Thursday, January 21, 2016

In Defense of the Short Story by Sherwin Cody 1905


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As we have seen, the original form of modern fiction was that of the short story—the tavern tale rendered in classic language by Boccaccio in The Decameron and by the unknown author of The Arabian Nights.

All the great novelists wrote more or less short stories. Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" and "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" are classics. Balzac was a master of the short story, and in "A Passion in the Desert" and "La Grande Breteche" we have two of the most powerful stories ever written. Dickens and Thackeray are also short story tellers of rare accomplishments. "A Christmas Carol," "The Chimes," and "The Cricket on the Hearth" are among Dickens's best work; and scattered through his novels we will find such complete narratives as "The Five Sisters of York" in Nicholas Nickleby. "The Princess's Tragedy" is a chapter in Thackeray's Barry Lyndon.

But Edgar Allan Poe is the father of the modern short story, the short story as a refined work of art rather than merely a simple short narrative.

There is an impression that all of Poe's stories are gruesome, but this is not true. The most famous of his narratives are his three great detective stories, "The Gold-Bug," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," and "The Purloined Letter." Only the second has the elements of terror in it. "The GoldBug" is the original treasure-finding and cipher-reading story. "The Purloined Letter" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" introduce Dupin, the French amateur detective, father of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (who by the way is an excellent son). That Poe was a real and not a sham detective he demonstrated in his analysis of the real case of Marie Roget, in which he used the newspaper reports of a New York mystery and came to conclusions that were afterward verified.

Another kind of story which Poe originated was the tale of imaginary science. His stories of this kind are none of them gruesome, with the single exception of "The Case of M. Valdemar." The first story he wrote of this kind was "Ms. Found in a Bottle." This was followed by "Hans Pfaal's Voyage to the Moon," "A Descent into the Maelstrom," "Mellonta Tauta," and "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherezade."

A still different type of story is his prose poems such as the beautiful "Eleonora," and his studies in landscape such as "The Island of the Fay," "The Domain of Arnheim," and "Landor's Cottage."

His terrible and thrilling stories, by which he is best known, have never been surpassed. The best is "William Wilson," the story of a double; but still more gruesome are "The Black Cat," "Berenice," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Cask of Amontillado." Less horrible and unnatural, but curious and interesting, are "The Man of the Crowd," "HopFrog," and "The Pit and the Pendulum." His "Fall of the House of Usher" is unique.

Poe's life was one of hardship and unhappiness, and he was terribly libelled by his biographer Griswold, who hated him for the scathing reviews Poe had written of his books. So the great poet and story-writer has been painted in the popular mind much blacker than he really is, according to the latest and most authentic evidence. But he was certainly the most original genius America has produced. When he had made a success in one kind of story he did not care to go on writing more stories of that kind, but originated another type.

Hawthorne is better known as a novelist, the author of The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, Blithedale Romance, and Marble Faun, than as a short-story writer; but he alone among Americans has approached Poe as a teller of tales. His reputation was first made by two volumes of short stories called Twice-Told Tales, among which are the deeply interesting "Gray Champion," "The Great Carbuncle," "David Swan," "Howe's Masquerade," "The Ambitious Guest," and "The Three-fold Destiny." Many like the Mosses from an Old Manse better, considering "The Birthmark" his masterpiece. "Drowne's Wooden Image" is a remarkable tale, and "Rapaccini's Daughter" (the girl who was brought up on poisons and whose kiss was poison) is most weird. The most popular story for children is "The Snow Image," and "The Great Stone Face" (which I like best of all) appeals alike to young and old. "Ethan Brand" is another good story in this volume, and children will be fascinated by "Little Daffydowndilly."

Hawthorne's stories are all more or less fantastic allegories, written in unexceptionably beautiful and perfect English. The author was a recluse, and his stories are stories of loneliness in one form or another. Those who like solitude will be very fond of him; those who like gaiety, liveliness, and society, will find him depressing.

The other great American short story writers include Bret Harte, author of "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"; Edward Everett Hale, author of "The Man Without a Country"; Frank Stockton, author of "The Lady or the Tiger?" and Mary E. Wilkins. With these may be included Thomas Hardy's "Life's Little Ironies," which are full of fun.

More perfect in his art than either Poe or Hawthorne is the modern writer Guy de Maupassant. His stories are most of them very short; but not a word is wasted, and they tell as much as stories much longer. His most perfect tales are not accessible in English because they are slightly improper. The two best are said to be "Boule de Suif" (Butter-Ball) and "La Maison Tellier" (Madame Tellier's Girls, or The Tellier Establishment). The thirteen tales translated by Jonathan Sturgis in "The Odd Number" are unexceptionable, however, and intensely interesting.

The French have perfected the artistic short story or conte as they call it, and there are many good tales in that language. One of the most famous is the old-fashioned "Paul and Virginia," a simple rustic love story, and Prosper Merimee, the contemporary of Balzac, wrote some excellent tales. One might mention also Daudet with his "Pope's Mule," Gauthier, and Zola's "Attack on the Mill."

But far stronger stories than those just mentioned are the great Russian tales of Tolstoi and Turgenev. Tolstoi is better known by his great novels, "The Cossacks," "War and Peace," and "Anna Karenina." But "The Long Exile," "What Men Live By," and other short tales are unsurpassed for dramatic force. Turgenev's "First Love" is a rather long short story, but an intensely interesting one. "A Lear of the Steppes" is regarded as his classic. But there are others equally good.

Of modern writers of short stories Kipling is doubtless the greatest; but his early books such as "Plain Tales from the Hills," "Soldiers Three," "Phantom Rickshaw," "Wee Willie Winkie," etc, are probably better than the later ones, though in the later books a strong story will be found here and there.

No greater short story has been published in modern times than Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and Gilbert Parker has published some excellent short stories in "Pierre and His People."

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