The Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey

By Fred Lewis Pattee | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE

I

The short story was an exotic in New England, deemed a trivial thing, a sap shoot from the trunk of serious literature. Mrs. Child and Mrs. Hale had potted it and coaxed it into coy bloom, Miss Sedgwick and N. P. Willis had brought it a few times into tropic efflorescence, but by most New Englanders it was considered as a thing unworthy of a man's best powers, a feminine diversion to be tolerated like the fashions, or at best to be turned into harmless forms for the moral instruction of children. In 1834 The New England Magazine had this to say of T. S. Fay, who with Willis was leading the New York school of writers of light sketches and tales:

We fancy he writes in a little study, on little paper, with a little pen, for his style is little, his stories are little, his thoughts are little, his images are little, and his sentences and subjects are little. Yet he writes agreeably. His productions are excellent things to while away an hour with, if one wishes to occupy his mind in soothing meditation of pleasing nothingness. Mr. Willis--but he is so notorious that it would be absurd to say much on so stale a celebrity.

This was the New England attitude from the first toward the short story written merely for entertainment. Hawthorne, when in 1842 he moved with his bride into the Old Manse at Concord, the first lay occupant in the history of the venerable structure, felt that the place rebuked him, the mere teller of little tales in the seat of the Brahmins, and resolved to do something worthy: to write a moral treatise or a history like Bancroft's, or even a novel. A story-teller in the Old Manse is symbolic in true Hawthorne style: he was the first to bring the romantic tale into the old areas of Puritanism and to have it accepted and dignified, the first to make the unacclimated exotic grow in the cold New England soil. Pale and unreal it was at first, unworldly even to

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