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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Poe And The Short Story Post by :wm-graham Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1444

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Poe And The Short Story

(_28 Jan. '09_)

The great Edgar Allen Poe celebration has passed off, and no one has been seriously hurt by the terrific display of fireworks. Some of the set pieces were pretty fair; for example, Mr. G.B. Shaw's in the _Nation and Prof. C.H. Herford's in the _Manchester Guardian_. On the whole, however, the enthusiasm was too much in the nature of mere good form. If only we could have a celebration of Omar Khayyam, Tennyson, Gilbert White, or the inventor of Bridge, the difference between new and manufactured enthusiasm would be apparent. We have spent several happy weeks in conceitedly explaining to that barbaric race, the Americans, that in Poe they have never appreciated their luck. Yet we ourselves have never understood Poe. And we never shall understand Poe. It is immensely to our credit that, owing to the admirable obstinacy of Mr. J.H. Ingram, we now admit that Poe was neither a drunkard, a debauchee, nor a cynical eremite. This is about as far as we shall get. Poe's philosophy of art, as discovered in his essays and his creative work, is purely Latin and, as such, incomprehensible and even naughty to the Saxon mind. To the average bookish Englishman Poe means "The Pit and the Pendulum," and his finest poetry means nothing at all. Tell that Englishman that Poe wrote more beautiful lyrics than Tennyson, and he will blankly put you down as mad. (So shall I.)

* * * * *

Once, and not many years since, I contemplated editing a complete edition of Poe, with a brilliant introduction in which I was to show that the appearance of a temperament like his in the United States in the early years of the nineteenth century was the most puzzling miracle that can be found in the whole history of literature. Then, naturally, I intended to explain the miracle. My plans were placed before a wise and good publisher, whose reply was to indicate two very respectable complete editions of Poe which had eminently failed with the public. Further inquiries satisfied me that the public had no immediate use for anything elaborate, final, and expensive concerning Poe. My bright desire therefore paled and flickered out. Since then I have come to the conclusion that I know practically nothing of the "secret of Poe," and that nobody else knows much more.

It was inevitable that, apropos of Poe, our customary national nonsense about the "art of the short story" should have recurred in a painful and acute form. It is a platitude of "Literary Pages" that Anglo-Saxon writers cannot possess themselves of the "art of the short story." The only reason advanced has been that Guy du Maupassant wrote very good short stories, and he was French! God be thanked! Last week we all admitted that Poe had understood the "art of the short story." (His name had not occurred to us before.) Henceforward our platitude will be that no Anglo-Saxon writer can compass the "art of the short story" unless his name happens to be Poe. Another platitude is that the short story is mysteriously somehow more difficult than the long story--the novel. Whenever I meet that phrase, "art of the short story," in the press I feel as if I had drunk mustard and water. And I would like here to state that there are as good short stories in English as in any language, and that the whole theory of the unsuitability of English soil to that trifling plant the short story is ridiculous. Nearly every novelist of the nineteenth century, from Scott to Stevenson, wrote first-class short stories. There are now working in England to-day at least six writers who can write, and have written, better short stories than any living writer of their age in France. As for the greater difficulty of the short story, ask any novelist who has succeeded equally well in both. Ask Thomas Hardy, ask George Meredith, ask Joseph Conrad, ask H.G. Wells, ask Murray Gilchrist, ask George Moore, ask Eden Phillpotts, ask "Q," ask Henry James. Lo! I say to all facile gabblers about the "art of the short story," as the late "C.-B." said to Mr. Balfour: "Enough of this foolery!" It is of a piece with the notion that a fine sonnet is more difficult than a fine epic.

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