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

§ 3. Irving

Then came the work of Washington Irving—the blending of the moral tale with the Addisonian essay, especially in its Sir Roger de Coverley phase. The evolution was a peculiar one, a natural result of that isolation of early America which belated all its art forms and kept it always a full generation behind the literary fashions of London. Irving’s early enthusiasms came from the shelves of the paternal library rather than from the book stalls of the vital centres where flowed the current literature of the day. To the impressionable youth Addison and Steele and Goldsmith were as fresh and new as they had been to their first readers. The result appears in his first publication, Salmagundi, a youthful Spectator, and later in his first serious work, The Sketch Book, another essay periodical since it was issued in monthly numbers—a latter-day Bee. Never did he outgrow this formative influence: always he was of the eighteenth century, an essayist, a moralist, a sketcher of manners, an antiquarian with a reverence for the past, a sentimentalist. His sketchy moral essays and his studies of manners and character grew naturally into expository stories, illustrations, narratives of a traveller set in an atmosphere attractive to the untravelled American of the time, all imagination and longing. He added to the moral tale of his day characterization, humour, atmosphere, literary charm, but he added no element of constructive art. He lacked the dramatic; he overloaded his tales with descriptions and essay material; and he ended them feebly. His stories, even the classic Rip Van Winkle, are elaborations with pictorial intent rather than dramas with culminative movement and sharp outlines. They are essays rather than short stories.

Irving advanced the short story more by his influence than by his art. The popularity of The Sketch Book and the others that followed it, the tremendous fact of their author’s European fame, the alluring pictures of lands across the sea, the romantic atmosphere, the vagueness and the wonder of it, laid hold mightily upon the imagination of America. They came just in time to capture the young group of writers that was to rule the mid-century. The twenties and the thirties in America were dominated by The Sketch Book. All at once came an outburst of Irvingesque sketches and tales. That the unit of measure in American fiction is a short one is to be accounted for in a very great degree by the tremendous influence of Irving in its early formative period.