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was to strike and awake the senses as a painting strikes and awakens them.
Historically, Bret Harte is of great importance. He introduced local color into the short story. He introduced the American short story into England, and popularized the impressionistic variety in America. Of course, there had been local-color stories before Harte. But no one had made such capital out of the peculiarities of a single district. No one had made these peculiarities the apparent reason for telling the story. I say apparent, for it will become clear, when we discuss the later developments of local color in American fiction, that the real reason was that Harte had a story to tell. Even though the growth of scientific curiosity and the impulse of the romantic movement both favored an interest in local color, or local impression, as the French call it, the peculiarities of California, if unaccompanied by great character sketches and notable plots, would scarcely have furnished forth a literary success of a magnitude equal to Bret Harte's. As soon as narratives began to be written merely to exhibit a curious setting, the local-color story began to lose that notable position in American fiction which he was the first to give it.
Thus, from any point of view, Harte is a notable figure in American literature. His greatest fault was that he was incorrigibly mid-Victorian. He would look at his world through a veil of the sentiments, and find, or make, purity in the wilderness, charity in rascals, and soft hearts in the most uncouth. On the other hand, though he sentimentalizes California, he has the powerful touch of the mid-Victorian novelists, who, whatever names we may call them, left us infinitely moving stories and unforgettable characters. Most of all, he gave us the short story of single effect and single situation, no longer associated with ultra-romance or devoted to moral analysis, but transformed into an efficient instrument for the depiction of American life.
THE FURTHER BROADENING OF THE FIELD OF
THE SHORT STORY
With Hale, and especially with Harte, the broadening of the field of the short story was well begun, but the movement scarcely reached full headway until the Seventies and the Eighties. In these years American humor poured into short narrative and developed the most characteristic of all American literary products, the tale of light and surprising situation; the local colorists carried their researches into unexploited regions throughout the land; and under the powerful guidance of Henry James the story of subtle, psychological situation deepened as well as broadened the activity of the short story,
In the time of Hawthorne and Poe the good short stories had been almost without exception deadly serious. Hawthorne's mind never smiles, at least in his great stories, even if his lips may appear to do so. Poe, in a humorous mood, is pitiable. His best tales are serious to the breaking-point. Harte is a great humorist, but his humor is of the quiet, sympathetic variety, which embraces pathos, and disappointment, and sorrow in its view of the world. The easy smile, the ready wit, the taste for absurdity of the Americans, had scarcely found its way into the literature of fiction before the Civil War. It was the decade after the war which saw the first vogue of what I have already called the story of light and surprising situations: the story with a twist at the end. This story was a true product of the characteristic American humor which loves a sudden revelation of incongruity, especially if it be absurd incongruity. Mark Twain and his work sums up and represents this variety of humor so well that his name nearly defines it. His famous tale, The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1867), of the frog who couldn't jump because of the shot in his belly, is an early instance where the kind of tale I mean found its way into literature. But Mark Twain seldom troubled himself to turn his jokes into short stories. This enormously popular variety of fiction owes more to Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a charming artist, if not a great genius, who knew how to give the American anecdote sufficient body, and, what is more important, enough form, to raise its light fabric to the dignity of literature. His Marjorie Daw (1873), that tale of a fictitious sweetheart with its dramatic reversal at the very end, is not likely to be forgotten, and Mademoiselle Olympe Zabriskie (1873), of the acrobatic lady who ensnared an amorous aristocrat, and then proved to be a boy, is only less excellent. These stories, and the thousands that have followed them down to O. Henry and the generation of the ten- and fifteen-cent magazines, are really significant in American literature, for they inclose far better than the contemporary novel a characteristic, if not a vital, element of the American spirit. They embody the American's keen pleasure in the inconsequential and the ridiculous; in all that reveals man as mere man. It is the humor of a democracy. Perhaps the stories cited are too light to bear so heavy a text. But there have been thousands more. Frank Stockton was a jester of this vintage. His The Lady or the Tiger? (1882), which ends in a puzzle over which readers always disagree, made comedy from a tragic situation. H. C. Bunner, with his frivolous but beautifully constructed Short Sixes (1891), followed-and then the names become legion. None, however, have equaled in style and in finish the work of Aldrich, although the spirit of fun has been carried much further afield than these earlier contributors to the American comedy endeavored to take it. Indeed, to a lack in finish is due the failure of the humorous short story in America to equal in its general development the literary merits of the parallel French school of Daudet and his followers, to whose methods, it may be said in passing, Bunner and Aldrich owed much. More of this when we reach our own time, into which a further discussion would lead us, for since the Civil War the field of American literature has been continuously cultivated for this variety of the short story.
THE LOCAL COLORISTS
The use of local color is a logical result, on the one hand, of a growing scientific interest in the facts about our civilization, on the other, of the romanticist's interest in the individual and his peculiarities. Local impression, its other name, indicates, what is very true, that in art it is very likely to be expressed by impressionism. Since it sprang, then, from currents running internationally throughout the nineteenth century, there is nothing local to America in the use of local color. But it was here that the workers in this field made use more especially of the short story, finding in it an instrument peculiarly adaptable to their desires. Harte was their forerunner. I say forerunner, because with him local color was a means rather than an end. In later decades the best workers went far beyond him in the depth and truth of their depiction, though falling short in narrative skill, and often in art.
8 There should be noted, under the further broadening of the short story, the remarkable work of a Californian, Ambrose Bierce, who is still writing. His In the Midst of Life: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1892) contains stories which combine Bret Harte's feeling for localities, with a Poe-like intensity of technique. His Can Such Things Be? (1893) is a collection of studies in mystical horror which are like the work of a more scientific, less artistic Poe. It is in the stories of the first group, however, notably in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and A Horseman in the Sky, that the remarkable technical power of this author, and his grasp of psychological experience are best exhibited.
The local colorists can be classified, like wheat or apples, by their districts. The first notable success after Harte was won in Louisiana by G. W. Cable, whose Old Creole Days (1879-1883) is full of racial and geographical flavor, with plot enough to prevent the mass from degenerating into mere scientific or impressionistic description. A little later came Miss M. N. Murfree (Charles Egbert Craddock) and her tales of the Tennessee mountaineers, of which the collection called in the Tennessee Mountains (1884) contains some of the best. These stories are rich with the melancholy of a wild and forgotten country, but they lack form. Too often she depends, as Harte never does, and Cable seldom, upon dialect, peculiarity of scene or circumstance for success. This will not do in narrative, which, whatever else it accomplishes, must tell a story. Virginia followed, with Thomas Nelson Page’s In Ole Virginia (1887), the Maine coast in Sarah Orne Jewett's powerful A Native of Winby (1893 col.), and many other stories, the hill towns of New England in Mrs. Wilkins-Freeman's A Humble Romance (1887