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THE DECAY OF THE SHORT STORY.
Of all forms of literary art that of or falters until the brief finale. And the short story is plainly one of the the short-story-writer is further handimost difficult, if one may judge of the capped in that he scores as much by difficulty of an accomplishment by the what he leaves out as by what he puts number of those disciples who have in. Any irrelevancy, however wise or mastered it. The fairly good short humorous, any redundancy, however story is a far less common thing than brilliant or ornamental, is a defect. the very good set of verses. The alto- Thus the short-story-writer is called gether excellent and admirable short upon, all the time, to make sacrifices, to story is as rare as the perfect sonnet. exercise a mighty self-restraint such as
The full-length novel demands of its the novelist knows nothing of. The author more power of application and glittering witticism, the profound reperhaps a larger and more generous flection, the patch of glowing purple: comprehension of life and a deeper un. each of these dear indulgences so precderstanding of human character; but a ious to the author's heart, and so lightly novel may fall upon weakness or banal- and gaily to be seized on and revelled ity a score of times, between title-page in by the novelist, are strictly taboo to and colophon, and yet be accounted a the short-story-writer. His particular masterpiece, as witness Tom Jones, Van- form of art is the most austere exerity Fair, and David Copperfield. In cise of his talent that he can possibly the novel errors may be retrieved and engage upon. He must look only for blemishes thrown into shadow by his reward in a realization that can strength and beauty of subsequent pas- never be complete-of his ideal and the sages. The novelist stands toward the approval of his literary conscience. He short-story-writer somewhat in
is likely to get very little other profit same relation as the landscape-painter of his enterprise. stands toward the etcher. One may be But the purpose of this essay is not an expert in both departments. In to propound any theory, new or old, each there is scope for the display of of the art of the short story, or to lay supreme artistry. But no one who down any general principles in regard has excelled in the dual capacity, be to its canons, as the present writer unit in landscape and etching or novel derstands them. The foregoing proand conte, will deny that whilst the one nouncements are meant merely to indimay entail a larger expenditure of ef- cate, briefly and succinctly, the writer's fort and a longer, heavier strain, the appreciation of the difficulties which other exacts the more pains and the surround this rare and delightful finer skill.
branch of literature, and the high There is no room for any least mis- standard by which he would judge its take in a short story. The effect to be exponents, so that there may be no misachieved is too instant and direct to apprehension of his meaning in what permit of any blundering, any clumsi- follows. But it seemed necessary that ness. Each stroke must count tell- so much ground should be made clear ingly, each phrase, each detail, must before the main body of the argument bear its full and true significance. could be advanced in due form and Sentence by sentence, almost word by with perfect propriety. word, the short story should rise on a We are frequently told that the short crescendo of interest that never droops story is one of those things that they
do better in France. I am not con- appearance of good reason, to award to cerned to dispute that contention, even Washington Irving the honor that is if I felt wholly competent to do so. here reserved for Poe, I would point Rather am I concerned with the Eng- out that Rip Van Winkle and The Legend lish short story—and quite justifiably, of Sleepy Hollow belong rightly to the since it has the dignity of some noble genre of the folk-lore tale, a distinct traditions and many consummate ex- and altogether different order from that amples to commend it to the most se- of the modern short story-which is rious consideration of the discriminat. nothing if not episodic-as do his Tales ing critic, however wide or cosmopoli- of a Traveller also, these last being betan his knowledge and his sympathies. sides too flimsy in texture and strucBut, in passing, it may be conceded ture, although very highly finished, to that until quite recently, as literary come legitimately into the same catehistory goes, we had no short-story- gory with the English short story, pure writer of the calibre of those belong- and simple, as it is here defined. ing to the school of Boccaccio: an il- Ascribing the honor to Poe, then, we lustrious line that culminated in Balzac are bound to acknowledge our debt to and found its apotheosis in Guy de America in this regard, albeit Poe is, Maupassant. The short story is of extra- of all American authors, perhaps the ordinarily late growth in England, and least typical. As the late Bret Harte for many years seemed not in the least wrote in an article on "The Rise of the likely ever to acclimatize itself. Sterne Short Story”: It "was familiar enough had something more than an inkling in form in America during the early of what the short story might become half of the century; perhaps the proin practised hands; but his innate dis- verbial haste of American life was regard of form militated fatally against some inducement to its brevity. It had his latent talent in that direction, and been the medium through which some only in such chapters of the Sentimental of the most characteristic work of the Journey as that entitled “The Sword," best American writers had won the aphas he made any notable contributions probation of the public. Poe—a masto the art, and even in these instances ter of the art, as yet unsurpassed-had he shows only a careless proficiency. written; Longfellow and Hawthorne
And here it is expedient to explain had lent it the graces of the English that the Canterbury Tales and the mass classics. But it was not the Ameriof ballad-poetry collected in such an. can short story of to-day.. And even thologies as Percy's Reliques, are de- when graced by the style of the best liberately and not invidiously left out masters it was distinctly provincial. of account as belonging to a hybrid ... There was much 'fine writing'; sporadic kind of the picaresque narra- there were American Addisons, Steeles, tive and not properly to the modern and Lambs—there were provincial conception of the conte. That modern *Spectators' and 'Tatlers.' The senconception, as it affects English taste, timent was English. Even Irving, in owes its origin to Edgar Allan Poe, the pathetic sketch of 'The Wife' echwho, it will be noted, was contempo- oed the style of 'Rosamund Grey.' raneous with Balzac, and yet not in And other work of Washington Irving ar y way influenced either by him or to had a far closer affinity with the genius any appreciable extent by his own fel. of Dickens than with what has since low-countryman and immediate prede- become familiar to us as the chief nac'essor, Washington Irving. And to tional characteristic of American fic. those who might be inclined, with some tion. Bret Harte himself also followed the Dickens convention, and thus be- names that immediately occur to the guiled the American taste yet further memory; and not one of them suggests away from the straight path laid down off-hand any kinship with Poe, neither for the perfect conte by those two past- does the work of any of them bear any masters in the art, Balzac and Poe. very clear traces of his influence. But The American short story that origin- they do all, with the doubtful excepally derived so much from English ex- tions of such arch-humorists as Mark emplars, and particularly from Lamb Twain and Artemus Ward, bear traces and Dickens, has progressed mainly of the influence of English authors; and upon those lines ever since; and very inevitably so, among an English-speakpleasant lines they are, but they ing people, since the novel was perdo not start from the point of departure fected in England before ever America that Poe made. He, discarding the founded its present Constitution. models ready to his hand, evolved an On the other hand, the short story, entirely new medium and wrought in its modern form, is a product of solely in that, adapting all his richly much later growth than the novel, as various and diversified themes to the has already been stated. And between same self-invented method, and bring- the two masters, Balzac and Poe, who ing them to the nearest point of perfec- may be said to have originated the tion attainable within the limits he modern short story, the English choice had imposed upon himself.
of a model has preferably fallen upon And when his work was done and he Poe, obviously because he wrote in died, the particular form of art to our language and we could not produce which he had bent his powers fell rap- his peer among our own writers. Our idly into desuetude in America, and has imitation of his methods has never never been revived there, or only fit- been slavish, however; has indeed been fully, spasmodically, and seldom very largely unconscious; nevertheless, it effectively. Poe has found his truest has been curiously close. Sir Conan disciples, not among his own country. Doyle has lately insisted that no modmen, but here in England, where our ern short-story-writer can help himself best short-story-writers are still faith- in this matter, because Poe wrote pracful in a more or less degree to his for- tically every kind of short story, and mulas. In America they have followed has excelled in each. Without wishin the footsteps of Brete Harte, who ing to quarrel with this view I am, at followed in the footsteps of Dickens, the same time, disposed to stigmatize it who was never quite at his best in the as a singularly short-sighted one, since short story. One has only to scan a list it takes no account of the fact that of the American authors who have though the short story-even that epheflourished since the time of Poe to per- meral thing, the modern short storyceive that, wherever else he may have has come down to us through the Panfounded a school of short-story-writers chatantra, by way of Æsop, from the it is not in his native country. Herman very beginnings of literature, it has Melville, Lew Wallace, F. R. Stockton, never ceased to develop and improve Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, W. D. and to take on new beauty and Howells, G. W. Cable, Henry James, strength. Who, then, shall declare Joel Chandler Harris, Marion Craw- that it reached its apogee in Poe even ford, Harold Frederic, Stephen Crane, if, during the last fifty years, he has John Oliver Hobbes, Mary E. Wilkins, had no worthy rival-a debatable point! Hamlin Garland, Jack London: these -half a century being, in the flight of are among the most important of the ages, as no more than the evanescent
but not less well-founded fame of such others as F. Anstey, Arthur Morrison, Joseph Conrad, Marriott Watson, Hubert Crackanthorpe, Frank Mathew, Murray Gilchrist: all of them masters in the art of the short story, many of them now, alas! boiling the pot with what ought to go to the waste-paper basket. There was not then, and there is not now, anything wrong with the seed. But there is something very wrong with the soil. Or is the fault with the farmers? One thing at least is indisputable: that we do not read such short stories as these men wrote in the first flush of their dawning day, in the modern magazines that overload the bookstalls and affront the sensibilities with their loud, highly-colored appeals to the eye of the casual passer
silver trail that a falling star flashes across the blue of heaven? It is far too soon to say that the short story has attained to the zenith of its power and must henceforth decline steadily into extinction. Some of Guy de Maupassant's short stories are held to be better than any of Balzac's. And I am bound to confess that I think some of the short stories written by this present generation of authors are better than inly of Poe's.
Yet this is an essay on "The Decay of the Short Story.” Even so. But had I added the word “temporary” to • my title it would have been better, perhaps. For the decay of the short story has been too sudden to be natural. The (rop has deteriorated, has become (hoked with all manner of vulgar Weeds; yet it
may reasonably be doubted if there is anything gravely wrong with the seed. It is rather in the soil that the fault lies. Twenty, fifteen, ten years ago, there was little to deplore in the appearance of the home-grown short story. There was much to rejoice in. Mr. James Payn was conducting the Cornhill; Mr. Je. rome K. Jerome the Idler, Mr. W. E. Henley was ruthlessly editing the National Obserrer, and afterwards the Nero Rericue; there were also the Yellow Book and Chapman's Magazine; and always Blackwood's, Longman's, Macmillan's, Murray's, and other publishers' papilottes to impart an appropriate hyacinthine curl to their pet authors' locks. The men in charge of these periodicals were literary stalwarts having the courage of their convictions, who hailed the new good thing wheresoever and in whatever guise they found it, and would publish it to their unknown contributors' glory and their own eternal credit. They laid the foundations of the wide fame of such writers as Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, W. W. Jacobs, H. G. Wells, J. M. Barrie, and Zangwill; and the lesser
At haphazard I take one of these mod. ern magazines and examine into it. It is handsomely, if not very tastefully, got-up, in good clear type on thick glazed paper. The excellent illustrations are excellently rendered. It consists of upwards of one hundred pages of letterpress and pictures sandwiched between as many pages of advertisements. There is a colored frontispiece, cleverly reproduced from an oil in the Tate Gallery. The first article deals with the art of the painter of that picture, and serves as a sufficient excuse for the reproduction of a dozen or more other pictures from the same brush, together with five or six photographs of the painter, his house, his wife, his children, his pets. The next itein is a long instalment of a serial by
popular and competent novelist. Follows a contribution by Rudyard Kipling that is neither a story nor an article but something between the two, descriptive of some highly technical and inysterious happening on board a torpedo-destroyer. Then, an article signed by a world-renowned actress, but bearing internal evidences of the
old journalistic hand. Then, some na- substitute for a genuine article, foisted ture-sketches in pen and pencil: the on a longsuffering people, and backed former altogether lacking in that magic by the specious plea that popular taste quality which inspired the late Grant demands such inferiormental fare, Allen; the latter, pretentious and florid. stands in the way of a better thing, and Then, one story of a series by a second- is, moreover, an insult to the public rate author, recounting the pitiful ex- intelligence. And the proof of this is ploits in chicanery of the usual strong, forthcoming in the fact that the masilent man of finance. Another story, jority of these magazines are published providentially labelled “humorous," at a loss to their proprietors, though coarsely and stupidly written. A trav- the only ostensible object of their exeller's true experience, slightly redo- istence is to net a dividend. So that lent of "fake," with illustrations from even if it were true to affirm that, in "faked" photographs. A cloying love- regud to matters literary and artistic, episode, with a fantastic title, tricked ils well as our material needs, the deout in the speech and costume of War- mand creates the supply-a contention dour Street. An article on “Mountain very hard to sustain with consistency, Railways,” showing what modern engi- and well-nigh impossible to prove-the neering can do in the way of defiling results of the present system beloved beautiful scenery. A “smart, brightly. of our magazine proprietors must go written" dialogue-story of Society. far to show that they are following a Four pages of jokes; some pictorial, false policy. And that even they others merely tiresome. Throughout themselves are dimly aware of this is the magazine is over-burdened with il- plain from the fact that their policy lustrations—many of them quite mean- has no settled continuity of aim. With ingless-in wash and line, and photo- two or three exceptions-and these are gravures. And there are frequent in- among the few successful magazinesterlardations of facile verse, whose only the nature of the contents is an everraisons d'être would seem to be the pic- variable quantity. Each succeeding tures accompanying them. Altogether number witnesses the inception of some it contains as much reading matter as riew idea, some fresh development, the the average six-shilling novel, plus tentative presentment of some as yet many pictures. And there is not a untried experiment. This (the editors word of any literary moment in it from will tell you) is because the fashions in beginning to end. It must have cost a literature are continually changing, like vast deal of money and time and labor. other fashions; and this would be a Yet it is utterly worthless, without tenable position to assume if they all merit or virtue of any kind; a lamenta- made the same changes at the same ble, woeful waste of well-intentioned time, and with the same sweet unanieffort and much thought and fore- mity of accord, as tailors and milliners thought. And it is only one of a score do. But turning from one magazine of similar productions, and quite an to another one finds, not slight variaverage specimen.
ations from identical central ideas, but But surely (the reader may object) it all manner of utterly antagonistic and cannot be utterly worthless and with- mutually destructive conceptions of out any merit or virtue if it provide popular taste revealing themselves in harmless entertainment and a means of contemporary productions: in one, a distraction to the many-headed at the plentitude of illustrations; in another, low price of sixpence. To this objec- no illustrations; here, every story comtion I would reply that any deleterious plete in itself; there, instalments of two