Fiction > Harvard Classics > Fiction in America
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction.  1917.
Fiction in America
WHEN Irving’s “Sketch Book” appeared in 1819 the history of American fiction was a short and sorry chapter. While Puritanism held away, prose fiction, like drama, was discredited as idle, if not actually wicked. With the period of the American Revolution this ban was indeed removed; but the claims of the state, except upon a few sentimentalists of inconsiderable genius, exerted a pressure which stifled the American novel until, between 1798 and 1804, Charles Brockden Brown adapted to American scenes the romance of terror—the so-called “Gothic Romance.” Brown, though he is not improperly called “the father of the American novel,” has deservedly failed to arouse general interest: his plots are badly constructed and nearly incredible, his characters pride themselves upon their morbid unusualness, and his scenes are only occasionally real. Such was the modest beginning.   1
  All the more remarkable are the achievements of Irving, Cooper, and Poe between 1820 and 1840: they added to American literature the legendary narrative sketch, the historical novel, the novel of the sea, the novel of forest and stream, and the short story.   2
  Irving’s love of legend and of humor, manifest in his delightful “Knickerbocker History of New York” (1809), reappeared in the “Sketch Book” (1819), notably in “Rip Van Winkle” and the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” A delightfully pure and well-modulated style and a sure eye for the half-comic, half-romantic legends of his native locality make these chapters preeminent in what is probably the best example of their author’s genius. They are, indeed, well-nigh perfect in their kind. If Irving had not the power to originate and sustain an elaborate human drama, he could at least—as these tales and the inimitable sketch of “The Stout Gentleman” in “Bracebridge Hall” sufficiently prove—set forth single figures, quaint and slightly legendary, with ample background and a masterly display of comic portraiture.   3
  With Cooper the case is quite different: careless about style, deficient in humor, yet genuinely American and thoroughly acquainted with his scenes and people, Cooper has made in “The Pilot,” “The Spy,” “Red Rover,” and especially in the five Leather Stocking novels, a really massive contribution to American fiction. The conventional ridicule of his noble Indians and his “females,” his woodcraft, and his overanxiety to preach has not greatly diminished the high regard in which those who love large, clean, and vigorous work have agreed to hold the creator of Long Tom Coffin, Uncas, Chingachgook, and Leather Stocking.   4
  While these stories were being written, the center of literary activity had shifted to New England, where by 1840 Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, and the other great figures of the “New England Renaissance” had kindled American literature to a real blaze. Perhaps it was the ancient Puritanism of the region—Lowell said it was “all pulpit when I was growing up”—perhaps it was the academic strain in the Concord and Cambridge writers; but for some reason prose fiction plays a small part in this great chapter of our literature. Emerson, Lowell, Whittier, and Thoreau never attempted it; in the work of Longfellow it is inconsiderable; with Holmes it is more a means than an end. Hawthorne, however, gave it his almost undivided attention and in it achieved a lastingly important place.   5
  The importance of Hawthorne’s contribution to American fiction is indicated in Poe’s well-known review (1842) of the “Twice-told Tales.” Next to the short narrative in verse, says Poe, the most exacting form of literature is the short tale in prose. But it must be strictly organic: there must be a single preconceived effect, and toward that effect every detail must lead. With Hawthorne this singleness of purpose is probably not the result of an effort to meet an obligation imposed upon him by the technique of the short story, but a natural consequence of his preoccupation with a world of symbols and abstract ethical situations. Whoever will take the pains to compare Hawthorne’s “Note Books” with his tales will soon perceive that the themes of Hawthorne’s narratives as they first take shape in his mind are strictly unified.   6
  This contribution to the technique of the American short story, though of great importance, was not unique: almost simultaneously with Hawthorne, Poe, with more attention to technique and a wider range of subject and of mood, was strengthening what has so far been our most distinctive American contribution to prose fiction. The detective story, the tale of horror, and the story of the grotesque were all executed by Poe with the same attention to form. Whatever one may think of his sense of probability and of his somewhat tricky use of devices for hypnotizing the reader, one cannot possibly deny the service of his stories—or the service of the criticism with which they were accompanied—to the upbuilding of an important school. It is singular, in view of the humor and the formlessness of so much early American writing, that both Poe and Hawthorne should have thus persistently combined masterly correctness with an almost obstinate preference for horror, mystery, and gloom.   7
  In these two great founders of our fiction there is no marked localization: both are vivid—Poe brilliantly and Hawthorne quietly so—yet neither is much interested in studying any particular region. Their successors have, however, almost with one accord, studied the landscape, the dialect, and most of all the manner of life in various American localities.   8
  Of these writers of American short stories distinguished for their careful employment of “local color,” Bret Harte deserves special notice, because of the novelty of his material and the tremendous sensation which his California stories produced in the seventies. Since his day every section of the country has been more or less successfully, but always carefully, represented in the short story.   9
  A consequence of the westward expansion of the United States was the emergence of Western writers, among whose aims was not merely the introduction of Western characters, but the use of what has become known as American humor, the marks of which seem to be exaggeration and irreverence. Preposterous falsehoods, told with a grave face and an imperturbable hostility to established traditions, characterize this element in our fiction. Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad,” though not fiction, is one of the best examples of this tendency, which reappears in his “Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur” and in other works. No doubt the rebuke of the complacent New England attitude toward European fashions and reputations was, on the whole, a benefit in the formation of a national spirit in American literature.  10
  Of equal benefit and of much more excellence as literary art has been the so-called “international novel” as it has been written by Howells, James, and others. Here the provincialism, ignorance, and bumptiousness of certain earlier writers, and of masses of their fellow countrymen, are satirized with great minuteness and with admirable reserve. The best examples of this school, though too subtle to have attained great popularity, seem sure of a permanent place.  11
  Akin to the international novel there should be noted a kind of story done with particular success by Howells, in which the characteristics of different regions in the United States are studiously contrasted. Howells delights to bring a family from the Middle West to New York and to work out in the minutest detail the contrast between the two regions. He does the same with the Marches, who go from New England to New York. In like manner, he brings Southerners and other types to unfamiliar regions, in order that his characters may study each other for the benefit of the reader.  12
  In all this development the influence of the magazine has been apparent. Concentrated in the East, especially in New York, the magazine has of recent years been the most powerful of all literary vehicles. Naturally it has emphasized the short story as the literary form most suited to its purpose. Then, too, the short story seems to have prevailed in American literature because American writers have so frequently lacked the ability to originate and sustain large works of fiction. More powerful still has been the haste of modern American life and the consequent impatience at long books. For many reasons, therefore, it is natural that the short story should have been the kind of fiction most frequently attempted in America. In the enormous mass of American fiction there is nothing particularly to our credit. But there is much cause for satisfaction in the wide prevalence of fairly correct technique and in the uniformity with which American writers have kept their work pure and chivalrous.
C. N. G.



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