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European Authors and the American Short Story
European Authors and the American Short Story


The late 18th and early 19th century was a period of political and intellectual turmoil in Europe. The Enlightenment in the mid-18th century introduced a philosophical refocusing on rational thought and reason rather than old beliefs and superstitions. Following the Enlightenment in the late 18th century and early 19th century were decades of political revolution in France, inspired in part by the ideals of the American Revolution, and wars and invasions in Europe that spread liberal politics and a greater emphasis on nationalism and individual freedom across the continent. Finally, the aftermath of the French Revolution ushered in an era of conservative politics and thought for the majority of Europe disillusioned after years of devastating Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the short story was emerging as a popular form of literature on the European continent. French, German, and Russian writers1 were experimenting with and defining the stylistic form of the short story and the political and literary movements of the period affected the themes explored in their writing. In America, the public demand for short fiction by well-known European authors was very high. Early American literary periodicals preferred European fiction as material for publication and American authors were increasingly competing for limited space. The demand for European imports also led to widespread piracy of European work due to ambiguous copyright laws. These two factors led to increased agitation and competition between European and American authors during the late 18th and early 19th century.

Salient Points:
For the authors of 18th century France, the new political and philosophical ideas of the French Enlightenment brought inspiration and new innovations to the narrative form. Two of the most important members of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire and Denis Diderot, were not only philosophers but wrote fiction that embodied their political ideology. Voltaire's fiction, including his most famous work Candide (1759), advocated the value of reason and the dangers of religious superstition. Voltaire created a new genre of short story known as the philosophical tale, which used allegory to parody and expose the weaknesses of traditional society and social systems. Denis Diderot is known for his work with the publication of the French Encyclopédie and his radical political philosophy, but his most famous literary work was an experimental novel entitled Jacques the Fatalist (1796), which employed multiple narrative perspectives and philosophical allegory that mocked religious conventions and the idea of fate.

Following the Enlightenment's emphasis on rationalism and political writing, a reactionary literary philosophy began to develop first in Germany then spread throughout the continent. Romanticism gave greater importance to the individual imagination, the natural world, and local folklore in literature. The most notable authors in Germany who promoted this philosophy were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Grimm Brothers, and especially E.T.A. Hoffmann. Hoffmann's short stories also lay the foundation of a facet of Romanticism known as Gothic literature. Gothic literature intertwined reality with fantasy and revealed the tragic and grotesque sides of human nature through the use of the supernatural and bizarre characters. The Sandman (1814)2, a famous story by Hoffman, uses the tragic tale of a man who mistakenly falls in love with a mechanical doll created by his nemesis as an investigation of the nature of human obsession and artificial reality.

In the early 19th century, another new style of literature partly inspired by Russian authors criticized the optimism of the Romantic writers. Rather than focusing on ideals and the fantastic or supernatural, the school of Realism concerned itself with objective and frank examinations of at real life and a focus on social problems. Nikolai Gogol, a Russian short story writer, became known as the father of realism literature in Russia. His tales employed elements of the Romantic, including dreams, hallucinations, and Ukrainian folklore, along with sharp, ironic observations of real life. The Overcoat (1842) 3 is considered to be Gogol's masterpiece of short fiction. In the tale a poor clerk is teased by his co-workers about his threadbare overcoat, and even though he is poor the clerk becomes obsessed with buying a new coat. After months of budgeting and suffering, the clerk finally buys a new overcoat yet the first night he wears the coat it is stolen by street thugs.

Influence on the Short Story:
European authors had a tremendous influence on the themes and stylistic choices of 19th century American short story writers. It was through the short stories and tales of European writers that ideas and literary movements forming on the continent could be transmitted in an entertaining and highly accessible medium to America. The French Enlightenment thinkers advanced the art of the political allegory in philosophical tales that would later influence the kind of allegories used in tales such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown' Just as Voltaire's Candide and Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist used allegory to educate the reader on the absurdity of the idea of fate, 'Young Goodman Brown' uses an allegory of an everyman's journey through the forest as a means by which to impart a moral of the evil inherent in human nature, as well as what Hawthorne saw as hypocrisies among his own culture and people.

German Romantic writers like E.T.A. Hoffmann were instrumental in the formation of the Gothic movement in literature and gained followers such as Hawthorne, Washington Irving, and especially Edgar Allen Poe. Poe was aware of Hoffmann's fiction and Poe's stories contain similar moodiness and psychological elements through use of horrific and supernatural events. 'The Black Cat' and 'The Sandman,' for example, contain a similar story arc of the main character's tragic downfall. Both narrators suffer from a traumatic experience that alters their perception of the world and the events occurring in the story. The narrator of 'The Black Cat' suffers from alcoholism and the guilt of murdering his beloved cat that brings his downfall, and 'The Sandman' features a narrator haunted by a childhood fear of a monster that eats children's eyes, a metaphor for his own blindness and altered perceptions of the world that leads to his ruin.

Nikolai Gogol's short stories were some of the first to introduce realism into the short story form, a technique employed later by American writers in the mid- to late 19th century. Ambrose Bierce's short story 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' employs sensory writing, irony and the harsh realities of executions and the Civil War much like Gogol's 'The Overcoat' emphasized the nature of class and poverty in Tsarist Russia.

Though many early American authors borrowed from European sensibilities, their dependence on European style caused a backlash with foreign audiences. American fiction was considered to be second-rate& European writing and therefore unsophisticated. The belittling of American fiction sparked a greater desire to inject American sensibilities into short story writing, rather than merely copying the themes of the past. One American magazine author in the 19th century stated, 'Dependence is a state of degradation fraught with disgrace, and to be dependent on a foreign mind for what we can ourselves produce is to add to the crime of indolence the weakness of stupidity.' Authors such as Washington Irving began to use European elements of Romanticism while emphasized the regional color of the Catskill Mountains of New York and American individualism and self-determination in tales like 'Rip Van Winkle.' European authors not only influenced how Americans wrote, but also how Americans would not write in the future. American authors used the themes of European writers as a starting point to the creation of a distinctively American style of short story.

Spielvogel, Jackson. Western Civilization Volume II: Since 1500. (Belmont: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2006), 473-617.

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