighbors , exemplify the New England local color literary tradition. The more carefully we study the history of fiction the more clearly we perceive that the Novel and the Short-story are essentially different—that the difference between them is not one of mere length only, but fundamental.

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