The American Short Story

Introducing the Short Story. 

The short story, it needs be affirmed even at the risk of mouthing a cliche, is at once old and new. It may be as old as the adventure tales of the Odyssey or the religious/moral tales of the Bible. Nearer home, it may be as old as the stories woven into the Mahabharata or those included in the Panchatantra, But as a distinct art form i.e., as a highly organized and deftly executed short narrative, it is ‘a young art’ which emerged in the nineteenth century and which has fast come of age. The short story, therefore, is as old as the human instinct to tell and listen to a story and as new as man’s/woman’s craft of writing it.

The ascendancy and the subsequent establishment of the grovel towards the end of the eighteenth century quite possibly encouraged, by example the growth of shorter fiction as an autonomous genre of English literature. Mare important. However, was the speedy emergence of periodicals and magazines during the first quarter of the : , nineteenth century whose readers made insistent demand for short and compact. . fiction, completed in one issue. The editors of these magazines and papers, keen to boost their circulation and sales, made handsome payments to these writers who could meet their requirements. The short, story thus registered its raision d” smoothly stepped into a space of its own. ‘ .

Definitions: Their Inadequacies And Story. Usefulness.

Encyclopedia Britannica. a treasure-house of information and knowledge, offers a broad-based and workable sense of what a short story is about. It points to certain mutually interdependent elements of a short story, namely “themes or the idea on which the story centers; plot the planned sequence of action: characters. or the persons who perform the action: and setting, or the time and place of the story.” It therefore surmises that a short story unfolds some kind of idea through the action and interaction of characters at some definite time and place.” The Encyclopedia also acknowledges the scope for flexibility in situating these elements in a given short story. Such a formulation is obviously too wide open to pinpoint the distinctive character of the short story, It may serve the purpose of the generalists but it Leaves things wanting for a specialist, e.g. the practicing short story writers and the critics of the short story.

The specialists have defined the short story more precisely but always in terms of their own predilections and perceptions, is, in terms of what they consider the core feature of a short story. Their definitions reflect not merely the variations of emphasis in regard to the above-referred elements but also affirmation of one element to the negation of another. The sharply edged inclusions and exclusions of various elements in their definitions often derive from these writers’ practice of the craft of story writing in varied and even contradictory ways. Sir Hugh Walpole, for instance, asserts the supremacy of plot as the distinguishing feature of a short story *high, according to him, should be “a record of things happening, full of incident and accident, swift movement, unexpected development, leading through suspense to a climax and satisfying denouement.” Turgenev on the contrary maintains that the shod story for him is “the representation of certain persons ... whom he wished to see in action, being sure that such people must do something very special and interesting.” To him writing stories “was never an affair of plot — that was the last thing be thought of.” Again. Ellery Sedgewick stresses on two constituents of plot as the key features of a short story. He holds that “a story is like a horse race. It is the start and the finish that count most.” And many others, including Maupassant, would not agree more. But we have Anton Chekhov who finds no use for the beginning and the end in a story. . He observes that “a story should have neither beginning nor end.”

Further, Edgar Allan Poe, an early and masterly practitioner of the art of modem short story, gives the pride of place to a certain “pre-conceived effect” realized through the plot of a story. In his famous review of the Twice-Told Tales by Hawthome, he maintains that “in the whole composition (of a short story) there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to one pre established design.” Such an emphasis on a pre-decided unity and totality of effect has also been considered too schematic and prescriptive, and by implication resistive by several short story writers and critics. The French story writer Meramec. to name just one of them, refuses to subordinate his concern for ‘objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’ in a short story to Poe’s over-riding accent on the totality of a pre-planned effect. He insisted, time and again, that the short story should, like any other work of art. Be allowed to “stand and speak before the reader” on its own and not according to a pre-formulated strategy of its author.

Besides these conflicting definitions, quite a number of short story writers and critics have pointed to the tremendous significance of brevity in a short story. Some of them even tend to suggest the only distinguishing feature of &short story is that it must not be igg. HG. Wells, therefore, used to say that a story “may he horrible or pathetic funny or beautiful or profoundly illuminating, having only this essential. that it she 4 take from fifteen to fifty minutes to read aloud.” Chekhov said much the .ne thing when ho adv4sed the short story writers that if they described a gun hanging on the wall on page one, sooner or later that gun must go oft’ in the story. Poe also held that a story must be short, although he added that it must not be so short sit ty that the ‘pre-established design’ is not realized. And we have Barry Pain who graphically suggested that the uncommon requirement of a short story was “much the same commonsense that prevents a hostess for giving a very large dance in a very small room.”

These observations, however telling or epigrammatic merely draw attention to the obvious in a short story, and do not really take us far. Nor do the divergent if not contradictory definitions discussed earlier help us in arriving at a consensus. You may. then, naturally think that they all lend much controversy an uncertainty to what constitutes a short story. You may even hold that the absence of indisputable accuracy and satisfactory finality in any of them seems merely to serve the cause of critical confusion.

But the inadequacy of these definitions also implies that the short story is too many things to contain in one single definition. This inadequacy is. indeed, an acknowledgement and affirmation of the limitless possibilities in terms of sheer range. of material which this genre has come to realize and continues to realize. It is also suggestive of the infinite flexibility in the modes of writing which the short story easily lends itself to. The fact that there is no definition of short story which can be universally and uniformly acceptable demonstrates that it has evolved, in effect, as a vehicle for every man’s/woman’s talent. There are, then. plotted stories as also plotless stories; stories which span over a lifetime and stories which sharply telescope a few tiny moments of life, unelaborated and unexplained; stories which have a . definite beginning and a definite end, stories which do not bother for such requirements; stories which are prose-poems with all the loveliness of a lyric and stories which are pieces of solid prose in which all emotions, all actions, all reactions are fixed and glazed like in a finely built house; stories which are intricate and cobweb-like and stories which make for a direct. Straightforward and gripping reportage; stories which focus on a character without turning into a mere character- sketch and stories which transmute certain ideas and concerns without lapsing into the fixity of an essay. All this points to the insistent and eternal fluidity of the short story and its myriad, inexhaustible manifestations.

It is in this context that several critics have shunned from defining the short story. They have applied judicious discriminations and discernments, and distanced themselves from these highly personalized, exclusives and essentialist definitions. Elizabeth Bowen. for instance, has aptly observed that the first and foremost necessity of the short story is its” unnecessariness.” According to her, whatever a short story writer writes about—a state of mind, a moment of revilement, a chain of images. a narrative of events—should be “pressing enough and acute enough to have made the writer write it.” E.J.O’ Ben has also stressed this qualitative aspect of the short story when he said that the challenge of a short story is how vitally compelling the writer makes whatever he writes. The essential feature of a short story, in this sense, is that it gives you a wound you do not easily get over: and its acid test, you may well remember. ï the measure of its depth. power and artistry.

The American Short Story, 

In this section we have a close look at the growth and development of the American short story vis-a-vis the short story in Europe. We also take note of the major: American exponents of this genre. their contribution towards exploring, enlarging and diversifying the scope of the short story, and their i:aa.. V,tiCÌG and ‘ experimentation with the form. .

1. Origins: The First Phase 

No year may be cited for the exact origin as much of the American short story as for -. its counterpart in-Europe, although both of them grew up in ‘the early decades of the nineteenth century. Of the earliest stalwarts of American short story, the major ones’ are Washington Irving (1783-l 859), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1 805-1864): They were contemporaries, and largely wrote in the first z’ half of the nineteenth century. Washington Irving, living in England for most part of his -creative period, was encouraged by the reception accorded to his sketch Book (1819-20), and issued three additional volumes of stories and sketches. Before 1832. However, although his “Rip Van Winkle” and “The -Legend of Sleepy Hollow” ‘. belong to the classics of American short story, his mode of writing was rather “too leisurely” and the-stories therefore often ‘lacked “dramatic tension”. Nonetheless, Irving was perhaps the first American to clearly recognize that the short story was a distinct form of literature which required, he wrote to his brother-in-law, “a constant activity of thought and nicety of execution.” The key word ‘constant’ in this phrase conveys the sense of an ‘unceasing’ and ‘persistent’ application of mind and art in writing a story and relates, however faintly, to the latter-day definitions of short story as a highly organized. intense-and complete genre of literature.

It was. however. Edgar Allan Poe who for the first time formulated a set of principles governing the composition of a short story. His propositions about the short story, as stated in his review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales in 1842 (cited earlier), laid down three-neat and precise rules: (1) a story must aim at one predetermined effect; (2) it must vigorously exclude everything which does not contribute to that effect and thus possess complete unity; and (3) it must be short, but not so short that the ‘pre established design’ cannot be realized. Several critics have found such a theory too restrictive and rigid: but it worked extremely well in his own case. The consummate artistry of histories — “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “Ligeria” and “The Cask of Amontillado” — has seldom been excelled. Poe’s theory and practice, indeed, make for a major landmark in the history of short story, if only because he was astute emoting to recognize quite some of the essential features of a well-med story; namely, coherence, completeness, mathematical exactitude and artistic unity. Relatively speaking. if Irving focused attention on creating life-like characters in his short stories, Poe forces attention to the importance of a skillfully plotted/constructed story. .

Nathaniel Hawthorne. a close contemporary of Poe and Irving, is better known as a novelist than as a short story writer. Marked by artistic epiphany, his stories like “young Goodman Brown” and “Birthmark” belong to the realm of allegory and parable. However the depiction of revelatory moments in his stories is often manipulated by a schematic interplay of ideas and moral concepts, and he remains less of an influence as a short story writer than-Pace and Irving. Greater contribution to the short story of the time was rather made the writers from across the Atlantic, especially the Russian’s like Nokolai gogel and Alexander Pushkin and the French like Prosper Merimee and Honore de Balzac. “The Overcoat” by Gogol, written in the year 1842 in which Poe published his review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales is a pleasure to read even today. It is subtly suggestive of human anxiety and compassion, and compels attention to a character gripped in a tight-holding situation. Dostoevsky has rightly acknowledged its pervasive influence when he remarked, “We have all emerged-from ‘The Overcoat’. “At about the same time. the French writer Merimee maintained that a short story must be allowed to speak for itself_’ without intrusion and impositions of any kind. His stress on the values of ‘objectivity’ without prejudice to those of ‘technical brilliance’ in this genre and his assertion that a story must proceed organically have in course of time become the mainstay of all well-written short stories. .

2. American Short Story after Poe 

American short story after Poe, broadly spanning over the second half of the Short Story nineteenth century, was mo(e prolific than impressive. In fact, it offered a curious juxtaposition of stories which were mere tissues of cleverness’s with those which had substance and craft, of stories which gloried in artifice and trickery and played to the gallery with those which respected artistry and endeavored creativity; in sum the popular short story and the quality short story. The two strands, of course, are not necessarily exclusive of each other and quite a number of the finest short story, ‘ writers combine the two: but the story writers of this period noticeably looked lice practicing one to the exclusion of the. Other. The period very largely threw up either the facile. Journalistic and unexperimental story or the serious, meaningful and ‘; innovative story. The former kind was represented by writers like Bret Harte (1839- . 1914) and Stephen Crane (1871-1900). Instinctively aware, like a good journalist, of .‘ . the popular American demand for a direct, fast-track story of effect’, Bret Harte wrote smart and mechanically turned out stories which earned him instant recognition and ‘ fame. His “Luck of Roaring Camp”, indeed, became ‘a national sensation’, and harte was, iii a manner of speaking feted as something of ‘a national institution’. He evolved and adhered to the best-selling formula for writing a story, the ingredients of which included ‘people,. Humor, movement, color, suspense, surprise, the touch of sentimentalism, the wave of regret, the laughter behind tears.7’ O.Henry, if anything, perfected this formula with great aplomb. More of a showman than a story writer; he had something for everybody in the market-place of story-telling. He, of course, had. a sense of tragedy, a certain sympathy for the underdog, and was tirelessly interested . in people and could make them tirelessly interesting. Backed by these gifts he might , , have become, with vigorous, disciplined application of his craft, a great short story writer. But he chose the easy way out: or perhaps, given the adverse and crushing circumstances especially of his early life, he had to. And thus, even the widely talked about surprise-tending in the best of his stories like “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf’, on reflection, seems little better than trick-ending. Maupassant, the great ‘ French master story writer also used surprise-ending in quite some of his stories: but, as an artist, he was very well aware that surprise-ending alone is its own limitation; 0.Henrv, the journalist, vis perhaps not. Therefore, although quite possibly the . ‘ greatest popularizer of the short story — greater than even Maupassant — O.Henry remains: not much above a second-rate albeit talented story writer who didn’t or couldn’t exploit his talent.

Outside the shaping and peaking of the popular American short story, the ‘period did’ witness several innovative and path-breaking writers who were seriously committed to the art of story-telling. Ambrose Bierce, too bitterly uncompromising to be popular. rejected by his time and isolated, was rather a purist who painstakingly distinguished literature from journalism. His stories, such as those included in his volume in the Midst of Life are highly individualized endeavors reflecting intensely personal perceptions of men and things. His touch of impressionism and his ‘ conscious effort to compress the short story and to interpret character through casual and apparently irrelevant incidents anticipate the later twentieth century writers. In that. Bierce remains the major ‘connecting link between Poe and the American short story today. Simultaneously, Stephen Crane, who according to Conrad never knew how good his best work was. introduced and integrated the features and facets of ‘naturalism” and ‘determinism’ in American short story. Fearlessly honest and ruthlessly realistic, he didn’t initially find any taker for his work from among the American publishers: and his powerful stories like “Maggi” and “The Open Boat” tellingly testify the tragic irony of it all. Yet Crane belongs to that select group of American short story writers who not only enriched but ais9 widened the range of the genre. Like Bierce. he belongs today rather than the day before yesterday. While the short story in the second half of the nineteenth century America yielded a mixed package, in Europe it was profusely dotted with the names of number of masterly ‘1 . writers: Guy de Maupassant (1X50-93), Anton Chekhov,( I86Q-904), Leg Tolstoy (1828-1910), R. L.Stevenson (1850-94), Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), lvan Turgeney(1813-83). and several others. Of them the first three. Maupassant. Stoiy Chekhov and Tolstoy draw greater attention as short story writer: and their stories evidence varied shades of similarities and striking colors of contrast. All the three of them. for instance, reflect an intense inquisitiveness about human conditions: but . whereas Maupassant and Chekhov knew a wide variety of human beings, Tolstoy’s knowledge of it was wider still and seemed limitless. Further, both Maupassant and Chekhov, as gilled shod story writers, knew when to hold their tongue and how not to go on a second too long. Tolstoy, although not that meticulous and insistent about these concerns. paid 1h11 honour of recognition to the short story in its own right and never treated il as a mere by-product of novel. Primarily known as the author of memorable novels like War and Peace and Anna Karenina which earned him an . international salute, Tolstoy lent a certain concentration of force and high finish to his short stories, comparable with the very best of Maupassant and Chekhov. Again Maupassant and Chekhov, with their high regard for ‘objectivity’, would not entangle . themselves and their characters in the coils of contemporary morality. For Tolstoy, however aesthetic and moral concerns are simply inseparable; and his stories leave a lasting impression of a great organic force. His objectivity, therefore; lies in his dispassionate arid impartial exploration of myriad facets of human nature. Finally, as . father methods, relatively speaking. Maupassant is direct; swift, logical, naturalistic - .. arid brilliant; Chekhov is oblique, apparently casual, beguilingly conversational and . subtly gripping; and Tolstoy is more catholic, composite and life-like, for as John Bayley observed “If life could write, it would write just as Leo Tolstoy did.” Few . American short story writers are comparable to these three towering figures in the discipline of modern short story. Among a large number of their stories, “Boule de Suif’ and “The Necklace” by Maupassant. “The Darling” and “Ward No. 6” by Chekhov, and “Family Happiness” and ‘The Death of Ivan llytch” by Tolstoy are compelling little masterpieces. You will find them, I very much hope, a delight to read and re-read.

3. Renaissance in American Short Story 

During the early decades of the twentieth century, while in Europe and more particularly in Britain writers like Katherine Mansfield, A.E.Coppard, James Joyce and D. HLawrence kept the flag of short story high and steady, in America the one short story writer who stood out, aside of Henry James (1843-1916), Hamlin Garland (1860-1940) and Edith Wharton (1862-1937). was Sherwood Anderson (18764941) Anderson broke free both from the popular, mechanical and stereotypical stories of O.Herny and Bret Harte as well as the unnoticed although serious writing of Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane. He also turned his back to European influences and indeed heralded the twentieth century renaissance in American short story. He adhered to the indigenous material and wrote authentically about the remote and obscure Americans of a wide variety living in the Ohio valleys, moving “out of nowhere into nothing”. Adopting the Midwestern prose rhythms with a studied stylishness which kept him closer to ‘life’ than to ‘art’ lie reflected much respect for words, and Lent color and significance to his otherwise colorless and insignificant people. His short stories, at once tough and tender, are suffused with human persistence and heavy melancholy. Andersons’s volume of stories Wines burg. Ohio and his short stories like “I Want to Know Why” and “Death in the Woods” are among the finest of American short stories.

4. Hemingway and Faulkner 

The most widely acknowledged voices of the American short story during the second quarter of the twentieth intuit ore those of Ernest Hemingway (L 8Sl 961) and William Faulkner (1897-1962), the two authors we shall discuss at greater length in subsequent units. Both Hemmingway and Faulkner, initially much under the influence of Sherwood Anderson, sheared away from the older traditions of English and American short story. However, Hemingway’s commitment to his craft went several steps ahead of Andersons’s stress on keeping his stories closer to ‘life’ than to ‘art’ and on a certain ‘studied stylelessness in writing. Hemingway, in a manner of speaking. was a man with an axe. he vigorously pruned the language. Evolved the ‘iceberg principle’ of writing, used telling understatements, and conveyed multiple meanings largely through symbolic and ironic implications. Faulkner too pruned the language but he did so like one prunes a tree so that it blossoms anew and prodigiously, and lends “the highest possible degree of saturation” to his work. Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”, a four paged story, and Faulkner’s “The Bear”, running into close to a hundred pages, in this sense, are their representative stories prescribed for your study.

Further, Hemingway initially Like Anderson, Located his stories in the suburbs of Chicago and in Michigan where he lived during his early impressionable years. -But later he became Loo much ‘a citizen of the-world’ and his characters then were isolates severed from family. community and society at large living in various parts of the globe including Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland, Cuba, and of course the U.S.A. On the contrary, Faulkner, much more like Anderson, focused all along on the regional, in his case. the American South: and his works evoke the decadent and transitional life-cycles of the aristocracy and the very poor in the towns and countryside of this region as well as ¿he inbuilt social anxieties and racial tension of their lives. Finally, Hemingway was mainly a tragic writer who tested his characters’ capacity for establishing their ‘gallantry in defeat’ and for acquiring themselves with ‘grace under pressure’ of most trying circumstance-s. he explores in his works what humans can be and what humans can do in the face of certain death, often enough violent death. But Faulkner’s scale of intended emotions is widely different. He is ‘a romantic cursed with a pair of realistic eyes’; and he captures intricate and tangled human relationships at varied levels of struggles and conflicts, all suffused with an atmospheric passion and grandeur of their own. -The extent to which these two master story writers enriched and enlarged the American short story is matched by few American writers before and after them.

5. Contemporary American Short Story 

At the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century, the American short story had covered a long distance, broken much fresh ground, and diversified in several directions. Its bag was large and heavy for it contained a ide variety, such as stories of relaxed characterization (Irving) and those of Poe-established effect (Poe); stories which came close to allegory and parable (Hawthorne) and those which looked competent but machine-made (Harte); stories which registered high seriousness (Bierce) and those which ushers in ‘naturalism’ and determinism’ (Crane); stories with surprise-ending which could also degenerate into trick-ending (O.Henry) and those which were, genuinely and firmly, rooted in the region and local color (Anderson); stories which were like floating little icebergs (Hemingway) and those which evoked the inexorable decadence and transition of the American South (Faulkner). Besides, there were many more kinds of stories by many more writers of very considerable talent. Notably Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, Eudora Welty. Katherine Anne Porter. Richard Wright. William Saroyan. Bernard Malamud. and several others. All of them contributed stories which reflect astutely and searchingly variously aspects of the American people, society. community, culture, and the nation at large. often enough coupled with innovations and experimentations with the form.

Quite a number of new trends and developments have rapidly transformed the ambience of creative writing in America in the second half of this century. American people were now constantly gripped with making adjustments and coming to tonus with. for instance, the explosion of technology, the rise of consumerism, the neur total discontinuities of older family and community ties. the entrenchment of high individualism. the growth of nuclear families, the shifting sands of the political scenario from the cold war and the American involvement in the Korean and the Vietnamese wars to the present day emergence of America as the only super power the better organized and articulated ethnic. black and feminist voices, the demands of ruthless competitiveness. the modernist structure of American society. the increasing pressu.. of the postmodem sensibility with its foregrounding or irreverence and subversions and problematizing of all given ‘norms’. ‘meaning’. ‘sense of reality’. and so forth.

It is in such unsettling and unstoppable contexts that authors like Robert Coover (1932-), John Barth (1930-). Donald Barthelme (193S-). Joyçe Carol Qates (1938-) and John Updike (1932-) have written their stories in the sixties arid the seventies of this century. Paced with successive waves of disorientations and discontinuities all around, some of them have felt compelled to reexamine and redefine the concept of a well-made short story all over again. The position such writers seem to ‘take is that “the hallmarks of the well-made story — consistency 6f style. rationality of structure. and steadiness of viewpoint—cannot represent the illogic of our lives.” It may be noted that in jettisoning the tradition of short story too radically. these writers come dangerously close to causing a total collapse of artistic control in their writing.

Nonetheless, the finest of their stories, such as John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse” and Robert Coover’s “The Magic Poker” successfully reflect the “paradoxical’ desire to go beyond ‘the action of conventional dramatic narrative’ without losing the human ‘effect of drama. Which is the foundation of the story teller’s craft.” This rejection of the outmoded, depleted and nearly exhausted conventions of narrative and yet the attempt to recapture its original energies (now enlarged into a whole new discipline of Narrationality) sets these stories apart not only from what preceded them but also from the present-day postmodern short story. Rather amorphous in nature and eclectic in approach. the postmodem story rejects all norms lock, stock and barrel and leans too heavily on the tropes of parody and pastiche. of interrogation and skepticism, and on the strategies of the deconstruction of all imagined and artistic constructs. And in as much as it throws the entire heritage of the short story upside down, the postmodem short story may even be called an anti-story: but its definitive evaluations are still in the making. As for its future prospects. we may better refrain from making any predictions about the direction the short story will take, for while the criticism of short story is based on the past, i.e., on whatever short stories have already appeared. the forms of short story will be shaped by future events, many of them “adventitious and unpredictable.