Origins Of The Short Story

Short stories were popular entertainment since before the written word. Each culture had their favourites and ancient and modern writers crafted many classic tales.

Few of us can say we haven't read or listened to a short story, whether it's a fast-paced western, a religious parable, or a fairy tale read to us at bedtime by our parents. Over the centuries short fiction has developed into a literary form all its own. And while the short story wasn't recognised as a true art form until the 1900's when innovative writers like Poe, Hawthorne, de Maupassant, Chekov and Twain perfected the format, these tales have existed for a long, long time. Short tales steeped in religion, tradition, myth, magic, romance, adventure and heroism date back to our ancient tribal ancestors who huddled around their flickering campfires recounting the day's successful hunt, raids on an enemy's strongold or the loss felt over the death of a loved one.

Early man was telling short stories even before they'd invented the written word, tales that were often recited in verse or rhyme and handed down from one generation to the next by a tribe or region's official storyteller. Once alphabets were created, the ancient Babylonians gave us the Adventures of Gilgamesh and the Egyptians their kings queens, gods and animal deities. Indian and Middle Eastern stories were steeped in religion and ancient wisdom and the Greek storyteller, Aesop immortalized the animal parable. His enchanting collection of animal fables date back to the 6th century, B.C. Animals are the main characters in "Aesop's Fables" and by the end of their trial or adventure, they've learned a valuable moral lesson - a lesson that is often as valid in this century as it was during Aesop's era.

By the Middle Ages, folk tales, romantic, heroic or tragic ballads, Greek and Scandinavian myths, fairy tales and farcical verse aimed at various lifestyles, customs, mannerisms and political affiliations became increasingly popular. Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" were widely read during this era. So was "A Thousand and One

Arabian Nights", a collection of colourful and often unbelievable tales as told by fictional Queen Scheherazade to her husband, the king, to avoid her execution. Many of these Persian stories were based on original Oriental versions.

In the 1660's the first periodicals appeared in Germany, most of them political or secular in nature. By the early 1700's British periodicals were being published at more regular intervals and included a wider range of subject material. These pamphlets or booklets were immediately embraced by the populace. Editors were always looking for short material to fill their pages and satisfy burgeoning public demand. Short fictional stories fit naturally into this niche. Charles Dickens gained a huge following with his serialised stories. Many of the various short works that were published were classified as nothing more than escapism, Dickens' work in-cluded. Of course, now his stories are considered classics. As the 19th century approached,more and more writers began experi-menting with the short story format and various new themes. This interest would see the eventual evolution of what literary critics call the modern short story.

What exactly then,is a short story? It's a work of fiction characterized by its short format and presenting a single situation that one or at most, a few,characters must resolve by the story's end. Because of a short story's brief format, the main character(s) are never fully developed. Character is usually revealed through plot action, emotion evoked by a limited number of scenes and by the overall theme. Various literary movements that explored the short story evolved in Europe and the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries: romanticism,realism, impressionism,and symbolism.

American writer, Edgar Allan Poe, would become one of the most influential writers of his time and a master of the short story. He's been called the creator of the detective story and of the horror story. Tales like "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", "The Masque of the Red Death", "The Cask of Amontillado", "The Tell-Tale Heart" and Poe's classic poem, "The Raven", remain unsurpassed in evoking mood, setting and characterisation. Many of his protagonists were dark and psychologically troubled, often teetering on the edge of madness. Conversely, writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain leaned more toward realism and life experiences. In Twain's case, his regionally flavoured tales where often overstated, whimsical or bordered on the fantastic. William Sydney Porter,whose pen name was O Henry, was another popular short story craftsman whose work relied heavily on coin-cidence and many times ended with an unusual plot twist.

European writers were also making their mark in literary and popular short fiction. French author Guy de Maupassant chose to write realistic short stories about the French middle class and of human behaviour. Rudyard Kipling wrote immensely popular stories about British military life in India as well as wonderfully creative children's tales, most notably, "The Jungle Book". He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. Russian writer, Anton Chekov, on the other hand, crafted simple tales of life as he perceived it during an era of upheaval and change in Russia. His stories are slow moving with little in the way of plot or action, and could more accurately be called character studies. Joseph Conrad was another writer whose tales were character driven and whose settings usually revolved around realistic observances of naval life that didn't always have happy endings.

In the 1920's and well into the 1950's short stories took on many different themes, setting and character types. Edgar Rice Burroughs discovered Tarzan living with apes in the dark jungles of Africa; H.G. Wells' fantastic science fiction tales about Martians and assorted other-worldly creatures enchanted his fans; Jack London introduced readers to animal adventures where the main characters were wolves or Alaskan sled dogs; and Dashiell Hammet presented hard boiled, no-holds-barred crime fiction teeming with sex and violence. The age of "the pulps" and of "pulp fiction" had arrived. Scores of dime novels,digest-sized magazines and eventually paperbacks were made available to slake readers' insatiable appetite for short stories of all kinds. Hundreds of writers took advantage of this creative explosion. However,by the 60's and 70's readers'tastes had again changed, and editors' need for short tales to fill the pages of their magazines and periodicals declined. Despite this diminished interest, the day of the short story was far from over. Today hundreds of magazines and anthologies publish new and innovative short stories crafted by veteran and beginning writers alike. The short story format survives and evolves as it always has.

Here's a list of a few more writers who achieved distinction with their short stories: James Joyce, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, George Orwell, Katherine Mansfield, Saki, James Thurber, Ambrose Bierce, Sheridan le Fanu, H.P. Lovecraft, Hermann Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, W.O. Mitchell, Margaret Lawrence, Ernest Thompson Seton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, and Dorothy Parker. As our ancestors knew so very well, short stories are addictive and will never lose their power to draw us in and introduce us to interesting people or sweep us to another time and place, if only for a short while.

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