American Short Story

The Growth of the American Short Story

Short Stories of the 19th century


The rise of the short story goes back to early 19th century American literature. The term “short story” was not used before 1885 when BRANDER MATTHEWS's used it in his Philosophy of the Short Story. Since then MATTHEWS' definition of the short story has been retrospectively applied to all short prose tales in American fiction since the early 19th century.
First examples bearing the typical features of the genre were called “tales”. Mostly they were stories of incident focussing on the course and outcome of events, e.g. EDGAR ALLAN POE's mystery story The Gold Bug. Most tales were written with the aim of being published in periodicals and were later often collected in book form.
The first American short story of literary importance is WASHINGTON IRVING's (1783–1859) Rip Van Winkle (1819/20). NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE's (1804–64) tales were preoccupied with moral values, stories of character revealing the state of mind and motives of the protagonists, e.g. The Minister's Black Veil and Dr. Heidegger's Experiment.

Another leading proponent in the development of the American short story was EDGAR ALLAN POE (1809–49), often said to be its originator. His stories tell of mental instability, doom and the supernatural. He also became one of the originators of the detective story. BRANDER MATTHEWS's definition of the short story is based on POE´s literary theory on the short prose tale.

HERMAN MELVILLE's (1819–91) important contributions to the genre are Bartleby the Scrivener, Benito Cereno and the parable The Lightning-Rod Man (1856).

The second half of the 19th century brought forth stories of realism by MARK TWAIN (1835–1910), BRET HARTE (1836–1902), JACK LONDON( 1876–1916), STEPHEN CRANE (1871–1900) and AMBROSE BIERCE (1842–1914). BIERCE's outstanding story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1891) explores ways of rendering the human consciousness.

The growing interest in psychological problems towards the end of the 19th century led to an advancement of new narrative techniques: HENRY JAMES's novelette Daisy Miller (1879) and the story The Real Thing (1890) illustrate the use of substitutionary narration. HENRY JAMES paved the way for the stream-of-consciousness technique which was developed in the novels of JAMES JOYCE and KATHERINE MANSFIELD.

The Modern Short Story


The modern short story, which concentrates on one single situation, is based on the principles of concentration, compression and suggestion. Its subject matters are predominantly of a social or psychological nature.
SHERWOOD ANDERSON (1876–1941) revolutionized the short story in his collection Winesburg, Ohio (1919). It consists of a set of sketches, called “tales”, portraying lonely people with an inability to communicate. The tales are of decisive stages in the lives of the more peculiar inhabitants of Winesburg. The tales are held together by the character of George Willard, an adolescent, who is acquainted with the people described. Some of the scenes are witnessed by George Willard and seen from a limited point of view. Situational analysis is used instead of a plot.

Like SHERWOOD ANDERSON, ERNEST HEMINGWAY (1899–1961) often used the technique of analyzing one isolated situation. Collections of HEMINGWAY's short stories are:

  • In Our Time (1942; including the story Cat in the Rain);
  • Men without Women (1927);
  • The Snows of the Kilimanjaro and Other Stories (1927; including well-known stories such as In Another Country, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, A Day's Wait, The Killers, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber)
  • and Winner Take Nothing (1933);
  • other important stories by HEMINGWAY are Old Man at the Bridge, Canary for One and Hills Like White Elephants.

HEMINGWAY's significant contribution to the genre of the short story is the concentration he accomplished by his detached and laconic way of presenting events. He chose his words to be simple but highly expressive and to the point, and got rid of superfluous details such as figures of speech.

Other 20th century authors of short stories are:

  • WILLIAM FAULKNER (1897–1963). He published several collections of short stories, e.g. These 13 (1931, including the macabre A Rose for Emily), Idyll in the Desert (1933) and Go down Moses (1942). Influenced by SHERWOOD ANDERSON, he analysed the troubled minds of his characters in depth;
  • JOHN STEINBECK (1902–68). The Long Valley (1938, a collection including The Raid, Chrysanthemums and The Red Pony, which is a story of initiation);
  • WILLIAM SAROYAN (1908–81). The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934), My Name is Aram (1940);
  • BERNARD MALAMUD (1914–1986). He presents the Jewish immigrants' experiences in the hostile new world and their struggle for a better life. Collections by MALAMUD are The Magic Barrel (1958), Idiots First (1963), Rembrandt's Hat (1973);
  • J. D. SALINGER (* 1919). His stories centre around the Glass family and the theme of isolation and estrangement in modern society. Nine Stories (1953), Fanny and Zooey (1961), Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour (1963);
  • KURT VONNEGUT (* 1922). Collections: Canary at a Cathouse (1961), Welcome to the Monkey House (1968), Bagombo Snuff Box (1999);
  • TRUMAN CAPOTE (1924–1984). His stories deal with loneliness, longing and fear. He uses a highly poetic language. Collections by CAPOTE are A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958);
  • DONALD BARTHELME (1931–1989) wrote nine collections of short stories, mostly humorous and satirical, e.g. Me and Miss Mandible;
  • JOHN UPDIKE (* 1932). Several volumes of short stories, e.g. Pigeon Feathers (1962), which includes A & P; The Music School (1966). UPDIKE is counted among the most important contemporary authors of U.S. literature;
  • JOYCE CAROL OATES (* 1938). Besides a number of novels, she has written approximately twenty-five volumes of short stories dealing with present day social conditions.

Stand: 2010
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