May is National Short Story Month, which is a good time to remember Edgar Allan Poe, who didn’t invent the short story but helped to define it.
It was Poe, in an 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales,” who famously suggested that a short story was one that could be read in a single sitting. Poe was comfortably vague about what constituted a single sitting, but speculated that it might be “a half-hour to one or two hours.”
That loose estimate, ranging widely from 30 minutes to four times as much, hints at the way our 19th-century ancestors looked at time – a phenomenon bound to make us a bit wistful. Things seemed slower then, if Poe is to be believed. A two-hour session in a chair with a good story across one’s lap sounds like a sublime luxury these days, in an age when the pace of life pulls us in so many directions.
But the people of Poe’s time worried about the increasing speed of existence, too. Only three years after Poe’s review of “Twice-Told Tales” appeared, Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, a reaction to what he perceived as the deepening hurry of the day.
The short story, like our tweet or Facebook post, was in some sense an answer to the picked-up tempo of Poe and Thoreau’s period. The short story wasn’t created in the 19th century – brief tales are as old as civilization itself – but with the quickening of the culture, short fiction became more codified as its own genre. It appeal was its brevity – a bite-sized form of literature than an increasingly time-pressured community of readers could enjoy.
Maybe it says something about our own century that even a short story can seem like an epic indulgence, as I’ve been reminded lately within the pages of the recently published “For a Little While: New and Selected Stories” by Rick Bass. Bass is a master of the form, but it took me three nights to get through his 20-page opening story, “Wild Horses.” Evening reading for me often amounts to a handful of minutes near the nightstand before sleep loosens a book from my hands.
But those minutes with a short story can be illuminating, inspiring, even life-changing. Here, in honor of National Short Story Month, are five of my favorites:
– Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” A Yukon traveler foolishly decides to travel through the frozen waste alone, then finds himself in a race against time as he tries to build a fire before hypothermia sets in. I first read this story as a child on a sweltering Louisiana day; even so, it chilled me to the bone.
– Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” In college English class, I laughed to the point of tears while reading this comic monologue of a self-absorbed narrator discussing her Southern gothic family. My professor advised us not to analyze the tale, but simply enjoy it. Good advice for savoring Welty, one of the great pleasure-givers in the English language.
– Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good, Thing.” A baker wonders why no one has come to pick up a small boy’s birthday cake, and his impatience boils into anger – until he realizes why the cake has gone unclaimed. What happens next is painful, but transcendent.
– “The Hat of My Mother” by Max Steele. Through a comic series of accidents, a woman becomes involved in a funeral procession for complete strangers, testing the bounds of human empathy. This is a story I’ve pressed into the hands of fellow readers for years.
– “A Sandstone Farmhouse” by John Updike. A son returns to clean out the family’s ancestral home, finding the past still very much alive among the relics of his youth. Updike describes the house so artfully that it becomes another character in the story.
– Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”