Read an Excerpt
From Corinne Demas's Introduction to Great American Short Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway
When Edgar Allan Poe first described his conception of an ideal "prose tale" he could hardly have imagined that his vision would be guiding the genre of the short story for the next century and a half. His definition was not a rigid formulalike the rules for a sonnet, for instancebut rather a prototype for success. He outlined the qualities that he believed made a short story succeed, rather than set an immutable standard, and his insights influenced all the short-story writers who followed him.
Poe's influential discourse on the short story was part of a critical review that he wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne's collection Twice Told Tales in Graham's Magazine in May 1842. The elements of the short story that he centers on in his critique are unity and length, and the necessary connection between the two.
In almost all classes of composition, the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance. It is clear, moreover, that this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed at one sitting.
The concept of the "single sitting," as Poe presents it, is not a mere erudite hypothesis, but a tangible, practical one.
The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length. . . . 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 fullness 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 influencesresulting from weariness or interruption.
With a short story a reader can be totally immersed from start to finish without once having to abandon the fictional world until the story is over. Poe describes the kind of ideal hold a short-story writer can exert on a reader, and it's not surprising that he would take full advantage of it in his own fiction. It's not just the reader's mind that a short-story writer can engage, suggests Poe, but the reader's soul.
In his review, Poe's writes: "Mr. Hawthorne's distinctive trait is invention, creation, imagination, originalitya trait which, in the literature of fiction, is positively worth all the rest." Certainly what Poe valued most in this other, contemporary writer was one of his own particular gifts. Poe's short story "The Mask of the Red Death" was published for the first time in the same issue of Graham's Magazine as his review. It was an issue that brought together, then, these first two great American short-story writers, and it was the moment that we might well think of as the launching of the genre. It's important to remember that Poe and Hawthorne preceded the European short-story masters Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant by several decades.
Over the years, the short story has strained against its own definition, but that, of course, is what healthy genres do. If writers cease actively questioning and testing the definition, then that genre is probably no longer particularly vital (take the epic poem, for example.) Whenever you have a literary definition that prescribes certain limits, it inspires a particular kind of creativity. Writing is an intellectual pursuit, and the mind of the short-story writer is engaged in a kind of contest: Given the limitations of the genrewhich in the case of the short story is its lengthwhat can be accomplished?
It is this question that can be the most enlightening for anyone who's interested in the history of the short story. If the short story is attempting to capture the essence of something important and do it on a small scale, then concision and selection are going to be key. How writers select and compress their material will be determined by the decade when they are writing as well as their individual stylistic taste.
We can get an overview of the development of the short story from its first American beginnings to its twentieth-century incarnation by juxtaposing Hawthorne and Ernest Hemingway. When we place their work side by side, we can appreciate the degree of transformation. It's not, of course, as if the history of the short story in America follows a simple or predictable chronology. (It does, however, parallel a similar development in the history of the novel.) What we can observe is the general shift in both the choice of subject matter and the way it is presented. And, of course, the alteration in prose style reflects the transition that took place in language itself, from the more formal and elaborate language of the mid-nineteenth century to the more informal, leaner language after the turn of the twentieth century.