Friday, April 29, 2016
April 29, 2016: Short Story Cycles: 19th Century Trailblazers
[This semester, as part of my Ethnic American Lit course, I’ve taught all or part of three short story cycles: Love Medicine, The Joy Luck Club, and The House on Mango Street. So this week I wanted to AmericanStudy those three works, as well as a few other examples of this complex literary genre.]
On two distinct models for the genre from a century prior to its rise to prominence.
Short story cycles became a prominent part of the American literary lansdscape in the postmodern period of the late 20th century, as the 1980s and 90s publication dates of the subjects of the week’s other posts illustrate. Shifting chronologies and structures, multiple narrators and perspectives, challenging demands placed on readers who are required to assemble fragmentary and even contradictory collections of texts—the genre embodies many of the most central elements of postmodern fiction, as well as the kinds of philosophies and identities associated with the postmodern period more broadly. Yet as I have argued elsewhere, in an article on another postmodern literary device (the novelist-narrator), there’s also significant value in crossing period boundaries and considering literary forms as they have existed in multiple moments. And in this case, two late 19th century short story cycles have a great deal to offer as models of the genre.
In Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), the unnamed narrator travels to Dunnet Landing, a small, isolated fishing village on the coast of Maine, to spend a secluded summer in a place that time seems to have forgotten. Although we learn at the outset that she has been there before and knows some of its inhabitants, that fact is perhaps the only concrete details we will ever learn about the narrator, who serves mostly as an observer of the town’s places and people and an occasion for them to share their own voices and stories. Indeed, it is only in the framing stories (describing her arrival and departure, respectively) that the narrator is a focal point at all; the others, in classic local color fashion, center on distinct settings and communities within this unique and perfectly drawn little world. Without overstating a contrast based on one work in particular, I’d say that there’s something to be made of the fact that in this late 19th century short story cycle (compared to the week’s 20th century examples) the first-person narrator is both an outsider to the central setting and experiences and a writer who observes and transcribes much more than she participates or shares in them.
A similar dynamic can be found—if with a key distinction—in Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales (1899). Like Jewett’s narrator, Chesnutt’s narrator John travels (this time with his wife Annie, whose ill health has necessitated the move) to a complex new setting, in this case a former slave plantation during the post-war Reconstruction era. And as in Jewett, John serves mostly as a frame through which one of that place’s inhabitants, the ex-slave storyteller Uncle Julius, shares his own voice and stories, the titular conjure tales that capture (in Julius’ dense, carefully constructed dialect voice) supernatural yet realistic Southern histories of slavery and race. Yet while Jewett located her narrator most fully in the book’s overall frames (its opening and closing stories), Chesnutt makes John and Annie (and their interactions with Julius) the frames of each story, keeping them more consistently present throughout the book and linking his local color and historical fictions to these contemporary, outsider characters. As a result, Conjure not only portrays the past but also and most importantly connects it to an evolving present, a multi-layered non-chronological structure that foreshadows some key aspects of late 20th century short story cycles.
April recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other short story cycles you’d highlight?