The year 1820 was a good year for American literature. In November, the whaling ship Essex was smashed into and sunk by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean. The survivors were discovered over three months later, after a gruesome adventure that included starvation and coerced cannibalism. Inasmuch as the historical data of this unfortunate voyage can churn the stomach, if the incident had not occurred— if Mr. Herman Melville had not heard tale –American literature may not have been propelled by the literary masterpiece Moby-Dick. And without Moby-Dick, well, the stomach churns a same.
Just as Melville raised the bar of the American novel exponentially high and forged the American literary novel alongside Mark Twain, Washington Irving kindly planted the seeds of the first American short stories, which, in turn, ultimately produced groves of short stories from nearly every patch of American land. Although an American writer himself, Irving’s literary works were first published in London from 1819-1820. Prior to publication, Irving had been studiously perusing German folklore, and consequently drew from these tales rather extensively in collaboration with his own, American writing style. One of these stories was called “Rip Van Winkle.”
Most Americans have heard of the story of Rip Van Winkle, but few remember much beyond that of a man falling asleep and awakening many years later as an old man with a long white beard. Needless to say, the story extends far beyond the supernatural act of falling asleep for twenty years, and, if anything, is more about the effects of a life-stifling spouse. The story is not vague in serving up the dynamic of Van Winkle’s marriage, which eventually drives him to act out of color and then into a twenty year slumber. After all, Dame Van Winkle is referred to as a “termagant” not once but twice, and Irving’s narrator does not stop with mere character flaws (as in revealing the truth of the Van Winkle’s lumbering marriage): “Times grew worse and worse for Rip Van Winkle as years of matrimony rolled on” (Irving 683).
The narrator describes Van Winkle’s kinship with children, and perhaps adjoining appreciation of innocence, similar to a man that America would later claim as literary genius, Walt Whitman: “The children of the village too, would shout with joy whenever he approached. He assisted at their sports, made their playthings… told them long stories of ghosts, witches and Indians” (681).
Additionally, the narrator sympathizes with Van Winkle’s inherent meaningfulness and brandishes his appreciation of the outdoors. Importantly, it is revealed to readers that, in twenty years passed, people and their by-products significantly change and move forward (i.e. American Industrialism). However, monuments of the earth, such as the Kaatskill Mountains, remain as before— stoic, just as Van Winkle remembered.
Thematic elements in popular American short stories take a dark turn in the 1830’s and 40’s, as established with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Hawthorne was unafraid to venture into hush hush territory, as proven by his repetitively brazen exploration into the Puritan belief system of 17th century New England and the unethical evils tethered therein. Goodman Brown has a wife, called Faith (intentionally), and descends into the forest, or perhaps a dream forest as the narrator later suggests as a possibility. Dream or reality, the supernatural occurrences within the forest render Goodman Brown a permanently changed man by morning. The haunted forest and its evils seem to take the very “faith” from Goodman Brown’s soul: “’My Faith is gone!’ cried he after one stupefied moment. ‘There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come devil; for to thee this world given’” (Hawthorne 639).
The intricate darkness Hawthorne expressed in his writings may perhaps never be overtaken, or out-written, but certainly on a parallel axis with Hawthorne’s darkness was Edgar Allan Poe. Unique to Poe was his ability to transcend his own voice and create a mess of narrator’s to unfold his tales for him. This bipolar method of narration kept each of Poe’s stories fresh and twisted. Examples of this mishmash of narrators can be examined in the stories “The Fall of the House of Usher, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”
In the story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator floats on a relatively even keel; perhaps over-sensitive and with a heightened imagination, yes, but certainly of good character. In conclusion, he crumbles as the house— scared beyond his wits, but nonetheless harbors a virtuous quality. His purpose was to be a friend to the hypochondriac Roderick Usher. Unfortunately, the narrator unknowingly assists in attempted murder and is forever bound to the “fall” of the house, as the only surviving eyewitness to the supernatural.
All the way in left field, picking blades of grass instead of catching the fly ball overhead is Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” self-referred to only as a servant. The servant is a madman: literally and figuratively, and continually questions his own mind. The old man he serves has become an obsession to the servant, an obsession of hatred. The old man has an eye that seems to see the servant’s madness, consequently drives him into deeper madness, and finally, to commit murder. Even the beating of the old man’s heart is too much for the servant to bear any longer, “It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage” (Poe 1208). The narration, although from the skewed perspective of such a sick mind, is nonetheless superbly engaging.
In “The Cask of Amontillado” readers are afforded a new visualization, this time through the eyes of a crafty, sinister man who acts on pre-meditative murder. His name is Montresor, and his victim is Fortunato. Both men are Italian wine connoisseurs and suckers for luxuries. In fact, Montresor cunningly lures Fortunato with hidden luxury itself. However, in the end it is Montresor who is revealed as the fool, and the hauntingly enduring Amontillado the victor.
Streaming the themes of these classic American short stories, one can see the depth each writer had to dive in order to get the story right. Irving, accolades to Germany aside, truly portrayed the American man, unfulfilled by marriage and shying from the changes of the future but finding solace in earth as a stable platform that endures. Hawthorne went were no writer had gone before, on a grim mission to stir the Puritan pot of idealism and question the ethics of religion. Poe, in keeping with the dark and foreboding, ran with all that was to become macabre, and sincerely wrote for the reader, and also set the pendulum into motion for a genre of writing still swinging today.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Charters, Ann. The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 6th . Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 633-642. Print.
Irving, Washington. “Rip Van Winkle.” Charters, Ann. The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 6th . Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 680-691. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher,” The Tell-Tale Heart,” The Cask of Amontillado.” Charters, Ann. The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 6th . Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 1188-1209. Print.
Pommer, Henry F. “Herman Melville and the Wake of the Essex.” American Literature 20.3 (1948): 290. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Jan. 2014.