The short story and jazz music have taken quite the similar journey through the cultural consciousness of American society. Now relegated to niche art forms, both flourished in the early and mid-parts of the 20th Century, reaching a level of popularity that transcended age, race, and regionalism. Simply put, everyone listened to jazz and everyone read short stories, and everyone talked about them as important exports of American culture.
But whereas jazz developed primarily after the turn of the 20th Century, the emergence and popularization of the short story had been brewing nearly one hundred years prior. And while the short story in Europe—particularly in countries like Ireland and the U.K., both of which have grand literary traditions—had been going strong for a century or so and was based heavily on the oral storytelling tradition, origins of the American short story are more easily definable and pragmatic, based largely on the greater culture of the average American reader rather than some kind of artistic dictum or manifesto.
As with much of American arts and culture, perhaps unfortunately so, the short story rose to prominence when Americans needed it most, but was then left unattended and unnurtured when its relevance seemed more of a question than a certainty.
Before understanding the context in which the modern American short story was born, it’s important to understand its influences and the narrative traditions and customs that helped shape it. The earliest versions of the American short story can be traced back to Germany where writers such Heinrich von Kleist, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Ludwig Tieck were popularizing a hybrid narrative art form that combined the sketch and the tale.
While a sketch was more akin to a piece of performance art—often told in present tense with little attention to plot in service of exploration of character or voice—a tale was likened to a campfire story, told in past tense with an emphasis on plot, the voice of the narrator, and an occasion for the telling of the story. Sketches were often much simpler and shorter in length, while tales could be quite complicated and lengthy.
Both sketch and tale have roots outside of German literary tradition, but writers like Kleist, Hoffman, and Tieck took elements from both sketch and plot to create brief narratives that emphasized both character and plot. These hybrid pieces, which were compact enough to be completed in one sitting, began to appear in newspapers across Germany as an easily accessible form of entertainment.
Welcome to America
Like so many of America’s greatest cultural exports, the modern short story grew out of necessity rather than luxury. At the turn of the 19th Century, the United States was a burgeoning country with pioneers and adventure-seekers pushing their way west in search of new opportunity. With so much of the American population constantly on the move from one town to the next, the serialized novel was not a viable form of literature as it was across Europe, particularly in England—folks had little interest in picking up a newspaper or magazine and investing themselves in a chapter of a story, only to leave the next morning without any hope of seeing the piece through to the end.
As such, early American short stories writers like Washington Irving and Herman Melville drew from the works of German writers to create self-contained, often fantastical short narratives readers could easily finish in one sitting and newspapers had space to print. The result was a national phenomenon that proved very lucrative for both writers and publishers, allowing writers to publish a few stories per year to help subsidize their incomes while they worked on longer, novel-length projects—a practice that continued well into the middle of the 20th Century with magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, and others.
If writers like Irving and Melville got the ball rolling with the modern American short story, then authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne took up the mantle and helped create two distinct strains of the short story that persisted well into the 1960s and 1970s. While both writers dabbled in the surreal or absurd, Poe and Hawthorne’s divergence in aesthetic resulted in a divide between short stories viewed as art (Poe) and short stories viewed as entertainment (Hawthorne).
It may be a subtle difference, one the reader might not even notice, but this division in authorial intention had a direct impact on how writers viewed the American short story and its possibilities for artistic expression—writers who viewed the story more as entertainment were the predecessors to pulp, adventure, or crime/noir short fiction writers, while those in the artistic camp were the forbearers to generations of more avant-garde or experimental authors.
20th Century and Beyond
The concept that writers could make a living by selling a few short stories per year—whether as art, entertainment, or some combination thereof—existed well into the 1960s and 1970s. Writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, John Updike, J.D. Salinger, and others were able to make comfortable livings by selling a handful of stories per year. With a national audience that craved new short fiction on a weekly or monthly basis, the short story form was a literary playground for writers looking to push the form to its limits, be it in aesthetics or content—think writers like Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover for aesthetics, and Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates for subject matter.
Literary scholars struggle in some respects for a concrete reason, but the short story began to fall out of favor in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While just a few years before the form seemed invigorated by such practitioners as Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Bobbie Ann Mason, and others, the short story was reduced to something of a warm-up exercise to the novel—like a series of calisthenics before a marathon.
Though the short story has seen something of a resurgence in the last 10 to 15 years with the proliferation of MFA programs—a 20 page story is a much easier thing to discuss in a writing workshop compared to a 250 page novel—the short story today is still a boutique narrative form with very few national publications—aside from The New Yorker and a few others—regularly featuring them.
But like its musical cousin jazz, the short story has managed to find traction and readership online, and many internet-based publications have taken a chance on the form, much in the same way printed newspapers did nearly two centuries ago.
Many literary scholars and readers often declare the short story as something of a dying form, but perhaps today’s most common vessel for news and entertainment—the internet—will help the form sustain and evolve in much the same way the internet’s forefather did all those years ago.