The Most American Of Literary Forms, The Short Story

The Short Story Is the Most American Of Literary Forms

The Short Story is the most demanding form of literature. It is short and intense. In a short story almost every word must be exactly right. The words must fit the story precisely. As William Faulkner once said “It is easier to write a novel than a short story”. An author can be careless with his language and style in a novel; not so in a short story. In a novel one can be less careful with the plot and subplot. In a short story as in a poem, every word counts.

The Short Story is written to be read in an hour or less. During that time the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control. In a Short Story the writer puts us, the readers, in the middle of some human action and shows it as it is illuminated and outlined by mystery. The major American writers of the 19th Century had an enormous impact on the development and direction of the short prose narrative that we now call the Short story.

Men like Hermann Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote reviews and prefaces that helped to define the Short Story as uniquely American.

These authors recognized an alienation and tragedy rumbling beneath the placid, optimistic surface of 19th Century America. They recognized a strained preoccupation with evil that had formed a perplexing element in the American experience from our Puritanical beginnings. Their stories focused on certain dark perspectives found in the human heart. They had a fascination with the warped psyche.  They presented us with psychologically complex characters who were driven by fear and the taint of unidentified evils.

The dominant spirit of Washington Irving’s “The Legend Of Sleepy Hallow” is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head. This Headless Horseman is rumored to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been shot off  by a cannon-ball during the Revolutionary War. He haunts the surrounding valley, the adjacent roads, and the vicinity of a church where the body of a trooper is rumored to be buried. The ghost rides out nightly to the scene of battle in search of his head.

This fascination with evil would continue to absorb American writers into the 20th Century. Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mark Twain greatly influenced writers like Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, John Cheever, and Joyce Carol Oates.


1. Sullivan, Nancy, The  Treasury Of American Short Stories, 1981, Doubleday and Company, Inc.; xiii-xvi.

2. Irving, Washington, The Legend Of Sleepy Hallow.

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