Brander Matthews (18521929). The Short-Story. 1907.
ONLY within the past few years have we come to see that there is an essential difference between the true short-story and the more carelessly composed tale which happens to be brief. Even now we have no distinctive name for the new form; and perhaps for the present, at least, we cannot do better than to make an arbitrary compound word and to write it short-story, thereby distinguishing it, as far as may be, from the story which merely chances to be short, although it might very well have been long.
Brief tales there have been since the world began, since the art of the story-teller was first attempted, since the Cave-men filled the long evenings around the smoking fire with narratives of the mysterious deeds of the strange creatures of their own primitive fancy, since the earliest travelers who ventured abroad brought back episodic accounts of one or another of their misadventures, commingled of fact and of fiction. Strange stories were told about animals who talked and who had many of the characteristics of mankind; and by word of mouth these marvelous tales were passed down from generation to generation, growing in detail and gaining in precision, until there came to be the immense mass of beast-fable, surviving in oral tradition chiefly, but getting itself lifted up into literature now and again. It was from this fund of accumulated and transmitted lore of legend that Bidpai and Æsop made their selections, to be followed, after many a century, by that more accomplished artist in narrative, La Fontaine, the great master of the fable, which instructs and yet satirizes our common humanity.
Every fable has its moral, even though this is not always tagged to the tail of it; and the ethical intent of the story-teller who sets down what the animals say to one another is as obvious in the record of the doings of Reynard the Fox as it is in the sayings of Brer Rabbit preserved for us by Uncle Remus. A moral there is alsoand the sturdiest and wisest of moralsin the Jungle Book of Mr. Kipling, wherein we learn how Mowgli grew to manhood among the wild creatures of the field and of the forest. But the beast-fable, delightful as it may be when it is dealt with artistically, by the writers who have genuine sympathy with the lowly and clear insight into the conditions of life,the beast-fable is only one of the many forms of the brief tale; and it has only a casual likeness to the true short-story.
Brief tales of another kind were known to the ancients, Oriental in their origin, for the most part, and abounding in that liking for the supernatural, which characterizes the majority of the stories that have come to us from the East. There are the rambling Egyptian narratives,the tale, for example, of the Two Brothers and the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailors, which scholars have only recently replevined from the buried papyrus. There are the cleverly narrated anecdotes which we find here and there in the pages of Herodotus,1 who was a historian with a full share of the gift of story-telling, and who was also a traveler with a natural desire ever to hear and to tell something new and something striking. There are the so-called Lost Tales of Miletus, widely popular in the days of Greek decadence, when the enervating Orient had corrupted the sterner artistic sense of Athens and of its rival cities. But whether Grecian or Egyptian, the best of these straggling narratives is likely to reveal three characteristic defects,to quote the opinion of a competent critic, Professor Peck2 (of Columbia),a lack of variety in its themes, a lack of interest in its treatment, and a lack of originality in its form.
So far as the Greeks are concerned, this need not surprise us, since it was only in their decline that they took to prose. In the splendid period of their richest accomplishment they had found fit expression for their imaginings only in poetry; and there is significance in the fact that no one of the nine muses had been assigned to foster prosefiction. The demoralizing and disintegrating influence of the Orient is visible also in Latin literature; and in prose-fiction, as in other fields of artistic endeavor, the Romans followed faithfully in the paths first trodden by the Athenians. The writers of their rambling narratives were also tempted to introduce the abnormal and the supernatural; and apparitions especially are frequent in the literature of the Latins. For example, there can be found in one of the younger Plinys letters3 a ghost-story, skillfully yet simply told, which is not without a certain likeness to one of the earliest of American tales,Irvings Dolph Heyliger.
Much the most famous of all the brief stories that survive in Latin is the tale of the Matron of Ephesus, with its satiric ingenuity, which has tempted the poets of every modern language to tell it anew, each in his own fashion. It is first to be found as an anecdote related by one of the characters in that early masterpiece of humorous realism, the Satira of Petronius.4 And here occasion serves to note that it is only since the novel has succeeded in establishing itself as an artistic rival of the drama, and only since the scope of the true short-story has come to be recognized, that writers of fiction have given up the practice of padding their longer stories by the insertion of briefer tales, wholly unrelated to the main theme. Cervantes put into Don Quixote at least one minor narrative that merely distended his novel without benefiting it; and his example was followed by Scarron in the Roman Comique, by Fielding in Tom Jones, and by Dickens in the Pickwick Papers. And it is in Redgauntlet that we find Wandering Willies Tale, a delightful example of Scotts commingled humor and fancy; it is properly in place in the longer romance in which it is embedded; and it is also one of the most interesting of those accidental anticipations of the true short-story, of which there are not a few to be discovered at irregular intervals in the history of fiction.
The Matron of Ephesus itself might also be accepted as one of these accidental anticipations, if it was not a little lacking in simplicity and in concision. But it is the sole specimen of the brief tale to be selected out of all Latin literature as prefiguring our latter-day type. From all Greek literature the one example to be chosen would be the lovely vignette of Daphnis and Chloe, if this miniature idyl did not happen also to be a little too complicated in its episodes; in fact, it is a forerunner rather of the modern novelette, which stands midway between the brief tale and the ampler novel.
In the novelette we can often discover many of the special characteristics of the true short-story, more especially originality of theme and ingenuity of invention; but it always lacks the one essential of brevity. The late Locker-Lampson declared that Popes Rape of the Lock would be the best possible example of vers de société in its perfection, if only it had not been quite so long-drawn as it is; and for the same reason even the most exquisite of novelettes, Daphnis and Chloe, for instance, must be distinguished from the more compact short-story.
It may be well to note here, however, that the novelette is an interesting species of fiction, which has failed to receive the full critical consideration it deserves. Its history is highly honorable, illumined at the beginning by the gentle charm of Daphnis and Chloe, and lighted up later by the pathetic grace of Aucassin and Nicolette. In the last two centuries we find in the literature of the several modern languages novelettes of the utmost variety of theme,Paul and Virginia in French, Undine and Peter Schlemihl in German, and Lear of the Steppe in Russian, while in English we have a humorous fantasy like the Case of Mr. Lucraft of Besant and Rice, a searching apologue like the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of Stevenson, and a veracious character-study like the Daisy Miller of Henry James. All of these were in spirit closely akin to the true short-story; but all of them are too ample in extent.
But even if the more careless prose-fictions of the Greeks and of the Latins are far inferior artistically to the larger Attic poems and to the lighter Roman lyrics, still they are immensely superior to the chaotic narratives which are all we can discover in the dark ages that followed the downfall of Imperial rule. Medieval fiction is not unfairly represented by the Gesta Romanorum, that storehouse of tales of all sorts and of all lengths, gathered from the ends of the earth and heaped up at haphazard. There are a few good stories to be found in this bric-a-brac collection of anecdotes, repartees, narratives of one kind and another,stories deserving of a better treatment than could be imparted by the monkish scribe who set them down in casual confusion; and more than one later poet and playwright has been able to pick a pearl of price out of this medieval medley.
The Gesta Romanorum represents the story-telling of the Middle Ages as it was in the hands of the half educated, who had only confused memories of the past. The story-telling of those who were frankly uneducated is represented by the beast-fable, which had then a renowned popularity throughout Europe, and also by a more engaging form, the fabliau. The word is French; and the thing itself was French also, with a full savor of Gallic salt. A fabliau is a brief tale, often little more than an anecdote, with a sharp sting at the end of it; frequently it was in rime; generally satiric in intent, it was full of frank gayety and of playful humor. It may be defined as a realistic folk tale, not bookish in its flavor, but with the simple shrewdness of the plain people. On occasion it is free to the extreme of coarseness; but on occasion also it can be brisk and bright, fresh and felicitous, with a verve and a vivacity all its own.5
From the fabliau, and from the Gesta Romanorum also, the story-tellers of the Renascence borrowed many a hint; what they contributed themselves was a finer art of narrative. Their brief tales in prose or in verse were not only richer in substance, they were, above all, more shapely and more seemly, better proportioned and better balanced, more cleverly thought out and more skillfully wrought out. Chaucer, writing in rime in England, and Boccaccio, writing in prose in Italy, might now and again pick out a plot from the Gesta Romanorum; but the English poet and the Italian teller of tales in prose took over from the fabliau more than the bare suggestion of a situation,they caught from it not a little of the grace, the lightness, and the ease that often characterizes the unpretending work of the unknown French narrators.
Boccaccio himself,6 and the host of other Italians who trod the trail first blazed by the author of the Decameron, dealt not only with the traditional material heaped up for the hand of the story-teller, but also with the somber and bloody incidents of contemporary life. Their swift tales, limned in outline only, with scarcely a hint of the background, with only the most summary indication of individual characteristics, were comic or tragic as it might chance. Sometimes they present us with the amusing complexities of amorous intrigue; and sometimes they give us glimpses of sudden and deadly revenge. In this commingling of the grave and the gay they were imitated by the French and by the English. In the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, and in the other collections of other authors using the same language, we observe that the French very naturally felt the influence of the fabliau and that they seem to prefer the comic. In Painters Palace of Pleasure, and in its rival adaptations into our own tongue, we perceive that the English liking was rather for the tragic. The Italian tales, translated or in the original, served as a treasury of grisly plots open before the Elizabethan play-wrights, wherein they might make their choice of strange situations to set before their unlettered audiences, reveling in dark deeds and relishing Machiavellian motives.
Boccaccio was a born story-teller; and born story-tellers were also not a few of his followers. The novella of the Italian Renascence has often a unity of its own, and sometimes it even achieves what must be termed a fairly well-balanced construction, presenting us with the beginning, the middle, and the end of its action. And yet these fertile and accomplished narrators failed to see the manifold advantages of the compact simplicity which is the controlling characteristic of the modern short-story. Sometimes they proffer to us bare anecdotes deftly sketched; sometimes they present us with longer plots in outline only, lacking compression, lacking color, and lacking adequate solution of the central situation. Only on rare occasions, and, as it were, by chance, do they happen upon a form anticipating the real short-story as we know it now, with its direct unity and with its deliberate centering of interest in a single point.
Professor Baldwin (of Yale) has analyzed the century of tales contained in the Decameron; and the result of his investigation7 is that more than a half of the hundred are little more than anecdotes, sometimes baldly narrated and sometimes more artistically elaborated, while nearly all of the remaining twoscore are but naked plots for stories, ingeniously set forth, but existing only in scenario, so to speak. He is able to indicate three which reveal an approximation to the true type of short-story as we recognize it to-day, and only two which actually attain to it. This cautious classification seems to show that Boccaccio had no definite standard in mind, and that if he twice achieved the modern form it was all unwittingly and quite casually. And Bandello, the foremost of Boccaccios followers, wasas the same astute critic declareseven looser in his structure and even more reckless in his disregard for the restraints of time and space.
The influence of the Italians was widespread throughout Europe; and it was more powerful than that of the Spaniards who were next to blossom forth as luxuriant inventors of adventure. It must be noted that the fertility of the Spaniards was revealed rather in their multitudinous drama than in their prose-fiction; and also that even in their prose-fiction their grandiloquence led them to display their fancy rather in long-drawn romances than in tales cut short. To Spain we seem to owe the interminable Romances of Chivalry, series within series; and to Spain also are we indebted for the humorous narratives of knavery, which are known as the Picaresque Romances.8
It was Spain also which bestowed on us the earliest indisputable masterpiece of prose-friction, Don Quixote. But Cervantes did not take himself too seriously; and even in his great work there are undeniable evidences of his artistic carelessness. Expressing himself freely in the fashion of his time and in the manner of his race, Cervantes could not be expected to have any prevision of the rigid limitations and of the compensating advantages of the short-story. In the minor narratives arbitrarily intercalated into Don Quixote, and in the separate collection of his Exemplary Novels, he has written neither true short-stories nor true novelettes, but specimens of the tale which chances to be fairly brief, although there is no intrinsic reason why it might not have been long.
This same disregard of formal beauty, this same sprawling looseness of structure is what we observe also in the two novelists of France, who reflect most openly the influence of Spain. Both Scarron and Le Sage borrowed abundantly from the plays and from the prose-fiction of their predecessors and contemporaries south of the Pyrenees; and they took over more than episodes and plotsthey took over all the Spanish laxity of texture. The shorter narratives injected into the Roman Comique and the autobiographic digressions discoverable in Gil Blas do not differ in any way from the larger stories in which they are included. In fact, the more closely we consider the prosefiction of France as it was when Scarron and Le Sage were writing, the more clearly can we perceive that it had not then become conscious of its latent possibilities, realized only in a later century. All we can discover, then, is a certain skill in narration and in character-drawing. No anticipation can be detected either of the short-story or of the artfully built novel, as we were to receive it later from the hands of Balzac, of Hawthorne, and of Turgenieff. Neither form had then begun to differentiate itself from the more confused narrative which might be of any length. A carefully proportioned tale like the Princess of Cleves of Madame de La Fayette remains a rare exception amid the mass of French fiction of two centuries ago, most of which is invertebrate and conglomerate.
Nor is there a marked advance in the art of fiction to be observed in the eighteenth century, so far, at least, as mere form is concerned. In France, Voltaire was the author of a series of contes, of philosophic tales, delightful in their wit and disintegrating in their irony. But Candide and its fellows were not called into being for their own sake, but to serve an ulterior purpose. They were missiles of assault, and not stories told for the sheer pleasure of telling. They were weapons in the warfare which Voltaire was waging against the conditions he detested and against the beliefs he wished to destroy. They were allegories or apologues, rather than sketches of life and character; and however interesting they may be in themselves, they are the intense expression of Voltaire himself, and therefore they bring us no further on the way to the modern short-story.
In England there is the Eighteenth Century Essay, as Steele devised it and as Addison enlarged it;9 and in the Tatler and in the Spectator we have what we may salute as an early suggestion of the monthly magazine of our own time, with the same hospitality to many literary forms,to the obituary article, for instance, to the book review, and to the theatrical criticism. There is the succession of papers devoted to Sir Roger de Coverley, which we can accept, if we choose, as a first attempt at the serial-story. There are the occasional Oriental tales and the more frequent sketches of character, which we may hail, if we will, as remote ancestors of the latter-day short-story. Half a century later this Oriental tale, as Addison had outlined it simply, was expanded by Johnson in his Rasselas; and in like manner the character-sketch, as Steele had attempted it, was enriched and elaborated by Goldsmith in the Vicar of Wakefield.
At the end of the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth we can catch the echo in English of a new note,the note of German Romanticism. There was a reaction against the realities of life as Fielding and Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen represented them. The ballads and the brief tales in prose which the English imported from Germany, or which they made for themselves on the German model, had a flavor of mysticism as well as an aroma of mystery. Scott translated Bürger; and Matthew Lewis compiled his Tales of Horror. Specters became fashionable again, and ghosts walked the earth once more. The eerie imaginings and the morbid hallucinations of Zschokke and of Hoffmann found a warm welcome in the native land of the authors of the Castle of Otranto and of the Mysteries of Udolpho. Although these German tales tended to be vague and formless, and although there was much that was freakish in their exuberance of fantasy, there was much also that was to prove profitable to the future masters of the short-story,Hawthorne and Poe in the United States, Gautier and Mérimée in France.
It is in France and in the United States, rather than in Great Britain, that we first find the true short-story; and we do not find it until the second quarter of the nineteenth century. In France, Gautier and Mérimée were preceded by Nodier, who had a feeling of the future form, but who failed finally to achieve it. In the United States, Hawthorne and Poe had a predecessor in Irving, whose delightful tales lack only a more vigorous restraint to be accepted as the earliest models of the short-story. In fact, it is only when we draw up a narrowly rigid definition of the form that we are forced to exclude Irving from the list of its originators. What Irving did not seek to bestow on his charming fantasies was the essential compression, the swift and straightforward movement, the unwillingness to linger by the way.
In fact, to linger by the way was exactly what Irving proposed to himself as a principle. For my part, he wrote to a friend, I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch the materials; it is the play of thought, and sentiment, and language, the weaving in of characters, lightly, yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half-concealed vein of humor that is often playing through the whole,these are among what I aim at, and upon which I felicitate myself in proportion as I think I succeed.10 In this declaration Irving reveals the reason why he is to be considered as a true heir of the eighteenth-century essayists. The Sketch-Book is the direct descendant of the Spectator; and in Rip Van Winkle and in the Specter Bridegroom and in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow we must see the connecting link between the brief tale as it had been generally essayed in the eighteenth century and the short-story as it was to be perfected in the nineteenth. While Irvings manner is the discursive manner of the essayist, his material is very much what the later writers of the short-story were glad to deal with.
Beyond all question, Irving had freshness, inventiveness, fantasyall invaluable gifts for the short-story; but he did not strive for the implacable unity and the swift compactness which we now demand and which we find frequently in Hawthorne and always in Poe. And these are the essential qualities which we perceive also in the Morte Amoureuse of Gautier and in the Vénus dIlle of Mérimée, which were published in France only a year or two after Poe had put forth Berenice. If we may judge by their other efforts in fiction, Mérimée and Gautier, like Hawthorne, were led to attain the true short-story rather by artistic impulse than by deliberate effort acting in accord with a theory firmly held. But Poe was conscious; he knew what he was doing; he had a theory firmly held; and his principles were widely different from those laid down by Irving. His artistic aim, his conception of what a short-story ought to be, was clear before him, as it was not clear before Hawthorne, who was far less of a theorizer about his art, even if he was ethically a more richly endowed artist.
And it was in a review of Hawthornes tales11 that Poe first laid down the principles which governed his own construction and which have been quoted very often of late, because they have been accepted by the masters of the short-story in every modern language. In the paper on the Philosophy of Composition Poe had asserted that a poem ought not greatly to exceed a hundred lines in length, since this is as much as can be read with unbroken interest; and in this review of Hawthorne he applies the same principle to prosefiction:
The ordinary story 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 contract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book. But simply 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 fullness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writers control. There are no external or extrinsic influencesresulting from weariness or interruption.
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 incidentsthen 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. As 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.
This is definite and precise beyond all misunderstanding,the short-story must do one thing only, and it must do this completely and perfectly; it must not loiter or digress; it must have unity of action, unity of temper, unity of tone, unity of color, unity of effect; and it must vigilantly exclude everything that might interfere with its singleness of intention.
The same essential principles were laid down again, almost half a century later, by another accomplished artist in fiction who also took an intelligent interest in the code of his craft. In one of his Vailima Letters,12 Stevenson wrote to a friend, who had rashly ventured to suggest a different termination for one of his stories, that any alteration of that kind was absolutely impossible, since it would violate the law of the short-story:
Make another end to it? Ah, yes, but thats not the way I write; the whole tale is implied; I never use an effect when I can help it, unless it prepares the effects that are to follow; thats what a story consists in. To make another end, that is to make the beginning all wrong. The dénouement of a long story is nothing, it is just a full close, which you may approach and accompany as you pleaseit is a coda, not an essential number in the rhythm; but the body and end of a short-story is bone of the bone and blood of the blood of the beginning.
After Poe, by his precept and by his practice, had revealed the possibilities of the short-story and had shown what it ought to be, it became conscious of itself. It felt itself to be differentiated as sharply from the novel as the lyric is differentiated from the epic. It was no longer to be accomplished by a lucky accident only; it could be achieved solely by deliberate and resolute effort. The restrictions were rigid, like those of the sonnet, and success was not easy; but the very difficulty of the undertaking was tempting to the true artist, ever eager for a grapple with technic. Of course, the easier brief tale, with its careless digressions, was still satisfactory to writers who lacked muscle and nerve to wrestle with the severer form,just as the weaklings among the rimesters still content themselves with one of the looser arrangements of the sonnet.
In every modern literature there arose in time writers who mastered the short-story, made it supple, gave it scope, bent it to their own purpose, and dowered the readers of their own language with little masterpieces of narration, wholly free from the three defects which had characterized the brief tales of the Greeks,a lack of variety in its themes, a lack of interest in its treatment, and a lack of originality in its form. So we find Verga in Italy, Kjelland in Norway, Turgenieff in Russia, taking over the perfected form, profiting by its enforced obligations of unity, simplicity, and harmony, and handling it with variety, with interest, and with originality. They dealt, each of them, with the life immediately around them, with the life of their own people, with the life they knew best; and they gave to the short-story a richness of human flavor that Poe had never sought, since his ultimate aim was rather construction than character-drawing.
Yet it was not in Italy, in Norway, or in Russia, that the short-story flourished first or most luxuriantly; it was in France and in the United States, the two countries in which it had been earliest achieved, almost simultaneously and quite independently. In Great Britain it was slow to establish itself; and not for many years did any one of the British masters of narrative art put forth his utmost endeavor in this minor form. They long preferred the leisurely amplitude of the full-grown novel, with its larger liberty and its looser facility; and in this they found a more certain reward. In London neither the monthly magazines nor the weeklies were eager to extend an encouraging hospitality to the short-story, relying rather on a single serial tale which might assure their circulation for a year.Charles Reade once boasted that a certain novel of his floated the Argosy.
Brief tales there were, and in profusion, in these British magazines; but they were, for the most part, the unimportant productions of the less gifted writers. Indeed, the British were the last of the great peoples of the world to appreciate the finer possibilities of the short-story as a definite species of fiction; and therefore they were the slowest to take advantage of the new form. And as a result of this conservatism they lagged far behind France and the United States, in this department of literature, until its possibilities were suddenly made manifest to them by Stevenson and by Kipling, both of whom had come directly under the influence of Poe and of other American short-story writers. Stevenson had a certain spiritual kinship with Hawthorne also, disclosed most clearly in Markheim,which could not be excluded from any list of the worlds most powerful short-stories. And to any list of the worlds most beautiful short-stories Kipling could contribute Without Benefit of Clergy, the Brushwood Boy, and They, even if a larger selection from his incomparably varied store did not impose itself. The British were sluggish in adventuring themselves in the new form, but when at last two of their most striking writers did undertake it, they won immediate acclaim as masters of this minor art.
Perhaps the reason why the short-story established itself earlier in France was twofold,first of all, the finer artistic appreciation of a gifted race which had inherited the Latin liking for logic, and which had long accepted the classicist code of unity and proportion; and, secondly, the inviting hospitality of Parisian journalism, which had always prided itself on a close connection with literature. The French are not rich in magazines, partly perhaps because their newspapers are ready to give them much that we who speak English expect to find only in our weeklies and our monthlies. It is in the daily journals of the city on the Seine that there were first published the most of the short-stories of Richepin, of Coppée and of Halévy, of Daudet and of Maupassant. And whenever the list of the worlds most admirable short-stories is drawn up, it cannot fail to contain the title of more than one of Daudets deliciously humorous fantasies, full of the flavor of the South; and it will be enriched also with the name of more than one of Maupassants sturdily veracious portrayals of character, executed with a Northern fidelity to fact.
For the extraordinary expansion of the short-story here in the United States, in the American branch of English literature, in the mid-century when it was being neglected by the chief authors of the British branch of our literature, three reasons may be suggested. First of all, there is the important fact that the perfected form had been exemplified and proclaimed here by Poe, earlier than by any other writer elsewhere. Secondly, we need to note that our struggling magazines from the beginning had been forced to rely for their attractiveness largely on the short-story, if only because of the dearth at first of native novelists capable of carrying the burden of the lengthened serial. And, thirdly, we must recall certain of the special conditions of our civilization,a vast country, a heterogeneous population, a wide variety of interests, all of which combined to make it almost an impossibility that we should ever bring forth a work of fiction which might be recognized as the Great American Novel.
What it was possible for our writers of fiction to do, and what it was most immediately profitable for them to do, was to forego the long novel and to avail themselves of the short-story in which they might begin modestly to deal directly with that special part of an immense country with which any one of them chanced to be most familiar, to limn its characters with absolute honesty, and to fix its characteristics before these were modified. In the middle of the nineteenth century the time was not yet ripe for the broader studies of American life, like the Rise of Silas Lapham and Huckleberry Finn, which could not arrive until later; but there was a tempting opening for those who might choose to cultivate what may be called the short-story of local color. In one sense Irving had set the example; and in Rip Van Winkle and its fellows he had peopled the banks of the Hudson with legendary figures. But more potent yet was the influence of Hawthorne with his searching analysis of the very soul of New England.
After Irving and Hawthorne there came forward a host of American writers of the short-story of local color, men and women, humorists and sentimentalists, fantasists and realists, Northerners and Southerners, differing in sincerity and differing in skill. For more than threescore years now they have been exploring these United States; and they have been explaining the people of one state to the population of the others, increasing our acquaintance with our fellow-citizens and broadening our sympathy. In no other country has anything like this probing inquisition of contemporary humanity ever been attempted,perhaps because there is no other country in which it could be as useful and as necessary.
Bret Harte cast the cloak of romance upon the shoulders of the Argonauts of 49; and what he sought to do for the early Californians other writers have striven to do for the inhabitants of other states. There is romance in abundance in Mr. Cables loving delineation of Old Creole Days, in which there is also a wiser regard for the actual facts of life and of human character. What Mr. Cable did for Louisiana, Mr. Page has done for Virginia, and Mr. Harris for Georgia. With a franker realism, Miss Jewett and Miss Wilkins have depicted the sterner folk of Massachusetts, and Mr. Garland has etched the plain people of Wisconsin. And only recently the same searching method has been applied to the several quarters of the single city of New York with its confused medley of inhabitants drawn from every part of the Old World and now in the process of making over into citizens of the New.
It was Poe who first pointed out that the short-story has a right to exist, and that it is essentially different in its aim from the tale which merely chances not to be prolonged. Admitting the claim of the short-story to be received as a clearly defined species, Professor Perry (of Harvard) has considered the advantages of the form and its rigorous limitations.13 He holds that the authors of fiction, whether novelists or tellers of short-stories, seek always to arouse the interest of the reader by showing him certain persons doing certain things in certain circumstances. In other words, they deal with three elements, the characters, the plot, and the setting. As the time at the command of the writers of the short-story is strictly limited, they cannot deal with colorless characters, and if the theme is character-development, then that development must be hastened by striking experiences. In other words, the short-story of character is likely to present a central figure more or less unusual and unexpected.
On the other hand, if the emphasis is laid rather on what happens than on the person to whom it happens, then the restriction of brevity tends toward an extreme simplification of the chief character. The heroine of the Lady or the Tiger, for example, is simply a womannot any woman in particular; and the hero of the Pit and the Pendulum is simply a mannot any man in particular. The situation itself is all sufficient to hold our attention for a brief space. Thus, if the interest of the short-story is focused on character, that character is likely to be out of the common, whereas if the attention is fixed rather on plot, then the character is likely to be commonplace. If, however, the author prefers to spend his effort chiefly on the setting, then he can get along almost without character and without plot. The setting alone will suffice to interest us, and our attention is held mainly by the pressure of the atmosphere. The modern feeling for landscape, the modern curiosity about social conditions, the modern esthetic sense for the characteristic rather than for the beautiful, all play into the short-story writers hands; and he can give us the fullest satisfaction if he can discover to us a new corner of the world, or sketch the familiar scene to our hearts desire, or illumine one of the great human occupations, as war, or commerce, or industry.
Professor Perry makes it clear that in the short-story the powers of the reader are not kept long upon the stretch, and that this gives its writers an opportunity of which the novelist can venture to avail himself only at his peril,the opportunity for innocent didacticism, for posing problems without answering them, for stating arbitrary premises, for omitting unlovely details, and, conversely, for making beauty out of the horrible, and finally, for poetic symbolism. Then the critic calls attention to the demands which the short-story makes on the writer if he is really to achieve a masterpiece in this form; and he asserts that the short-story at its best calls for visual imagination of a high order: the power to see the object; to penetrate to the essential nature; to select the one characteristic trait by which it may be represented. But the short-story does not require the possession of a sustained power of imagination; nor does it demand of its author essential sanity, breadth, and tolerance of view. Dealing only with a fleeting phase of existence, employing only a brief moment of time, the writer of the short-story need not be consistent; he need not think things through. Herein we see where the short-story falls below the level of the larger novel, which must needs be sane and consistent, and which calls for a prolonged exercise of interpretive imagination.
In these pages consideration has been paid only to the short-story in prose; but attention should be called to the existence of certain brief tales in verse, a few of which achieve the true short-story form in spite of their rimes, although the most of them are merely metrical narratives not unduly prolonged. Of course, the earliest stories of all must have been first told rhythmically, since prose comes ever after verse; and the lyric habit survived the later mastery of the other harmony. In Alexandria Theocritus shrank from the stately epic,perhaps because he had taken to heart the warning of Callimachus that a great book is a great evil. He wrote delicate and delightful idyls, little pictures of life in town and in country, closely akin in their temper to the vignettes etched by certain modern poets of society.
Sometimes the distinction between the tales in prose and those in verse is very slight indeed. Chaucer put into rime some of the same fictions which Boccaccio was narrating in more pedestrian fashion but with almost equal felicity; and this material, common to these two early masters of narrative, was derived sometimes from an earlier French fabliau in rime. In the technic of story-telling the English poet was the better craftsman; he had a unity and a harmony to which his Italian contemporary could not pretend. Chaucer had also a far richer humor and a far more searching insight into human nature.
The employment of rhythm and of rime tends always to endow a tale with a lyrical elevation not quite what we expect in a short-story, not quite in keeping with its dominant tone. In other words, verse is likely to bestow on a story a certain ballad note; and much as a rimed tale may suggest a ballad, there is, after all, a distinction between them. Just as the novel differs from the epic, so the tale in verse differs from the ballad, even if this difference is not easy to declare precisely. The epic may be a reworking of older ballads; but it is an inferior epic which strikes us as being no more than a stringing together of ballad after ballad.
From out of the mass of tales in verse, from La Fontaines lively contes, from Hugos splendid Legend of the Ages, from Crabbes homely Tales of the Hall, and from Longfellows graceful Tales of a Wayside Inn, it would not be difficult to single out more than one tale in rime which approaches closely to the short-story form.14 To be cited also are certain of Scotts narratives in rime, as well as Wordsworths Michael and Tennysons Dora. The Hermann and Dorothea of Goethe is rather a novelette in verse than a short-story; and its analogue in English is the Courtship of Miles Standish. In French the conte en vers flourished intermittently all through the nineteenth century; and Coppées vigorous and pathetic Strike of the Iron Workers is a true short-story, in verse,to be compared with his own prose Substitute and with Halévys Insurgent.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century the drama was the dominating literary form. In the eighteenth century the essay in its turn attracted the attention of almost every man of letters. In the nineteenth century the essay lost its popularity, just as the drama had lost its supremacy a hundred years earlier; and prose-fiction, borrowing much from both of these predecessors, attained a universal vogue and insisted on recognition as the equal of the drama which had formerly claimed an indisputable precedence. At the end of the nineteenth century no competent critic could deny that it had been the era of the novel; but even more indisputably had it been the era of the short-story. Now, at the beginning of the twentieth century, there are signs that the drama is again alive in our literature and that it is winning back adherents from the ranks of the novelists. But this rivalry of the drama, whatever effect it may have upon the novel, is not likely to interfere with the short-story, which stands apart by itself. Probably there is no rashness in a prophecy that the short-story will flourish even more luxuriantly in the immediate future than it has flourished in the immediate past. Of a certainty we can assert that a literary form as popular as the short-story, as well established in every modern literature, is deserving of serious consideration and is worthy of careful study.
Note 4. Professor Peck has translated it into nervous English in the introduction to his Trimalchios Dinner, pp. 2530. [back]
Note 5. The fullest discussion of this interesting species is to be found in Les Fabliaux, par Joseph Bedier, 2d ed., Paris, 1895. [back]
Note 6. In an inexpensive volume of his Universal Library the late Henry Morley printed forty tales, chosen out of the hundred which make up the Decameron. He carefully excluded all those offensive to modern taste. [back]
Note 7. American Short Stories, selected and edited with an introductory essay on the short-story, by Charles Sears Baldwin (The Wampum Library), New York and London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1904. [back]
Note 8. An appreciative account of the Romances of Chivalry will be found in Sir Walter Scotts essay on Amadis of Gaul. The best study of the Picaresque Tales is Romances of Roguery, an episode in the history of the novel, by Frank Wadleigh Chandler. New York: Columbia University Press, 1899. [back]
Note 9. For an account of the origin and development of this delightful literary species, see Eighteenth Century Essays, selected and annotated by Austin Dobson, London and New York, 1882. [back]
Note 10. Life and Letters of Washington Irving, New York: G. P. Putnams Sons, 1869. II, p. 227. [back]
Note 11. This criticism was contributed originally to Grahams Magazine, in 1842; it is now included in all editions of Poes writings. [back]
Note 12. Written September 5, 1891, to Mr. Sidney Colvin, Vailima Letters, I, p. 147 [back]
Note 13. A Study of Prose Fiction, by Bliss Perry, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1902. Chapter XII, The Short-Story, pp. 300334. [back]
Note 14. For a fuller consideration of the rimed story, see English Tales in Verse, with an introduction. By C. H. Herford, London: Blackie & Son. (The Warwick Library.) [back]