Adventures in Reading

Brander Matthews on the short story, ca. 1901

From What is the short story? by Current-Garcia and Patrick, Brander Matthews attempts to explain and explore the short story as a genre in The Philosophy of the Short-story. “A true Short-story is something other and something more than a mere story which is short. A true Short-story differs from the Novel chiefly in its essential unity of impression. In a far more exact and precise use of the word, a Short-story has a unity as a Novel cannot have it.”

As interesting as Matthews’ article is he’s often imprecise as seen in the quote above. What is Matthews really attempting to say by “other” and “more”? “Unity of impression” seems to refer back to Poe’s “totalism” but “unity as a Novel cannot have it”? Matthews never really expands on the notion but expounds vagueness throughout his paper.

Don’t get me wrong. I give Matthews credit though for struggling to answer and define what is a short story, and in my experience this still remains unanswered. However, Matthew does touch on two other areas of interest: love and the sketch.

“…the Novel, nowadays at least, must be a love-tale while the Short-story need not deal with love at all.” I admit I’m fascinated by this statement and am mentally scanning my last few novels to discover any volumes without love. Matthews himself cites Robinson Crusoe as an exception, but there does seem to be some truth in the short story’s exemption from love tales. (My partner and I tossed out The Grapes of Wrath as another possibility.)

Matthews also refers back to the sketch, something that has maintained my interest throughout this collection. “Perhaps the difference between a Short-story and a sketch can best be indicated by saying that, while a Sketch may be still-life, in a Short-story something always happens. A Sketch may be an outline of character, or even a picture of a mood of mind, but in a Short-story there must be something done, there must be an action.”

Recently I posted on the tribulations of defining a tale and specifically looked again at Washington Irving’s “The Voyage.” The sketch as “still-life” is most reminiscent of the idea of an artist’s sketchbook and quickly jotting down an impression possibly to be later developed in the studio. But even this quote by Matthews seems somewhat vague. What’s meant by action? Verb usage? The differences between short story, sketch, and summary seem to be very hazy indeed.

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