Lydia G. Fash


On her book The Sketch, the Tale, and the Beginnings of American Literature

Cover Interview of April 22, 2020

The wide angle

The long and short of short fiction is that it’s been mostly ignored in literary history. We literary critics have a distinct bias towards novels. The genre is supposedly narratively more complex, and with the novel’s varied casts of characters, landscapes, and levels of discourse (I’m borrowing from Mikhail Bahktin’s famous theorization here), it is more expressive of the democratic nation. Most people thus presume that the short story is mostly an apprentice genre where novices hone their craft.

That’s simply not true. In the early nineteenth century a lack of international copyright, print-house funding, and reliable infrastructure meant that publishers and printers favored short fiction. As a result, short fiction appeared not just in collections but in newspapers and magazines alongside real news. Sketches and tales thereby took on a sense of authenticity and currency, even as people were not being asked to believe them as literally true. Short fiction spoke to the moment, and given its appearance with other pieces, it literalized the idea of e pluribus unum. Short fiction formed one (newspaper, magazine, volume), out of many parts. The form enacted the ideal of an American people. It is no coincidence that Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson took the e pluribus unum motto from a literary magazine with much short prose.

For all these reasons, between 1812 and 1845, most of the prominent authors in the US wrote short fiction. A delegation from Queen Victoria’s court trekked out to Western Massachusetts for the express purpose of meeting Catharine Maria Sedgwick, who earned a nice living publishing sketches and tales in gift books and magazines. Sarah Josepha Hale, who similarly wrote copious sketches and tales, was arguably the cultural tastemaker of the century. She is remembered now, when she is remembered at all, for her successful crusade to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. But for 50 years her editorial and sketch-writing pen was at work, first within the Ladies’ Magazine and then within Godey’s Lady’s Book, and continually within copious standalone volumes.

But Sedgwick and Hale, both of whom I talk about, are not just important because they were well-regarded and successful. They are interesting, as are Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe, because they were playing with narrative time to identify a certain subsection of US denizens as Americans. Hale, for example, argued that middle-class white women could make the absences of fathers, brothers, and lovers productive through a form of active waiting. Just as her characters bide their time, Hale elongates sketches with long unplotted sections to make her lady-reader wait for the next bit of action. Most dramatically, Hale once serializes the beginning of a story six months before she ends it, leaving the main character—and the reader—pondering a marriage proposal for half of a year.

By attending to this and other manipulations of narrative temporality, my book contributes to the growing field of time studies. Ultimately, I detail how, in these sketches and tales, authors manipulate narrative time to mark certain characters and spaces as American. In so doing, I expose how early nineteenth-century authors are narratively innovative for political ends. Despite what scholarship has told us before now, we do not need to wait for Modernism to see widespread narrative experimentation.