Nineteenth‐Century American Theory of the Short Story: the Dual Tradition

Walter Evans

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Abstract

Critics, historians, and theorists of the American short story commonly assume that a “traditional” plot‐oriented mode dominated the genre's theory and practice throughout the nineteenth century and that a more “formless” or “lyrical” mode deemphasizing plot began in America only with Sherwood Anderson. In fact, from the outset American theorists analyzed both these modes of short fiction. Irving contrasted stories dominated by plot and those in which plot functioned merely as “frame” to display more significant elements such as character, setting, and tone. Following a similar formal dichotomy Poe, Longfellow, and others discriminated between “tales” and “essays” or “sketches”; Henry Tuckerman refined that distinction in contrasting “melodramtic” and “meditative” fictions. Henry James carried the distinction even further by contrasting the “anecdotal” story and the “picture of personal states.” Brander Matthews'landmark 1884 essay on the short story had an immensely negative effect in establishing the myth of a plot‐dominated traditional short story, however, a myth which radically betrayed the genre's dualistic heritage and which clouded our understanding of the short story until well into the twentieth century.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)314-330
Number of pages17
JournalOrbis Litterarum
Volume34
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1979

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ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory

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