Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Origins of the Short Story in the British Romantic Period: Part I

     Dorothy Johnston, a valued reader (and a very fine writer) has asked me whether I plan to talk much about the Romantic poets in my new book. A Critical History of the English Short Story.  With the exception of Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which I take to be a classic short story, and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, I do not plan to forage in the exquisite gardens of the Romantic poets, although I have taught them many times.  However, I do talk a bit about origins of the short story in the Romantic period, and include a draft here about that connection.  Thanks, Dorothy, for the conversation.

From the very beginnings of short story criticism, literary historians have attempted to account for the common judgment that the short story began in America in the early nineteenth century by distinguishing short fiction of this period from that written previously in England and Europe. For example, in l90l, in the first extended formal discussion of the form after Poe, American critic Brander Matthews attributed the difference to a new sense of "compression, originality, ingenuity, and fantasy." The following year, critic Bliss Perry denied this distinction, arguing  that the tales of Boccaccio and Chaucer exhibit the same characteristics. Instead, Perry claimed, the nineteenth century short story is distinguished from earlier stories by the "attitude" of the story writer toward his material. A few years later, H. S. Canby made this emphasis on the attitude of the teller more specific. In the nineteenth century short story, argued Canby, there is a more vivid "realization for the reader of that which moved the author to write, be it incident, be it emotion, be it situation.... Thus the art of the short story becomes as much an art of tone as of incident."
Because tone rather than plot or character has frequently been cited as a distinguishing characteristic of short fiction, perhaps this feature signifies the best place to more clearly establish what is uniquely new in short fiction in the early nineteenth century. One source of the focus on tone in early short fiction can be found in the eighteenth-century personal essay, which added a sophisticated reflective voice to the exemplum, the basic form of short narrative previously predominant. In  the early nineteenth century, this personalized voice was further combined with the new romantic interest in folktale and legend. For example, in America, although Washington Irving took his "story" from folklore, it was his "voice" that set his sketches apart from the Germanic models he used for "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."  In an 1824 letter to Henry Brevort, Irving said, "I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch my materials. It is the play of thought, and sentiment and language; the weaving of characters, lightly yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half concealed vein of humour that is often playing through the whole--these are among what I aim at."
 It is obvious that Diedrich Knickerbocker, the voice of Irving's two most famous tales, is more like  the eighteenth-century voice of the Spectator's English squire Roger de Coverly than he is like the anonymous storyteller of folk tale and ballad. The basic difference is that whereas in the folk tale the personality of the teller is backgrounded,  the "town talker" depends on his own personal impression of that which he narrates. If  Irving's   Sketchbook, especially the "Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" stories, mark a new departure for short fiction, that innovation lies in the uniting of folklore story with the individualized teller and thus, while maintaining interest in the story, adding a subjective interest. Another well-known example of this combination of  the spooky tale with the sophisticated teller  is Gogol's "The Overcoat," an often-cited candidate for the honor of originating  the short story in the nineteenth century in Europe.
For the folklore teller, it is the story that is important, not the characters as individuals nor the personality of the teller. With Chaucer and Boccaccio (where of course we have dramatized and individualized tellers, even very famous ones in Chaucer), although the tales may reveal something about the personalities of the tellers, either as to their type or as to their social milieu generally, the tellers do not significantly take part in the story itself, nor do they reveal in any engaged way how they feel about either the stories they are telling or the characters in them.  It is only after the romantic shift that the feeling of the teller gives importance to the action of the tale. 
Although neither Bliss Perry nor H. S. Canby specify what the change in attitude in the teller or the new emphasis on tone means for the short story, it might be suggested that it marks a loss of "faith" in the supernatural content of the story once held by the old folk teller and the consequent adoption of a new ironic view by the sophisticated teller. However, this new sophisticated attitude is also marked, as is suggested by Boris Ejxenbaum in his famous 1918 essay on Gogol's "The Overcoat," by a nostalgia for what has been lost. The secularizing of the supernatural in the short story in the nineteenth century means that the drama of the clash between the sacred and the profane no longer takes place in the cosmos or in the lives of the saints, but rather in the psyches of individuals, as Hawthorne and Poe's stories so amply show. 
This secularizing and internalizing of the sacred is a basic Romantic view, outlined by M. H. Abrams as "natural supernaturalism. However, the implications of this shift, although discussed by Abrams, Robert Langbaum, and others in terms of the poetry of the period, have never been explored in short fiction, for short fiction's relationship to Romanticism has itself seldom been examined.
The only extended discussion of the romantic element in the short story is Mary Rohrberger's book on Hawthorne and the modern short story. By citing from Hawthorne's prefaces as well as from the comments of various contemporary short story writers, Rohrberger argues that both Hawthorne and modern short story writers share the romantic notion of a reality that lies beyond the extensional, everyday world with which the novel has always been traditionally concerned.  Consequently, the form shares characteristics with the romance in being symbolic and romantic. "The short story derives from the romantic tradition," argues Rohrberger. "The metaphysical view that there is more to the world than that which can be apprehended through the senses provides the rationale for the short story which is a vehicle for the author's probing of the nature of the real.  As in the metaphysical view, reality lies beyond the ordinary world of appearances, so in the short story, meaning lies beneath the surface of the narrative.           
Although  Rohr Berger is surely right in claiming that the short story is closer to the romance form than to the novel in its basically symbolic nature, she treats the form as though it were identical to the romance, failing to consider either the new emphasis on tone in short fiction in the nineteenth century or the unavoidable influence of the "objective" and "realistic" conventions of fiction pioneered in the novel during the eighteenth century. The short story cannot be considered a "new" form in the nineteenth century if it is simply a resurgence of the old romance. What must be examined is the result of the combination of the symbolic romance form with the new emphasis on the teller and the new focus on the "real," as opposed to the "ideal." Only then can we understand how reality can be shown to lie beneath the ordinary world of appearances even as the details of the story focus on the external world.
 I would like to suggest three basic implications of this shift that influence the short story form throughout the nineteenth century. First of all, the shift of emphasis from the sacred as a transcendent realm to taking it to be a human projection places a new focus not only on the imagination as the source of the sacred, but on the theme of the imaginative construction of reality itself. Consequently, short fiction of the nineteenth century often presents a situation that is ambiguously both real and imaginative. Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" is the classic example. Second, the supernatural figures of the old romance story, which were formerly taken to be symbolic of transcendent values, are transformed into projective fictions of either the teller or the central character. Melville's Bartleby is such a seemingly supernatural yet ultimately metaphoric projective figure. Third, the teller, even though he  still focuses on the formerly supernatural subject matter of the old romance and folk tale, does so without belief in the supernatural or transcendent. The result is that he often is transformed into an ironic voice. As Boris Ejxenbaum has shown, Gogol's "Overcoat" is an experiment with this combination or folk tale and ironic voice. 
One way to approach the short story's romantic nature is to examine the question of when and where the short story form thrives and blossoms--the kind of social situation and cultural milieu wherein the short story seems more relevant to the concerns of a society than the novel. For example, George Lukacs has suggested that the short fiction form appears in either a phase of "a Not Yet" (Nochnicht) or in a phase of the "No Longer" (Nichtmehr).  Boccaccio's tales appear in an era before the modern bourgeois novel, before there was a  totality of human relations and behavior as interpreted by bourgeois society.
Lukacs says that  fiction withdraws from the novel into the short form when "the social basis, the social milieu of the novel disappears, and the central figure must hold his own against a pure natural occurrence. Lukacs might have added that this natural rather than social conflict does not come from the outside only. The inward turning of fiction begins in the romantic period and reaches such heights in the later nineteenth century that the  internalized, secularized, and projective romance form vies with the novel form for predominance. The modern return to this mode began with the Romantic period when character "revelation" rather than character "evolution" became most important and when the notion of epiphany replaced socially established value as the source of meaning. When external values are lost, then the short fiction form seems most appropriate to the milieu. The short story has always been an antisocial form, either in its adherence to mythic relationships or in its adoption of secularized psychological replacements for the lost myth. 
The short narrative form in the modern world, regardless of what sophistication it has received at the hands of contemporary artists, remains close to the presocial modes with which It began.  In a   Kenyon Review Symposium several years ago, writers from all over the world testified to this fact.  For example, Erih Kos of Yugoslavia said that since his country has only recently emerged from a peasant economy, it also has only recently emerged from the period of myths. The short story is a popular form in Yugoslavia, says Kos, because the people are "still under the influence of myths, whose magical lights give fateful significance to all everyday happenings, even apparently insignificant ones."
Because the short story does not deal with unified social values, the form seems to thrive best in societies where there is fragmentation of values and people. This fragmentation has often been cited as one reason why the short story became quickly popular in early nineteenth century America. In 1924, Katherine Fullerton Gerould said that American short story writers dealt with peculiar atmospheres and special moods, for America has no centralized civilization. "The short story does not need a complex and traditional background so badly as the novel does," argued Gerould.
 Wendell Harris and Lionel Stevenson have suggested somewhat the same reason for the predominance of the novel in English literature. Stevenson points out that as soon as a culture becomes more complex, brief narratives expand or "agglomerate" and thus cause the short story to lose its identity. The fragmentation of sensibility did not set in in England until about 1880 at which time the short story came to the fore as the best medium for presenting this fragmentation. Wendell Harris also reminds us that the nineties in England were known as the golden age of the short story and notes how with the fragmentation of sensibility, perspective or "angle of vision "becomes most important in fiction, especially in the short story in which, instead of a world to enter as in the novel, the form presents a vignette to contemplate. 
Harris has also noted that from Fielding to Hardy, fiction was defined in England as "a presentation of life in latitudinal or longitudinal completeness." This concept of narrative paralleled man's intellectual concern with society;  thus the short story was thought to be insignificant in England until late in the nineteenth century when the appropriate vision for it arrived. The "essence of the short story" says Harris, "is to isolate, to portray the individual person, or moment, or scene in isolation detached from the great continuum  at once social and historical, on which it had been the business of the English novel, and the great concern of nineteenth century essayists, to insist." As Frank O'Connor has noted, whereas the  novel can adhere to the classical concept of a civilized society, "the short story, remains, by its very nature remote from the community  romantic, individualistic, and intransigent."
In the most generalized sense, then, the basic development of short narrative, from its origins in mythic accounts up through the beginning of the nineteenth century, can be summarized in the following way: Beginning with the first major shift from the old romance story of the middle ages when Boccaccio secularized the tale form and made a human comedy out of a previously divine one, continuing on up through the eighteenth century, the history of the form is one of a developing movement away from the metaphoric parable toward the realistic in which, although the "end" of the story was still to focus on a moral purpose, the "means" of the story was to appeal to verisimilitude and reason and to depend on the involvement and attitude of the individual teller.  
With Horace Walpole's experimental combining of the romance story with novelistic characters in "The Castle of Otranto," we see a  self-conscious effort to return to the old metaphoric romance form while using the methods of verisimilitude of the novel. The result was that gothic fiction became projective, dealing not with external values, but with subjective values, with dream material and psychologized reality. Mrs. Barbauld's experiment with the gothic fragment "Sir Bertrand" further emphasized the projective origins of short fiction by detaching character and event from any semblance of social framework and presenting story as the embodiment of dream. With the gothic writers and the romantic poets of the early part of the nineteenth century, we see a shift away from a concept of language as referential and the art work  as imitative to a view of language as constitutive and the art work as creative.
The Romantics demythologized the old tales and ballads, divesting them of their external values and remythologized them by internalizing those values and self-consciously projecting them outwards. The Romantics wished to preserve the old religious values of the romance and ballad forms without their religious dogma and mythological trappings. By perceiving the origin of the old story mode to be within basic psychic processes, they secularized the myth by radically foregrounding the subjective and projective nature of story. 
This effort to return to the old religious perception of the world discarded by the eighteenth century was spearheaded by Wordsworth and Coleridge in the  Lyrical Ballads. The ballad story, which had previously existed seemingly in vacuo as received story without the influence of the teller, now became infused with the subjectivity of the poet and projected onto the world as a new mythus. Value existed in the world outside, but as the Romantics never forgot, only because it existed first within the imagination of the artist. This basically romantic view infused the epoch- making Lyrical Ballads and underlies an important distinction between the romantic lyric and eighteenth century poetry before it. 

The Romantics' fascination with medievalism and folk material sprang from their realization of the basic religious or spiritual source of both the old romance and the folk ballad. Their return to the old ballads was part of their effort to recapture the primal  religious experience without received dogma. This is indeed the focus in Wordsworth's "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" and in Coleridge's discussion of his and Wordsworth's dual tasks in The Biographia Literaria. As Robert Langbaum has argued, the uniting of the old ballad material with the lyric voice of  a single individual perceiver in a concrete situation gave rise to the romantic lyric. The positioning of a real speaker in a concrete situation encountering a particular phenomenon which his own subjectivity transforms from the profane into the sacred is the key to the Romantic breakthrough. 
  As Coleridge says, his own task was to focus on the supernatural, "yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."  Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to choose subjects from ordinary life and "excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us." Clear examples of this dual project are Coleridge's lyrical story, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Wordsworth's lyrical story, "Resolution and Independence."  In the Lyrical Ballads, the ballad or "story" element, the hard outlines of the event, are subsumed by the lyrical element, which is foregrounded. However, in America, for Hawthorne and Poe, it is the story element that is foregrounded. The lyrical element is  primarily reflected by the personal voice of the teller. 
Consequently, while America is usually given the credit for originating the short story, it is clear that the basic impulse for the form began in England with the Romantic poets. Because the new subjective narrative impulse was fulfilled by Romantic poetry and fiction in England was identified with the realistic impulse of the novel, the short story did not develop in England during the Romantic period. However, this is not to say that one cannot find examples in short narrative during the period of the conventions which later dominate the short story. 
In next week's post, I will discuss three well known and often cited short narratives from the early nineteenth century in England to point out how they make use of, although perhaps not with the same facility as stories in America and on the Continent, the same devices and assumptions that underlie the more accepted beginnings of the form with Poe and Gogol.  I choose Lamb's "Dream Children" because of its focus on the tension between reality and imagination; John Polidori's "The Vampyre," because of the projective nature of its character configuration; and Sir Walter Scott's "Wandering Willie's Tale" because of the relationship between its narrator and the traditional ballad story.  I will provide footnote documentation at the end of Part II of this discussion.

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