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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Nathaniel Hawthorne on Himself

Following Edgar Allan Poe’s remarks on the short story and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales in What is the short story? by Eugene Current-García and Walton R. Patrick, is an introduction and a preface by Nathaniel Hawthorne for his own literary works. Though perhaps with a dab of sarcasm or bitterness, Hawthorne appears excruciatingly modest and apologetic to the point that he is almost suggesting alternative titles to his audience. In the author’s preface to the 1851 edition of Twice-Told Tales Hawthorne elaborates that:

“They [the stories] have the pale tint of flowers that blossomed in too retired a shade–the coolness of a meditative habit, which diffuses itself through the feeling and observation of every sketch [1]. … The book, if you would see anything in it, requires to be read in the clear, brown, twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages.”

While I have not read Twice-Told Tales, I have read The Scarlet Letter and The Scribner’s Tale (I believe it’s called) and adore them both. From the author’s introduction to “Rappaccini’s Daughter” there is an excerpt I found significant in response to the short story: “Occasionally a breath of Nature, a raindrop of pathos and tenderness, or a gleam of humor, will find its way into the midst of his fantastic imagery, and make us feel as if, after all, we were yet within the limits of our native earth.”

First, “a raindrop of pathos” is a fabulous saying. Secondly, I’m not precisely sure what Hawthorne is getting at, but I think the gist is Hawthorne saying at times in his collection is an emotional appeal that makes the reader feel “within the limits of our native earth.” Admittedly it’s the final portion of this quote that’s stopping me… I read it in an uplifting manner but undoubtedly it has an additional Romantic/Transcendental/Naturalist/etc. meaning

In the preface, Hawthorne also addresses that “They [the stories] are not the talk of a secluded man with his own mind and heart … but his attempts, and very imperfectly successful ones, to open an intercourse with the world…” This quote seems equally applicable to all forms of art (written, visual, etc.) but in consideration of the previous quote I have been thinking of the introduction of a fragment of pathos in a story to introduce discussion.

[1] If you recall from my post of “The Voyage” by Washington Irving that the story was from a collection titled The Sketch Book. The sketch book is in reference to drawing where an artist quickly (and sometimes haphazardly) creates a representation of, well, whatever for further consideration at a later point in time. According to the introduction of my copy of Irving, some literary books that also included illustrations called themselves “sketch books” but Irving I think was the first to apply the term to an entire set of the written word.

This seems to explain why in this period short stories, prose tales, etc. are at times referred to as “sketches.” However, I would like to think that this evolutionary branch of “sketches” and “sketch book” also moved away from the idea of a work being unfinished (and I’m sure Irving would agree).



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!