Adventures in Reading

Defining the short story

On my post for Washington Irving’s “The Voyage” I received a thought provoking comment from Amateur Reader:

This is tricky. One point of the sketch or essay (it’s not really a story, is it?) is simply to move the American narrator to England, which is the setting for the subsequent pieces in “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon”.

Are you reading a story anthology, or the “Sketchbook”? Very few of the pieces in the latter are real narrative stories. “Rip van Winkle” and “Sleepy Hollow” being the big exceptions.

I have definitely been rolling this one over my tongue and savoring it if you will. I really am fascinated by the terminology of a sketch story or sketch book to define the short story. But I’ve been wondering about whether or not it’s a story. When I started my expedition into short stories I was not expecting the demand on my own idea of the short story and if anything I’ve found my interpretation has broadened and remains without any true conclusion for a hardened definition. But is “The Voyage” a short narrative piece, or is it an essay that moves the narrator? I suppose I believe it’s simply both.

“The Voyage” does deliver the story of our American narrator traveling from America to England. In that sense it is purely a story of movement, but then there’s also that quote that The Odyssey is nothing more than a man coming home from work. Or more recently as Terry Pratchett reflected on the combining of his two novels The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic into one film adaptation said of The Colour of Magic that it “had no perceptible plot whatsoever other than people kept moving,” but I don’t think anyone would read these pieces and doubt that they are indeed novels. Whether or not we describe something as a story very much depends on how the describer interprets a story, and I have only just begun realizing the plethora of interpretations available.

In my current quest of attempting to have a fuller grasp of the story I have found my greatest friend and greatest challenge has been the dictionary. You’d think it would be terribly easy to look up words like “story” and “narrative” but the dictionary can only provide a denotation and it’s left to the reader to find a connotation. Narrative is defined as “a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious” ( And it seems to me that as long as the narrative text avoids mere summarization (another sticky wicket!) that it is indeed a story.

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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).

“The Voyage” by Washington Irving
“Who can tell, when he sets forth to wander, whither he may be driven by the uncertain currents of existence, or when he may return, or whether it may ever be his lot to revisit the scenes of his childhood?” from Washington Irving’s “The Voyage” from The Sketch Book.

Washington Irving is perhaps best known for his two short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (both stories I admittedly have never read), and I had never read his short fiction or considered reading them until I finished Edgar Allan Poe’s review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story collection Twice-Told Tales where within he mentions Irving. Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of reading Irving is approaching him, as the introduction describes, as a post-colonial author. I confess that in my literary experience I have always considered America the colonizer and had failed to even consider American literature in any way as post-colonial. [1]

When I finish a novel I expect to close the back cover, leave feeling satisfied, see the threads nicely tied together, and generally have some sentiment of contentedness with the entire reading process. My short story reading experience has seldom replicated this scenario. Honestly it is a little closer to reading and then rereading the final page to figure out what the hell just happened, giving in and starting over from the beginning, sparks of excitement as themes etc. begin to fall into place, and ultimately leaving the story (no matter how often I read it) with questions.

This is an excellent reason to read living short story writers because you can write them letters and ask them what they were thinking or what they meant or why the hell they write such confusing prose. Unfortunately for me, Irving has been dead for quite some time.

But that’s the feeling that “The Voyage” left me with. On the surface, “The Voyage” is a tentatively safe short story with an American taking a sea voyage to England. Our nameless narrator reflects on leaving his home, the joys and sorrows of the sea, and finally landing in a strange land. On my first time through I found “The Voyage” terrible dry and dull and dreaded trying to reread it. However, I found “The Voyage” to be a tale punctuated with the grief and flatteries of the sea and these concepts broadening to metaphors for life. Irving captures a multi-faceted approach to the ocean describing it as “vacancy,” “meditation,” “monotony,” and “continual reverie.” The ocean becomes a symbol of isolation and cruelty as well as an extention of purification and childlike whimsy.

“The Voyage” has the more obvious man versus nature references but my favorite parts of “The Voyage” were two internal stories, which I’ll refer to as “The Captain’s Story” and “The Sailor’s Arrival.” “The Captain’s Story” is how a ship the captain was on crashed into a smaller schooner uncontrollably and destroyed every thing and one on board. “The Sailor’s Arrival” ends “The Voyage” as a woman scans the faces onboard the boat for her husband and only recognizes her husband after he calls to her as he is so emaciated and near death. The woman ends the story wringing her hands “in silent agony.” These two minor stories were wonderful and created a complexity within “The Voyage” it would otherwise lack.

But what was the point? “The Captain’s Story” is rather more fitting as it serves as a representation of the chaos and uncontrolable nature of the sea. However, “The Sailor’s Arrival,” while lovely, seems almost superfluous. Or is it? As a result of the shortness of prose tales it is unlikely that an author would interject unnecessary information. What objective do these stories serve? Likewise, considering the period Irving was writing in, what poignancy can be extricated from the concluding lines of the story: “I alone was solitary and idle. I had no friend to meet, no cheering to receive. I stepped upon the land of my forefathers–but felt that I was a stranger in the land”?

[1] Keeping in mind that these post-colonial peoples were doing terrible things to the native population.