The Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey

By Fred Lewis Pattee | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
THE REVOLT OF THE 'NINETIES

During the 'eighties and far into the 'nineties the most discussed topic connected with the short story was the alleged prejudice of the reading public against short-story collections. That a piece of literature should be popular when published in a magazine and unpopular when published with others like it in a volume was a seeming paradox much reasoned upon by critics. Howells gave perhaps the most ingenious explanation. In 1901, apropos of Harper "Portrait Collection of Short Stories," he wrote:

A reader can read one good short story in a magazine with refreshment and a pleasant sense of excitement, in the sort of spur it gives to his own constructive faculty. But if this is repeated in ten or twenty stories, he becomes fluttered and exhausted by the draft upon his energies; whereas a continuous fiction of the same quantity acts as an agreeable sedative. A condition that the short story makes with the reader, through its limitations, is that he shall subjectively fill in the details and carry out the scheme which in its small dimensions the story can only suggest, and the greater number of readers find this too much for their feeble powers, while they cannot resist the incitement to attempt it.

Undoubtedly collections of short stories during the 'seventies and early 'eighties could not compete on even terms with the novel, intrenched as it was by centuries of tradition. Moreover, the English novel was then at its highest tide. During the 'fifties and the 'sixties had appeared the chief work of Dickens and Thackeray and George Eliot, of Kingsley and Reade and Trollope, of Mrs. Gaskell, and Charlotte Brontë and George Meredith, not to mention lesser figures. English novels for years had been run serially in American magazines as the chief literary feature of each issue. The short story had been regarded as distinctively a minor form, at least as compared with the novel, a form ephemeral, thought of always in connection with the magazine and the newspaper rather than in connection with the bound volume of fiction.

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