Brander Matthews (1852–1929). The Short-Story. 1907.
Brander Matthews (1852–1929). The Short-Story. 1907.
|THE SHORT-STORY differs essentially from all the longer forms of fiction because its brevity forces the writer to confine himself to a single one of the three elements which the author of a novel may combine at his pleasure. These three elements are the plot, the characters, and the setting. The novelist may pay equal attention to what happens, to the persons to whom these things happen, and to the places where they happen. But the limitations of space forbid this variety to the short-story writer; he has to make his choice among the three. If he centers his efforts on his plot, he has no time to elaborate either character or background; this is what Poe has done in the “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” If he focuses the interest on a character, his plotting must be summary, and his setting can only be sketched in; this is what George W. Cable has preferred to do in “Posson Jone.” If he concentrates the reader’s attention on the environment, on the place where the event happens, on the atmosphere, so to speak, he must use character and incident only to intensify the impression of the place and the time; this is what we find in Hamlin Garland’s “Return of the Private.” When once the writer has decided which of the three elements he intends to employ, he must abide by his decision.
|In an admirable paper on the “Structure of the Short-story,” by Clayton Hamilton (published in the Reader, February, 1906), we are told that “the aim of the short-story is to produce a single narrative effect with the greatest economy of means that is consistent with the utmost emphasis.” Success is attained almost as much by what the author leaves out as by what he puts in. The examples in the present volume reveal that it was only very slowly that authors came to a full understanding of this principle. Even Boccaccio, a master of narrative, wastes time in the telling of his tale. Addison has more than one useless page in his story; and he also discounts the effect of what ought to be his most striking scene by letting out his secret in advance. Pushkin injures the forward movement of his story by shifting the point of view in the second half of the narrative. On the other hand, Lamb gains by making his story a monologue, and Dickens begins by striking exactly the right note with his opening words,—“Once there was a child.” So Poe, intending the “Fall of the House of Usher” to be a study of a strange, weird place, begins with description, delaying until later the introduction of his shadowy characters. So Hawthorne, with admirable art, presents to us the family with whom the “Ambitious Guest” is to spend the night, before bringing forward that character. Maupassant, too, in the very first sentence of “The Necklace,” centers our attention on the essential fact. Stimson begins and ends “Mrs. Knollys” with the glacier. Kipling, in the opening paragraph of the “Man who Was,” states the thesis which the story is to illustrate. Bunner, in “A Sisterly Scheme,” explains the summer hotel before he tells us about any of his characters, because it is only at an American summer hotel that this story is possible.
|The teacher and the student will do well to consider carefully the analysis of the limitations of the short-story,—limitations that really create its possibilities,—contained in Chapter XII of Professor Bliss Perry’s “Study of Prose Fiction.” They will do well also to pay attention to the form in which the best writers have chosen to cast their stories, whether the telling is autobiographical or whether it is narrative in the third person, being told by the author, or whether it is in letters. Aldrich’s “Marjorie Daw” consists of a series of letters and telegrams, with only a brief final passage of narrative. Another story, the “Documents in the Case,” written by H. C. Bunner (in collaboration with the editor of this volume), is nothing but a string of letters, telegrams, newspaper paragraphs, advertisements, etc.; and the plot, the characters, the setting, are all necessarily subordinate to the method of telling. Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger” is little more than a riddle, deriving its interest from the skill with which the author has forced us to ask ourselves an insoluble question.
|Those students of the short-story who wish to see further specimens may be advised to read the other stories of the later masters of the form, examples of whose workmanship are included in this volume. For example, “Rip Van Winkle” is scarcely more characteristic of Irving than “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Specter Bridegroom.” “The Ambitious Guest” shows only one facet of Hawthorne’s genius, displayed in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Birthmark.” And Poe is the author of a dozen masterpieces. “Tennessee’s Partner,” characteristic as it is, reveals only certain aspects of Bret Harte’s gift as a story-teller; other aspects may be found in the other stories contained in the volume entitled “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” The Far West is the scene also of the interesting adventures and character-sketches included in Owen Wister’s “Red Men and White.” The Middle West has been taken as the field for Hamlin Garland’s “Main-Traveled Roads.”
|The several states of the South have not been neglected by American story-tellers. In his “Old Creole Days” George W. Cable has caught the evanescent charm of life in Louisiana before the Civil War; and “Jean-ah Poquelin” may be picked out as a study of character standing out sharply against the background. Joel Chandler Harris has studied the negro of Georgia with a like loving fidelity, especially in “Ananias” and in “Free Joe.” Thomas Nelson Page has depicted the society of Virginia with a full appreciation of the contrasts between the white man and the black, particularly in “Marse Chan” and in “Meh Lady.” In all these Southern stories the authors have striven to reproduce the speech of the uneducated negroes with phonetic fidelity to the uncouth dialect. They have been interested not only in the particular characters they were presenting, but also in the social conditions of the vanishing society in which these figures moved.
|Life in the metropolis of the United States is the theme of many of H. C. Bunner’s “Short Sixes,” one of which, “The Tenor,” may be selected as suggesting the shifting color of New York. The atmosphere of the city, its changing aspects, its infinite variety, moved the editor of this collection to the composition of his “Vignettes of Manhattan” and “Outlines in Local Color,” in most of which character and incident are made subservient to the setting. A vivid impression of metropolitan life can be had also in the brisk “Van Bibber” tales of Richard Harding Davis. The Spanish-American colony in New York and the painter-folk have been put into fiction by Thomas A. Janvier.
|But it is New England which was first discovered by the seekers after local color, and almost every aspect of life and character has been attempted by one or another of the native story-tellers. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Sam Lawson’s Fireside Stories” are almost too slight to be accepted as true short-stories; they are outline sketches of humorous character, but they preserve the full flavor of the soil. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman has studied the pale spinsterhood of her section and she has seized the underlying tragedy often concealed beneath placid commonplace. Her “New England Nun” and her “Revolt of Mother” may be singled out as specially noteworthy. There is a more delicate humor in the stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, a pleasanter playfulness, but no less veracity; and the stories contained in the volume called “The Country of the Pointed Firs” deserves careful study.
|From New England also came Edward Everett Hale’s ingenious inventions, of which “The Man without a Country” is deservedly the most famous. But “The Skeleton in the Closet” and “My Double and how he Undid me” have an equal ingenuity; and they are both excellent examples of the short-story in which plot is of more importance than either character or background. This may be said also about “A Struggle for Life” and “Madamoiselle Olympe Zabriskie,” which T. B. Aldrich included in the volume with his most ingenious fantasy, “Marjorie Daw.” And ingenuity, again combined with humor, is the chief characteristic of F. B. Perkins’s “Devil-Puzzlers” and of his “Man-ufactory.” Ingenuity once more, with a fantastic inventiveness, is to be found in F. R. Stockton’s “Negative Gravity” and in his “Remarkable Wreck of the Thomas Hyke.”
|It was pointed out in the introduction that British authors have not cultivated the short-story form so abundantly as American authors. Yet James M. Barrie has emulated the New England writers in the skill with which he has caught the atmosphere of village life, especially in the series of sketches called “A Window in Thrums.” R. L. Stevenson was influenced rather by Hawthorne and by Poe; his most brilliant feat is the series entitled “The New Arabian Nights,” in which there is an exuberance of fanciful invention. But “Markheim” is not his only study in a more somber mood; and all his short-stories are inspired by a profound understanding of the possibilities and the limitations of the short-story form. A dozen masterly examples might be selected from the many volumes of Rudyard Kipling,—for example, “Without Benefit of Clergy,” “The Man who would be King,” “The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows,” and “The Brushwood Boy.” In “A Walking Delegate” and in “The Maltese Cat” he revived and rejuvenated the old beast-fable; and in “007” he applied the methods of the beast-fable to the steam horse, the modern locomotive.
|The French have cultivated the short-story more diligently than the British, even if they have not been as prolific as the Americans. Mérimée’s “Taking of the Redoubt” is perhaps not inferior in power to “Mateo Falcone”; and while “The Necklace” is possibly Maupassant’s most noted effort, any one of the tales translated in “The Odd Number” may be recommended for analysis. Less vigorous and less varied are the short-stories of Ludovic Halévy and of François Coppée; but the student should not neglect the tales contained in the volumes entitled “Parisian Points of View” by the former, and “Ten Tales” by the latter. From Alphonse Daudet an even richer selection might be made, some of them studies of life in Paris, where he died, and some of them memories of Provence, where he was born. To be noted also are the Alsatian stories of Erckmann-Chatrian.
|There is much to be gleaned in the other European literatures, although the strict principles of the form have been better understood by the French and by the Americans. In Italian there are the studies of Sicilian life, by Verga, the best known of which is “Cavelleria Rusticana.” In German there are the “Black Forest Stories” of Auerbach and the more sentimental tales of Gustav Freytag. In Norwegian there are other studies from life—some of them as moving as “The Father”—by Björnson; and the significant stories of Alexander Kjelland, a selection of which can be found in the translated volume of “Tales of Two Countries.” In Russian there are the rich and veracious narratives of Turgenieff, especially, “A Lear of the Steppe” and “Mumu,” and there are the pathetic studies of peasant character by Tolstoi, perhaps a little less successful as a writer of short-stories than he is in his longer novels.
|There are bibliographies of the recent books and articles dealing with the short-story in Professor Bliss Perry’s “Study of Prose Fiction” (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.), and in my “Philosophy of the Short-story” (Longmans, Green, & Co.). For Professor Neilson’s series of “Types of English Literature,” Professor W. M. Hart is preparing a volume on the “Short-story, Medieval and Modern.”