A SHORT AND INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF SHORT STORIES
by Steven Steinbock
The beauty of participating in a project like Criminal Brief is the serendipity of ideas that happens when like minds come together. Since writing to you about Poe (Bandersnatches May 18), Iâ€™d been doing a lot of thinking about the history of short stories. And when James Lincoln Warren wrote about the subcategories of short stories (The Scribbler May 21), it was like manna from heaven. This isnâ€™t a continuation of Jimâ€™s article. In fact, if you watch the comment section, below, youâ€™ll probably find a bunch of corrections and disputations by our diction-detective, JLW.
Poe didnâ€™t write â€œshort stories.â€ He called what he wrote â€œtales.â€ The â€œnovelâ€ was around, and had been for a good century. But the literary world was still sorting out the distinction between â€œnovelsâ€ and â€œromances.â€ Daniel Defoeâ€™s Robinson Crusoe is considered by some to be the first novel in the English language. But when published in 1719, no one would have labeled it so. Until around 1740, the term â€œnovelâ€ was only applied to short fictions, what we would today call â€œshort stories.â€ Confused?
Washington Irvingâ€™s Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1820) illustrates how definitions were still in flux. Sketch Book is not a novel by any stretch. Itâ€™s a mishmash of essays, vignettes, and stories that for the most part, celebrate early New York. Buried within the Sketch Book are two little tales that took on lives of their own: â€œRip Van Winkleâ€ and â€œThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow.â€ (For those who havenâ€™t read the original â€œLegend of Sleepy Hollow,â€ itâ€™s worth a look. The ending doesnâ€™t go quite the way itâ€™s popularly retold in storybooks and film. Plus, like One Thousand and One Nights, it contains numerous stories within the story as the citizens of Sleepy Hollow try to scare each other with spooky tales).
Like the rules of spelling and grammar, tight definitions of short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels are relatively new. Look how many ways Shakespeare spelt his own name; and nobody gave a ratâ€™s tail where you dangled your modifier or split your infinitives. You can even hang your prepositions if you know what Iâ€™m talking about. But Iâ€™m going to stretch a little, and loosely apply these modern labels to earlier fictions.
The ancient world had a number of mega-fictions. We call them â€œepics.â€ For the most part, they werenâ€™t â€œnovelsâ€ in the modern sense because they didnâ€™t tend to have a single plot-line. The Indian Mahabharata, the Persian Shahnameh (my new favorite epic), the Iliad and the Odyssey all are composed of multiple stories. The two Homeric epics come close. Itâ€™s possible to summarize their plots in a sentence or two.
The ancient Sumerian poem Gilgamesh could be called a novel. It is a story of a single manâ€™s journey to understand mortality, companionship, and loss. Itâ€™s not as long as any of the epics or mega-fictions Iâ€™ve mentioned. But interestingly, it does have within itâ€™s cuneiform verses a short story or two. While searching for the secret of immortality, Gilgamesh meets a fisherman named Utnapishtim who tells him the story of how he survived a primordial flood and was granted immortality. His story, sometimes called the â€œBabylonian Noahâ€ story, can function on its own as a short piece of fiction, in much the same way that the â€œFlitcraftâ€ story works within The Maltese Falcon.
The Bible contains quite a few â€œshort storiesâ€ and a few â€œnovels.â€ If written today, the narratives about Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, and David defeating Goliath would probably be classified as short stories.
The story of Jacob is a novella. Depending on how you cut it, the story (you can find it in Genesis 25:20-35:29) falls into five acts, and it even has some elements of a mystery. In the first act, we meet Jacob the con-man, who has been pulling cons since before he was born. At the end of the act, his life is in peril. In the second act, Jacob goes on the lam, and has a dream of a ladder that he isnâ€™t climbing. Act three is the big turnaround in which Jacob meets his match in Uncle Laban, and the con-man gets conned. Having learned his lesson and been transformed, Jacob returns home in act four, which climaxes with the weirdest fight scene until Luke Skywalker met Darth Vader. Act five is a denouement in which Jacob and his brother reconcile and together bury their father.
The first â€œnovelâ€ in the Bible is the story of Joseph. Thousands of years later, Thomas Mann novelized it. But all the parts are there in the original Hebrew. Its fourteen chapters (beginning with Genesis 37) that starts with a crime, an apparent homicide during which the victim survives. The story has seduction, betrayal, and prison. The book ends with an emotional and dramatic denouement that even Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot canâ€™t match in which the apparent murder victim himself confronts his would-be killers, who believe that their murder attempt was successful, and justice takes on a beautifully merciful face. (Anyone who refers to the â€œOld Testamentâ€ as one of vengeful theology obviously hasnâ€™t read it).
Slipped into the Joseph story is my favorite short mystery in the Bible. Genesis 38, in fewer than 800 words, tells the story of Tamar, a woman cheated by her own father-in-law, who disguises herself as a prostitute in order to find justice. Thereâ€™s even a climactic courtroom scene.
They just donâ€™t teach this stuff in Sunday School.
Iâ€™m not sure where Iâ€™m going from here. I may explore â€œflashâ€ stories, or discuss â€œepisodicâ€ novels. I may tell you about my favorite anthologies or my favorite short story authors. Come back in a week and find out.