III.1. The Short Story
As indicated just above, classification is difficult. The short story is especially elusive because it cannot be defined only in terms of length. There are long short-stories (longer than the average novella) and very short ones—not more than a few paragraphs.
The ancestors of the short story include myth, legend, the parable, fairy stories, fables, anecdotes, the exemplum, the essay, and character studies. Some early examples include such Biblical material as "Cain and Abel", "The Prodigal Son", and "The Good Samaritan" — the so-called Bible Stories. The whole of the Book of Ruth has been viewed by some as the first short story. Others view the individual tales in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Bocaccio's Decameron as short stories, even though they are in poetic form. Detachable episodes in longer works often amount to short stories; episodes in Don Quixote, much of Dickens, and the individual sections in Gulliver's Travels might serve as examples.
It is not really until the 19th century that the short story as we understand it today — "a work of prose fiction, of indeterminate length" — was developed and established.
Early pioneers (Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving, Hoffmann, Hawthorne) set the stage for Poe — who is regarded as the originator of the modern short story. Poe excelled in the detective story, the Gothic spine-chiller, and a kind of early science fiction tale. He was influenced by the German Romanticists and their Gothic stories, but he became the early and major influence in the nineteenth century.
Toward the end of the 19th century a group of American writers made a considerable name for themselves. In fact, many critics consider the short story to be a peculiarly American genre.
Various scholars have commented on the short story, with various emphases in mind.
Wallace Stegner was among the first:
"What began as an American invention with publication in 1832 (14 Jan) of Poe's "Metzengerstein" (in Philadelphia Saturday Courier) has remained an American specialty. If we have a literary form that most expresses us as a people, it is this nervous, formal, concentrated, brief, and penetrating one: the short story."
James Cochrane has also written that
"American literature and the short story might be said to have come of age at about the same time. Americans are at home here, as a fish is in water. The American short story has been an essentially democratic form: not troubled by categories of High, Middle, Low. It moves freely across/among social barriers."
Sylvia Angus has also commented from this point of view:
"American short stories of post-WW II have a maturity, sophistication, and philosophical depth that even the best fiction of the 20's lacked. Their main themes: the social inertia of the South; new explosive phase of the "Negro" racial issue; cosmopolitanism — travel, world involvement; rebellion of the young; problems of the aged; the plight of the illiterate; life in suburbia; nostalgia."
The short story also has a continued interest in human relationships, and seems to have an almost universal appeal: unlike poetry, for example, short stories are read by every class of persons. Further, short story writers are often not specialists. Ring Lardner was a sports columnist as well as a short story writer.
One of the best essays about the short story has been written by the short story writer Raymond Carver. (See the text).
In 1842 in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales, Edgar Allan Poe presented some ideas about the short story, by which he meant:
There have been revisions to this definition, but many modern students of the short story still agree on two characteristics:
A short story still must be a complete whole, fused according to some principles. As a reader you must see what the nature is of the whole work and how each element contributes to the final achievement.
To discover whether the work is unified, and if so, how — or, if not, why not — what the nature of the unity is, and how it is achieved, there are three questions:
For these questions, note how the handling of the details helps provide the answers: character, happenings, settings, language, tone, symbols of meaning.
Thus we study the unity of the story and how it is achieved. That is, we attempt to discover what is emphasized and what is subordinated. Emphasis may be achieved by repetition, length of treatment, memorable language, powerful setting; subordination receives less length, less memorable language, less powerful settings. Things are de-emphasized. In fact, one student of the short story made the important point that it is not what is left out of the short story, but what is included.
As examples: Confrontation and The Flying Machine