June – August 1992

The short story is a brief work of narrative prose. Superficially as casual as a snapshot, the short story is actually a highly self-conscious form, deliberate and calculated in aim. From earliest times there have been examples of episodic literature – jests, anecdotes, fables, romances and fairy tales – to name some of the most popular. In its time the short story has served as allegory, fable and moral example as well as pure entertainment. While the literary form that we know as the modem short story was late in coming on the scene, many of the techniques that have become familiar came from those early storytellers.

One way of looking at the emergence of the short story as a separate literary genre is to note the 19th century prevalence of the terms “tale and “sketch” when naming or discussing short narratives. The tale has its roots in the oral tradition while the sketch is a written mode. The early short story writers, such as Hawthorne, Poe, and Gogol, made use of both traditions to create a form that encompasses both the imaginative qualities of the tale and the factual roots of the sketch. In fact, the immense potential of the short story has made it one of the most valuable sources of material for the composer, playwright and filmmaker.

The modern short story emerged during the 19th century. Almost from the start short stories received serious criticism from such figures as Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. In his review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Poe writes what has come to be regarded as a major definition of the genre. In that definition, he applied to the short story the intention to produce the same “unity of effect or impression” that is central to the writing of poetry. Because Poe concentrated on craftsmanship and effect and his pronouncements left untouched the subject matter and techniques used to fulfill them, the short story was left open to experimentation and growth.

In the first half of the 20th century the appeal of the short story continued to grow. The explosion of new periodical titles created a growing market for the form. This was particularly true in the United States where the short story proved to be more generally popular than the serialized novels preferred abroad. This distinction remained true until after the first world war when many of these new periodicals were started up. The ‘little magazines” that specialized in the short story began to appear at this time. Even though many of these magazines had a short life span they provided many writers with the opportunity to support themselves with their writing. The disappearance of this abundant market in the latter part of the 20th century has had its own effect on the short story.

Nearly every major writer (poet, dramatist and novelist) published at least a few short stories. William Faulkner once suggested that many writers started with the most difficult form of writing, poetry, and failed; moved on to the next most difficult form, the short story, and failed; finally they settled on the novel.

This exhibition has been arranged in three sections. The first section contains selected examples of our oral and written heritage from which the modem short story has grown. There is a sampling of 19th and 20th century short story writers. In addition, we have collected examples of the many publications in which short stories have been published. Many short stories have provided the catalyst for projects by artists from different media and we have selected a few of the most familiar. Finally, we are pleased to be able to display the works of many of those authors who are taking part in the International Conference on the Short Story in English being held here at the University of Iowa.

This exhibition was prepared by Helen Ryan, Margaret Richardson, and Sandy Ballasch.