Adventures in Reading

Edgar Allan Poe on the Short Story

The second selection from What is the short story? by Eugene Current-García and Walton R. Patrick are two pieces from Edgar Allan Poe. The first is Poe’s original review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales and the second is an excerpt from Poe’s later revised review. Interesting enough, roughly half of the original review leads up to Hawthorne’s review but doesn’t actually pertain to it. (Perhaps something to consider in my own reviews! – watch out for future ramblings.) Poe, however, has a lot to say about the short story.

Poe addresses a hierarchy of writing that “fulfill[s] the demands of high genius” with lyric poetry as he describes “a rhymed poem, not to exceed in length what might be perused in an hour” at the top and the short story coming in second. Poe does not directly mention the novel (Poe undoubtedly was somewhat biased too) but he states “the sin of extreme length is even more unpardonable” as it doesn’t “satisfy the Poetic Sentiment.”

What really caught my attention in this review is Poe’s comments on what he refers to as “the immense force derivable from totalism,” which demands that a written work is no longer than 30 minutes to an hour or two at most allowing it to be read in entirety in one sitting. Poe expands that “We need only here say, upon this topic, that, 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.”

While I would never dare to establish my own hierarchy for “class of composition” (I love haikus to novels-in-installments equally) I was fascinated by the idea of totalism. This concept is by no way new but I had neither given it great consideration nor ever fully expressed it. But when you think about it, almost all forms of printed art can be perused in one sitting excepting the novel [1]. Keeping this in mind, perhaps it is more plausible to compare a poem and a prose tale than a novel with the latter.

One benefit of short prose is reading it in one go. This allows the reader the advantage of experiencing a work in its entirety. The novel (mostly) does not offer a similar experience. I wonder if totalism is often too overwhelming particularly as the novel reigns supreme in popularity for much of the western world at least. A novel is experienced in fragments but a short story demands to be swallowed in one dose.

[1] Yes, yes, many people have experienced a novel that has been so gripping, so filled with promise we have hung on to it without rest from beginning to end. However, for most people as a result of the demands of daily life and/or the demands of the written word it is impractical if not impossible to read (and specifically to peruse [2]) a novel in one go.

[2] Thank you June Casagrande for this one!



These reviews are as much about Poe’s own art as about Hawthorne’s. Poe is more interested in achieving “the unity of effect” and so on than even Hawthorne, who seems more interested in ambiguity (multiple effects). Note that 10 years later, Hawthorne completely abandons the short story for the novel.

Also, to supplement footnote 1: the epic poem, “The Anatomy of Melancholy”, etc., etc.

Comment by Amateur Reader

Amateur Reader: I most definitely agree that Poe’s reviews strongly smack in favor of his own art. And it is interesting though how Poe’s argument for “totalism” continuously reappears in short story criticisms and discussions decades later. I cannot say I am as familiar with Hawthorn as I ought to be, but thank you for the additional material.

Comment by bookchronicle

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