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The Beginning of the American Short Story: Edgar Allan Poe

In 1994, author Elizabeth Bowen described modern short stories as “a young art: as we know it, it is the child of this century” (p. 258). This article will analyse the works of Edgar Allan Poe, reflecting on the innovations that he provided to the short story genre, beginning by explaining the importance of structure in the telling of tales, then focusing on the importance of brevity when writing these texts and how condensation can be beneficial for telling a story. This article will also illustrate the relevance of endings to create an impact on the reader, centering upon the technique of imagery.

Throughout his career, Edgar Allan Poe wrote many excellent short stories. His work shaped the path for other short story writers, such as H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Conan Doyle, and also defined this genre of literature. Poe was the one who set the first foundations for these texts. University professor Viorica Patea, who specialized in American Literature, stated in her article The Short Story: An Overview of the History and Evolution of the Genre, "As the first short story theorist, he brought into discussion issues of form, style, length, design, authorial goals, and reader affect, developing the framework within which the short story is discussed even today" (2012, p. 1).

A primary idea that Poe focused on was the importance of brevity - telling and keeping the principal elements of a text but in fewer words. Author Nicholas Birns described Poe as “An anti-Aristotelian, he avoided the Greek philosopher’s stress on a text lengthy enough to have beginning, middle, and end...For Poe, an uncanny combination of precision and intensity replaced narrative bulk” (2015, p. 20). Poe firmly believed that anything non-essential needed to be eliminated, which meant the rest of the elements in the text had to be strengthened. The idea of brevity is also commented on by author Raymond Carver when talking about the essential twists that occur in short stories: “Then the glimpse given life, turned into something that illuminates the moment…” (1994, p. 277). What Carver explains here is that the length of the text is relevant since it is the prime idea in a 'short story.' Carver's way of thinking follows a similar path to Poe's; “Poe argued that, like the lyric poem, the short story should be read at one sitting” (Patea, 2012, p. 10). Patea claimed that being concise not only enriched the tale itself but also showed a different way of telling a story.

Figure 1: 1849 "Annie" daguerreotype of Poe

Regarding the structure of a short story, “Poe was the first to consider endings as crucial elements in compositional strategies and defined the short story in terms of reading experience” (Patea, 2012, p. 3). In other words, the length does not make a short story a less important or more trivial text. This concept can be seen in many of Poe’s texts in which he gave great importance to his endings. He considered that the ending was not only what gave strength to the text as a whole but also what stayed with the reader after finishing the story. One of his short stories which exemplifies a good ending is The Fall of the House of Usher (1893). In this story, the narrator tells the tale of the Usher family and their downfall; it is told from the perspective of a guest in the house who helps guide the reader as both characters discover what is happening at the same time. The tale ends with the fall of the house — a premonition seen in the title of the text, which, in some way, contributes to the quick storytelling — and the reader is presented with the horrifying image of all the former greatness of the house and family demolished.

While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened — there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the ‘House of Usher.’ (Poe, 1995, p. 21)

Figure 2: The House of Usher itself in the 1960 movie adaptation

Poe was adept at instilling clear images in the minds of his readers through his words, and The Fall of the House of Usher is no exception. With the last phrases in the passage above, the reader sees a clear image of how everything the Usher family possessed has turned to dust along with the last member of their dynasty. The 'clear image' technique revolutionized how short stories were constructed. In the case of the tale The Fall of the House of Usher, the imagery that Poe used helped spread the feeling of terror that the characters experienced. Author Ewa Bednarowicz explained, “the imagery of Poe's tales mirrors the complexities of the stricken mind and emphasizes the tortuousness of the journey into the unknown and the fantastic” (1988, p. 24). As mentioned above, in the short story, every word counts. Therefore, as Poe showed, each short story author should be able to use every element, such as characters, symbolism, ambiance, and tone to generate a strong reaction in the reader, and imagery is one of these key elements.

Figure 3: A representation of a scene of The Fall of the House of Usher

Edgar Allan Poe broke many of the pre-established moulds in literature and helped create many new stories by taking away what was, at the time, considered the most important element of a novel: its length. The genre of short stories shows that it is not necessary to have a large number of pages to tell a complete story that resonates with its reader. What is important to understand is that because the number of words in these texts is reduced, the importance of every other element that builds the story is increased. Each element used in a short story is significant, and must be thoroughly analysed. Poe exemplified many points on what makes a short story effective (brevity, endings, and imagery), and as the aforementioned 'father' of this genre, he set in motion a writing trend that many authors followed. Still, one must take into account that what Poe wrote was published over a century ago, and the genre has developed in time.

Bibliographical References

Allan Poe, E. (1995). The Fall of the House of Usher. Dramatic Publishing.

Bednarowicz, E. (1988). Fantastic imagery in Edgar Allan Poe's tales of terror. Acta Universitatis Lodziensis. Folia Litteraria, 24.

Birns, N. (2015). The mystery of existence: The American short story in criticism and theory. In American Short Story (Michael Cocchiarale, Scott Emmert ed., pp. 20–34). Salem Press.

Bowen, E. (1994). The Faber book of modern short stories. In C. Edward May (Ed.), The new short story theories (pp. 256–263). Ohio University Press.

Carver, R. (1994). On writing. In C. Edward May (Ed.), The new short story theories (pp. 273–277). Ohio University Press. Patea, V. (2012). The short story : An overview of the history and evolution of the genre. In V. Patea (Ed.), Short story theories : A twenty-first-century perspective (pp. 1–25). Brill.

Additional references

May, C. E. (1994). The new short story theories. Ohio University Press. Shaw, V. (1983). The short story: A critical introduction (1st ed.). Routledge.

Visual sources

Figure 1: “Annie” daguerreotype of Poe. (1849). [Photograph]. Wikipedia.,_circa_1849,_restored,_squared_off.jpg Figure 2: [The House of Usher itself in the 1960 movie adaptation]. (2022). Moriareviews. Figure 3: University of California Libraries. (2006). [“The Fall of the House of Usher” book illustration, p. 98]. Internet Archieve. Cover Image: [Edgar Allan Poe and a skeleton]. (2014, October 8). Poetry Foundation.


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Maialen De Carlos

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