Short Story

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The latter half of the nineteenth century marked a period of maturity for the American short story. 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 1850s, of course, but they varied so widely in technique and effect that the consanguinity among them was difficult to specify (Marler, pp. 154–155). 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 . . . to be worked up in more enduring materials" (Pattee, p. 32). 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 1840s, and despite the memorable work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and others, it had not previously enjoyed. By the mid-1880s 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. 49).


That legitimization process was neither uniform nor easy. Initially it involved issues of content and style. Only after 1870 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 . . . affords unquestionably the fairest field for the loftiest talent" because its abbreviated length expedites a "single effect" through a "preestablished design" that avails itself of "the immense force derivable from totality" (May, pp. 60–61). Yet for many realists, such a prescription smacked of prefabrication, implying that "form" was merely a synonym for "formula." The fin de siècle marketplace seemingly confirmed this fear by proliferating a type of story whose structure turned on what would come to be known—derisively—as the "trick ending," in which a concluding twist catches the reader by surprise. One such story to receive wide acclaim was Frank Stockton's "The Lady, or the Tiger?" (1882), but an English translation of Guy de Maupassant's "La Parure" ("The Necklace," 1884) proved the true prototype, inspiring a flood of imitations that reached their commercial apotheosis with the popularity of tales by O. Henry. 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. 55; Fusco, pp. 4–5). 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 (1819–1891), 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. 168). 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" (1861) by Davis (1831–1910) and "The Man without a Country" (1863), by Hale (1822–1909) 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 (1811–1996), who curbed the didacticism of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–1852) to produce the tales gathered in Sam Lawson's Oldtown Fireside Stories (1871), which, along with those in Cooke's Somebody's Neighbors (1881), 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. The Short-story seeks one set of effects in its own way, and the Novel seeks a wholly distinct set of effects in a wholly distinct way. We are also led to the conclusion that the Short-story—in spite of the fact that in our language it has no name of its own—is one of the few sharply defined literary forms. It is a genre, as M. Brunetière terms it, a species, as a naturalist might call it, as individual as the Lyric itself and as various. It is as distinct an entity as the Epic, as Tragedy, as Comedy.

Matthews, The Philosophy of the Short-Story, pp. 73–74.

While these early realist stories introduced new possibilities of subject and style, they were not concerned with form. As Pattee writes, under Lowell and his immediate editorial successor, James T. Fields, the typical Atlantic story "might begin with pages of exposition and end in a leisurely sprawl with sermonic applications; it might be loosely told with digressions and it might drag; it might extend through two or even three magazine installments—these facts were not vital. . . . [They were] concerned with matter rather than manner" (p. 173). Manner became an aesthetic issue only with the emergence of Henry James, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich, all of whom, whether as fiction writers or critics, advocated deliberate though not undue plotting. Of them Aldrich (1836–1907) was initially most influential. His epistolary short story "Marjorie Daw" (1873) was "one of the most admired pieces of short fiction of its day" (Voss, p. 115) because it artfully demonstrated how a trick ending could challenge audience expectations of plot development. Over the course of several letters, a young New York man grows increasingly obsessed with the titular heroine evocatively described by his correspondent. Only in the final scene does he discover that the woman is fictitious, invented by the friend to entertain the man during a long convalescence. Despite its popularity, "Marjorie Daw" exemplifies two pitfalls of the surprise ending: according to John Gerlach, the "device exposes the writer to 'reader backlash,' resentment at having been taken in" by the trick, while also discouraging a subsequent reading because the surprise is not reproducible a second time (p. 55). To detractors, "Marjorie Daw" and its innumerable imitators—including Aldrich's own "Mademoiselle Olympe Zabriski"—suggested that the short story was too susceptible to plot contrivances and was therefore less aesthetically viable than the novel.


No major writer of the period struggled more than Henry James (1843–1916) to reconcile realist aesthetics with short-story form. To him the brevity of the genre meant that only two distinct "effects" were possible: "The one with which we are familiar is that of the detached incident, single and sharp, as clear as a pistol-shot; the other, of rarer performance, is that of the impression, comparatively generalized—simplified, foreshortened, reduced to a particular perspective—of a complexity or a continuity" ("Story-Teller at Large," p. 190). The distinction suggests the poles that James would travel between his 1864 Atlantic debut, "The Story of a Year," and such later accomplishments as "The Altar of the Dead" (1895) and "The Great Good Place" (1900). During the first stage of his career, ending around the time of his most anthologized story, Daisy Miller (1878), he structured his tales around "pistol-shot" incidents—sometimes, literal pistol shots ("My Friend Bingham"). Other stories rely upon similar if less violent twists, including revelations of romantic deceit ("A Landscape Painter"), obscured parentage ("Master Eustace"), and ironic reversals of situation ("A Passionate Pilgrim"). But as James began to plumb his trademark themes—the cultural discrepancies separating Europe and America, the place of art in the everyday, the vagaries of consciousness and self-knowledge—he found incident-oriented stories increasingly artificial and preferred instead to allow his narration to linger upon moments of moral and perspectival growth, often so subtly delineated as to appear abstract and static. This is not to say that, despite his disdain for inorganic gimmickry, James veered toward indeterminate conclusions—far from it. As Gerlach notes, "Poe's standard for the short story—his emphasis on natural termination, linear progression, and convergence—became more, not less, James's own standard" (p. 82), an observation substantiated by the number of protagonists who, like George Stransom in "Altar," either die in the end or, like John Marcher in "The Beast in the Jungle" (1903), undergo a significant conversion experience. What James achieved was a correlation of plot and characterization by which the former did not appear a "detached" or extraordinary occurrence but was instead an inexorable consequence of the latter.

James's devotion to character-driven stories arose from his belief that the donnée of short fiction, its germinal idea, should be allowed to assume its natural dimension without being forced to fit such external, market-driven criteria as word length. Significantly, his commitment to "process and duration" coincided with his inability to constrain his fiction within the limits of the periodical industry's "one-number story," a work that could be printed within a single magazine issue. In the prefaces to the New York edition of his collected works, James repeatedly complains of the "rude prescription of brevity at any cost" that American short-story venues insisted upon, even claiming that Daisy Miller was initially rejected because it was a "nouvelle," his preferred term for "two" and "threenumber" stories (Art of the Novel, pp. 219, 268). To define a short story by any "arbitrary limit of length" that might determine its shape was to oppose "its really becoming a story": "In that dull view a 'short story' was a 'short story' . . . shades and differences, varieties and styles, the value above all else of the idea happily developed, languished under the hard-and-fast-rule of the 'from six to eight thousand words'" (Art of the Novel, p. 220). Not surprisingly, those stories that remain James's most celebrated—Daisy Miller, "The Lesson of the Master," "The Figure in the Carpet," "The Beast in the Jungle," The Turn of the Screw, and "The Jolly Corner"—measure somewhere between fifteen and thirty thousand words, thereby blurring conventional generic divisions between the short story and the novel. As James would also delight in noting, most of these stories first appeared in British periodicals like the Yellow Book, which allowed each to "absolutely assume" and even "shamelessly parade in, its own organic form" (Art of the Novel, p. 219).

Unlike James, Mark Twain (1835–1910) expressed few concerns about the artistry achievable in a short story. Although he considered the genre a "novel in a cradle" (quoted in Messent, p. 3), its abbreviated form was the building block of his imagination, which is why the majority of his novels are episodic in construction, with some even subsuming many memorable accomplishments in short fiction—Roughing It (1872), for example, includes six previously published stories presented as autonomous chapters. Twain's career as a journalist, coupled with his schooling in the western humor tradition, introduced him to a variety of shorter structures such as the hoax and the burlesque, which allowed him to expose moral hypocrisy and human depravity under the leavening guise of comedy. In "How to Tell a Story" (1895), the closest thing to a structural analysis of the short story he would write, he identifies the "nub, point, [or] snapper" as a tale's pivotal plot point. Akin to the punch line of a joke, the "snapper" is the humorist's version of Poe's "culminating effect"—it is the point toward which the material is organized. Twain employed the snapper to notable effect in his first widely read story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865), whose ending reveals how a mysterious stranger dupes the inveterate gambler Jim Smiley in a frog race. For some critics, the dominance of the punch line smacked of formula and depreciated Twain's narrative skills: Pattee, for example, dismisses the story as "a whimsical anecdote" (p. 297). Such judgments vastly underrate Twain's management of other devices that amplify this whimsy. As "How to Tell a Story" argues, the artistry of a tale for Twain lay in the tension generated when the narration either anticipates, "slurs," or delays the snapper: "The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories"—what Twain would call the simple joke—"must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, others burst" (Complete Essays, p. 156). As in "The Celebrated Jumping Frog," Twain often effected this "wandering" through the use of storytelling frames that deepen and disperse the joke, so the object of the humor is not merely Smiley himself but Twain's own narrator, who ironically proves oblivious to the tale's artistry by complaining of his friend Simon Wheeler's "garrulous" and unstructured recitation of the story. In a similar manner, many of Twain's tales can be read as metacommentaries on story structure: by dramatizing the dissatisfaction of listeners who insist that stories conclude with a discernible point, he demonstrates how successful storytelling often depends upon impeding or even disappointing rather than gratifying audience expectations of form.

Snappers, once delivered, also often complicate and sometimes contradict the point they supposedly make, meaning that, as Tom Quirk has noted, Twain's "narratives tend to end by evasion, not resolution" (p. 32). "Cannibalism in the Cars" (1869) concludes with the revelation that the story of a snow-bound group of legislators who must dine upon each other to survive constitutes the "harmless vagaries of a madman, instead of the genuine experiences of a bloodthirsty cannibal" (Complete Short Stories, p. 16). In another writer's hands, this surprise would be staged at the expense of the narrator, whose willingness to suspend his incredulity and allow himself to be frightened by such a seemingly preposterous tale would mark his essential naïveté. Yet the relief the narrator expresses actually reveals his inability to acknowledge the implications of the supposed monomaniac's conceit—namely that, despite the pretense of civilization by which humans govern their actions, they are really driven by animalistic survival instincts. The conclusion is thus ironic, with audiences expected to recognize what the narrator cannot: that the legislators' verbose efforts to rationalize their cannibalism gratify the same rapacious impulses as their reputed flesh eating. The ending of "A True Story" (1874) achieves a similar effect, though not so absurdly. In this avowedly nonhumorous piece, a former slave describes her reunion with the son who escaped slavery thirteen years earlier. She is prompted to tell her story when her employer, "Mr. C—," demands to know "how it is that you've lived sixty years and never had any trouble." As Aunt Rachel demonstrates, Mr. C—does not know the troubles she has seen, a point she ironically notes in the closing line: "Oh, no Mr. C—, I hain't had no trouble. An' no joy!" (Complete Short Stories, pp. 95, 98). The ending dramatizes, as Twain's conclusions often do, that the real twist of a story may not reside in the climax or denouement but in the invitation to the reader to ponder the implications of what is narrated.


Women realists, meanwhile, addressed the question of form in a variety of ways that defies their collective categorization as local color regionalists, whether of the New England school of Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman or of the southern school of Kate Chopin, Grace King, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson. At one extreme is Jewett (1849–1909), whose stories are comparatively plotless, preferring observation to action. Both in Deephaven (1877), her debut collection, and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), her most celebrated, her stories first record her narrators' perceptions of an isolated, eccentric character, usually an aging woman content in her spinsterhood, who then relates a tale of local lore back to the storyteller. Jewett's aversion to plot is perhaps most dramatic in her best-known story, "A White Heron" (1886), in which the climactic moment—a country child's decision not to reveal the nesting place of a rare bird to a handsome and flattering hunter—is entirely elided. Rather than reveal young Sylvia's motives, Jewett ends the tale with an apostrophe that imbues the narration with the aura of a subverted fairy tale: "Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summer-time, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!" (p. 679). Jewett's work frequently keeps its secrets in this fashion. Deceptively nondramatic, her stories locate plot in the nuances of character—though not, as per James, in character development. Rather than force her protagonists to some moment of self-awareness, she prefers to linger upon their habits and customs, which for her are the true indices of identity (Curnutt, pp. 103–104).

Jewett's low-key conclusions stand in marked opposition to the surprise endings of Chopin (1851–1904), the local colorist most identified (unfairly) with the trick ending. The last-sentence revelation of "Désirée's Baby" (1892) achieves precisely the effect that this device at its best can accomplish. Throughout this story of its Creole heroine's marriage to the planter Armand Aubigny, the presentation of narrative detail leads the reader to presume that Désirée is of mixed parentage, especially given that, unlike Armand, whose family name is unimpeachable, she is an orphan of ambiguous lineage. Only after she escapes with her "quadroon" child and Armand is burning her belongings does he learn the truth, thanks to a letter he finds buried in a bureau, written by his mother: "I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery" (p. 245). As Pattee writes, "The sentence closes the story, but not for the reader" (p. 327), who ideally revisits the story to discover clues foreshadowing the ending. Although shorter than "Désirée's Baby," "The Story of an Hour" (1894) is more structurally complicated. The plot involves two surprises: when Louise Mallard discovers that her husband has died in a train wreck, she is less mournful than relieved, for the accident frees her from a restrictive marriage. Yet the possibilities of new life she has the opportunity to enjoy are negated by the sudden entrance of Brentley Mallard, who, despite initial reports, survived the collision. The shock is so great that Mrs. Mallard instantly dies from what her oblivious doctors diagnose as "the joy that kills" (p. 354). Despite Chopin's deft use of the trick ending, she was savvy enough, unlike O. Henry, not to overuse the technique. As Richard Fusco notes, "In her first volume of stories, Bayou Folk"—the collection that includes "Désirée's Baby"—"only four of the twenty-three texts end with an unexpected twist," with the rest tending toward the "unadorned anecdote." This ratio is indicative of Chopin's belief that her stories "would have greater impact if readers did not associate the literary practice with her" (pp. 143, 153).


Another writer known for trick endings is Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914), whose Civil War fictions collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) employ the device, not unlike Chopin in "The Story of an Hour," to dramatize the crushing obstacles that prevent a protagonist from determining his own fate. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890), Bierce's most famous fiction, exemplifies a type of trick ending that would inspire much derision in less-talented hands. The plot purports to follow the slaveholder Peyton Farquhar's escape from Union soldiers, whose noose breaks as they hang the secessionist from an Alabama bridge. On the verge of reuniting with his wife, Farquhar "feels a stunning blow upon the back of his neck" that turns out to be the rope snapping his neck and killing him, revealing that Farquhar in fact never eluded his captors and that his escape was all along a fantasy (p. 43). Such "dream" narratives would become the bête noire of twentieth-century critics, but in Bierce's case the mode allowed for a skillful, proto-modernist dramatization of temporal perception as Farquhar imagines an alternate destiny at the instant of his death.

Emphasizing an inescapable sense of fate was also the aim of such 1890s naturalists as Stephen Crane (1871–1900), whose central themes of environmental malevolence and natural determinism encouraged if not an overt use of trick endings at least ironic conclusions that underscored the powerlessness of his characters. In "The Open Boat" (1897), a fictionalized version of a shipwreck that Crane had survived, four men struggle to survive adrift in the ocean, bitterly resenting the threat of death when, throughout most of their ordeal, land lies just out of reach on the horizon: "If I am going to be drowned," each cries, "why in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate the sand and trees?" (p. 894). The question is never answered; as Crane implies, there is no explanation for the hostility of the natural world, only its reality, a lesson the men learn when, after their rescue, they discover that one of their party has drowned within swimming distance of shore. That one if not all of the men will die is apparent from the narrative's beginning; the only mystery is who, and its revelation pales in comparison to the survivors' subsequent awareness that land offers no securer respite from death, only a "different and sinister hospitality of the grave" (p. 909).


Perhaps the least appreciated end-driven realist short stories are those dealing with race. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. has argued, much African American literature draws from folkloric traditions of verbal "signifyin'" in which "a received racist image" is debunked through the rhetorical device of chiasmus, "repeating and reversing . . . in one deft act" (p. 52). Many exemplars of "plantation fiction"—deceptively nostalgic tales about the antebellum era—employ this device not only narratologically but structurally. They use trick endings to effect what Gates calls "chiastic fantasies of reversal of power relationships" (p. 59) in which slaves undermine their masters' authority by playing up to prejudicial notions of black docility and passivity. The folkloric roots of this genre are famously evident in the Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox tales collected by Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908) in Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880) and several subsequent volumes. Purportedly literal transcriptions of folk fables that the Caucasian Harris gathered during journalistic interviews with former slaves, stories like "How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox" invariably climax with the former, a trickster figure, wilily escaping the clutches of the latter by flattering his assumptions of innate superiority.

Critics have impugned the authenticity of the dialect in which Harris's narrator, Uncle Remus, tells these tales to his white interlocutor, suggesting that its uncomfortable echoes of the minstrel show (in which performers acted out racist stereotypes, often in black-face) betray the author's essential foreignness to the folk language he claimed to preserve (Hoffman, p. 341). Interestingly enough, in other plantation fictions by actual African American authors, that same dialect is the tool by which protagonists of color reverse "received racist images." "The Passing of Grandison," by Charles Chesnutt (1858–1932), tricks the audience into presuming that the obsequious loyalty expressed by the slave Grandison is sincere: "Well, I sh'd jes' reckon I is better off [in slavery], suh, dan dem low-down free niggers, suh! Ef anybody ax'em who dey b'long ter, dey has ter say nobody, er e'se lie erbout it. Anybody ax me who I b'longs ter, I ain' got no 'casion ter be shame' ter tell 'em, no, suh, 'deed I ain', suh!" (p. 133). Such flattery intensifies each time the master's son, Dick Owens, attempts to dupe Grandison into freedom to win the affections of an abolitionist inamorata. When the slave reappears in Kentucky after having been kidnapped to Canada, Dick begins to suspect a ruse, but, significantly, not a ruse concocted by Grandison himself but by outside "agitators." His concern proves partially correct, for shortly after his return, Grandison again disappears—only this time with his entire family, whose escape he has all along been engineering through his crafty manipulation of the rhetoric of beneficent slavery. Not only is Grandison a trickster figure; more important, the ending defies black stereotyping to reveal him heroically devoted to his family. In such cases the ending forces readers—most of whom, even in the early twenty-first century, prove all too eager to presume Grandison is a one-dimensional comic figure—to recognize how dialect can encode racial biases.

As Dean McWilliams notes, Chesnutt's title is an ironic nod to the theme of "passing," in which light-skinned people of color pretend to be white, thereby demonstrating "the artificiality" and "susceptibility to erasure and transformation" of reigning definitions of racial identity (p. 118). Curiously, in many short stories that do not feature trickster figures, chiastic reversals consign characters to stereotyping rather than liberate them from it. In Grace King's "The Little Convent Girl" (1893), a fatherless child on a steamer traveling from Cincinnati to New Orleans exerts a civilizing influence on the passengers and crew. When the girl's mother turns out to be "colored," however, the charmed adults are shocked and immediately withdraw their affection. Unlike in Chopin's "Désirée's Baby," the revelation of race is not a trick ending; the actual conclusion is more shocking, for when the steamer makes a return trip to the South, the girl commits suicide after the ship's captain snubs her for being one of "them" (p. 162). Not all racially deterministic stories end this dramatically. Not unlike Jewett's "A White Heron," Alice Dunbar-Nelson's (1875–1935) "Sister Josepha" excises its central revelation, in which the heroine, an adolescent orphan planning to leave the convent where she has grown up, overhears two nuns debating her fate: "It would be hard for her in the world, with no name but Camille, no friends, and her beauty; and then—" (p. 38). Nothing in the story specifies Camille's ethnicity, although an early description of her skin as "sallow" leads savvy readers to suspect that the nuns know she is a mulatto. (Significantly, King applies this same word to her heroine.) As in "The Little Convent Girl," the discovery of one's racial identity is an initiation experience that narrows Camille's sense of self, leading her to decide to remain in the nunnery. If the ending of "The Passing of Grandison" tricks readers into admitting their superficial assessment of an African American figure, tales such as these ask why, if race is supposedly such a fixed indicator of identity, audiences did not guess the heroines' ethnicity until it was revealed (or in the case of "Sister Josepha" implied) through a plot twist.


With the advent of modernism in the early twentieth century, the form of the short story bifurcated into two opposing literary tendencies. On the one hand, James's insistence that character development was the most organic medium of plot structure led to "epiphany" stories. These are fictions that culminate in dramatic moments of self-insight that significantly alter a protagonist's sense of self. Although the term "epiphany" is associated with the Irish writer James Joyce, its most notable American practitioner before 1920 was Willa Cather. Her "Paul's Case" (from her first story collection, The Troll Garden, 1905) is considered a template of the form. An adolescent aesthete embezzles from his employer to finance a quick foray into the luxuriant artistic lifestyle he imagines his province. When his crime is found out, he cannot stomach a return to drudgery and throws himself in front of a train—only to realize at the last irrevocable moment "the folly of his haste" and the "vastness of what he had left undone" (p. 138). As the age of Cather's deluded hero suggests, epiphany stories typically involve young, naive characters for whom these concluding revelations are melancholy but necessary initiations into adult wisdom.

Unlike epiphany stories, what are varyingly called "elliptical" or "impressionistic" short fictions eschew plot in favor of seemingly unmediated bursts of subjectivity. Such stories might negate any trace of story development by foregrounding the experiential immediacy associated with modernism through the medium of stream of consciousness. Even more radically, they might do so by the absolute dominance of stylistic devices that announce themselves as linguistic media rather than referents to any recognizably physical realm. Gertrude Stein's (1874–1946) Three Lives (1909), a triptych about three working-class women, is built exclusively out of techniques such as rhythm and repetition, so that a story like "Melanctha" hypnotizes readers with its intricate rhetorical patterns: "Melanctha had needed Rose always to believe her, Melanctha needed Rose always to let her cling to her, Melanctha wanted badly to have somebody who could make her always feel a little safe inside her, and now Rose had sent her from her" (p. 139). Although Stein was an immense influence upon modernists, most admirers who emulated her experiments aimed for more conventionally symbolic effects. The stories collected in Sherwood Anderson's (1876–1941) Winesburg, Ohio (1919), while again deferring expectations for resolution, nevertheless dramatize the major theme of modernism (alienation and guilt) through imagistic figurations. In "Hands," for instance, a putative homosexual's longing for human understanding is emblematized by his "slender expressive fingers," which are the "piston rods of his machinery of expression," allowing him to communicate taboo desires he is otherwise forced to repress (p. 10). Anderson so believed in the use of these metaphorical conceits that he not only employed them as motifs but also hinted at their rationale in a poetic, quasi-methodological preface titled "The Book of Grotesques," in which he suggests that his characters' emotional deformities are legible in their physical tics and quirks.

Although many critics consider the modernist era the high point of the short story's development, it is inarguable that realism contributed significantly to its maturation. Realists not only legitimated the genre by aesthetically redeeming the innate brevity of its form; through their individual struggles to resolve the demands of plot and character development with the seeming "end-drivenness" of its structure, they also developed a range of styles and techniques that remain influential. Even the much-loathed "trick ending," which remained a feature of the commercial short-fiction market for years after O. Henry disappeared from the canon, is not without artistic merit. In building up to a concluding twist, a reversal, or an epiphany, story writers demonstrated how the device could be employed to question reader prejudices about race, gender, and social status. Although the accomplishments of James and Twain have tended to overshadow those of their contemporaries, so many lesser-appreciated talents excelled at short fiction that the genre would never again suffer the ignominy of being considered a "beginner's art." Indeed, thanks to the realists, the currency of the short story rose to such an extent that Poe's insistence that it is a superior art form to the novel no longer seemed a risible claim.

See alsoAtlantic Monthly; The Conjure Woman; The Country of the Pointed Firs; Daisy Miller; Humor; Naturalism; Realism; Regionalism and Local Color Fiction; Tales of Soldiers and Civilians; Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings; Winesburg, Ohio


Primary Works

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Huebsch, 1919.

Bierce, Ambrose. Shadows of Blue and Gray: The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce. Edited by Brian M. Thomsen. New York: Doherty, 2002.

Cather, Willa. The Troll Garden. New York: McClure, Phillips, 1905.

Chesnutt, Charles W. The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1899.

Chopin, Kate. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Edited by Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

Crane, Stephen. "The Open Boat." In Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Dunbar-Nelson, Alice. The Goodness of St. Rocque, and Other Stories. New York: Dodd-Mead, 1899.

James, Henry. The Art of the Novel. Edited by Richard P. Blackmur. New York: Scribners, 1934.

James, Henry. "The Story-Teller at Large: Mr. Henry Harland." In The American Essays of Henry James, edited by Leon Edel, pp. 186–196. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1956.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. Novels and Stories. New York: Library of America, 1994.

King, Grace. Balcony Stories. 1893. New Orleans: Graham Press, 1914.

Stein, Gertrude. Three Lives. 1909. New York: Dover, 1994.

Twain, Mark. The Complete Essays of Mark Twain. Edited by Charles Neider. Garden City, N.Y.: Hanover, 1956.

Twain, Mark. The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain. Edited by Charles Neider. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957.

Secondary Works

Curnutt, Kirk. Wise Economies: Brevity and Storytelling in American Short Stories. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1997.

Fusco, Richard. Maupassant and the American Short Story: The Influence of Form at the Turn of the Century. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Gerlach, John. Toward the End: Closure and Structure in the American Short Story. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985.

Hoffman, Daniel G. Form and Fable in American Fiction. New York: Holt Rinehart, 1961.

McWilliams, Dean. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.

Marler, Robert F. "From Tale to Short Story: The Emergence of a New Genre in the 1850s." American Literature 44 (1974): 153–169.

Matthews, Brander. The Philosophy of the Short-Story. New York: Longmans, Green, 1901.

May, Charles E. The New Short Story Theories. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994.

Messent, Peter. The Short Works of Mark Twain: A Critical Study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Pattee, Fred Lewis. The Development of the American Short Story. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1923.

Quirk, Tom. Mark Twain: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne,1997.

Sedgwick, Ellery. The Atlantic Monthly, 1857–1909: Yankee Humanism at High Tide and Ebb. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1994.

Voss, Arthur. The American Short Story: A Critical Survey. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.

Kirk Curnutt

Short Story

views updated May 29 2018


In a sketch by Washington Irving (1783–1859) titled "The Mutability of Literature" (from the 1819–1820 Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.), the narrator converses with a cranky talking quarto, a small book embittered by two centuries of neglect in the library of Westminster Abbey. By way of consolation, the narrator explains to the volume that in the age of modern printing "the stream of literature has swollen into a torrent—augmented into a river—expanded into a sea." At this rate of growth, he says, in spite of the best efforts of critics, "it will soon be the employment of a lifetime merely to learn [the] names" of the world's good books (p. 134). While fearing for the fate of any writer's posterity in the face of increasingly numerous and prolific authors, the narrator concedes that at least a few writers will continue to find longevity in the minds of readers. Though speaking about writing of all kinds, the narrator may as well be discussing the American short story, for in Irving's era the waters of short fiction began to quickly rise. From the widening river of published sketches, tales, and stories in the mid-nineteenth century, critics have identified Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), and Herman Melville (1819–1891) as among the major authors of the period's short fiction. While there is undoubtedly consensus as to the makeup of this canonized group, the ranks of remembered names have begun to grow. Renewed attention to formerly neglected texts has allowed more nineteenth-century short story authors—regionalists and women writers, among others—to be heard again.


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 1820 and 1870. Auspiciously for this volume, however, the story that critics tell about the American short story very often begins precisely in 1819–1820 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 1920s, 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. 27–28). 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 (1837–1920). To begin this discussion in 1820, 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. "Rip Van Winkle," which draws its most basic premise from German folklore but dramatically pivots upon life before and after American independence, is sometimes offered as an example of a piece on the American end of such a spectrum. 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.S. history. 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. Writing under the pen name Diedrich Knickerbocker—from whose papers several pieces from The Sketch Book are purportedly borrowed—Irving published in 1809 A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, a popular mock history. In the years following the 1819–1820 serial publication of The Sketch Book, Irving produced two more volumes of "Geoffrey Crayon's" obser vations: Bracebridge Hall (1822) and Tales of a Traveller (1824). Irving, who would go on to publish more nonfiction, released the bulk of his short fiction during the 1820s, 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 1740s. Andrew Bradford's American Magazine and Benjamin Franklin's General Magazine were first issued within three days of each other in 1741. In the years following the American Revolutionary War, the number of successful titles rose. By 1820, Eugene Current-García recounts, despite the existence of only the most basic publishing facilities in the United States, "more than a hundred magazines had come into being, flourished for a time, and then disappeared, leaving behind in their files many hundreds of pieces of short fiction" (p. 3). The number of periodicals only rose from there. The 1830s saw the first issues of several magazines that would enjoy lengthy runs, including Godey's Lady's Book (founded in 1830) and the Southern Literary Messenger (1834). "Gift books," annual collections of short pieces, were also popular. 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 1820s to the 1850s, 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 1841) 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 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story collection Twice-Told Tales (1842 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. 521) is the most important element of a composition, and this unity may be accomplished only in pieces short enough for a reader to absorb in one sitting. "Without a certain continuity of effort—" Poe writes, "without a certain duration or repetition of purpose—the soul is never deeply moved" (p. 521). 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. 521). 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. 522). 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. 523). 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.


Edgar Allan Poe's famous story "The Tell-Tale Heart' was first published in January of 1845 in The Pioneer and reprinted in the Broadway Journal on 23 August 1845. 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! what could I do? 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!—no, no? They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!—this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die!—and now—again—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!—

"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!"

Poe, Great Short Works, p. 389.

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 1825 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 (1828)—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 1837 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 1837. 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 1842. Four years after that, Hawthorne published Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), 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." Released the same year as Hawthorne's third edition of Twice-Told Tales was The Snow Image and Other Tales (1851), a miscellaneous grouping of pieces written during the span of Hawthorne's career to date. "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" is among the better-known stories included in this, Hawthorne's final collection of short fiction. 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. "The Birth-mark," the tale of a scientist's tragic obsession with removing a blemish from his wife's otherwise perfect visage, is but one story that employs the symbolism and allegory so central to Hawthorne's literary project. And as he would later do in The Scarlet Letter (1850), 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 1842 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, Great Short Works, pp. 521–522.

Poe, who worked at Graham's in 1841 and 1842, 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 1840s, many of which appeared in his two short-fiction collections Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) and Tales (1845). 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. Poe is frequently deemed the originator of detective fiction for tales such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Purloined Letter," in which his character C. 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 1850 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 (1851), 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 1920s 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 1852–1856, some of which were included in his only short-fiction collection, The Piazza Tales (1856). "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno" are perhaps the most-anthologized titles from the six-story volume.


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. 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 1820 to 1870. 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. (P. 16)

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 (1806–1870) tales of the South are among the earliest popular examples of writing in this tradition. Bret Harte's (1836–1902) 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 (1885), Mark Twain (1835–1910), 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. Short fiction by Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) author Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), Alice Cary (1820–1871), and Rose Terry Cooke (1827–1892) are among those from the period singled out by Fetterley and Pryse for renewed attention. 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.

See also"Bartleby, the Scrivener"; "Benito Cereno"; "The Birth-mark"; "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"; "The Fall of the House of Usher"; Literary Marketplace; Literary Nationalism; Periodicals; "Young Goodman Brown"


Primary Works

Fetterley, Judith, and Marjorie Pryse, eds. American WomenRegionalists 1850–1910. New York: Norton, 1992.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Twice-Told Tales. 1837. Expanded ed. 1842. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Young Goodman Brown and Other Short Stories. New York: Dover, 1992.

Irving, Washington. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon,Gent. 1819–1820. Reprinted as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and Other Stories in "The Sketch Book." New York: Signet, 1981.

Melville, Herman. The Piazza Tales. 1856. Northwestern-Newberry edition. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe:Poems, Tales, Criticism. Introduction by G. R. Thompson. New York: Perennial, 2004.

Secondary Works

Current-García, Eugene. The American Short Story before 1850: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Hamilton, Kristie. America's Sketchbook: The Cultural Life of a Nineteenth-Century Literary Genre. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998.

Lee, A. Robert, ed. The Nineteenth-Century American Short Story. London: Vision Press, 1985.

Levy, Andrew. The Culture and Commerce of the AmericanShort Story. New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Pattee, Fred Lewis. The Development of the American ShortStory: An Historical Survey. New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1923.

Tallack, Douglas. The Nineteenth-Century American ShortStory: Language, Form, and Ideology. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Voss, Arthur. The American Short Story: A Critical Survey. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.

Rebecca Berne

short story

views updated May 14 2018

short sto·ry • n. a story with a fully developed theme but significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel.