Ripe with Possibilities: A Novella

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He buys Mireille periwinkles instead, watches her, frail and death-bound, consuming them, and has an epiphany. Speaking of life, he says: ''I measure its full weight, stripped of every blemish, placed in the balance against death, and I tip the scales irresistibly in life's favor. Tim Wilson. Log In.

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The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided. The same essential principles were laid down again, almost half a century later, by another accomplished artist in fiction who also took an intelligent interest in the code of his craft. To make another end, that is to make the beginning all wrong.

VIII After Poe, by his precept and by his practice, had revealed the possibilities of the short-story and had shown what it ought to be, it became conscious of itself. It felt itself to be differentiated as sharply from the novel as the lyric is differentiated from the epic.


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It was no longer to be accomplished by a lucky accident only; it could be achieved solely by deliberate and resolute effort. The restrictions were rigid, like those of the sonnet, and success was not easy; but the very difficulty of the undertaking was tempting to the true artist, ever eager for a grapple with technic.


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They dealt, each of them, with the life immediately around them, with the life of their own people, with the life they knew best; and they gave to the short-story a richness of human flavor that Poe had never sought, since his ultimate aim was rather construction than character-drawing.

Yet it was not in Italy, in Norway, or in Russia, that the short-story flourished first or most luxuriantly; it was in France and in the United States, the two countries in which it had been earliest achieved, almost simultaneously and quite independently.

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In Great Britain it was slow to establish itself; and not for many years did any one of the British masters of narrative art put forth his utmost endeavor in this minor form. They long preferred the leisurely amplitude of the full-grown novel, with its larger liberty and its looser facility; and in this they found a more certain reward.

In London neither the monthly magazines nor the weeklies were eager to extend an encouraging hospitality to the short-story, relying rather on a single serial tale which might assure their circulation for a year. Brief tales there were, and in profusion, in these British magazines; but they were, for the most part, the unimportant productions of the less gifted writers. Indeed, the British were the last of the great peoples of the world to appreciate the finer possibilities of the short-story as a definite species of fiction; and therefore they were the slowest to take advantage of the new form.

And as a result of this conservatism they lagged far behind France and the United States, in this department of literature, until its possibilities were suddenly made manifest to them by Stevenson and by Kipling, both of whom had come directly under the influence of Poe and of other American short-story writers.

The British were sluggish in adventuring themselves in the new form, but when at last two of their most striking writers did undertake it, they won immediate acclaim as masters of this minor art. The French are not rich in magazines, partly perhaps because their newspapers are ready to give them much that we who speak English expect to find only in our weeklies and our monthlies. For the extraordinary expansion of the short-story here in the United States, in the American branch of English literature, in the mid-century when it was being neglected by the chief authors of the British branch of our literature, three reasons may be suggested.

First of all, there is the important fact that the perfected form had been exemplified and proclaimed here by Poe, earlier than by any other writer elsewhere. Secondly, we need to note that our struggling magazines from the beginning had been forced to rely for their attractiveness largely on the short-story, if only because of the dearth at first of native novelists capable of carrying the burden of the lengthened serial. What it was possible for our writers of fiction to do, and what it was most immediately profitable for them to do, was to forego the long novel and to avail themselves of the short-story in which they might begin modestly to deal directly with that special part of an immense country with which any one of them chanced to be most familiar, to limn its characters with absolute honesty, and to fix its characteristics before these were modified.

But more potent yet was the influence of Hawthorne with his searching analysis of the very soul of New England. After Irving and Hawthorne there came forward a host of American writers of the short-story of local color, men and women, humorists and sentimentalists, fantasists and realists, Northerners and Southerners, differing in sincerity and differing in skill. For more than threescore years now they have been exploring these United States; and they have been explaining the people of one state to the population of the others, increasing our acquaintance with our fellow-citizens and broadening our sympathy.

There is romance in abundance in Mr.

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What Mr. Cable did for Louisiana, Mr. Page has done for Virginia, and Mr. Harris for Georgia. Garland has etched the plain people of Wisconsin. And only recently the same searching method has been applied to the several quarters of the single city of New York with its confused medley of inhabitants drawn from every part of the Old World and now in the process of making over into citizens of the New. X It was Poe who first pointed out that the short-story has a right to exist, and that it is essentially different in its aim from the tale which merely chances not to be prolonged.

Admitting the claim of the short-story to be received as a clearly defined species, Professor Perry of Harvard has considered the advantages of the form and its rigorous limitations. On the other hand, if the emphasis is laid rather on what happens than on the person to whom it happens, then the restriction of brevity tends toward an extreme simplification of the chief character. The situation itself is all sufficient to hold our attention for a brief space. Thus, if the interest of the short-story is focused on character, that character is likely to be out of the common, whereas if the attention is fixed rather on plot, then the character is likely to be commonplace.

If, however, the author prefers to spend his effort chiefly on the setting, then he can get along almost without character and without plot. The setting alone will suffice to interest us, and our attention is held mainly by the pressure of the atmosphere. XI In these pages consideration has been paid only to the short-story in prose; but attention should be called to the existence of certain brief tales in verse, a few of which achieve the true short-story form in spite of their rimes, although the most of them are merely metrical narratives not unduly prolonged.

Of course, the earliest stories of all must have been first told rhythmically, since prose comes ever after verse; and the lyric habit survived the later mastery of the other harmony. Sometimes the distinction between the tales in prose and those in verse is very slight indeed. Chaucer put into rime some of the same fictions which Boccaccio was narrating in more pedestrian fashion but with almost equal felicity; and this material, common to these two early masters of narrative, was derived sometimes from an earlier French fabliau in rime. In the technic of story-telling the English poet was the better craftsman; he had a unity and a harmony to which his Italian contemporary could not pretend.

Chaucer had also a far richer humor and a far more searching insight into human nature. The employment of rhythm and of rime tends always to endow a tale with a lyrical elevation not quite what we expect in a short-story, not quite in keeping with its dominant tone. In other words, verse is likely to bestow on a story a certain ballad note; and much as a rimed tale may suggest a ballad, there is, after all, a distinction between them.

Just as the novel differs from the epic, so the tale in verse differs from the ballad, even if this difference is not easy to declare precisely. The epic may be a reworking of older ballads; but it is an inferior epic which strikes us as being no more than a stringing together of ballad after ballad. XII At the beginning of the seventeenth century the drama was the dominating literary form.


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