Friday, 18 July 2008

The American Short (Weird) Story

This post might as well go on my H.G. Wells blog (yes, I have one of those too), but I thought I'd plonk it here. I've been thinking about short fiction, because I'm reviewing a few collections for ST14. As it happens, two are by American writers and one is by a Canadian, which is a near-miss. So as I've been wandering about today, buying a new saucepan (at Wilkinsons, very reasonable prices), I've been trying to frame some thoughts on American short fiction.

It seems to me that American literature begins and (possibly) ends* with the short story. The first great American writers were Hawthorne and Poe. The former never attempted a true novel, preferring the term 'romance' and eschewing many of the novelistic conventions. As a result, some of his books, notably The Marble Faun, are near-unreadable. Poe did write a single novel in Arthur Gordon Pym but it's unfinished, or at least unsatisfactory. Both made their name as short story writers. 

There the similarity ends, though. Hawthorne was at his best tackling essentially American themes and (as in his romances) less able to 'Europeanise' his approach. Read 'The Minister's Black Veil' and then 'Rappacini's Daughter', for instance. The former is direct, disturbing and hints at something rotten in the community, while the latter is clever but also rather silly and too self-consciously daring about sex. The best stories of Hawthorne, such as 'Young Goodman Brown', are very firmly rooted on his side of the Atlantic. 

Compare and contrast, as they say, with the works of Poe. Poe had of course lived in Britain as a child. (I once stayed in a small B&B at a place called Newton Stewart where the young Edgar resided. His ghost was not in evidence.) Poe was at his weakest in his most American stories - compare 'A Tale of the Ragged Mountains' to his finest work. The Usher siblings, Ligeia, Dupin, and of course poor M. Valdemar (he of the squelchy demise) are Old World in their decadence and depth. Indeed, much of Poe's Americocentric work is rather poor comedy, of which the strongest example is 'The Man That Was Used Up.'

Perhaps the reason for this obvious disparity is that Hawthorne, for all his awareness of style and form, was ultimately a moraliser with a minatory purpose. Those Puritan ancestors were hard to forget, even for a moment. Poe, for all his parade of (often bogus) erudition, was the child of jobbing actors and primarily an entertainer. He loved showing off, and wrote essays on the way to get the right effect, not just in verse and prose, butalso in song and even in furnishings. 

Okay, so it's a bit simplistic to set folksy New World idealism against Old World sophistication, but the two trends are there in American history and culture. They are certainly there in the works of its first two world-class storytellers. Oh, and for the record, I much prefer Poe. But I would say that, being a decadent old Limey.

*American literature includes drama, and drama includes movies and TV. The average length (in dialogue wordage) of a film script or TV series episode is certainly in the short fiction range. So it can be argued that the short story form has been dominant for almost the entire history of the US. So much for the Great American Novel. 

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