Зображення сторінки
PDF
ePub

to have come to him who was always speculating upon it, no new fields of imagining, morbid or otherwise, were opened by his fertile brain; but, like his spiritual ancestors, the religious enthusiasts of the seventeenth century, he struck fire into old truths, and turned white-hot again a familiar metal. Indeed, these moral stories, where the line between preaching and narration is often so insufficiently drawn, are finer, and seem to be more durable, than the more impressionistic, less speculative stories. Ethan Brand (1851), whose firelit gloom and tragic heart of marble in the ashes of the kiln drive home a sermon on egotism, is infinitely greater, far better remembered than The White Old Maid or The Hollow of Three Hills, in hich the narrative is more subservient to the true end of art. The moral stories are finer because they have more of the true Hawthornesque. They alone, because of their sanity, because of their true human nature, but, most of all, because of their intensity, can be ranked with the much more artistic tales of Poe.

It is in these moral tales also that Hawthorne's contribution to the technique of the short story may best be studied. He was the first short-story writer to build his narrative purposefully and skilfully upon a situation. A situation may be defined as any active relationship between character and circumstances. The Birthmark has already given us an example. The Note-Books, under

date of 1837, contain one quite as interesting, and quite as susceptible of development: "A woman to sympathize with all emotions, but to have none of her own." These Note-Books include many more, some of which were afterwards made into stories, others left undeveloped. Indeed, a moment's consideration of any Twice-Told Tale will reveal such a situation as the foundation of the narrative. In fact, it is the central situation which holds together each of Hawthorne's best stories; without it there. would not be enough technique to keep the tale from flying apart.

This method of telling a story is of more than passing interest. The majority of modern short stories which have any claims to worth are built upon situations, though not often upon moral ones. Indeed, a situation makes a particularly good subject for a short story, and the life of the nineteenth century and our own has seemed to lend itself particularly well to this kind of literary treatment. Though later writers do not, like Hawthorne, require the unifying agencies of a single situation to keep their short narratives in a short-story form, yet many and many a vision of life could scarcely have been embodied in narrative except for this fashion of viewing it. The nineteenth-century interest in psychological problems would have quickly brought the method of the situation into the short story, even if Hawthorne's obsession with moral problems had not driven him to it first. And it was not a conscious art, like Poe's, which he developed; rather it came from his Puritan's eye, ever seeking the effect of the world upon character or the soul. Less spiritual writers could not, and did not, imitate that. But, though the direct influence of his kind of writing is much more difficult to trace than Poe's, its effects must be reckoned with; and the results in his own stories were superb.

A deep, if not an original, student of the heart, a great romanticist-for he makes moral problems no less than colonial governors romantic, a painstaking artist who labored to realize his conception of life, and failed only when the importance of his moral made him blind to the needs of his story, Hawthorne is one of the few great figures in American literature, and one of the most interesting in all the course of the short story. It is easy to criticize his tales; it is very difficult to forget them.

[ocr errors]

VIII

ENGLAND IN THE MID-CENTURY

In the third, fourth, and fifth decades of the nineteenth century two literatures were trying to devise a form of short narrative by means of which a single impression, a single situation, or a highly unified plot could be made intelligible and effective. The American writers, who dealt chiefly with impressions and situations, we have just discussed. The work of their French contemporaries, especially Mérimée, Gautier, and Balzac, was more especially with plots, and represents a parallel, not a derivative movement. Indeed, Mérimée, in such a story as Mateo Falcone (1829), had illustrated the art of single effect in a short story before Poe's first tale was published. American influence upon French narrative began much later, with Baudelaire's translation of Poe's tales in 1852-1865. The French short story had no marked influence upon American fiction until the last third of the century.

While these notable movements in story-telling were going on in both America and France, and, indeed, for nearly thirty years after the death of Poe in 1849, England contributed nothing new to the technique of the short story. It would be wrong to say that there were no short narratives of importance in the British literature of that period. On the contrary, there were many, but only a few of them belong to what we in our time call the short story. They may be assigned to three very well defined classes. In the first place, there are the numerous tales of Dickens, Thackeray, Mrs. Gaskell, later of Meredith and Hardy, which are neither long stories nor short ones. Dickens's Christmas Carol (1843) and The Cricket on the Hearth (1845) are typical of the kind to which I refer, and with them might be placed Mrs. Gaskell's charming Cousin Phillis (1863-64), Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), and Meredith's Chloe (1879). No history of fiction could afford to neglect such admirable tales, and yet they have little place in the development of the modern short story. They are to be grouped with what the French call the nouvelle, a story of linked episodes, a larger unity than our short story, and lacking its singleness of effect, though in no sense attempting the complexity, the many-plottedness of the novel. Tempting subjects for critical appreciation, they belong outside the necessarily strict limits of our field. Not so with another kind of short narrative, rarely produced, it is true, in this English period, but also rare in its nature. 1 mean those admirable short stories which contain no artificial technique, no subtle situations carefully grasped, but just an unforced representation of a simple incident which itself has the high unity required for short-story success. Dr. John Brown's Rab and His Friends (1858), where modern surgery makes a most effective entry into fiction, is an admirable example. The third variety of midcentury English short narrative was less excellent. Under pressure from the weird and the terrible, those popular themes of romanticism, some English writers developed the art of suspense and the single effect which Poe, at an earlier period, had stamped his own, and turned out stories which in form, if not in substance, resembled those of the American. If one remembers the close connection between an urgent romanticism and the impressionistic short story, this will seem most natural. The surprising thing is that it was done so seldom. Dickens hit it off once in The Signal-Man (Mugby Junction, 1866); did it well, but only once. Wilkie Collins's A Terribly Strange Bed (1856), and Bulwer-Lytton's The House and the Brain (1859) are other specimens. All three of these are stories of horror or mystery. Nowhere, before the Seventies, was this technique, so far as I am aware, used for other themes. Thus the English writers, being, as a historian of fiction would say, busied with the more important business of the novel, and, as a believer in the American short story might add, somewhat inapt in the refinements of short narrative, had little share in the art which gave us that short story which, for better or for worse, has been typical of the turn of the twentieth century.

[ocr errors]

IX

AMERICA IN THE MID-CENTURY. THE BROADENING OF

THE FIELD OF THE SHORT STORY

In America it was different, and naturally so, for there was a stronger incentive to short-story writing. There was the tradition of Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne, great writers whose fame was largely built upon the short story. There was a further impulse derived from the competition of the English novel, which was not only better than the American novel, but cheaper, since the lack of proper copyright laws allowed it to be pirated. The circulation of these imported goods discouraged would-be novelists, encouraged the magazines whose field was less easily occupied by a foreign competitor, and thus encouraged the short story, whose place of publication was usually in a

« НазадПродовжити »