Monday, May 13, 2013

The Short Story: History and Development


What is a short story?

A short story, as described by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), is a prose narrative of indeterminate length requiring anything from half an hour to one or two hours to peruse, and is a story that concentrates on a unique or single effect and one in which the totality of effect is the main objective.

Over time the form has shown itself to be so flexible and susceptible of so much variety that its possibilities seem almost endless. For example, it may be concerned with a scene, an episode, an experience, an action, the exhibition of a character or characters, the day's events, a meeting, a conversation, a fantasy or anything else that is an event in the mind of the writer.

When it comes to classification this is one of the most elusive forms. How long (or short) is a short story? If we take the novella as a 'middle-distance' book/story, then the short story comes into the 100/200 metre class. A short story could have anything from about 1,600 words to 20, 000 words, but the vast majority fall somewhere between the two.


Where did the short story begin?

Historically, we find many inset stories or digressions in Classical literature which amount to short stories. In the Bible the accounts of Cain and Abel, the Prodigal Son, Ruth, Judith and Suzannah are all short stories. The forefathers of the short story are myth, legend, parable, fairy tale, fable, anecdote, exemplum, essay, character study and even the ballad. The yarn, the sketch, the tale and the Russian 'skaz' are all short stories.

How did the short story develop?

In the second half of the 18th century the short story was being developed and established in Britain, partly as a result of the popularity of the oriental tale and also the Gothic novel. This new kind of the horror story was becoming increasing popular and by the end of the 18th c. the German 'novella' was firmly established as a term and genre of fiction, a trend which also saw the 'short story' evolve into a highly organized literary form. The popularity of the genre at this stage was mainly due to ghost stories dealing with the supernatural. In the English-speaking world two of the most important pioneers were Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832) and the Americans Washington Irving (1783 - 1859) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 - 64).

The development of the short story during the 19th century

The realistic short story became highly developed in Russia. Alexander Pushkin was among the first to exploit it in the 1830s with The Tales of Belkin (1830), the Queen of Spade (1834) and The Captain's Daughter (1836). Gogol's stories were published during the same period. He wrote about everyday things and events and ordinary peoples. Among his most famous works are Nevsky Prospekt (1835), Notes of a Madman (19=835), The Portrait (1835), and Nose (1836) and The Overcoat (1842). Chekhov, who was to have a profound an universal influence on the short story, published several collections, including Motley Stories (1886) and In the Twilight (1888).
In France the short story was established in 1829-31 with the publication of a dozen 'contes' by Prosper Merimee, Balzac and Gautier. The outstanding French writer of short stories in the 19th c. was unquestionably Guy de Maupassant, among whose main collections were La Maison Tellier (1881), Mademoiselle Fifi (1882) and Yvette (1885).

Chekhov and Maupassant are generally accounted the masters of the genre in this period. Their combined influence has been immeasurable.
By the middle of the 19th c. the ghost story and the horror story were very well established. Many hundreds of short stories during the second half of the century were one or the other, or both combined. There were also hundreds of short stories with supernatural or supranormal themes; often tales of suspense and mystery. This popularity was to continue in the 20th century and beyond.

The short story in America

In America, during the second half of the 19th c., eight writers made a considerable name for themselves in the short story form: Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, O. Henry, Stephen Crane, Jack London and Sherwood Anderson.Herman Melville's three most famous are Brtleby the Scrivener, Benito Cereno and The Encantadas. These were published in his collection The Piazza Tales (1856).

Twain's main collection is The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County and Other Sketches (1867). This is an example of the tall tale or tall story, a kind of fiction which was popular in America in the 19th century.

Francis Bret Harte was a prolific writer of short stories and helped to popularize the Western. One of his best collections is The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870).

Ambrose Bierce is still well remembered for his collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891).

Stephen Crane published two distinguished collections - The open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (1898) and The Monster and Other Stories (1899).

O. Henry, especially, was very prolific and, like many of his here mentioned contemporaries, wrote tight, well-crafted stories, almost slick in their adroit contrivance, and was a master of the surprise ending or 'twist in the tail'. Among his main collections are Cabbage and Kings (1904), The Four Million (1906), The Trimmed Lamp (1907), and The Road of Destiny (1909).

Jack London was equally prolific. Two of his main collections are The Son of the Wolf (1900) and Tales of the Far North (1900). His Two Thousand Dozen is one of the best of all tall stories.

Sherwood Anderson's collections include The Triumph of the Egg (1921) and Horses and Men (1923).

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