The Americans from Bret Harte to the Nineties by Henry Seidel Canby, Ph.D.

The Americans from Bret Harte to the Nineties

How the American Short Story Developed from Anecdote, Yankee Yarn & the Story of Local Color

by Henry Seidel Canby, Ph.D.

The use of Bret Harte to separate two literary periods is more convenient than inevitable. Harte was the great advertiser of the short story, and accomplished with it certain remarkable things, but only in a restricted sense did he begin a new era. The years of which we have now to write, the two score in which the American short story has grown from an infant industry to a national avocation, do not date from The Luck of Roaring Camp.

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The use of Bret Harte to separate two literary periods is more convenient than inevitable. Harte was the great advertiser of the short story, and accomplished with it certain remarkable things, but only in a restricted sense did he begin a new era. The years of which we have now to write, the two score in which the American short story has grown from an infant industry to a national avocation, do not date from The Luck of Roaring Camp.

But the several well-marked kinds of stories most popular with us first became readily distinguishable in the decade in which that tale was written, or in the years just succeeding. Bret Harte is the figure which closes the struggle to popularize the new short story in America. He is only one of the progenitors of our current short-story fiction.

These forty years in short narrative have closely paralleled the trade in Oriental rugs. In one respect, the short-story market differs from Constantinople. Modern Ghiordez, Kirmanshah, Tabriz worthy the names are not procurable except in the conceit of the sanguine collector, while as good short stories as ever were written are always to be found somewhere in the bales of stock goods. But, in both instances, an enormous demand has caused an enormous production.

If we are to lift a candle of criticism through the multitudinous assemblage of story which has gathered in books, in newspapers, and in magazines, we must adopt some classification. As it happens, the first chapter may be devoted to Americans exclusively, for it is some time before any Englishman comprehends the meaning which Americans had already put upon "short story," and writes accordingly.

Again, for convenience, and because, in spite of all combinations and cross-breeds, the distinction is roughly apparent, one may divide these American stories of the last third of the century into three groups, with broad margins for strays. Let us say the story of serious situation; the story of surprising and humorous situation, with an unexpected flip at the end to drive home the point; and the story of local color.

Henry James is the master of the first; Aldrich was our best representative of the second; Harte was much more than a local colorist — so Cable will serve as a point of departure for the third. The story of local color has been the vein most easily and most frequently worked. The tale with a flip at the end has given us our cleverest and perhaps our best liked narratives. But it is from the practice of the narrative of serious situation that our great short stories have come.

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Henry James – Narrative Conducted Over Uncharted Seas

Mr. James, in the course of his annotations upon the new edition of his works, remarks that it was a relief to escape from the frail craft of the short story, where he ever felt the danger of running aground. With apologies, if there is to be any running aground in Mr. James's short stories, it is the reader and not Mr. James who is in danger. Never in the ages of fiction has narrative been conducted over uncharted seas with more consummate skill than in the tales now to be discussed.

Indeed, frail is the last word that a layman would apply to the short stories of Henry James. Even in those Stories Revived (1885), collected from magazines of the sixties and early seventies, there is a singular robustness about this writer's work. He grasps his situation without fumbling, and with an uncommon grip. He never lets go of it in the course of the tale, and he never fails to make it the point of his story.

Since Hawthorne, no one has so strongly felt and made us feel the challenge of a good situation. Hawthorne falters sometimes, but Mr. James makes no such error. His art is conscious. He knows that he has — not a great moral truth, but a situation, and one can confidently count upon delivery, be the pages never so numerous.

In these latter days, Mr. James has pushed the study of a situation so far that sometimes the short story will no longer contain the results. He has been forced to use the novel, not always successfully, but his relative failure here only emphasizes the unique character of his special talent. Incomparably subtle and complex are the analyses of Mr. James's recent novels, and the situations with which they concern themselves are no less so.

The very difficulty of these narratives is proof of a depth of insight as well as of a complexity of style. But if the long stories are too difficult, the short stories, although dealing with situations equally complex, are seldom too intricate for pleasurable perusal. Opinions differ as to the readability of The Wings of the Dove. They are at one for The Turn of the Screw, or The Real__Thing. And yet the first of these short stories contains a situation as subtle as man ever thought of, the second, one so superficial as to be hard to grasp at all.

In both, however, Mr. James confined himself to the limitations of a single effect. And his craft in a true sense was frail, for he had to make this effect in order to succeed. He did make it, and wonderfully, with a style full of nuts, all crackable by good teeth, and a development which, for all its intricacies, brings one face to face with the whole story at the end.

His success, in contrast with the obscurity of his later novels, not only proves the value of the impressionistic short story for the depiction of intricate situations. It is also an instance of Mr. James's capability to advance this new variety of narrative in a most interesting direction.

It will be necessary to turn to the stories themselves for the application of these general remarks, but we must delay for another of this author's distinguishing characteristics.

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The Beginnings of the Realist Movement in English Short Stories

To suppose that the short story cannot be excellent realism, advanced realism if you please, is absurd, as the Russians and the French, if no others, have proven. Yet, before the sixties, almost no good short stories in English were markedly realistic. Poe compounded his out of romanticism. Hawthorne struggled for realism, but did not get it, because it was not realism that he most wanted. O'Brien, who gripped at situations, chose sensational ones, and Harte avoided the uncolored life.

The truth is that your short story can be given specific gravity more easily by a moral, by a philosophic idea, a terror, a blot of local color, by anything rather than the more or less literal transcription of life which we call realism. And this is true — unless you are dealing with situations.

Then the problem is different. It is hard to give a short story its requisite point in an account of wash-day at the public laundries, or in a week from the life of a negro schoolboy. But one can work out an interesting situation with a stern avoidance of sensation, and yet with aplomb.

Mr. James was perhaps the first writer in English to accomplish this now universal feat. Hawthorne wrote upon situations, and might have carried the short story into realism. But he was a transcendentalism and his struggles to fit the idea with external reality too often resulted only in a cold symbolism. If Emerson had written fiction, the result would probably have been the same.

Henry James, however, is to be interpreted in terms of his brother, the experimental psychologist. He works from without in, and has the inestimable advantage of knowing life before his interpretation of it. His realism, to be sure, is not the realism of the familiar, like that of Mr. Howells. It is more selective, and even appears unreal to those who do not know his monde. It is still less the gutter-sweeping realism of Maupassant.

But it deals, and dealt from the first, with a life which, if not common, is certainly unvarnished. At its simplest, one gets a study of every-day life on a liner; at its furthest from the simple, there is the horror of The Turn of the Screw, where supernaturalism, divested of all its romantic trappings, is surrounded by an atmosphere abnormally intellectual, but thoroughly real.

Emerson, the philosopher, thus far has exceeded James, the psychologist, in moral intensity; and in force and beauty Hawthorne outtops Henry James. But it was the latter who first put realism into an impressionistic short story.

Mr. James's career as a short-story teller began before Bret Harte's, and is still happily flourishing. Yet, in spite of the repeated assertions that the later James has become a new man, an identity of resemblance in all essential details unites the first stories with the last.

Let us take for illustration well-marked and well-known narratives, not exceptions from, but intensifications of, this author's usual practices; let us select from the work of a lifetime A__Passionate Pilgrim (1871), The Madonna of the Future (1873), The Real Thing (1893), The Turn__of the Screw (1898), and a story or two from the volume of 1901.

The passionate pilgrim was an American, sick of the newness of his country. But this American not only was probable heir to an estate and a name in England, also, by some strange freak of atavism, there were reproduced in him the needs and attributes of an English lord of the manor. A passionate pilgrim, infatuated with the life of the English gentleman, he visits the house that might be his, he pines for the environment that should be his, and falls in love with a woman who symbolizes his desire.

Ten thousand Americans have felt faintly what he felt passionately, but it needed Mr. James and this short story to crystallize the situation. It was some thirty years later when Kipling duplicated the performance with An Habitation Enforced.

The Madonna of the Future has another of those situations which, once grasped, make sure a wonderful story. Theobald is an American painter, who launches in Florence his cargo of new world optimism. It is not too late, he thinks, to paint a great Madonna. But she must be perfect! And so he drifts through the Florence galleries and the Florence salons until the opening of the story, his chosen model growing old and corrupt) without his seeing, himself growing old and incapable, and his ideal flowering and perfecting beyond all his power of execution.

The story is of disillusionment. The Madonna — is of the future. There is no surprise, no sudden climax. When the canvas in the meager studio is seen at last, and seen to be bare, the discovery is the last stone in an arch. The situation emerges as the single impression of the whole story.

The Real Thing everyone knows. It is a far less serious attempt, but no less characteristic. The real thing is represented by Major and Mrs. Monarch, English gentlefolk who have lost all but their inability to be anything but the real thing.

The plot required is light. Its point is in its climax, where, with all pathos, the helpless, noble pair ask "to do" for the artist who tells their story, and for the vulgar models who can imitate aristocracy to better purpose than the real thing can present it. A situation not delicate, not even subtle, but tremendously difficult to get into action, and hence the credit due to this narrative.

The Turn of the Screw is the most interesting short story Mr. James has ever written. I say short story, using the word in its contémporary sense, because, though running to 213 pages in large print, it is as completely unified in its impression as a conté by Maupassant.

The story itself is better described by the phrases of vague horror with which its narrator introduces it than by any analysis, and this difficulty of concise description beautifully indicates the depths to which we have gone with our short story. Two children, angel-children outwardly, have been corrupted by a governess and an infamous groom. Both corrupters are dead, but their influences, nay, their presences, continue in mysterious, disgusting communication with their eager victims. And to fight these influences is but one will, the new governess, the actor and teller of the tale.

No superstitious glamor enters, no romantic grimness. There is just a conflict of wills with a sick disgust let in where Poe would have given us horror. And all is controlled by no single emotion, but rather by an intellectual desire to grasp the situation and to see it in horrid clearness. Once this is done, once the children have confessed, the story ends abruptly.

A single example of such narrative is enough — but it is a satisfaction that it has been accomplished so perfectly. Is it any wonder, with a mind busy over such formulas, that when Mr. James drew up his anchor, and sailed forth on the unrestricted seas of the novel, even the most vigorous were sometimes buffeted back as they followed him!

Finally, compare the latest stories, such tales as The Great Good Place, whose kernel, heaven knows, is sufficiently enshelled, with those that went before. It is the same art, and often the same triumph. A possible but difficult situation is flooded with a daylight which ranges, according to the success, from murky to sun-clear.

Conclusions are evident. With Mr. James and his short story, English fiction pushed into fields hitherto unoccupied, if, indeed, existing. The subtler relations and interrelations of possible life, the just graspable situations developing in especial circumstances in this life, all the nuances encountered daily by people of developed sensibilities in our civilization — these he taught us to put into stories.

In the seventies no such work had been done by Englishmen, except in poetry, or with the novel, a tool that could not carve minutely. Nowadays, his successors at the task, on both sides of the water, are legion. None so poor as not to take a hand at psychological analysis, but in his own field no one equals the master. Mrs. Wharton is the best of his followers. Yet even her tales lack the force, the clear perception, the last cunning which marks the work of this pioneer.

Faults, of course, are to be found. We are by no means prepared to exalt Mr. James to the place of arch story-teller. His monde is too restricted. It is a demimonde, to twist the phrase. It is a world of beings measured from the brain up. Only the intellectual enter these stories, except as foils, and a certain quality, called in its vulgar manifestations "heart interest," is usually lacking.

Again, even in his short stories, Mr. James is unduly diffuse in his pursuit of the intricacies of a situation, and therefore unduly elliptical and obscure. Neither of these objections should weigh heavily. The first is a definition, not a condemnation.

Who criticises Sargent for not painting like Sir Joshua Reynolds? The second is a heavier charge. To be sure the fault is a defect of Mr. James's virtues. He is less guilty than Browning and scarcely more chargeable than Meredith. His experiments in psychology are carried to such advanced stages that we must admire the skill that makes them reasonably intelligible, even when he fails to reduce his inquiry to the x, y, z of plain language. Yet it is just that feat which ought to be accomplished. James fails sometimes; fails oftenest, it seems, when he cuts loose from the short story.

But when the bugbear Mr. James has crumbled, we will better appreciate the real author. He has rendered an inestimable service, not merely to those his brother might call the tough in intellect, but also to everyone who dimly sees that life is very complex, and wishes to know a little more of its subtleties.

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The Amusing Anecdote & the Yankee Yarn: Precursors of the American Short Story

The next variety of short story came to its prime a little later, but flourished and flourishes far more abundantly. It is the kind which comes nearest to being anecdotal; the story of light and surprising situation whose point is revealed by a twist of the plot at the very end.

In his essay on the short story, Bret Harte remarked that the amusing anecdote was a characteristic American product. The fact is notorious. But, as he also observed, the mid-century, when the American yarn became famous, made small literary capital from it. There was, of course, Mark Twain's triumph, The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and there were such narratives as Hale's My Double and How He Undid Me, but very seldom before the seventies did American "good stories" of the novella type get form and permanency in literature!

To say that from this Yankee yarn were bred the later short stories which depend for their success upon an amusing situation suddenly revealed by a surprising twist at the end, is to say a good deal. Nevertheless, this familiar variety, as it appears in our magazines, is certainly a product of much the same sense of the incongruous. There is form in these short stories, something never possessed by the yarn. That is because they are short stories, not yarns — but the anecdotal character remains.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich's Marjorie Daw (1873), a story as delightful as its name, is an example. Marjorie Daw is a practical joke, on the hero and on the reader. But the flavor is not all in the discomfiture of the hero; nor in the bouleversement at the end, for we are not even told of that scene. It is most to be found in what the American enjoys, the humor of an absurd situation, the humor of incongruity. The hero had been taken in, and was suddenly discovered in a delightful absurdity.

In American fiction of this period, Aldrich, Frank R. Stockton, and H. C. Bunner are the masters of this short story. Mr. Aldrich was a stylist who infused his personality into tales of trivialities and made them inexpressibly delightful. If Marjorie Daw was his best effort, there are many others scarcely inferior.

One does not think of structure, for the thing is done too easily and too gracefully. Humor and pathos come without forcing. The story flows as whimsy dictates, and never fails of its point, nor blurs the outlines of the situation. Aldrich was the first American to duplicate successfully the French conté. Perhaps he caught the graceful manner from Daudet's Lettres de mon Moulin; for, certainly, his stories are very French. But they are French only in form.

Any American humorist for these hundred years would have written Marjorie Daw and relished the writing if he had known how to expand the situation into a real story. No Englishman did such work. No Englishman does yet!

Mr. Stockton was professional amuser to very many generations of children. His yarns ran to the quaint; griffins were his specialty, and wonderful fairy-book happenings that were humorous, too, in the most unprecedented fashion. I mention him here because, all through the eighties, his work was so popular in America, and so very characteristic of the American short story.

Every tale, for big or little people, has a twist at the end of it. And the biggest twist, what might be called the typical specimen of flips, came at the end of The Lady, or the Tiger? (1882), a story that probably supplied as much dinner conversation as any other of the century.

Stockton is more whimsical than Aldrich; he is less polished. He is more German than French, if I may be allowed these terms without implying an imitation by either. But the American humor and the short-story form are always in evidence.

H. C. Bunner died young; and while he lived was continuously a newspaper man. Save for these accidents, he might have been our best fabricator of the anecdotal story. His genius is reincarnated, some think, in our own O. Henry, who is certainly guilty of the one fault to be charged against his predecessor. Bunner was absolute master of the very short story with a very striking conclusion. There is, one sees, even a short-short story!

Here, no writer in English, but only Maupassant, exceeded him. In subject, he was thoroughly American. The humorous attracted him. He could make a good story from a misapprehension in respect to the sex of a dog. Aldrich struck no deeper than he did, and lacked the rare power of perfect focus, combined with perfect restraint, by which Bunner, like Maupassant, could make six pages tell a story as complete as Vanity Fair. But Aldrich possessed what the rhetoricians call elegance — not grace alone, nor lightness of touch alone, nor dignity alone, but all. Bunner's Short Sixes (1891), his Love in Old Cloathes (1896) contain some of the best American short stories. They lack only a perfect style.

This anecdotal art, as exemplified in these few selections, is very distinctively American, and, next to American, French. It is worth analyzing because it is exhibited nowhere more perfectly than in the short story, and because, by means of our short stories, it has been partly responsible for the English conception of the American people. True, it has produced much trivial literature, just as the American habit of "swapping yarns" has been responsible for terrible boredom.

But, in either case, even when a poor thing, the custom is our own. I do not know what proportion of magazine stories nowadays are flat because the writer thinks he must be surprisingly humorous at the end. Yet, better a thousand miscarriages than that we should miss a single Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, or discourage another Marjorie Daw.

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The Local-Color Story – The Narrative Whose Setting Is Distinctly of One Locality

To call the third group of short narratives in this period local-color stories is a little deceptive, for among the short stories usually so named are many palpably anecdotal, and more where a serious situation makes its impression upon the reader. Yet, merely for a convenient division, the name will serve. By a local-color story we mean more than a narrative whose setting is distinctly of one locality, for this would apply to the Italian stories of the Elizabethans, the periodical narratives of London in the eighteenth century, or Hawthorne's New England tales. We mean, rather, a story where the setting is quite as important as the plot; a story to which a strong factitious interest is lent by the local peculiarities of place and action, and by the racial peculiarities of the actors.

To say when such narratives began is to court disaster. Not so uncertain is the time when they became most popular with English and American readers, to wit, the latter part of the nineteenth century.

It is not hard to understand why local color has played such a part in the short story of this period. The technique invented by Poe is thoroughly adapted to catch and record the superficies of life, and particularly idiosyncrasies of habit, and distinctive qualities of scene. Furthermore, since brevity is essential for good description, the much in little of the nineteenth century short story provides the easiest of means for getting observation into readable form. Again, the rising popularity of the short story has been paralleled quite exactly by the growth of interest in special peoples and places.

Bret Harte did not begin the short story of local color, but he assuredly made the first great popular success which was due in any large part to a vivid description of a given locality. The story of local color, as we read it commonly today, is usually less virile and more pictorial than his. It more closely resembles a narrative type of which the tales in George W. Cable's Old__Creole Days (1879-83) were, perhaps, the earliest successful examples. Mr. Cable's strong point is not the short story, nor any story structurally considered.

Regard his work as a series of sketches and then its value comes out. Plots are only conveniences for him, ways upon which his sympathetic knowledge of the Creoles may be launched into the world of books. The best thing he ever wrote is not a novel, nor a short story, but Chapters X. and XI. in his pastoral, Grande Pointe, which treat of the spelling-bee of schoolmaster Bonaventure. Yet the idea of the short story was of some value to him. It was a situation which he usually worked with, and he rounded off his tale with the climactic twist which either reveals the secret of the plot, or settles the narrative with some other definite conclusion.

Simple situations were his ware, and usually those which would flow from the peculiarities of his own Southern people. The horror of an admixture of white blood and black is a basis for many; the contrast between Creole and Yankee serves for even more.

It is the descriptive element, however, which is most valuable in Cable's works: such local color as arises from the unforgettable characterizations of Mme. Delphine, of Jean-ah Poquelin, of 'Tite Poulette; the pictures of a semi-tropical life; and the atmosphere of a vanishing civilization.

Next in value is the tender sentiment proper to, and worthy of, such descriptions. Abstract this and the local color from the stories and what have you left? Not the types of universal human nature which remain when California drops from Harte's stories, or the Dutch Hudson from Irving's.

Indeed, there is nothing highly valuable in these tales but local color and sentiment. The operation, fortunately, is unnecessary. Yet the theoretical result is instructive, for it defines, in some degree, this variety of the contemporary short story. Rightly or wrongly, our writers have been inclined to make local color the cargo as well as the ballast of their crafts.

It would be too much to say that Cable established the school. He marks, however, the approximate beginning of a long and notable series of stories, by which every nook and corner sheltering a picturesque civilization has been exploited.

Has it been worthwhile? Immensely so.

Is it the highest form of short story? Certainly not.

The Elizabethans sacrificed their short story to Euphuism, making of a good plot a hollow absurdity. Some of our collections of rare dialects may one day seem as empty. But it is not necessary to judge by exaggerations. If the service rendered to art by the local color story has not always been of the highest, the service to curiosity, and the broadening of human sympathies, has been immense.

And, furthermore, some of the noblest tales in the language have sprung from studies of racial peculiarities, where the artist, in pursuit of traits and customs, has ended by laying bare universal human nature.

Such narratives have been written only when the story and not the setting has been preeminent — but the best are to be found after, not before, the great local color enthusiasm of the latter nineteenth century.

~ The End ~

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