The Short Story Grows Up

By Nilsson, Jeff | The Saturday Evening Post, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

The Short Story Grows Up


Nilsson, Jeff, The Saturday Evening Post


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IT TOOK A REVOLUTION for America to win political independence from Britain. But long after the war ended, Americans remained loyal subjects of British literature, which romanticized European traditions and society.

Not for want of talent. The colonies had many prolific authors, but they principally wrote about current events, religion, and science. Their purpose was not to entertain, but to make a statement or, in Thomas Jefferson's case, a declaration. The most popular early American author, Benjamin Franklin, wrote Poor Richard's Almanack, an annual bestseller containing calendars, weather predictions, poems, and sayings. In it, Franklin preached self-sufficiency, claiming, "I do not know a single article imported to the ... colonies, but what they can either do without, or make themselves."

While Franklin didn't say so, literature was the one exception.

A distinct American literature didn't emerge until the 1820s, about the time The Saturday Evening Post started publication. In many ways, America's fiction and the Post grew up together. The early issues included stories by Washington Irving-often called the father of the American short story. His stories, written in an engaging style, could be whimsical yet serious. Two of them, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," explored the social and cultural changes occurring in America at the time. Another early master of the short story appearing in the Post was Nathaniel Hawthorne of"The Scarlet Letter" fame. And who can forget the brooding, timeless tale "The Black Cat" by Edgar Allan Poe that debuted in the Post in 1843?

By the turn of the century, the Post had become the country's leading magazine for fiction. The change is largely credited to an inspired young editor, who set out to create the first magazine for the entire country. Within a decade, he built the Post's circulation from 1,600 to 1 million-plus readers. In the process, he transformed the Post from a follower to a leader in the field of popular fiction.

The editor--George Horace Lorimer-achieved this remarkable success by sensing what American readers really wanted to read.

An Eye for Talent

He sought out and published articles by such well-known, established writers as Stephen Crane, Bret Harte, O. Henry, and Jack London. But even renowned authors had to meet Lorimer's standards. Rudyard Kipling was at the height of his popularity when the Post first published his fiction in 1902. But that story only appeared after Lorimer turned down 12 earlier Kipling pieces he felt were "not good enough."

Beyond the big names, Lorimer always searched for great, untapped talent out there. To find it, he scoured newspapers for promising talent. He also advertised directly in the Post, assuring writers that "good short stories bring good prices. The Post will pay well for cleverly written, unpublished stories from 3,000 to 5,000 words." And he regularly searched the magazine's "slush pile" of unsolicited stories submitted from literary hopefuls-a pile that grew to more than 175,000 manuscripts each year.

The quest paid off-many times over. In 1915, for example, a then-unknown author named Sinclair Lewis submitted "Nature, Inc."--a satire about a pseudo-religious health farm--which landed in the Post's slush pile. Lorimer spotted the manuscript, read it, and immediately wrote to Sinclair:

"'Nature, Inc.' is an exceedingly entertaining short story, and we are very glad to have it for The Saturday Evening Post. Now that you have made a start with us, I hope that you will ... become a household word."

Indeed, he would. Over the next five years, Lewis published 28 stories in the Post, centering around themes that the editor wanted to see in fiction: common sense, hard work, self-reliance, determination, and success.

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Lorimer's faith in his ability to recognize talent was absotute and could not be swayed by his assistant editors. …

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