Poe's Theory of the Short Story

By Dana Gioia (2001)

Poe and Hawthorne never met, but the conjunction of the two talents occasioned a crucial moment in the history of the short story. In addition to his activities as a poet and fiction writer, Poe was a remarkable literary critic. In 842 he enthusiastically reviewed the then-obscure Hawthorne's first volume of short stories, Twice-Told Tales. In his influential review Poe both recognized and articulated Hawthorne's powerfully innovative aesthetic. The defining characteristic of the short story, Poe affirmed, was its "unity of effect." The "skillful literary artist" should build a story carefully to create a "preconceived effect": In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to one pre-established design. What Poe essentially asked was that short fiction be written in the manner of lyric poetry. Poets had traditionally aimed at integrating every element of style and theme to create a unified effect, but Poe's requirement was a revolutionary standard to apply to prose fiction, which had traditionally been more loosely constructed and casually executed. (Poe, a veteran magazine editor and journalist, perhaps applied the standards of the professional writer to the usually amateur procedures of early nineteenth-century short fiction.) Poe's review also made another revolutionary gesture—not usually noted by later critics. He proclaimed the short story, previously the underdog of literary forms, to be the greatest prose genre—"unquestionably the fairest field for the exercise of the loftiest talent, which can be afforded by the wide domains of mere prose."

The short story's great advantage, Poe maintained, was its ideal length, which was ample enough to produce "an intense and enduring impression" but short enough to be experienced at one sitting to produce a temporary "exultation of the soul" in the reader. The short story's length allowed the artist the opportunity to unify the total work for a single effect—to transform it, that is, from a mere narrative into a perfectly integrated work of art. In effect, Poe had described a literary tradition that hardly existed in 1842 outside a few tales by Hawthorne and himself. His visionary aesthetic, however, would prove prophetic to literature not only in America but also around the world.