This is a question writers have tried to answer over the centuries. The earliest literary documents are Egyptian papyri dating from 4000-3000 B. C. and the tales of the Old Testament, which are the most familiar short narratives to survive from the ancient cultures of India, Greece and the Near East. The Middle Ages brought short fiction in the form of fabliau, exemplum or romantic tale. Its’ popularity grew during the14th century, with collections of stories such as Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”.
A greater variety of form was developed in the 18th century, but it was not until the 19th century that the “short story” appeared as a self-conscious genre. But as a genre it is still hard to define. Short stories have no essential or natural forms. Of course they should be plausible, have exposition, development and drama, but writers still love to experiment with these ideas. Many anthologies, most notably “The Oxford book of American short stories” are a wonderful way of exploring the different forms of short story.
After studying Joyce Carol Oates’ collection of 56 rich and ranging stories, I was shocked at the sheer size of America’s literary first division- from Anderson and Austin to Updike and Williams. The two writers I have chosen to discuss have left huge imprints on this literary genre through their endless experimentation with the short story form- America’s Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway. During the 20th century most American short stories concentrated around a plot, trying to tackle a particular issue or create a certain moral or meaning.
The story should build up towards a climax or epiphany, a sudden revelation of insight to conclude the story. Sherwood Anderson thought otherwise. He believed that how a writer tells a story is more important and effective than what he says. He was a storyteller, belonging to an oral rather than a written tradition. Anderson named such notion the “Poison plot”, as it destroys or poisons the telling of the story. He thought that form, not plot was an altogether more elusive and difficult thing to come at. Anderson himself stated: “As far as I am concerned, I can accept no standard I have ever seen as to form.
What I most want is to be and remain always an experimenter, an adventurer”. 1 He first succeeded in breaking the pattern of the short story in his 1919 publication “Winesburg, Ohio”. Critic David Stouck noted that: “The style of the Winesburg stories is not the realistic conventional prose style of the period, but rather a vastly simplified kind of writing in which image, rhythm and what Anderson calls ‘word-color’ stands out sharply as the crucial elements in the writing. “2 Oates chose “The strength of God” from this collection to include in her anthology.
The story focuses on a small town in the American heartland. It examines the psychology of the inhabitants of the small town of Winesburg as events unfold during the night. It is a psychodrama, focusing on emotion and feelings rather than a moral or meaning which was conventional at that time. Born and reared in Ohio, Anderson was well accustomed to the poverty and provinciality of small-town life. The story tells of the tensions between the public and private lives of a repressed Presbyterian minister, and his internal struggle with sexual temptation.
Anderson may have used his own personal experience of crisis as a source for the story, as he, himself suffered a nervous breakdown, forcing him to abandon his career and marriage to move to Chicago. It is in this story that Anderson first experimented with what is known as ‘Minimalism’. Writing in an artless and unadorned language Anderson provides a casual development of theme, complexity of motivation and an interest in psychological process. His stories differ because of the lack of stylistic expression and absence of philosophical expression, which was common of American stories at the time.
He uses a bare direct language, often declarative statements: “The Reverend Hartman was a tall man with a brown beard”3 However we find that seemingly innocuous descriptions, written in a certain way can have a powerful effect. Though written in a plain and banal language, it is illuminated by a muted lyricism: “The distracted man trembled from head to foot, partly from cold, partly from the struggle in which he was engaged”. 4 The Reverend experiences and transcends his crisis, concluding the story with his epiphany when he regains his faith in God: God has appeared to me, the minister announces – in the person of Kate Swift, the school teacher, kneeling naked on a bed”5 Even though he wrote several novels and plays, his collection of brief fictional sketches are what he is best remembered for. All his stories are written impulsively, each of them being, as Anderson said “An idea grasped whole as one would pick an apple in an orchard”. The critics called him “a man of the changing hour”, who in his work succeeded to be “relatively timeless”.
He left a mark of the style and vision of the generation that followed and inspired other writers to experiment with form in the later 20th century. He inspired and encouraged many young 20th century writers in their writing aspirations, most notably Ernest Hemingway. The form of the American short story was undoubtedly changing. Anderson’s experimentation with a personal and idiosyncratic style of writing changed the form of the short story and restored its’ originality, which was fading by the 20th century.
Under the influence of Sherwood, the young writer Ernest Hemingway was influenced to show his artistic independence and rise to become his talented successor. He experimented with the short story form through his deceptively simple prose style. Hemingway was hugely influenced by the “density and precision of the best modern poetry”. His experimentation with a condensed and suggestive form is best displayed in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, which Oates chose for the anthology.
It is a story: “where Hemingway manages to characterize three people and establish a complex emotional situation within the compass of two thousand words, and without any authorial intrusion”. 6 But how does Hemingway create such moments of emotional complexity, while using such simple language? -By changing the form of the short story. Although he uses a simple language Hemingway uses understatement and omission, which makes the text multi-layered and rich in allusions.
Like Anderson, he too was a “Minimalist” and used a plain and simple language, without the need for floury descriptions. He was a master of limited comment and his briefness and brokenness in language was known as omission. Hemingway believed that sometimes what you left out in a story, had the power to strengthen it and give the reader a deeper insight. The lack of detail is most obvious through the characters, who are not even named but remain anonymous throughout the story and are only given minor descriptions, such as “old man” and the two “waiters”.
Even the name of the story itself, which is also the setting, is left anonymous- a clean, well-lighted place, which could be any cafi?? in any town. Though lacking in detail, Hemingway shows the ability to take any location or incident, no matter how thin or trivial- and by his skill as a writer turn it into a vivid and luminous image: “It was late and everyone had left the cafi?? except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. “7 He uses natural dialogue as an understated pathos to arouse pity in the reader for the old man.
Hemingway himself, has no language for the direct description of emotion. Instead, the blunt and careless conversation between the two waiters, is used to give insight to the reader to the mentality of the old man, as well as the waiters: “Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said. “Why? ” “He was in despair. ” “What about? ” “Nothing. ” “How do you know it was nothing? ” “He has plenty of money. ” “You should have killed yourself last week,” he said to the deaf man. 8
Form and psychology are inseparable in Hemingway’s work, and his stylistic ideals of dignity, restraint and economy of movement, become the unstated ideals of human behaviour. Ernest Hemingway was a success as a writer and produced many aesthetically subtle minimally resolved short stories, namely “A Canary for One” and “Hills of White Elephants” which also enjoyed popular success. His experimentation with form and stylistic achievements brought him huge recognition as a writer and he was awarded the 1954 Prize for Literature.
Anderson and Hemingway, through personal experimentation, have succeeded in giving a distinct character to the American short story and proved the instability and diversity of a genre that is so hard to define. All of their great works of art have helped to establish the range and depth of the short story in America. There are many different forms of the short story, and as long as each generation brings about new experimenters and thinkers in writing, the short story will always remain almost undefined. Who knows what form the short story will take in the present 21st century?
Forms of art are shaped by future events and happenings, each of them unpredictable and adventitious. Joyce Carol Oates, is a modern writer as well as editor of the Oxford anthology and experiments in her work with the violent conventions of Gothic fiction. She believes the Gothicism is: “not a literary tradition so much as a fairly realistic assessment of modern life. “9 As long as writers, like Anderson, Hemingway and Oates continue to experiment with form, the short story will always be impossible to define.