The Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey

By Fred Lewis Pattee | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
THE DECADE AFTER POE

I

The decade of the 'fifties that should have built consciously and artistically after Poe, and that should have deepened and broadened all its foundations after Hawthorne, stands in our literary history as the period when, with a few exceptions, the short story ceased to be distinctive, when for a time, indeed, it seemed about to disappear as a reputable literary form. The year of Poe's death closed the period that had begun with The Sketch Book. Seemingly it closed it at its most promising moment: Poe "The Cask of Amontillado" had appeared in 1846, and Hawthorne's "The Great Stone Face" was to appear in 1850. But Poe's influence had been almost nothing. There is no evidence in all the critical writings of the mid-century or in any of the literary correspondence of the time that a single reader in 1842 had seen his review of Hawthorne or that anyone had profited at all from the brilliant technique of his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. For a generation after his death his tales were mentioned only as terror-compelling things, strange exotics standing gruesomely alone and almost to be regretted among the conventional creations of American literature. New England regarded him as an unholy thing that were better forgotten. Lowell summed him up in terms of morals: he was "wholly lacking in that element of manhood which, for want of a better name, we call character. It is something quite distinct from genius--though all great geniuses are endowed with it." New York on the whole agreed with New England. The Tribune, announcing his death, added the verdict, "few will be grieved by it . . . he had few or no friends." And even Walt Whitman, a member of the Pfaff coterie of Broadway Bohemians, could discuss him in later days as a writer "almost without the first sign of moral principle, or the concrete or its heroisms, or the simple affections of the heart." While Europe was discovering him as a new master of technique

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