Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Short Story: L. A. Pittenger

(This is part of an ongoing examination on the evolution of the short story. I am reading a number of essays on the modern short story dating back to its origins. I've decided to post some observations and notes as I conduct my study.)

For an analysis of the short stories themselves, please look here.

Pittenger, L. A., A Collection of Short Stories: Macmillan's Pocket American and English Classics, NY: Macmillan, 12 November 1913. xxi+268. $0.25

Note: I read this essay in an electronic format, hence have no page references.

Among the multitude number of anthologies prepared for the purpose of studying the short story in a classroom setting, is the once popular collection edited by Lemuel Arthur Pittenger (27 September 1873 - 15 July 1953), head of the English Department at Ohio Normal School at Kent (later Kent University). In his oft-printed anthology A Collection of Short-Stories: Macmillan's Pocket American and English Classics, reprinted in 2009 by Dodo Press as Short-Stories, Pittenger includes a lengthy introduction on the aspects of the short story, including a history and discussion on how students should go about writing their own stories. I am primarily interested in his view in a historical context.

Many early discussions on the young art form, the modern short story, explain why shorter fiction prior to the appearance of Hawthorne and Poe are not considered "short stories." While the stories may be short and are certainly stories, their approach is not as succinct and focused, lacking in economy and often running the length of a novella, their construction and freedom resembling that of a novel. While the novel (or modern novel) was also a young art form, the eighteenth century had already produced enough novels for the western world to be familiar with the form, and for writers to take the form through various levels of experimentation. While writers of the nineteenth century were busy perfecting the novel, the short story was only then developing, and luckily for the more talented practitioners, there were enough publications paying handsomely for these tales.

In his introduction, Pittenger likens the development of the nineteenth century modern short story not to earlier works of shorter fiction, but to the recent developments in the essay as well as the sketches that were popular at the time. As an example of the essay he uses Voltaire's desire in getting his political points across trumping his ambition in story-telling, and hence he gave grater attention and care to the technical aspects of writing. This is an absolutely valid point, and along with the growth of socio-political concerns in nineteenth century Europe, in which many writers took notice and embedded in their art (think Oliver Twist as a prime example), the art of writing developed into something more academic, less flighty and comical. As ideas became important focuses, care-free episodic structures were quickly being replaced by tightly-knit plot-lines. (Simultaneously, while the age of reason brought advances to prose, the more subjective form of poetry suffered under its influences.) The development of modern psychology also added an important element, as characters were becoming less generic. Overall, the definition of the modern short story can be boiled down to Edgar Allan Poe's observations on unity and singleness of effect, which he set down to eight rules of short-story writing.

In his essay, Pittenger claims that the short story has become a "most flexible and moral literary form." Issues of moral examinations can certainly be seen throughout the history of the short story, modern or contemporary with all the various phases and genres in between, particularly when dealing with the mainstream. Of course, with the constant shift in ideals and in the greater variety of literary expression and forms of experimentation, short stories can often be about the practice of writing rather than the story's own content, whether plot or theme. If we are to document the shifts in short story writing (or any form of art), the moral aspect is one that has developed a more ambiguous paradigm and receives less emphasis than it did a century ago. I am not completely agreeing with Pittenger on his emphasis of the moral in the nineteenth century short story, since many stories are focused more on their plot or form, and moral is almost incidental. For instance, one of Poe's stories selected for Pittenger's anthology, "The Gold-Bug" (1843), is essentially a deductive mystery and semi-adventure with hints of comedy. Of course we can read a moral or two into the narrative, but Poe was not interested in developing any kind or overseeing moral element across the narrative. Poe was an early innovator, less interested in ideas of morality. Perhaps Pittenger was led to the notion of the prevalence of a moral since he linked the short story so closely to the evolution of the essay.

Pittenger goes on to discuss the founding fathers of the modern short story, and there is no great insight here, and little to dispute. He claims that the much-beloved Washington Irving was "robbed" of the honour of being credited with creating this new form due to his habit of meandering and constructing his stories "in a leisurely manner." It is odd that Pittenger uses the word "robbed" since Irving was evidently not interested in generating the economy required for the new form, and it was his own habit of leisure and meandering writing that prevented him from achieving the honour. He was not robbed but simply failed to bring into being the modern short story as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Poe, along with European contemporaries Guy de Maupassant and Robert Louis Stevenson had.

"[T]he short-story must be original and varied in its themes, cleverly constructed, and lighted through and through with the glow of vivid imaginings." What an oddly subjective comment. Who is to determine what variety in theme can be, particularly since many critics have narrowed the thematic possibles down to a few, decisive statements? For example, all stories are about either man versus nature, man versus technology, or man versus self. Moreover, before even deciding whether the theme/themes of a story is/are varied, one must decide what the specific themes to any given story are. Whose to say that "The Gold-Bug" is about man vs. anything, and how varied and original that particular moral or them might be? Finally, who can claim that stories should contain original themes; are we never again to write a masterful story about one common, overdone idea? Perhaps I am acting merely as a revisionist. Since Pittenger, the short story has touched upon so many forms that approaches themselves have gained wider breadth and the potentials were not yet known. I don't think this is the case, however, since by 1913 (the published date of Pittenger's essay) the world was exposed to a number of different styles of short story writing, from Nikolai Gogol to Zsigmond Móricz.

"The aim of the short-story is always to present a cross-section of life in such a vivid manner that the importance of the incident becomes universal." I do agree with this point, and believe it is as true for the nineteenth century story as it is for the contemporary mainstream and experimental story. The short story is removed from the memoir and personal anecdote, and hence should be made accessible (no matter how experimental) to a wider audience. Many experiences are of course generally shared, no matter how individual or personal they seem, and a single, specific story should at least attempt to bridge these experiences across persons, generations, locations and so forth, and to stir the emotions and thoughts of as many as possible.

The rest of Pittenger's essay deals with the construction of the short story, is highly elementary, and is geared toward the high school student and the student's need to practice the form. According to Pittenger, Boys and girls should invariably be taught to see stories in the life about them."

So boys and girls, keep your eyes open, check your morals and universalize your experiences, so long as your morals are original and varied. (Maybe I'm old-fashioned but mine are quite generic.)

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