Home  »  Volume XVI: American EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 1. Stages in the Development of the American Short Story

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

VI. The Short Story

§ 1. Stages in the Development of the American Short Story

THE PERIOD between the Civil War in America and the outbreak of the Great War in Europe in 1914 may be termed in the history of prose fiction the Era of the Short Story. Everywhere, in France, in Russia, in England, in America, more and more the impressionistic prose tale, the conte—short, effective, a single blow, a moment of atmosphere, a glimpse at a climactic instant—came, especially in the magazines, to dominate fictional literature. Formless at first, often overloaded with mawkishness, with essay effects, with moralizing purpose, and dominating background, it grew constantly in proportion and restraint and artistic finish until it was hailed as a new genre, a peculiar product of nineteenth century conditions, one especially adapted to the American temperament and the American kultur.

That the prose story was no innovation peculiar to later literature, is an axiom that must precede every discussion of it. It is as old as the race; it has cropped out abundantly in every literature and every period. That it has taken widely differing forms during its long history is also axiomatic. Every generation and every race has had its own ideals in the matter, has set its own fashions. One needs remember only The Book of Ruth, The Thousand and one Nights, the Elizabethan novella, the Sir Roger de Coverley papers, Johnson’s Rambler, Hannah More’s moral tales, and the morbid romance of the early nineteenth-century annuals. The modern short story is only the latest fashion in story telling—short fiction à la mode.