The American Short Story to 1950
This book is about the American short story since 1950. It is a book about some of the greatest writers of the period, who consistently found in the short story a form well adapted to their most fundamental preoccupations, and about the literary cultures within which they wrote: the magazines they published in; the prizes they did or did not win; the university courses which taught them how to write, or enabled them to teach others how to write; and above all, or beneath all, the (more often than not disappointing) sales figures.
In order to understand fully both the quality of the short stories published in America since 1950 and their sheer quantity, it is first necessary to consider some historical context. This introductory chapter will explore some of the key issues raised by enduring debates about the genre’s historical development and distinctive formal features. In particular, it will address the paradoxical status of the short story in American literary theory and practice during the past two centuries. How did the short story gain its reputation as a genre at once ancient and modern, formulaic and innovative, fragmentary and complete, local in emphasis and yet a means of understanding the nation as a whole?
While people have been telling each other tales since the days of cave-painting and publishing them since the days of Gutenberg, the term ‘Short-story’ did not appear in print until 1885, in an article by the American critic, Brander Matthews.1 Matthews’s use of capitals and a hyphen to join his two terms was a deliberate attempt to distinguish short stories from stories which merely happened to be short. In other words, he was arguing that short stories (I’ll drop the hyphen) were not only different from novels in length but also in kind. A case was beginning to be made for the short story not just as a ‘short prose narrative’, but rather as the quintessentially modern literary form, ideally suited to the demands of both commerce and innovation.2 For these, and other, reasons it was also often described as a quintessentially American form.