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the Short-story.

But, although the sense of form and the gift of
style are essential to the writing of a good Short-
story, they are secondary to the idea, to the con
ception, to the subject. Those who hold, with a
certain American novelist, that it is no matter what
you have to say, but only how you say it, need not
attempt the Short-story ; for the Short-story, far
more than the Novel even, demands a subject.
The Short-story is nothing if there is no story to
tell. The Novel, so Mr. James told us not long



84 PEN AND INK.

ago, "is, in its broadest definition, a personal im
pression of life." The most powerful force in
French fiction to-day is M. Emile Zola, chiefly
known in America and England, I fear me greatly,
by the dirt which masks and degrades the real
beauty and firm strength not seldom concealed in
his novels ; and M. Emile Zola declares that the
novelist of the future will not concern himself
with the artistic evolution of a plot : he will take
une bistoire quelconque, any kind of a story, and
make it serve his purpose, which is to give elab
orate pictures of life in all its most minute details.
The acceptance of these theories is a negation
of the Short-story. Important as are form and
style, the subject of the Short-story is of more im
portance yet. What you have to tell is of greater
interest than how you tell it. I once heard a
clever American novelist pour sarcastic praise
upon another American novelist, for novelists,
even American novelists, do not always dwell to
gether in unity. The subject of the eulogy is the
chief of those who have come to be known as the
International Novelists, and he was praised be
cause he had invented and made possible a fifth
plot. Hitherto, declared the eulogist, only four
terminations of a novel have been known to the
most enthusiastic and untiring student of fiction.



THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE SHORT-STORY. 85

First, they are married ; or, second, she marries
some one else ; or, thirdly, he marries some one
else ; or, fourthly, and lastly, she dies. Now,
continued the panegyrist, a fifth termination
has been shown to be practicable : they are not
married, she does not die, he does not die, and
nothing happens at all. As a Short-story need
not be a love-story, it is of no consequence at all
whether they marry or die ; but a Short-story in
which nothing happens at all is an absolute im
possibility.

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 some
thing done, there must be an action. Yet the
distinction, like that between the Novel and the
Romance, is no longer of vital importance. In the
preface to the ' House of the Seven Gables,' Haw
thorne sets forth the difference between the Novel
and the Romance, and claims for himself the priv
ileges of the romancer. Mr. Henry James fails to
see this difference. The fact is, that the Short-
story and the Sketch, the Novel and the Romance,
melt and merge one into the other, and no man



86 PEN AND INK.

may mete the boundaries of each, though their
extremes lie far apart. With the more complete
understanding of the principle of development and
evolution in literary art, as in physical nature, we
see the futility of a strict and rigid classification
into precisely defined genera and species. All that
is needful for us to remark now is that the Short-
story has limitless possibilities : it may be as real
istic as the most prosaic novel, or as fantastic as
the most ethereal romance.

As a touch of fantasy, however slight, is a wel
come ingredient in a Short-story, and as the Amer
ican takes more thought of things unseen than the
Englishman, we may have here an incomplete ex
planation of the superiority of the American Short-
story over the English. "John Bull has suffered
the idea of the Invisible to be very much fattened
out of him," says Mr. Lowell: "Jonathan is con
scious still that he lives in the World of the
Unseen as well as of the Seen." It is not enough
to catch a ghost white-handed and to hale him
into the full glare of the electric light. A brutal
misuse of the supernatural is perhaps the very
lowest degradation of the art of fiction. But " to
mingle the marvellous rather as a slight, delicate,
and evanescent flavor than as any actual portion
of the substance," to quote from the preface to



THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE SHORT-STORY. 87

the * House of the Seven Gables/ this is, or should
be, the aim of the writer of Short-stories when
ever his feet leave the firm ground of fact as he
strays in the unsubstantial realms of fantasy. In
no one's writings is this better exemplified than
in Hawthorne's ; not even in Poe's. There is a
propriety in Hawthorne's fantasy to which Poe
could not attain. Hawthorne's effects are moral
where Poe's are merely physical. The situation
and its logical development and the effects to be
got out of it are all Poe thinks of. In Hawthorne
the situation, however strange and weird, is
only the outward and visible sign of an inward
and spiritual struggle. Ethical consequences are
always worrying Hawthorne's soul : but Poe did
not know that there were any ethics.

There are literary evolutionists who, in their
whim of seeing in every original writer a copy of
some predecessor, have declared that Hawthorne
is derived from Tieck, and Poe from Hoffmann,
just as Dickens modelled himself on Smollett and
Thackeray followed in the footsteps of Fielding.
In all four cases the pupil surpassed the mas
ter, if haply Tieck and Hoffmann can be consid
ered as even remotely the masters of Hawthorne
and Poe. When Coleridge was told that Klopstock
was the German Milton, he assented with the dry



88 PEN AND INK.

addendum, "A very German Milton." So is
Hoffmann a very German Poe, and Tieck a very
German Hawthorne. Of a truth, both Poe and
Hawthorne are as American as any one can be. If
the adjective American has any meaning at all, it
qualifies Poe and Hawthorne. They were Ameri
can to the core. They both revealed the curious
sympathy with Oriental moods of thought which
is often an American characteristic. Poe, with his
cold logic and his mathematical analysis, and Haw
thorne, with his introspective conscience and his
love of the subtile and the invisible, are repre
sentative of phases of American character not to
be mistaken by any one who has given thought
to the influence of nationality.

As to which of the two was the greater, discus
sion is idle, but that Hawthorne was the finer
genius few would deny. Poe, as cunning an
artificer of goldsmith's work, and as adroit in its
vending as was ever M. Josse, declared that
"Hawthorne's distinctive trait is invention, crea
tion, imagination, originality, a trait which in
the literature of fiction is positively worth all the
rest." But with the moral basis of Hawthorne's
work, which had flowered in the crevices and
crannies of New England Puritanism, Poe did not
concern himself. In Poe's hands the story of the



THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE SHORT-STORY. 89

' Ambitious Guest ' might have thrilled us with a
more powerful horror, but it would have lacked
the ethical beauty which Hawthorne gave it and
which makes it significant beyond a mere feat of
verbal legerdemain. And the subtile simplicity of
the ' Great Stone Face ' is as far from Poe as the
pathetic irony of the ' Ambitious Guest.' In all
his most daring fantasies Hawthorne is natural,
and, though he may project his vision far beyond
the boundaries of fact, nowhere does he violate
the laws of nature. He had at all times a whole
some simplicity, and he never showed any trace
of the morbid taint which characterizes nearly all
Poe's work. Hawthorne, one may venture to
say, had the broad sanity of genius, while we
should understand any one who might declare
that Poe had mental disease raised to the w th .

Although it may be doubted whether the fiery
and tumultuous rush of a volcano, which may be
taken to typify Poe, is as powerful or impressive
in the end as the calm and inevitable progression
of a glacier, to which, for the purposes of this
comparison only, we may liken Hawthorne, yet
the effect and influence of Poe's work are indis
putable. One might hazard the assertion that in
all Latin countries he is the best known of Ameri
can authors. Certainly no American writer has



90 PEN AND INK.

been as widely accepted in France. Nothing bet*
ter of its kind has ever been done than the ' Pit
and the Pendulum,' or than the 'Fall of the House
of Usher,' which Mr. Stoddard has compared re
cently with Browning's ' Childe Roland to the
Dark Tower came' for its power of suggesting
intellectual desolation. Nothing better of its kind
has ever been done than the 'Gold Bug,' or than
the 'Purloined Letter,' or than the 'Murders in
the Rue Morgue.' This last, indeed, is a story of
marvellous skill : it was the first of its kind, and
to this day it remains a model, not only unsur
passed, but unapproachable. It was the first of
detective stories ; and it has had thousands of imi
tations and no rival. The originality, the ingenu
ity, the verisimilitude of this tale and of its fellows
are beyond all praise. Poe had a faculty which
one may call imaginative ratiocination to a degree
beyond all other writers of fiction. He did not at
all times keep up to the high level, in one style,
of the * Fall of the House of Usher,' and in another
of the ' Murders in the Rue Morgue/ and it was
not to be expected that he should. Only too
often did he sink to the grade of the ordinary
'Tale from Blackwood,' which he himself satir
ized in his usual savage vein of humor. Yet even
in his flimsiest and most tawdry tales we see the



THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE SHORT-STORY. 91

truth of Mr. Lowell's assertion that Poe had " two
of the prime qualities of genius, a faculty of
vigorous yet minute analysis, and a wonderful
fecundity of imagination." Mr. Lowell said also
that Poe combined " in a very remarkable manner
two faculties which are seldom found united, a
power of influencing the mind of the reader by
the impalpable shadows of mystery and a minute
ness of detail which does not leave a pin or a
button unnoticed. Both are, in truth, the natural
results of the predominating quality of his mind,
to which we have before alluded, analysis." In
Poe's hands, however, the enumeration of pins
and buttons, the exact imitation of the prosaic
facts of humdrum life in this workaday world, is
not an end, but a means only, whereby he con
structs and intensifies the shadow of mystery
which broods over the things thus realistically
portrayed.

With the recollection that it is more than half a
century since Hawthorne and Poe wrote their best
Short-stories, it is not a little comic to see now
and again in American newspapers a rash asser
tion that "American literature has hitherto been
deficient in good Short-stories," or the reckless
declaration that "the art of writing Short-stories
has not hitherto been cultivated in the United



92 PEN AND INK.

States." Nothing could be more inexact than
these statements. Almost as soon as America
began to have any literature at all it had good
Short-stories. It is quite within ten, or at the
most twenty, years that the American novel has
come to the front and forced the acknowledgment
of its equality with the English novel and the
French novel ; but for fifty years the American
Short-story has had a supremacy which any com
petent critic could not but acknowledge. Indeed,
the present excellence of the American novel is
due in great measure to the Short-story ; for nearly
every one of the American novelists whose works
are now read by the whole English-speaking race
began as a writer of Short-stories. Although as
a form of fiction the Short-story is not inferior
to the Novel, and although it is not easier, all
things considered, yet its brevity makes its com
position simpler for the 'prentice hand. Though
the Short-stories of the beginner may not be
good, yet in the writing of Short-stories he shall
learn how to tell a story, he shall discover by ex
perience the elements of the art of fiction more
readily and, above all, more quickly than if he had
begun on a long and exhausting novel. The
physical strain of writing a full-sized novel is far
greater than the reader can well imagine. To this



THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE SHORT-STORY. 93

strain the beginner in fiction may gradually accus
tom himself by the composition of Short-stories.

(Here, if the digression may be pardoned, occa
sion serves to say that if our writers of plays had
the same chance that our writers of novels have,
we might now have a school of American drama
tists of which we should be as proud as of our
school of American novelists. In dramatic com
position, the equivalent of the Short-story is the
one-act play, be it drama or comedy or comedietta
or farce. As the novelists have learned their trade
by the writing of Short-stories, so the dramatists
might learn their trade, far more difficult as it is
and more complicated, by the writing of one-act
plays. But, while the magazines of the United
States are hungry for good Short-stories, and sift
carefully all that are sent to them, in the hope of
happening on a treasure, the theatres of the
United States are closed to one-act plays, and the
dramatist is denied the opportunity of making a
humble and tentative beginning. The conditions
of the theatre are such that there is little hope of a
change for the better in this respect, more's the
pity. The manager has a tradition that a ' ' broken
bill," a programme containing more than one
play, is a confession of weakness, and he prefers,
so far as possible, to keep his weakness concealed.)



94 PEN AND INK.

When we read the roll of American novelists,
we see that nearly all of them began as writers of
Short-stories. Some of them, Mr. Bret Harte, for
instance, and Mr. Edward Everett Hale, never got
any farther, or, at least, if they wrote novels,
their novels did not receive the full artistic appre
ciation and popular approval bestowed on their
Short-stories. Even Mr. Cable's < Grandissimes '
has not made his readers forget his ' Posson Jone,'
nor has Mr. Aldrich's ' Queen of Sheba,' charming
as she was, driven from our memory his ' Marjory
Daw,' as delightful and as captivating as that other
non-existent heroine, Mr. Austin Dobson's ' Doro
thy.' Mrs. Burnett, Miss Woolson, and Miss Mur-
free put forth volumes of Short-stories before they
attempted the more sustained flight of the full-
fledged Novel. Miss Jewett, Mr. Bunner, Mr.
Bishop, and Mr. Julian Hawthorne wrote Short-
stories before they wrote novels ; and Mr. James
has never gathered into a book from the back-
numbers of magazines the half of his earlier
efforts.

In these references to the American magazine I
believe I have suggested the real reason of the
superiority of the American Short-stories over the
English. It is not only that the eye of patriotism
may detect more fantasy, more humor, a finer



THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE SHORT-STORY. 95

feeling for art, in these younger United States, but
there is a more emphatic and material reason for
the American proficiency. There is in the United
States a demand for Short-stories which does not
exist in Great Britain, or at any rate not in the
same degree. The Short-story is of very great
importance to the American magazine. But in
the British magazine the serial Novel is the one
thing of consequence, and all else is termed "pad
ding." In England the writer of three-volume
Novels is the best paid of literary laborers. So in
England whoever has the gift of story-telling is
strongly tempted not to essay the difficult art of
writing Short-stories, for which he will receive
only an inadequate reward ; and he is as strongly
tempted to write a long story which may serve
first as a serial and afterward as a three-volume
Novel. The result of this temptation is seen in
the fact that there is not a single English novelist
whose reputation has been materially assisted by
the Short-stories he has written. More than once
in the United States a single Short-story has made
a man known, but in Great Britain such an event
is well-nigh impossible. The disastrous effect on
narrative art of the desire to distend every subject
to the three-volume limit has been dwelt on un
ceasingly by English critics.



96 PEN AND INK.

The three-volume system is peculiar to Great
Britain : it does not obtain either in France or the
United States. As a consequence, the French and
American writer of fiction is left free to treat his
subject at the length it demands, no more and
no less. It is pleasant to note that there are signs
of the beginning of the break-up of the system
even in England ; and the protests of the chief
English critics against it are loud and frequent. It
is responsible in great measure for the invention
and protection of the British machine for making
English Novels, of which Mr. Warner told us in
his entertaining essay on fiction. We all know
the work of this machine, and we all recognize
the trade-mark it imprints in the corner. But Mr.
Warner failed to tell us, what nevertheless is a
fact, that this British machine can be geared down
so as to turn out the English short story. Now,
the English short story, as the machine makes it
and as we see it in most English magazines, is
only a little English Novel, or an incident or epi
sode from an English Novel. It is thus the exact
artistic opposite of the American Short-story, of
which, as we have seen, the chief characteristics
are originality, ingenuity, compression, and, not
infrequently, a touch of fantasy. I do not say, of
course, that the good and genuine Short-story is



THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE SHORT-STORY. 97

not written in England now and then, for if I
were to make any such assertion some of the best
work of Mr. Stevenson, of Mr. Besant, and of Mr.
Anstey would rise up to contradict me ; but this is
merely an accidental growth, and not a staple of
production. As a rule, in England the artist in fic
tion does not care to hide his light under a bushel,
and he puts his best work where it will be seen of
all men, that is to say, not in a Short-story. So
it happens that the most of the brief tales in the
English magazines are not true Short-stories at all,
and that they belong to a lower form of the art of
fiction, in the department with the amplified anec
dote. It is the three-volume Novel which has killed
the Short-story in England.

Certain of the remarks in the present paper I
put forth first anonymously in the columns of the
Saturday Review. To my intense surprise, they
were controverted in the Nation. The critic be
gan by assuming that the writer had said that
Americans preferred Short -stories to Novels.
What had really been said was that there was a
steady demand for Short-stories in American mag
azines, whereas in England the demand was
rather for serial Novels. " In the first place," said
the critic, "Americans do not prefer Short-stories,
as is shown by the enormous number of British



98 PEN AND INK.

Novels circulated among us ; and in the second
place, tales of the quiet, domestic kind, which
form the staple of periodicals like All the Year
Round and Chambers' 's Journal, have here thou
sands of readers where native productions, how
ever clever and original, have only hundreds,
since the former are reprinted by the country
papers and in the Sunday editions of city papers
as rapidly and regularly as they are produced at
home." Now, the answer to this is simply that
these English Novels and English stories are re
printed widely in the United States, not because
the American people prefer them to anything else,
but because, owing to the absence of international
copyright, they cost nothing. That the American
people prefer to read American stories when they
can get them is shown by the enormous circula
tion of the periodicals which make a specialty of
American fiction.

I find I have left myself little space to speak of
the Short-story as it exists in other literatures
than those of Great Britain and the United States.
The conditions which have killed the Short-story
in England do not obtain elsewhere ; and else
where there are not a few good writers of Short-
stories. Turgenef, Bjornsen, Sacher-Masoch, Frey-
tag, Lindau, are the names which one recalls



THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE SHORT-STORY. 99

at once and without effort as masters in the
art and mystery of the Short-story. Turgenef 's
Short-stories, in particular, it would be difficult to
commend too warmly. But it is in France that
the Short-story flourishes most abundantly. In
France the conditions are not unlike those in the
United States ; and, although there are few French
magazines, there are many Parisian newspapers
of a wide hospitality to literature. The demand
for the Short-story has called forth an abundant
supply. Among the writers of the last generation
who excelled in the conte which is almost the
exact French equivalent for Short-story, as nou-
vette may be taken to indicate the story which is
merely short, the episode, the incident, the ampli
fied anecdote were Alfred de Musset, Theophile
Gautier, and Prosper Merimee. The best work
of Merimee has never been surpassed. As com
pression was with him almost a mania, as, indeed,
it was with his friend Turgenef, he seemed born on
purpose to write Short-stories. Turgenef carried
his desire for conciseness so far that he seems al
ways to be experimenting to see how much of his
story he may leave out. One of the foremost writ
ers of contes is Edmond About, whose exquisite
humor is known to all readers of the ' Man with
the Broken Ear,' a Short-story in conception,



100 PEN AND INK.

though unduly extended in execution. Few of the
charming contes of M. Alphonse Daudet, or of the
earlier Short-stories of M. Emile Zola, have been
translated into English ; and the poetic tales of M.
Franfois Coppee are likewise unwisely neglected in
this country. The ' Abbe Constantin ' of M. Ludo-
vic Halevy has been read by many, but the Gallic
satire of his more Parisian Short-stories has been
passed over, perhaps wisely, in spite of their broad
humor and their sharp wit. In the very singular
collection of stories which M. Jean Richepin has
called the ' Morts Bizarres ' we find a modern
continuation of the Poe tradition, always more
potent in France than elsewhere.

(Here I cancel a casual sentence written in 1885,
before Guy de Maupassant had completely revealed
his extraordinary gifts and his marvellous crafts
manship. His Short-stories are masterpieces of
the art of story-telling, because he had a Greek
sense of form, a Latin power of construction, and
a French felicity of style. They are simple, most
of them ; direct, swift, inevitable, and inexorable
in their straightforward movement. If art consists
in the suppression of non-essentials, there have
been few greater artists in fiction than Maupassant.
In his Short-stories there is never a word wasted,
and there is never an excursus. Nor is there any
feebleness or fumbling. What he wanted to do



THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE SHORT-STORY. JQI

he did, with the unerring certainty of Leather-
stocking, hitting the bull's-eye again and again.
He had the abundance and the ease of the very
great artists ; and the half-dozen or the half-score
of his best stories are among the very best Short-
stories in any language.

In his later tales there is to be noted a tendency
toward the psychology of the morbid. The
thought of death and the dread of mental disease
seemed to possess him. In ' Le Horla,' for exam
ple, we find Maupassant taking for his own Fitz-
james O'Brien's uncanny monster, invisible and
yet tangible ; and the Frenchman gave the tale an
added touch of terror by making the unfortunate
victim discover that the creature he feared had a
stronger will than his own, and that he was being
hypnotized to his doom by a being whom he
could not see, but whose presence he could feel.)

The Short-story should not be void or without
form, but its form may be whatever the author
please. He has an absolute liberty of choice. It
may be a personal narrative, like Poe's ' Descent
into the Maelstrom ' or Mr. Hale's ' My Double,
and How He Undid Me'; it may be impersonal,
like Mr. Frederick B. Perkins's ' Devil-Puzzlers ' or
Colonel J. W. De Forest's 'Brigade Commander';
it may be a conundrum, like Mr. Stockton's in


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Online LibraryBrander MatthewsPen and ink; papers on subjects of more or less importance → online text (page 5 of 14)