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

§ 5. Poe; Realism

The forties belong to Poe. With him came for the first time the science of the short story, the treatment of it as a distinct art form with its own rules and its own fields. Laws the form was bound to have if it was to persist. As the century progressed and as modern science swept from men’s minds the vague and the generalizing and the disorderly, there came necessarily the demand for more reality, for sharper outlines, for greater attention to logical order. The modern short story is but the fiction natural, and indeed inevitable, in a scientific age, and Poe was the first to perceive the new tendency and to formulate its laws.

In Poe’s opinion the short story owed its vogue in America to the great number of literary magazines that sprang up during the mid years of the century. “The whole tendency of the age is magazineward,” he wrote in the early forties. The quarterlies are

  • quite out of keeping with the rush of the age. We now demand the legal artillery of the intellect; we need the curt, the condensed, the pointed, the readily diffused—in place of the voluminous, the verbose, the detailed, the inaccessible.… It is a sign of the times—an indication of an era in which men are forced upon the curt, the condensed, the well digested, in place of the voluminous—in a word, upon journalism in lieu of dissertation.
  • Fiction, he contended, to be scientific must be brief, must yield a totality of impression at a single sitting. The writer must concentrate upon a single effect.

  • If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.
  • As he wrote this, Poe was thinking of his own art more than of Hawthorne’s. He had been a magazinist all his life, and he had learned to view the tale from the standpoint of the editor. He who has but a brief space at his command in which to make his impression, must condense, must plan, must study his every word and phrase. All of his stories are single strokes, swift moments of emotion, Defoe-like massings of details with exactness of diction, skilful openings, harrowing closes.

    More than this we may not say. He did not work in the deeps of the human heart like Hawthorne; he was an artist and only an artist, and even in his art he did not advance further than to formulate the best short story technique of his day. His tales are not to be classified at all with the products of later art. They lack sharpness of outline, finesse, and that sense of reality which makes of a tale an actual piece of human life. His creations are tours de force; they reflect no earthly soil, they are weak in characterization, and their dialogue—as witness the conversation of the negroes in The Gold Bug—is wooden and lifeless. Poe was a critic, keenly observant of the tendencies of his day, sensitive to literary values, scientific, with powers of analysis that amounted to genius. He was not the creator of the short story; he was the first to feel the new demand of his age and to forecast the new art and formulate its laws.

    In the realm of the short story Poe was a prophet, peering into the next age, rather than a leader of his own time. Until later years his influence was small. He had applied his new art to the old sensational material of the thirties—old wine in new bottles. The annuals and all they stood for were passing rapidly. Putnam’s Magazine noted in February, 1853, the great change that had come over the literature for the holiday period.

  • It used to be the custom to issue when Christmas approached an almost endless variety of “Gifts,” “Remembrances,” “Gems,” “Tokens,” “Wreathes,” “Irises,” “Albums,” &c, with very bad mezzotint engravings and worse letter-press,—ephemeral works, destined to perish in a few weeks; but that custom appears to be rapidly passing away.
  • The decline of the old type of story explains why Hawthorne turned to the production of long romances. The age of the Hawthornesque short story had passed. With the fifties had come a new atmosphere. To realize it one has but to read for a time in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Graham’s Magazine and the annuals and then to turn to Harper’s Magazine, established in 1850, Putnam’s Magazine, in 1853, and The Atlantic Monthly, in 1857.

    In England it was the period of Dickens and Thackeray and Reade and George Eliot, the golden age of the later novel. American magazines like Harper’s were publishing serial after serial by British pens, yet the demand for short fiction increased rather than declined. During its first year The Atlantic Monthly published upward of thirty-three short stories by twenty-three different authors, or an average of almost three in every number. It was no longer fiction of the earlier type. A new demand had come to the short story writer; in the “Introductory” to the first volume of Putnam’s Magazine the editor announced that American writers and American themes were to predominate, adding that “local reality is a point of utmost importance.” In the first volume of the Atlantic, Emerson struck the new note: “How far off from life and manners and motives the novel still is. Life lies about us dumb”; and in the same volume a reviewer of George Eliot notes “the decline of the ideal hero and heroine.” “The public is learning that men and women are better than heroes and heroines.” By 1861 a writer like Rebecca Harding Davis could open her grim short story, Life in the Iron Mills, with a note like this;

  • I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down with me,—here into the thickest of the fog and mud and effluvia. I want you to hear this story. There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain dumb for centuries: I want to make it a real thing for you.
  • The fifties and sixties in America stand for the dawning of definiteness, of localized reality, of a feeling left on the reader of actuality and truth to human life.