Survey of American Literature - The American Short Story

Essay, 2012

10 Seiten



The Short Story: American Origins

The American Short Story: A Problematic of Definition

“The Idea as Hero”

The Role of the Social and Political Context in the Rise of the American Short Story

Local Colour Literature


The American short story has been described as a ‘genre’ that thrusts itself into attention. It is regarded as a milestone in the American literary tradition. One cannot study American literature while disregarding its short story. According to Frank O’Connor, who is himself a writer of many collections of short stories, the “Americans have handled the short story so wonderfully that one can say that it is a national art formi" Such a quote by such a prominent writer like Frank O’Connor can only stress the peculiarity of the American short story. It is even claimed that the short story, as it is known in the present days, has literally been invented by the Americans. Although the last claim might receive some criticism, it is almost agreed that the American short story has found in Edgar Allan Poe its first major theorist. Being a writer of many famously acclaimed short stories, Poe is considered to be at the top of a list of other American writers who have done some, if not all, their best works in that medium. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, Henry James, Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, to cite only a few, are believed to have produced their most complete works of literature in the short story form.. The American short story is indeed a very prominent genre that can only be a centre of attention to anyone interested in the American letters. Yet, there are still some hazy aspects to it, in regard to its origins, its theoretical definition, its focus on certain aspects rather than others but also the role of the social and political context of the previous centuries in its rise.

The Short Story: American Origins?

It has been argued that the short story as we know it today is an American creation. This argument can be seen from two different perspectives. Firstly, it is due to the number of very famous authors, who have been the most significant of their era, who have produced considerable short stories that are still considered in the present day to be absolute works of art that people tend to see the short story as being something that belongs to the Americans.

But it is also believed that the American short story has even more ancient origins. According to Martin Scofield’s book The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story, the American short story takes its roots from the early Native-American Narratives. He claims that some patters of Koasati Native American Peoples’ oral stories can be found in many American short stories. Both kinds of stories are believed to share a mythical and moralistic aspect. These previously stated aspects can be easily found in many of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories for example. It is indeed known that early settlers had close contact with Native American peoples. It is therefore believed that certain stories certainly found their way into mainstream American Culture. Which then can logically support Scofield’s claim that these stories could have played at least some part in the formation of the mental attitudes that gave rise to the literary short story.

The American Short Story: A Problematic of Definition?

To engage into any discussion over the American short story, one can only come at one point or another to the vexed, and even doomed, question of what a definition of the American short story would be. This need of putting labels has created a kind of split amongst literary critics. Some believe that much time needs to be spent on these trials to come up with a definition that would encompass all features of the short story. For example, according to Charles May the modern short story has been identified with 'epiphaniC perceptions of reality, which focus on lyric evocation and revelatory moments rather than plot or linear narrative and development[1]. The modern short story has also been identified as endorsing a view of life that transcends the material facts of the world to then try to establish a mythical and sometimes even sacred perspective.[2] Yet, it is still an easy task to come up with examples that would totally contradict, or at least question, the previously stated principles. For instance, many stories that are considered to be ‘realist ic’ would never reach any great single moment of revelation, but rather focus on narrating their chosen incidents to then accumulate their significance.[3] Many critics, such as Mary Louise Pratt, have been arguing about the need to classify the short story into one genre or another, as being time and energy consuming, without being able to provide the American literary sphere with any sound results. Literary critic Mary Louise Pratt claims that “genres are not essences”[4] and that trying to label the short story into one genre or another would not take the American short story anywhere and can, therefore, only be counter-productive.

“The Idea as Hero”

Following the discussion concerning this seemingly ever-lasting problematic of defining the American short story, one could claim that this notion of ‘the idea as hero’ is one of the most critically acclaimed and agreed upon in the American literary sphere. The term was coined by the novelist Kingsley Amis in his critical book New Maps of Hell[5]. Kingsley Amis used this concept to include into one scope; works of literature where the ‘idea’ surpasses any other feature of the work, such as plot, characters, themes, and therefore controls the whole story and gives it its integrity or deliberate non-integrity.


[1] May, Charles E. The New Short Story Theories. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994. Print.

[2] May, C and C May. Nature of Knowledge in Short Fiction: In:c.e. May(ed)new Short Story Theories. Miles R, 1998.)

[3] Scofield, Martin. The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print.

[4] See e.g. Mary Louise Pratt, ‘The Short Story: the Long and the Short of It', in May (ed.), The New Short Story Theories, p. 92.

[5] Amis, Kingsley. New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960. Print.

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Survey of American Literature - The American Short Story
Universität Hassan II. Casablanca
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american, short, story, literature, survey
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Student-Researcher Amine Zidouh (Autor:in), 2012, Survey of American Literature - The American Short Story, München, GRIN Verlag,


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